Wednesday, September 08, 2004

TEMPO's Special Report: Chinese Indonesians (7 of 14)

The Ethnic Chinese Since Reformasi
By Leo Suryadinata
[Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore and formerly professor of political science at the University of Singapore.]

May 13 and 14, 1998 are important dates for ethnic Chinese in Indonesia because on those two days large-scale anti-Chinese rioting broke out in Jakarta and Solo. Systematic killing, arson and the rape of Chinese women were reported in the towns. The Chinese minority was left unprotected and its cry for protection was ignored by those in power. The events shocked the community and the world. Those who could afford to fled overseas, but the majority remained in Indonesia. The Chinese community was confused, if not losing all hope. Many wondered whether there was still a place for ethnic Chinese in the Republic of Indonesia.

In the same month Suharto stepped down, ushering in an era of reformasi in the history of contemporary Indonesia, an era of democratic reform in which the Chinese slowly began feeling that they still have a place in Indonesia.

The ugly events of May 1998 brought changes within the community. Ethnic Chinese, the peranakan (mixed-blood) and the totok (full-blooded) Chinese alike, realized they should act and fight for their rights as citizens of the Republic of Indonesia. Many political parties were established, including Partai Reformasi Tionghoa Indonesia (Parti), Partai Pembauran Indonesia (later transformed into an ordinary association), and Partai Bhinneka Tunggal Ika Indonesia (PBI), as well as non-government organizations, such as Solidaritas Nusa-Bangsa (SNB), Gerakan Anti-Diskriminasi (Gandi), Paguyuban Marga Sosial Tionghoa Indonesia (PSSTI), and Perhimpunan INTI, all fighting for the interests of the community.

Although the Chinese community seems to have united, disagreement is still clearly apparent because the community consists of different groups of people, each with its own cultural, class, and political orientation. Therefore a political party dominated by ethnic Chinese in Indonesia is weak and ineffective. Because of the small size and diversity of the community, the Chinese in Indonesia can't possibility be united in a political party or organization of their own.

While the New Order was said to have favored the Chinese, the regime actually ignored the interests of the community. Many who were disappointed with the Suharto regime and his Golkar Party voted for PDI-P and other political parties like PKB and PAN in the 1999 General Election. Although a few voted for Golkar, their number was insignificant. Ethnic Chinese parties themselves did not take part, except for PBI, a party led by Nurdin Purnomo, which won a seat in the 1999-2004 house of Representatives (DPR). Apparently most ethnic Chinese chose to vote for the indigenous political parties instead of parties of their own. Political parties based on ethnicity failed to attract the community. In the 2004 General Elections, not a single ethnic Chinese political party qualified for participation.

Many ethnic Chinese joined indigenous political parties realizing their number is too insignificant to have their voices heard. Without support of the indigenous majority, not only would they be left out, their safety would not be guaranteed. Therefore, gaining the confidence and sympathy of the indigenous majority is a prerequisite for the safety, if not the prosperity, of the community in Indonesia.

Actually the attitude of the indigenous Indonesian toward the Chinese minority is changing. The new governments, especially under President Abdurrahman Wahid, recognized the Chinese community and its place in Indonesian society. Wahid annulled a presidential decree which banned ethnic Chinese from celebrating their traditional holidays and symbolically celebrated the Chinese New Year with the community. Long before being elected president, Wahid had proposed a concept recognizing the Indonesian nation as consisting of three races, one of them being the "Chinese race."

Such a concept, however, was largely ignored. In 1963, long before his downfall, then President Sukarno proposed his own concept of the Indonesian nation being made up of suku (ethnic groups), including the peranakan Chinese. The concept was unacceptable to his successor Suharto who launched a policy of total assimilation of the Chinese community into the indigenous majority. The three pillars of Chinese culture, namely Chinese organizations, Chinese media, and Chinese schools were banned. The Chinese were even told to adopt "Indonesian names," which was often interpreted as any names as long as they were not Chinese. Most changed their names under pressure, because of intermarriage, or of their own choice. But when Wahid was president and urged the Chinese to return to their Chinese names, not many did. Why?

Most didn't maybe because they have been used to their new names. Maybe they didn't want to be bothered by the time-consuming process of getting back their old names. The young generation, born under the New Order, generally no longer carry Chinese names and re-adopting Chinese names, to most of them, is unthinkable.

Many ethnic Chinese who were traumatized and lost all hope chose not to return to Indonesia. Most, however, returned when the situation was back to normal. To those who were born and raised in Indonesia, Indonesia is home! Many feel uncomfortable and are not used to living overseas.

Meanwhile, Indonesia post-Suharto is back to an era of "multiculturalism." Suharto's policy of assimilation was theoretically, if not practically, abandoned. The Chinese minority is no longer forced to totally assimilate with the indigenous majority. Chinese media, Chinese organizations and "Chinese language" schools (not Chinese schools with Chinese as language of instruction as in pre-Suharto era) were permitted. Although the three pillars of Chinese culture are not important to the peranakan Chinese who make up most of the community, they remain a symbol; as a matter of identity, that the Indonesian government after the New Order recognized the Chinese culture.

Racial discrimination continues, however, in the field of legislation. According to Frans H. Winarta, S.H., more than 60 laws and regulations discriminatory against the Chinese minority are yet to amended, including the Citizenship Law and MPRS Decree No. 32/1966 (banning Chinese newspapers and Chinese characters on store signs). Drs. Eddie Lembong, Chairman of INTI, referred to staatsblad (statute books) of the colonial period categorizing citizens by race as a source of "discrimination," all of which have not been amended. The Indonesian government and legislature should review those laws and regulations which are consistent with the spirit of reformasi.

There have been improvements in the situation of the Chinese community, especially in the field of culture, since reformasi. However, little improvement was seen as far as security in concerned. Today the government is yet to deal with humans rights violations connected with May 1998 and similar events.

Despite being a pluralistic society, there is a strong sense of indigenousness in the concept of the Indonesian nation. This concept of indigenousness affects not only the Chinese minority, but also indigenous groups themselves. The Madurese in Kalimantan, for instance, are not considered indigenous by the local population as recent events in the area showed. The concept will not only impact the Chinese community, but more so the unity of the Indonesian nation itself.

The Indonesian nation is facing challenges not only from growing ethnic nationalism and globalization, but also from the rise of China as an economic and political power winning the hearts of ethnic Chinese all over Southeast Asia, including Indonesia. But this doe mean that ethnic Chinese, especially the peranakan, in Indonesia, will revert to becoming Chinese as the Chinese in mainland China. For as long as they live in Indonesia, receive education in Indonesia, and are equally treated as Indonesian citizens, they will remain part of the Indonesian nation.

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