Aug 15, 2014 04:54 PM

Indonesia Slowly Changes Its Attitudes toward Ethnic Chinese

(Singapore) – An elderly woman who owns a traditional Chinese medicine massage shop in Kelapa Gading, a north Jakarta neighborhood where Chinese Indonesians are concentrated, points to a billboard bearing Chinese characters that used to be banned on all public signs.

She said her 50-year-old daughter was only allowed to study Chinese for a short period when she was in school. Today her grandson speaks it fluently.

The change reflects the complex history of the local Chinese people. Indonesia's ethnic Chinese include people with diverse political tendencies, wealth and religious beliefs. According to Indonesia's latest census, there are 2.8 million ethnic Chinese living in the country. This accounts for 1.2 percent of the total population, the majority of whom are Muslim.

In 1966, military strongman Suharto came to power and carried out an assimilation policy for Chinese Indonesians. Chinese media outlets, education and even community associations were all prohibited.

One of the darkest days for Chinese Indonesians was in May 1998, when an economic crisis led to anti-Chinese riots in the major cities around the Southeast Asian archipelago. Even more shocking than the looting, killing and torching of shops was the organized rape of ethnic Chinese women. The crisis helped lead to the fall of Suharto.

The "reformasi" era followed. With democratization, Indonesia started to transform into a society that slowly embraced diversity. Succeeding Suharto in 1998, president Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie ended the official use of terms such as "indigenous" and "non-indigenous."

In 2000, president Abdurrahman Wahid further eased bans on Chinese religion and customs. Then in 2002, president Megawati Sukarnoputri made Chinese New Year a national public holiday.

Guarded Optimism

There are reasons to believe things will get even better. The most intense presidential election in Indonesian history came to an end on July 22, when grassroots candidate Joko Widodo defeated former special forces commander Prabowo Subianto. The incoming president, widely known as Jokowi, has consistently expressed support for embracing Indonesia's diversity, whereas his opponent was linked to anti-Chinese riots.

"Chinese businesspeople all supported Widodo," one campaigner says.

A Widodo ally, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, is an ethnic Chinese who will succeed him as Jakarta's first Chinese Indonesian governor. This is highest political position an ethic Chinese has ever attained in Indonesia. Indonesians also like to call him Ahok, an affectionate nickname in the Hakka dialect.

Basuki is described as tenacious, and he will have to be to follow through on his pledge to make the chaotic capital's bureaucratic system more efficient and find solutions for its serious traffic jams. He is also fighting rampant corruption, even publicizing his own salary online.

Leo Suryadinata, an Indonesian expert in Chinese history, has described Basuki as "a glimmer of hope." Though certain people do not like him, many ethnic Chinese and native Indonesians do. "He represents a new type of politician," Suryadinata says.

In March, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose term ends in October, decided to change the official – and derogatory – terms referring to China and Chinese Indonesians. Instead of Tjina, a defamatory word for China that originated under Suharto and was used for nearly half a century, the official word for the country is now Tionghoa.

As Indonesia's attitude toward its ethnic Chinese has shifted, the relationship between Indonesia and China has also improved. Last fall, President Xi Jinping gave a rare speech to the Indonesian parliament. He spoke of the Suramadu Bridge, which the two countries built together to cross the Madura Strait and link the islands of Java and Madura, and advocated opening an Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank.

So to what extent does Indonesian society really accept its ethnic Chinese?

Suryadinata says that there is always a gap between formulating reform and executing it. People who are accustomed to the ideology of the Suharto era are not going to change overnight. Even the possibility of violence cannot be dismissed, should another economic crisis erupt.

"It took Suharto 32 years to forge Indonesians' attitude toward ethnic Chinese," he said. "It will take probably another 32 years for them to change their state of mind again."

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