Posted by: mel | June 10, 2009

More Chinese in Indonesian politics

Asia News | Source: Lynn Lee, Straits Times | 10 June 2009

As Indonesia leaves the tragic anti-Chinese riots of May 1998 further behind, its Chinese community is gradually venturing back into the political arena.

At least 12 ethnic Chinese politicians, mostly from secular nationalist parties, have secured places in the 560-seat national Parliament after the April 9 legislative elections, compared with 13 in the 2004 election and six in the 1999 polls.

The Nationalist Democratic Forum (Fordeka), an association of Chinese-Indonesian activists and politicians, estimated that many more gained seats in provincial and district parliaments this year, especially in areas populated by the community, such as West Kalimantan and the Riau Islands province.

Said Fordeka chairman Hartono: “More ethnic Chinese are taking part in elections. This year, around 150 took part in the national election.”

Fewer than 50 ethnic Chinese contested Indonesia’s first democratic election in June 1999. During former president Suharto’s 30-year authoritarian rule from the 1960s, the community had been subjected to a series of discriminatory laws like banning of Chinese schools, programmes and the celebration of Chinese New Year.

In May 1998, protests calling for Suharto to end his rule escalated into riots in cities like Jakarta, Medan and Solo.

Chinese homes and shops were looted and burnt, while people were shot, beaten and raped. Media reports said around 1,200 people died while many fled to Hong Kong and Singapore.

The founding chairman of the Chinese-Indonesian Association, Eddie Lembong, pointed to how things have changed since.

The discriminatory laws against the Chinese have been repealed by successive governments since 1999.

With the return of ethnic Chinese legislators in Parliament, they – along with activists – were instrumental in lobbying for the Citizenship Law of 2006, which among other things recognised Chinese-Indonesians as indigenous people.

In the Suharto days, ethnic Chinese were forced to carry special papers to prove their citizenship.

“We have democracy, and legally and politically, there is no more discrimination. So I’m optimistic that we will not see a repeat of May 1998, but that doesn’t mean there will never be any more anti- Chinese sentiment,” Lembong said. He added that this can be managed if the community continues to integrate itself with the rest of society.

Ethnic Chinese legislators agree that there is not much discrimination to fight against these days, but they still want to see the practice of viewing Chinese-Indonesians as ‘cash cows’ abolished.

First-time politician Eddy Sadeli from the Democratic Party described how bureaucrats seek payoffs from them in return for government services.

Legislator Alvin Lie from the National Mandate Party added: “But this practice is due to corruption rather than dislike for Chinese per se. So the biggest challenge is to engineer a change in the behaviour of these officials.”

Aside from this, ethnic Chinese legislators have generally preferred to focus on national issues close to the hearts of all their constituents, instead of playing the race card.

This includes issues like promoting religious tolerance, better health care and education as well as economic advancement.

With ethnic political parties capturing only a fraction of the Chinese vote in 1999 and 2004, there was realisation that the community prefers to back larger secular-nationalist parties, while for many politicians, their support has also come from outside the community.

The ethnic parties have ceased to exist since.

Centre for Strategic and International Studies researcher Christine Susanna Tjhin said she would like to see more ethnic Chinese politicians, who usually come from the business world and are based in Jakarta, interact more with their constituents at the local level in between elections.

“In some cases the parties also do not engage these ethnic Chinese politicians and are just content to see them as the party’s ATMs…. but they should really invest more time to build their base of constituents,” she said.

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