INDONESIA: Chinese Indonesians Seek Political Representation
Radio Australia (March 3, 2004)
Indonesia goes to the polls in next month, with President Megawati Sukarnoputri expected to retain power. But this time around, the president's campaign is doing little to influence a small group of once-loyal supporters. Chinese Indonesians, who have traditionally shunned politics to focus on business, are now showing a new willingness to get politically active.
Presenter/Interviewer: Marion MacGregor
Speakers: Eddie Lembong, Chairman, the Chinese-Indonesian Association; Arief Budiman, Professor of Indonesian, Melbourne University; Harry Tjan Silalahi.
MacGregor: Most opinion polls are showing Megawati Sukarnoputri and her PDIP party sitting on a comfortable lead. But the daughter of Indonesia's founding father Sukarno could be facing a new challenge, with the possible loss of a small but influential group of traditional supporters. This year, Chinese Indonesians, who comprise about 4 per cent of the country's population, have become actively involved in campaigning for a number of political parties, and several have been nominated as parliamentary candidates. Eddie Lembong is the Chair of the Chinese-Indonesian Association.
Eddie Lembong: We have openly stated...we appeal that Chinese Indonesians will support all the honest and qualified Chinese Indonesian candidates. The last straw breaks the back of the camel. That is to say, we can be very decisive when we participate.
MacGregor: In the past ethnic Chinese in Indonesia have mostly supported parties that have expressed a commitment to outlawing discrimination, which continues to be a serious problem. Resentment over disproportionate wealth among Chinese is still present. In 1998 it led to anti-Chinese riots, killing hundreds of people and prompting thousands to flee to neighbouring countries. Many of those who remained in Indonesia have been reluctant to play an overt role in the country's development. This is why the political mobilisation of Chinese Indonesians is being seen as particularly significant, and especially the formation of ethnic Chinese political parties. The Chinese parties say they want to end isolation and discrimination. But some are wary of race-based politics. Harry Tjan Silalahi is a founder of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, and a former General Secretary of the Catholic Party of Indonesia.
Harry Tjan Silalahi: It depends on how they act if they overdo their participation it will create jealousies. As you know Indonesia are comprised of so many minorities, they envy each other basically, and so if a Chinese grouping as a group, exclusive group comes up faster and richer and so on, it may create unnecessary attractions or envies or jealousy from the other groups, yes.
MacGregor: This year, no Chinese Indonesian party succeeded in attracting the membership required to take part in elections. So Chinese Indonesians will be represented only as candidates for other political parties. And Harry Tjan Silalahi believes, they're better off that way.
Harry Tjan Silalahi: It seems so and they realise that and they did so...so for instance even in PKB, the party of Gus Dur, there are lots of them, so they are very much scattered into these mainstream parties and it is a good sign you know.
MacGregor: Among Chinese Indonesians themselves, there's little agreement over whether to go it alone or opt for assimilation, according to Arief Budiman, Professor of Indonesian at the University of Melbourne.
Arief Budiman: Well there are two views now in Indonesia, and both have strong supporters. One is saying that it's better for the Chinese to come out from the closet and fight as Chinese Indonesians and make a party a Chinese Indonesian party something like that, like what happened in Malaysia. But some people said that in the old days under Sukarno and Suharto, those Chinese parties, under Sukarno there was a Chinese party, and then they worked together closely with the Communist Party, that was in 1965, when the military came to power and destroyed the communist party, the Chinese were also being destroyed by the military. And that's a very bad experience, traumatic as a matter of fact for the Chinese. So many Chinese say don't make a party based on ethnicity, it's better for the Chinese to become Indonesians to be absorbed to the Indonesian community.
MacGregor: While Chinese Indonesians feel they need better political representation, they won't necessarily vote for Chinese candidates who push ethnic issues, says Arief Budiman.
Arief Budiman: I think many Chinese they look at the candidate that fights for democracy and economic development. They don't consider themselves Chinese any more but as Indonesians...so there is no so-called Chinese interests.