The Chinese minority targeted in Indonesia, historically and today – Frank Beyer
The Palace Museum in Yogyakarta, a city on the Indonesian island of Java, is a mixed bag. The gated entrance to the Sultan’s royal palace complex, the Kraton, opens onto a large grass-covered square – a relief from hot, traffic-choked streets. Within, the museum is not very well maintained but has several interesting exhibitions, one being portraits of all the Sultans of Yogyakarta since 1755. The date of birth, length of reign and number of children of each ruler are given – one managed eighty-two offspring. Today’s Sultan, Hamengkubuwono X, gave up the tradition of having concubines and has only one wife and five children.
In contrast to the rundown Palace Museum, a nearby Chinese temple, the Vihara Buddha Prabha, looks like it just received a fresh paint job. The entrance is bright in its yellows, reds and blues – more ostentatious even than similar temples in Taiwan. Inside, there are altars featuring an array of different buddhas and deities (the cast of the Chinese heavens is hard to remember). Adding to the impressive interior are scenes from the Chinese classics painted on the walls.
The temple was built in 1900, but the land it stands on was gifted by Yogyakarta’s Sultan to the Chinese in 1845. I later found out it was once called Hok Tik Bio, but changed its name to Vihara Buddha Prabha under the oppressive, xenophobic government of General Suharto from 1967-1998, to emphasise its Buddhist credentials and play down its syncretic, polytheist and Confucian elements.
The Chinese have significant history in Indonesia. They settled the north coast of Java from the seventeenth century on, and had been trading with Java and other islands since much earlier. Most of the settlers came from Fujian and Guangdong provinces, and have a longer history in Indonesia than British descendants do in my homeland of New Zealand. Just as I don’t think we should change our culture completely because of geographical relocation, nor should the Chinese Indonesians. Yet there have been attempts to force them to do just that.
The Chinese-Indonesian minority have long been discriminated against”
The current Sultan’s father, Hamengkubuwono IX, was a key player in the Indonesian war of independence, which resulted in the Dutch leaving for good in 1949. For his efforts, the Sultan was granted governorship for life of the new Special Administrative Region of Yogyakarta, and stayed in office until his death in 1988. Under his watch, in 1975, a law was passed in Yogyakarta banning “non-native locals” from owning land. This law was targeted at the Chinese minority. Ethnic Chinese only make up one to three percent of the Indonesian population but control a large chunk of wealth – exactly how much is often exaggerated by political interests. So only pribumi (“first on the soil”) can own land in Yogya province. Who the pribumi are is largely based on appearance: Arab, Dutch or Chinese blood isn’t a problem if it doesn’t show prominently. Pribumi, in Java at least, are of mainly of Javanese, Madurese, Betawi or Sundanese ethnicity. There isn’t data on how often this law has been enforced, but it’s often enough that there have been complainants. In one recent case, an ethnic Chinese man named Handoko took the Yoyarkarta government to court in 2018 to protest the law, claiming it was discriminatory. He lost, and had to pay a small amount towards court costs.
The Chinese-Indonesian minority have long been discriminated against. In Asia there are some parallels with the treatment of Muslim minorities in China (the Uyghur of Xinjiang province) and Burma (the Rohingya of Rakhine state). Yet the roles are reversed in Indonesia, as the majority is Muslim and the Chinese minority overwhelmingly Christian, Buddhist or Confucian. Whether the continuation of this discrimination, at times backed by law, is partly understandable because of history, or whether it is merely prejudice, is big question to answer.
In a divide and conquer policy, the Dutch colonials categorised the Chinese residents of Java as foreign orientals and not citizens of the Dutch East Indies. There were violent conflicts between the Dutch and the Chinese, most notably the Chinezenmoord, Java War, and the Kongsi wars in Borneo. The Kongsi were small republics set up by Chinese miners which paid tribute to Qing China. Laws to restrict Chinese economic activity began under the Dutch, but these two cultures also formed a team in developing Batavia (now Jakarta) and the rest of Java. Chinese often worked for the Dutch as tax collectors, earning the hatred of the pribumi or native Indonesians.
After Indonesia proclaimed independence in August 1945, two days after the surrender of Japan, the question of citizenship for the Chinese was a thorny one. China claimed them as citizens, yet in the Asia-Africa congress of 1955, it was agreed that they could renounce Chinese nationality and become Indonesians citizens, which the majority did. Around 60,000 of them went to China as students in the 50s and 60s, where they had a hard time during the Cultural Revolution due to their bourgeois backgrounds and suspect loyalty. Around 80% ended up in Hong Kong as refugees, where at that time – unlike in China and Indonesia – traditional Chinese culture could be expressed openly.
We only have to look to the violence against Chinese in Indonesia in 1965 and 1998 to find some grave historical episodes. In both cases, the Chinese were an easy scapegoat in a larger crisis. In 1965 Indonesia lurched to the opposite side of the cold war opposite from China. The rightwing army faked a communist coup, and in the aftermath suspected communist sympathisers, including some Chinese, were massacred. This was a cultural revolution in contrast to Mao’s, but with the common denominator of pointless human suffering. After the left was crushed, General Surharto became President in 1967, introducing his New Order ideology and establishing a highly bureaucratic soft dictatorship with crony capitalism. In May 1998 it was the downfall of Suharto that led to violence, and many among the street mobs targeted Chinese-owned businesses, letting old resentments boil over. Many Chinese fled the country in fear.
Under Suharto’s New Order from 1967, which sought cultural homogenization, polytheism was banned and Chinese culture was targeted. (Meanwhile, the government declared that Hinduism was a monotheist religion, as to try to change the culture of Hindu Bali would have been more trouble than it was worth.) Chinese schools were phased out; Chinese newspapers were shut down. Chinese Indonesians were pressured to take on more Indonesian-sounding names. They were banned from holding high public office, although Suhurto gave them free rein in the world of business. Most of the legislation shackling the Chinese was revoked once Suharto fell in 1998, with a few exceptions – the law today which forbids Chinese Indonesians from owning land in Yogyakarta being one.
Indonesian’s first two Presidents, Sukarno and Suharto, both borrowed fascist slogans from the West. Sukarno’s ‘Year of Living Dangerously’ speech in 1964, in which he outlined threats from both communism and radical Islam, was cribbed from Mussolini, who originally urged his followers to live dangerously (vivere pericoloso). Suhurto’s ‘New Order’ (Orde Baru) in turn, meant to signal the change from Sukarno’s rule, reminds us of the Nazi’s nefarious Neuordnung. However, it would be unfair to compare any of the leaders here to the fascist National Socialists who were the originators of ‘Blood and Soil’ (Blut und Boden), the provocative title of this piece.
In Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, it is hard to feel sorry for the Chinese residents. They shop and dine in the best malls and restaurants, with their nannies in tow. In the nightclubs they occupy tables reserved for those who can afford bottles of imported spirits, which don’t come cheap due to steep alcohol taxes. However, it’s a common Indonesian stereotype that all Chinese are rich, and old prejudices still leave them vulnerable to be targeted on religious or racial grounds. The fall of the ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, commonly known as Ahok, is an example of this. Ahok, a Christian, was jailed in 2017 for blasphemy, after he allegedly insulted the Quran in his re-election campaign. Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, the preferred choice for more extreme elements of political Islam, said that Ahok should “know his place, lest the Indonesian Chinese face the consequences of his action.”
Before I flew out of Jakarta, I stopped off at the massive Central Park Mall in West Jakarta. This is a wealthy Chinese part of town, and the celebrations for Imlek, Chinese New Year, are big here. Around 22% of all Chinese Indonesians live in Jakarta, but Chinese women have told me they are afraid to walk on the streets, because it’s unsafe for them. Non-Chinese Indonesians have in turn told me the Chinese are rude and just keep to themselves. But I’ve also seen mixed groups of friends, both Chinese and not, getting along well. The whole issue is full of complexities and contradictions, but it’s hard to underestimate the damage done by banning Chinese culture in Indonesia for 30 years, and the harm that still lingers. ∎