Happy to be Chinese in Indonesia
By Muhammad Cohen
BALI - A leading expert on Indonesia's Chinese minority says their situation
has improved dramatically since deadly riots in 1998, thanks to a reformasi
wave that followed. But as outright anti-Chinese prejudice fades, author Jemma
Purdey warns bias could find a home in Indonesia's Islamist movement.
A post-doctoral fellow at Melbourne's Monash University, Purdey wrote Anti-Chinese
Violence in Indonesia, 1996-99, widely acknowledged as a key work on
the 1998 attacks that targeted ethnic Chinese in Jakarta, Medan, Solo and other
major Indonesian cities and contributed to the fall of then President Suharto's
32-year authoritarian regime.
"Anti-Chinese violence flares up from time to time. It's become
normalized [among Indonesian-Chinese] and is easy enough to deal with. It's a
tradeoff for being here and enjoying prosperity," Purdey told Asia Times Online
at Bali's Ubud Writers and Readers Festival earlier this month.
Less than 3% of Indonesia's 245 million-strong population, ethnic Chinese
control a disproportionate amount of the nation's wealth. A 1995 survey found
ethnic Chinese controlled 73% of the publicly listed companies on the Jakarta
Stock Exchange and 68% of the top 300 conglomerates, leading to a mistaken
belief that Chinese ran 70% of Indonesia's economy. Their economic influence
Since colonial times, Chinese have occupied a niche as traders, using family,
international and local political connections to prosper. After independence in
1947, President Sukarno tried to limit their influence with preferential
treatment for non-Chinese Indonesians. The aftermath of an abortive 1965 coup
attempt on Sukarno featured massacres of alleged communists, including tens of
thousands of Chinese. General Suharto crushed the alleged coup plotters before
being installed as president of the so-called New Order in March 1967.
The New Order regime took a schizophrenic approach toward the minority. On one
hand, it banned displays of Chinese language and fostered suspicion of Chinese
as potential communists. On the other, Suharto granted selected Chinese tycoons
monopolies and other favorable business deals, believing that it was safer to
give Chinese economic power because they couldn't challenge him politically and
could be convenient targets for resentment.
Less cynically, Suharto likely believed that the Chinese minority held the
superior business sense and connections to drive economic development. Sudono
Salim's Salim group grew its flour milling concession into the world's largest
producer of instant noodles, a position Indofood still occupies. It's also a
major player in palm oil, logging and property development.
Sinar Mas Group, founded by Eka Tjipta Widjaja, controls Asia Pulp and Paper
and major palm oil producer PT Smart. Both rank among the largest producers in
the region and both are widely accused of rainforest destruction in Indonesia
and beyond. Wal-Mart has recently faced boycott threats over stocking Sinar Mas
Group's Paseo brand of paper products.
"Suharto's rule was good for a few families considered to be part of the ethnic
group [labeled] Chinese-Indonesians, but generally the system was based on
discrimination against ethnic Chinese," Christian Chua, author of Chinese Big
Business in Indonesia that chronicles the tycoons' adaptation and
continued success in the post-Suharto era , says: "Of course, it will take one
or two generations to overcome ethnic prejudices, but the progress is
"It's not just race, class or religion that feeds anti-Chinese sentiments, it's
a combination of all three," Purdey contends. "At the grassroots level, there
was a normal level of tension, and violence under certain conditions." Attacks
tended to be against property rather than people, which made them relatively
more tolerable, she said.
Purdey's book begins in 1996, as Suharto began to lose his political touch
after three decades of authoritarian rule. Anti-Chinese acts increased in
number, especially after the regional economic crisis hit in the second half of
1997, but the nature of the attacks was unchanged. Then the Suharto regime made
Indonesian-Chinese scapegoats for rising food prices.
"The riots in 1998 were not part of the normal pattern of violence against
Chinese," Purdey recalls. "The systematic nature and scale of the violence were
different. There were reports of military involvement. Chinese women were
raped, which was not normal." Investigators found similar patterns of rape in
East Timor and Aceh, where the Indonesian military fought against separatist
movements with virtually no accountability.
"More needed to be asked of [former generals] Prabowo [Subianto] and Wiranto"
about their involvement with those riots, according to Purdey. Many suspect
that the military staged the riots as a pretext for either a coup against
Suharto or a crackdown against dissidents to preserve the New Order. Prabowo,
Suharto's former son-in-law and the army's special forces commander, became the
"fall guy" for the riots but has "remade" himself as a presidential candidate
for 2014 elections, Purdey notes. Prabowo and Wiranto both ran as losing
vice-presidential candidates in 2009.
"Even though he mainly aimed at the farmer vote, he reached out to Chinese to
say he had no responsibility for the riots," Purdey says, recalling his recent
presidential campaign. "As a member of a rich family, he tries to assure
Chinese that he understands their concerns," she adds with a measure of
In the wake of the 1998 destruction that left more than 1,000 dead and an
estimated US$300 million in property damage, some Chinese left Indonesia and
many were traumatized. An estimated US$20 billion in capital fled overseas,
much of it to Singapore, rich Indonesians' favored destination.
Government officials in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong called on Indonesia to
protect ethnic Chinese, sentiments tempered by awareness that embracing
Indonesia's Chinese too tightly could further stigmatize them as more Chinese
than Indonesian and provoke further difficulties.
As horrific as the May riots were, the impact wasn't as great as the massacres
of 1965-66, Purdey believes. "In 1998, there was a measure of solidarity
between Chinese and other victims of the New Order," she says. Although the
attacks were characterized as anti-Chinese, Purdey notes that more non-Chinese
died, mainly looters trapped in burning shopping centers. Non-Chinese were also
targeted for rape.
Hope and progress
The wave of reform that followed the fall of Suharto has turned the years since
1998 into "a time of real hope and progress" for Chinese, Purdey says.
President Abdurrahman Wahid, popularly known as Gus Dur, scrapped anti-Chinese
laws, including the ban on Chinese language instruction and Chinese signs.
Chinese New Year, known locally as Imlek, became a national holiday under
"Many ethnic Chinese took advantage of the new democratic space to establish
political parties, non-governmental organizations and action groups to fight
for the abolition of discriminatory laws, defend their rights and promote
solidarity among ethnic groups in Indonesia," Singapore Management University
Assistant Professor of Asian Studies Chang-Yau Hoon says.
"They utilized the reformasi atmosphere to promote pluralism and
multiculturalism, and to liberate their long-suppressed identity and cultural
heritage." Chinese political parties proved a non-starter due to the group's
small numbers, but political and civic involvement reversed the predominant
patterns under Suharto.
"Some people claimed that with the end of Suharto and the election of Gus Dur,
the Chinese could treat [the 1998 riots] as an anomaly," says Purdey, who was
in Ubud discussing her latest book, From Vienna to Yogyakarta (UNSW
Press, 2011), a biography of Australia's pioneering Indonesian scholar Herb
Feith. "Incidents of anti-Chinese occurred after 1998, during one of the most
violent periods of Indonesian history. But the violence had returned to the
Ironically, for Indonesian Chinese immigrants hoping for asylum in Australia,
that's not good news. "In truth, they don't have a well-founded fear of
persecution," the standard for granting asylum, Purdey asserts.
As Indonesia's economy has recently boomed, ethnic Chinese have again been big
winners. "They're overwhelmingly middle class or above, so they are benefiting
disproportionately," Purdey says. "If there is an economic crisis, that could
be the next test," she adds.
"Resentment was mostly due to monopoly" and preferential treat of Chinese
tycoons, says Aristides Katoppo, chairman of the Sinar Harapan newspaper that
was shut down by Suharto and returned after 15 years in 2001. "The benefits now
are sufficiently shared" to make a violent reaction less likely.
"I have argued in my book, Chinese Identity in Post-Suharto Indonesia [2008,
Sussex Academic Press], that the May 1998 violence was a turning point for the
ethnic Chinese in Indonesia," Hoon says. "For the first time in several
decades, Chinese culture became visible."
"Younger Chinese now celebrate their Chinese-ness," Purdey notes. "A lot of
Chinese Indonesians are studying in China, either language or university
degrees." In Indonesia's Chinese communities, traditions such as the lion dance
have enjoyed revivals. Across ethnicities, pop culture products from China,
Hong Kong and Taiwan enjoy rising popularity.
"However, the increase in consumption of Chinese cultural products by local
communities should not be naively read as an acceptance of the ethnic Chinese,
just as one can enjoy the food at McDonald's but still disapprove of the United
States," Hoon says.
"There is always a risk that the ceremonial celebration of Chinese culture in
Indonesia may lead to an uncritical assumption by the Indonesian public that a
process of re-sinicization is underway," Hoon, born in Malaysia, raised in
Brunei and educated in Australia, continues. "The influence of the New Order
assimilationist rhetoric on the public discourse of identity is still very
strong. This assimilationist ideology conceptualized and expounded identity as
an either-or proposition: that is, the more Chinese a person is, the less
Indonesian a person becomes, and vice versa."
Purdey believes that as outright anti-Chinese discrimination becomes less
acceptable, it may find a home in the broader movement against pluralism that's
rooted in Islamic extremism. She also sees the growing controversy over
building churches, and to some extent even attacks on them, as having
"The general way politics is going involves pandering to extremists. Other
religious groups talk about pluralism. That's where Chinese have to be; they
have to be engaged in that conversation," Purdey says. "The ultimate that
Chinese hope for is to be viewed like Bugis or Betawi, just another ethnic
group in the 'unity in diversity' [Indonesia's national motto] ideal."
Purdey and other observers agree Indonesia's Chinese are much closer to that
ideal now than they were in 1998.
Former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen told America's story to the
world as a US diplomat and is author of
Hong Kong On Air,
a novel set during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal,
financial crisis, and cheap lingerie. Follow
Muhammad Cohen's blog for more on the media and Asia, his adopted home.
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