Worries over recent Jakarta protests hark back to history



IN recent years, writing about Indonesia has often been a pleasurable task, as the largest and most populous country in Southeast Asia appears to have progressed by leaps and bounds in almost all aspects of its national development, be it economically, socially or politically. A boundless harvest and future seem to linger on the Indonesian horizon, the only full-fledged G20 member of Southeast Asia.

Yet chaotic events over the past week or so have starkly reminded me of what my mother who grew up in the Indonesian island of Sumatra has often told me in my younger days, that she would not have married and moved over to Sabah (my home state) so readily in olden times, were it not for the then rampant anti-Chinese sentiments and acts there.

The unfortunate events to which I am referring to are of course the series of violent protests over alleged religiously blasphemous remarks made byBasukiPurnama, the governor of the Indonesian capital Jakarta, and an ethnic Chinese Indonesian who is running to continue his gubernatorial term to which he acceded when the former governor, Joko Widodo, was elected president of Indonesia. Bloody confrontations with the police have reported, along with a few casualties. It remains to be seen whether the violent protests were politically instigated by quarters yearning to gain political mileage out of the alleged offence. But in any case, many local residents, especially the Indonesian Chinese, have chosen to remain behind closed doors, and some even took to temporarily moving out of the country until the tense situation hopefully ameliorates.

A shade of shadow appears to be cast over many an Indonesian Chinese’s heart primarily due, at least partially, to what they perceive to be Indonesia’s inglorious “anti-Chinese” history. What my mother specifically referred to above was likely to be the strand of anti-Chinese acts in the 1950s, which led to a number of native-born Indonesian Chinese having to emigrate to China, their country of ancestry which they only learnt of in books. Others moved to neighboring territories such as Malaya or Borneo (as my mother did). A decade later, when a purported coup took place, the then influential Indonesian communist party was implicated, and many suspected communist sympathizers, Indonesian Chinese included, were terminated. Another wave of Indonesian Chinese emigration took place then.

In the ensuing slightly more than three decades, to prevent the spread of communist ideology allegedly through the Chinese language, all forms of public propagation of Chinese language were banned, including in books and films and as a teaching medium. Even signboards could not display Chinese characters. As such, there is a pronounced multi-generational rift in Indonesian Chinese language education. Most Indonesian Chinese assimilated linguistically and converse with each other in Indonesian. After democratization in 1998, Chinese language education and other forms of Chinese language propagation were once again allowed in Indonesia. But frankly speaking, it would appear that it has by then become difficult to resuscitate the grasp of Chinese language by the younger generation of Indonesian Chinese.

But at least two salient points should be noted even during the decades when the Chinese language was banned in Indonesia. One was that the ban was on the public use of language, and not the practice of traditional Chinese customs or profession of religion. Although more than 90 percent of Indonesians profess one religion, Indonesia is strictly speaking a secular country without an official religion. Indonesian society considers the “Pancasila” nation-founding principles to be its supreme guide, and different religions can be practiced and propagated freely. One enduring and often heartwarming observation of typical Indonesian families is that even if family members happen to have different religious beliefs, they still live harmoniously under one roof. Another important point is that although Sino-Indonesian ties soured initially after 1965 in contrast to previously close ones, they improved markedly after China’s reform and opening-up process. Many Indonesian businesses then made significant investments in China, contributing markedly to China’s economic modernization.

In the turbulent days of 1998, there were once again reported anti-Chinese incidents, which were regrettable but were almost the last of such negative incidents. An eventually democratized Indonesia then made the wise and internationally well-praised choice to amend its rules which were widely perceived to be discriminatory to the Chinese. Gone were the divisions between native and non-native Indonesian citizens, and all Indonesians were to be treated equally regardless of race. Unfortunately, it would appear that in some decidedly small but vocal segments of the population, a divisive mentality still holds sway and is often easily provoked. As such, fear of the resurgence of exclusionary acts persists amidst the recent series of violent protests. I am nevertheless confident that most Indonesians reject violence and would like to lead peaceful lives.

In this age and world of economic and social doldrums, minority population in many parts of the world can easily become targets of blame. It would perhaps take a few more generations before we are all willing to adopt a more wholistic and inclusionary attitude in attempting to resolve socio-economic challenges.


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