Posted by: mel | November 29, 2009

A nation’s history of discrimination

Jakarta Post | Agustinus B. da Costa ,  Contributor ,  Jakarta  | Lifestyle | 29 November 2009

The now infamous May 1998 riots in which Indonesian Chinese were the target of attacks and their shops and houses looted were not an isolated incident of ethnic conflict in Indonesian history.

The stories of a small Chinese community in West Kalimantan (also known as West Borneo) show that violence and discrimination against ethnic Chinese Indonesians have evolved throughout the history of modern Indonesia.

This historical evolution is the focus of a book titled Penambang Emas, Petani dan Pedagang di Distrik Tionghoa Kalimantan Barat (Gold Miners, Farmers and Traders in the “Chinese Districts” of West Kalimantan) by Mary Somers Heidhues, a lecturer in the Southeast Asia Department of Cornell University in the United States.

The book records the history of the Chinese community in West Kalimantan since the Dutch colonial era, through the Japanese occupation, into post-Independence Indonesia, the New Order and finally the present day Reform era.

The first Chinese settlers came to West Kalimantan at the request of Panembahan Mempawah and the Sultan of Sambas in early 1740. Malayan nobles invited the Chinese because they had more advanced mining technology than local people. At that time, the local people, the Dayaks and Malayan tribes, were mostly farmers.

In West Kalimantan, the Chinese people organized their workers in groups called kongsi. The members of each kongsi elected their own head and shared the profits from mining activities. Some kongsi united into federations.

There were three principal kongsi: Fosjoen/Thaikong in Monterado (1776-1854), Lanfang in Mandor (1777-1884) and Samtiaokioe, which separated from Fosjoen in either 1819 or 1822 and then fled in 1850 into Sarawak territory with disastrous results for the Brooke regime seven years later.

The office of kongsi had several roles, including as a center of public administration, residence of the chairmen, public hall and religious shrine.

Eventually, the existence of the independent and democratic kongsi became a threat to the local kingdoms and their ally, the Dutch colonial power. In September 1850, the Dutch colonial government began a military campaign to dismiss the kongsi.

This resulted in three kongsi wars (1822-1824, 1850-1854, 1884-1885), with a spillover in the 1857 Chinese uprising in Sarawak (in Malaysian Borneo). The first conflict was an attempt by the new Dutch regime to control the kongsi. The last kongsi, Lanfang, vanished in 1884-1885.

The kongsi wars were not simply an outcome of the Chinese resistance against the Dutch. There were complex ethnic and political alliances. After the demise of the kongsi, depopulation and impoverishment followed.

It was only at the end of the 19th century that Chinese people started to return to West Kalimantan in significant numbers. This time, it was not gold but agriculture that drove them to come. They dominated the trade of forest products (gutta-percha, rattan and lumber).

In the political field, the Dutch colonial government appointed Chinese officers to control the work and become the intermediaries between them and the Chinese settlers. Their tasks were to collect taxes, to organize forced labor and to collect the opium levy.

Burdened by the heavy taxes in 1912 and 1914 the Chinese, along with the Dayaks and Malayans, rebelled against the Dutch .The colonial government blamed the Chinese secret societies and nationalist movement – inspired by the 1911 Chinese revolution – for being behind the rebellion. But a small number of Dutch troops suppressed the rebellion.

During World War II, the Dutch colonial regime fell under Japanese occupation, including West Kalimantan. In early 1943, the Japanese military orchestrated a massacre of the locals. They accused the former West Kalimantan governor of collaborating with a multi-ethnic rebellion to fight against the Japanese colonial power.

Thousands of people, including the local sultan, nobles, ex-Dutch officers, journalists, doctors and Chinese businessmen, were killed. This incident was remembered as the Pontianak Affair; to commemorate it, the Indonesian government built a memorial monument at the scene in 1970.

After Indonesia gained independence, the Chinese community came under further pressure. Beginning in the 1950s, a set of regulations destabilized the local economy and cultural institutions of the Chinese in West Kalimantan as Jakarta extended its authority throughout the region.

The government of Indonesia issued a regulation in 1959 that limited various economic activities by non-citizens. As a consequence, thousands of Chinese people fled back to their motherland and overseas. Chinese schools were also closed.

Most devastating and traumatic was the event known as the “Dayak raids” in 1967, which took place after the failed coup by the Indonesian Communist Party in 1965.

In the name of the Dayak people, the Indonesian military ran a campaign against what they called the “communist element” in Indonesian society. All Chinese communities at the time were considered supporters of communist China.

Thousands of people were killed and others fled to refugee camps. The result of the raid was the expulsion of Chinese from rural areas.

The authoritarian New Order government banned every cultural expression of China including its languages (Mandarin, Hakka and Teochiu), the barongsai lion dance and the celebration of the Chinese Lunar New Year.

In the Reform era, all these bans were lifted by then president Abdurrahman Wahid.

This book, which is a complete study of the Chinese minority in West Kalimantan in the context of social, economic and political struggle, makes a huge contribution to local history in Indonesia.

Gold Miners, Farmers and Traders in the *Chinese Districts’ of West Borneo

Mary Somers Heidhues
Yayasan Nabila, Oct 2008
342 pp

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