Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Black May 1998: 6th Commemoration (38 of 40)

Chinese in Indonesia can breathe easier
By Leo Suryadinata
A senior research fellow at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies
The Straits Times [Singapore] - Commentary (Monday, September 27, 2004)

Now the dust has settled, one interesting question is how the ethnic Chinese voted in both rounds of Indonesia's presidential election.

In the first round, all five candidates - Mr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri, Mr Wiranto, Dr Amien Rais and Mr Hamzah Haz - vouched that they would, if elected, treat the Chinese justly and equally. They would also rescind any existing discriminatory laws and policies.

Responding positively to these overtures, the Chinese were, however, also aware some candidates may be friendlier to them than others. These did not include three of the five: Mr Wiranto, Dr Amien and Mr Hamzah. Mr Wiranto was rumoured to have been involved in the May 1998 anti-Chinese riots; Dr Amien was no longer considered a 'nationalist' but an 'Islamist'; and Mr Hamzah, an Islamist, was least appealing to the Chinese.

By contrast, Mr Bambang, the coordinating security minister in the Megawati Cabinet before he was sacked and de facto leader of the new Democrat Party, had a relatively clean image. Trained in the United States, he was seen as a moderate Muslim who favoured a secular Pancasila state.

However, he formed an alliance with the Crescent and Star Party, an Islamist set-up that advocates syariah law for Indonesia. Also, he selected as his running mate Mr Jusuf Kalla, a rich Muslim businessman and strong advocate of nativist policies that favour the pribumis, or sons of the soil.

Perceived to be anti-Chinese and anti-Christian, Mr Jusuf was quoted during the campaign as saying the new government may reopen debt issue cases involving Chinese tycoons. Mr Bambang, however, insisted he is a pluralist and will treat all ethnic groups equally.

The Chinese were apparently unconvinced. Throwing their support behind Ms Megawati, who is seen as a secularist and one friendlier to the Chinese - she even declared Chinese New Year a national holiday and the Chinese had not been worse off in her administration - it was a case of better the devil you know than one you don't. Even her running mate, Mr Hasyim Muzadi of the Nahdlatul Ulama, was considered by Chinese to be a moderate Muslim.

Of course, it would be wrong to suggest all Chinese Indonesians voted for Ms Megawati. The older generation, especially businessmen, and those who are culturally more Chinese, did support her, but those who are more integrated into Indonesian society, the better-educated and those who aren't in big business tended to support Mr Bambang, whom they perceive as someone who will not only improve Indonesian security and economic conditions but is also a nationalist who will be fair to all ethnic groups.

Then came the run-off election on Sept 20. This was quite similar to the first round, except for the Australian embassy bombing in Jakarta on Sept 9. For many, the blast suggested Ms Megawati was unable to handle the security issue.

Nevertheless, terrorism was not the main issue. The economy, corruption, education and unemployment took centrestage. Again, both candidates campaigned for the Chinese vote.

Mr Jusuf went to Glodok, Jakarta's Chinatown, last month to talk with some Chinese businessmen, during which he insisted he was not anti-Chinese, but to no avail. Moreover, Mr Bambang's alliance with the radical Islamic parties, Partai Bulan Bintang and Partai Keadilan Sejahtera, coloured his candidacy.

Then there was his military background, which worried those who recalled the May 1998 anti-Chinese riots many believed were supported by the armed forces.

This is not to say Mr Bambang was without Chinese supporters. A young and respected economic analyst, Mr Lin Che Wei, openly endorsed his candidacy. In fact, Mr Bambang's party even included a newly-elected Chinese Member of Parliament.

However, Ms Megawati had more Chinese supporters. In her party were at least four newly-elected Chinese MPs, including big businessman Murdaya Poo. A few days before the run-off election, a Hakka organisation even went to visit Ms Megawati to express support.

In the event, the Chinese vote wasn't enough to improve Ms Megawati's fortunes. She still lost.

Some Chinese are now worried a Bambang administration may introduce affirmative action policies stacked against their interests.

But many observers feel that since his immediate task would be to create more jobs and draw in foreign investment, Mr Bambang will need the full cooperation of Chinese business. It's probably fair to surmise that, in the short term at least, he is unlikely to adopt any policy inimical to his objectives and programmes.

The Chinese can breathe easier - for now.

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