Indonesia’s ethnic resentments

More than two decades ago, Indonesia formally repealed laws that promoted discrimination against citizens of Chinese descent. Getting rid of the underlying prejudice, however, will take yet more time.
Shoppers in Jakarta’s Chinatown in February: Covid-19 has slowed down business. Aslam Iqbal/picture-alliance/ZUMAPRESS.com Shoppers in Jakarta’s Chinatown in February: Covid-19 has slowed down business.

“I don’t want to drive into that street; it is packed,” says Anwar, a Jakarta taxi driver. It is an odd comment, since traffic in the city has thinned under the impact of Covid-19 related restrictions. Still, many drivers shy away from certain side-streets – such as the one that leads to the Petak Sembilan market in Jakarta’s Chinatown. The reason may indeed be to avoid crowding. But it may also be to avoid a neighbourhood whose residents – unjustly – have a negative reputation.

Jakarta’s Chinatown has been experiencing difficult times recently. The pandemic has slowed business considerably everywhere in Jakarta, but this area is affected in a particular way. Difficult times tend to trigger jealous suspicions that others are doing better than oneself, and in Indonesia such suspicions tend to focus on citizens of Chinese descent.

Some of the animosity is related to jobs. Indonesia is one of the main sites of China’s Belt and Road infrastructure-building initiative. About 1,000 Chinese companies have built a presence in the country. They are involved in construction, mining and electronics and have brought in at least 25,000 workers from China. The firms prefer to hire speakers of Mandarin. The presence of so many foreign workers cause resentment among Indonesians.

But Indonesia’s anti-Chinese sentiment goes well beyond a current scuffle over jobs. Indonesia’s rulers have discriminated against ethnic Chinese since colonial times. Mobs – some sanctioned by governments – have attacked Chinese people again and again. In 1740, soldiers of the Dutch East India Company killed some 10,000 ethnic Chinese. Legally sanctioned discrimination was rampant for centuries, culminating in anti-Chinese laws imposed by autocratic President Suharto in the 1960s. Despite the subsequent repeal of those discriminatory laws, xenophobic sentiments still live (see box).

Bigotry in action

Prejudice against ethnic Chinese is most likely to surface during election campaigns. Consider the hate campaign directed against the first governor of Jakarta to have Chinese forbears, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (known by his Chinese nickname Ahok). In 2012, he took office when his predecessor Joko Widodo was elected the nation’s president. Ahok had been his deputy. He became the target of racist attacks when he ran for office in the next election. In a predominantly Muslim society, it added to his problems that he is Christian. Army General Surya Prabowo said Ahok should “know his place lest the Indonesian Chinese face the consequences of his actions”. There were large anti-Ahok rallies moreover.

To many Indonesians, the threatening subtext was that there might be anti-Chinese rioting. That had happened in several Indonesian cities in May 1998. Back then, vigilantes rampaged for two days. Nearly 1,000 people were killed and 87 women were raped, most of them of Chinese descent. Ahok did not win re-election.

Echoes of prejudice can be heard right up to the present day. In September 2020, the government printed a new 75,000 Rupiah (the equivalent of about € 4.50) bank note to commemorate Indonesia’s 75 years of independence. One of the images on the new bill was a traditional Chinese costume. An uproar followed in social media, with Indonesians questioning whether a Chinese image belongs on the currency. The debate died down only after the government insisted that the costume actually belongs to a native tribe in Borneo.

Other ethnic minorities also face discrimination. In August 2019, Indonesian nationalists attacked ethnic Melanesian students from Papua in the Javanese city of Surabaya, hurling racist epithets such as “dog” and “monkey”. Ethnic Papuan students from the Maluku islands in eastern Indonesia have experienced similar attacks in central Java.

Such incidents are a reminder of a long history of ethnic tensions and discrimination. Many scholars trace the problem back to colonial times. The Dutch created a class system in their former colony, which was known as the Dutch East Indies. They considered Europeans as first-class foreigners. They viewed Asian foreigners, mainly of Chinese and Indian origin, who typically belonged to comparatively prosperous trader communities, as second-class go-betweens. The colonial power treated Indonesian natives as third-class, colonised people, to be exploited and controlled. This system created animosities between the ethnic Chinese and the indigenous peoples.

Over time, identity politics gained a firm hold. Citizenship rights became linked to people’s ethnic backgrounds. As indigenous groups gained power, ethnic Chinese people were treated as a separate category of citizens even though they had long since assimilated into native communities. A stigma of “otherness” was attached to non-native groups. Ethnic Chinese in particular, who typically did well economically, became targets of deep mistrust, Indonesian scholar Irawan S. S. Basuki stated in an article.

To bridge the country’s ethnic divides, Basuki calls for writing a balanced history of Indonesia that challenges age-old stereotypes. “Our perceptions of the Chinese can be changed by rewriting their history in a proportional and contextual way,” he says. “Their contribution to the struggle for independence must be communicated to students through the history textbooks.”

Celebrating multiculturalism

Indeed, Indonesia embarked recently on a campaign to promote cross-cultural and inter-religious understanding. Several large religious groups regularly hold public worship services to spotlight the country’s broad range of religious practices. The government, media and various non-governmental organisations strive to educate the public about the country’s multicultural nature. They emphasise the need for social inclusiveness. Such efforts are starting to bear fruit.

For example, around the time of the Chinese New Year, Jakarta’s Chinatown – with its Buddhist temples, food stalls and lion dances in the streets – attracts Indonesians of all ethnicities to join the celebration of Chinese culture. It helps that the government made the Chinese New Year a national holiday 20 years ago.

Beyond that, the government likes to promote Indonesia’s “exotic” qualities. Its tourism brochures promote the image of extravagant, colourful and unconventional “differentness”, for example. This approach, however, can be a double-edged sword, as the positive concept of “exotic” and the negative notion of “otherness” become intertwined.

In many ways, Indonesia benefits from its great cultural diversity. But there’s a difference between highlighting a country’s palette of cultural traditions and ensuring that the practitioners of all those traditions see other groups as equally empowered members of society.

Indonesia has started on a path towards honouring its cultural diversity by removing discrimination from its legal code. Now its population needs to follow suit and make equality a reality on the ground throughout the country’s approximately 6,000 inhabited islands.

Edith Koesoemawiria is a freelance journalist.

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