Posted by: mel | February 22, 2009

Is Chinese Indonesian Heritage Illegal?

Mario Rustan ,  JAKARTA   |  Fri, 02/20/2009 |  Opinion

Did Soeharto hate the Chinese that much? This is a topic worthy of debate and discussion by academics in Indonesia.

The general consensus by the Indonesian media, including in this newspaper, is yes. Soeharto is regarded as the person most responsible for the myriad miseries suffered by Chinese Indonesians between 1966 and 1998.  

Chinese Indonesians are put in the same box with other victims of  the dictatorship and Soeharto is seen as an evil force that has  thankfully been banished. But  this explanation forgets that there was another time when the Chinese were discriminated against — during the period of the Dutch Colonial Administration, the Chinese community was marginalized in order to prevent them from uniting forces with other Indonesians.

Unfortunately, this is not widely discussed. Public figures and leaders of the Chinese community tend to agree with the Soeharto theory, for the sake of convenience and to avoid the blame game. But we Indonesians deserve a much better explanation about our own history.

Soeharto was probably a racist and a Sino-phobic. So were millions of other Indonesians under his rule. Like other cases of racism in the 20th century, the cause was economic disparity involving a more cosmopolitan ethnic minority. 

In the late 1950s President Su-karno prohibited Chinese people from living in villages and towns, nationalized Chinese (and other nonindigenous) assets and began to pressure the Chinese to adopt Indonesian-sounding names – all while gradually building an alliance with People’s Republic of China.

When Sukarno fell from power and Soeharto officially replaced him in 1968,  he froze diplomatic ties with China and  forbade all forms of Chinese culture under the guize of preventing communist infiltration. If in 1966 China was still ruled by Chiang Kai-Shek, one wonders what the explanation would have been. But the real story lies in a series of Army seminars in 1966 
and 1967.

The Army concluded that discrimination was necessary for nation building. The Chinese should be prevented from feeling superior, while the native Indonesians should be prevented from feeling inferior — only under these conditions could Indonesia return to stability.

Recently, a senior editor of this newspaper, Harry Bhaskara, wrote that the current acceptance of Chinese culture would shock Soeharto, while also questioning if the inclusion of Lunar New Year as a national holiday was relevant. Soeharto lived until last year, so he was very aware of malls and real estate developments crowded with ethnic Chinese.

It was he who presided over the boom of the early 1990s. He was aware of the Chinese Embassy in Kuningan. It was he who resumed relations with China in 1990, amid fears and suspicions from some Indonesian commentators and politicians. The cause of opposition was not communist infiltration, but fear of losing competition and the resurgence of Chinese cultural superiority.

As for the freedom of Chinese cultural expression enjoyed after Reformasi, many of its aspect are overrated. I wonder if ancient Chinese civilization is now taught in school, along with the great civilizations of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

People who converse in any Chinese dialect in public are sure to get a funny look (in a threatening way) and Chinese popular culture is still considered fringe, after a brief boom in the early 2000s. Even now we have a surreal paradox where regular Chinese hide their last names in public space (except in funeral ads), while a few non-Chinese celebrities use Chinese surnames for gimmick.

My point is that Sino-phobia is prevalent in all Southeast Asian societies, not just in Indonesia. 

Soeharto enacted anti-Chinese regulations out of necessity, in a similar fashion to Malaysia’s New Econo-mic Policy, Singapore’s prohibition of critical discussions on race and religions, and Thailand, which requires its ethnic Chinese to adopt full Thai-sounding names. Soeharto did not make the Indonesians hate the Chinese, he just went on with the flow.

Finally, does the Lunar New Year deserve to be national holiday? It does. Religious/cultural holidays in Indonesia are chosen based on their value to represent an official religion according to Pancasila, again in the name of harmony (i.e. to prevent conflict between the Islamic majority and the rest).

Lunar New Year represents Confucianism. If there is no holiday for Depavali or Yom Kippur in Indonesia, it is because Indian Hindus and Jews in Indonesia are not historically and socially significant enough to be recognized, in either positive or negative terms.

Sukarno tried to make religious festivals optional holidays, but this move failed as it led to communal disputes and gate crashing. At least now all Indonesians have another reason to take a break and send text messages to their acquaintances.

The writer received Bachelor of Arts with Honors in Politics from La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

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