Global Policy Forum

New Year Bonus for Indonesia's Chinese


By Kalinga Seneviratne

Asia Times
March 2, 2007

Indonesia has taken the symbolic step of reconciling with its minority ethnic-Chinese community by recognizing Chinese New Year as a full-blown national festival, a public celebration it had banned for nearly 30 years. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono attended the United National Indonesian Imlek (Chinese New Year) celebrations at the Jakarta fairground, where his visit was broadcast live on national television.

Adding new fervor to the festivities spread over the past few weeks is the fact that many Chinese-Indonesians are celebrating as legal Indonesian citizens for the first time. A new citizenship act passed by the House of Representatives last July defines an Indonesian national as anyone born in the country. The legal distinction has allowed many Chinese-Indonesians, who belong to families that have resided in the country for generations but until now were legally considered stateless, to become full-fledged national-identification-card-carrying citizens. Ethnic Chinese are estimated to represent about 10 million of Indonesia's 210 million people, or about 2% of the total population.

During the authoritarian regime of president Suharto (1967-98), public displays of Chinese culture were banned, and many Chinese were asked to change their names to Indonesian ones if they wished to be eventually considered for citizenship. "Suharto's government saw Chinese characters and culture as political. We were not even allowed to make candles," said Yu Le, a member of a Buddhist temple.

He said he now prefers to use his Chinese name rather than his adopted Indonesian one of Suherman. "Around the temple there were always police and military. We could not celebrate Imlek here. People were afraid to come. We had to do it at home, hiding." Inside the same temple, an elderly Chinese-Indonesian man, who declined to reveal his name, pointed to the Chinese characters on the shrine's wall and said: "This was not allowed to be printed and we could not make these candles during Suharto's time."

Indonesia's ethnic-Chinese minority had celebrated the Lunar New Year freely until the abortive 1965 coup against Suharto's military regime, which his supporters then claimed was encouraged by China's communist government. More than 500,000 people were subsequently killed in an orgy of violence, including thousands of ethnic Chinese, aimed at destroying the Indonesia Communist Party. After that, anything red, the color of prosperity for Chinese, or written in Chinese was seen as a threat to state power.

"I and my Chinese friends shared a good time. We helped each other," recalled Mustafa Kamal Ridwan, senior fellow at the Habibie Center, an Islamic think-tank. "However, there was [racial] tension under Suharto. I felt I didn't have any Chinese friends after 1965. We suspected that Chinese people were members of the Indonesia Communist Party, and they became enemies for Muslim people."

Outlawed expressions

The Jakarta municipal government banned Chinese New Year celebrations in 1967, coincident with Indonesia and China breaking off official diplomatic relations. Restrictions covered the use of Chinese language in print and public discourse as well as public performances of cultural acts, such as the lion dance. Diplomatic relations with China were restored only in 1990, but the restrictions remained in force. During president Abdurrahman Wahid's short-lived tenure, these bans were in 2001 finally lifted. Wahid was notably also the chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia's largest grassroots Muslim organization, with an estimated 40 million members.

His successor as president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, went a step further by declaring Imlek a national holiday. During Imlek celebrations this year, national newspapers carried colorful pictures of the festivities. At the same time, there were also critical commentaries in daily newspapers such as the Jakarta Post, which questioned the level of ethnic-Chinese integration into mainstream Indonesian society.

Journalist and writer Sima Gunawan, who only recently publicly disclosed her Chinese name as Kho Djoen Siem, argued that few people in Indonesia knew that world badminton champion Rudy Hartono was actually an ethnic Chinese. The same goes for renowned film director Teguh Karya, physicist Yohanes Surya and pop-music star Agnes Monica, she noted. On the other hand, she carped, everyone seems to know the right ethnicity of Chinese-Indonesians who "commit serious crimes or do something wrong".

In an odd historical twist, while on one hand cracking down on public displays of Chinese culture, on the other, the dictator Suharto tapped several ethnic-Chinese businessmen to run crucial sections of the economy, allowing them to amass huge fortunes with the country's fast economic growth. The fact that the Chinese minority 30 years later still has a strong grip on the national economy is a cause for resentment among many indigenous Indonesians, known locally as pribumis. Those tensions boiled over in the wake the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, when in May 1998 violence erupted against ethnic-Chinese interests across the archipelago, including in Jakarta, Solo and Medan. Many Chinese complained at the time that the government condoned the violence.

Under threat, many Chinese-Indonesians fled Indonesia, including big businessmen who spirited hundreds of millions of dollars out of the country and into private accounts in neighboring Singapore. There are still widespread local perceptions among that Chinese-run family businesses favor their own kind in employment and that they tend to underpay their pribumi workers. "If we talk about economic advantage or how they control economic opportunity, [the ethnic Chinese] are better positioned than pribumis," said Marwan Batubara, a member of the Regional Representative Council representing Jakarta province. "It is time for the Chinese community to open up and mingle with the rest of the people more openly than before."

The Habibie Center's Ridwan believes that events such as the national celebration of the Imlek festival show the government is trying to reach out to the Chinese community. He foresees the eventual formation of a race-based Chinese political party - similar perhaps to the ones in neighboring Malaysia that represent the larger Chinese minority community there. "It means there is now a willingness to integrate the Chinese [community] into Indonesia. [But] it doesn't mean they integrate with Islamic culture," he said. "They don't have to be Muslim to be Indonesian. Imlek is not a religious celebration."

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