Wednesday, June 02, 1999

Flexing their political muscles

The Nation [Bangkok]
Editorial & Opinion

After decades of being in the political wilderness, Indonesian Chinese are now seeking to make their presence felt, writes Andreas Harsono.

SEMARANG, Indonesia -- Decades of discrimination have made Chinese-descent Indonesians skeptical when talking about the relatively new political openness in the country as some of their most prominent leaders chose to join various political parties to advocate multiculturalism in the world's largest archipelago.

''Ethnic Chinese are still traumatised by politics. They don't want to be involved in politics as they are still scared,'' said Alvin Lie, a Chinese businessman who owns the popular Nyonya Meneer medical firm, referring to various anti-Chinese riots which broke out in several Indonesian cities last year.

But Lie is not a typical Chinese. He is also a local leader of the newly-established National Mandate Party (PAN) led by opposition leader Amien Rais.

Across Semarang, other Chinese figures, with their respective business networks and constituents, now either work for exclusive Chinese organisations or are directly involved in political work. But whatever their involvement, most have turned their backs on their traditional patron, the ruling Golkar party which was the political tool of the repressive Suharto regime.

These Chinese figures are mostly successful business leaders. If they want to be involved in politics, they have two major choices: joining the exclusive Indonesian Bhinneka Tunggal Ika Party or joining other mainstream political parties whose platforms include fighting anti-Chinese discrimination.

The phrase Bhinneka Tunggal Ika literally means ''unity in diversity'', which is printed on the official seal of the Republic of Indonesia.

Daniel Budi Setiawan, who runs the Semarang-based PT Siba Surya, one of Indonesia's largest truck companies, believes it is better for him to join the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle led by Megawati Sukarnoputri, whom most opinion polls indicate is the front runner in the race for Indonesia's next president.

''I don't think I represent the Chinese. I represent everyone who votes for the PDI-Struggle in my constituency,'' said Setiawan, adding that although he himself is a Chinese, he is not interested in taking the Chinese problem as an exclusive problem or the Chinese as a special group.

''We should not be trapped in the New Order frame of thinking,'' he quipped, referring to the self-proclaimed name of the Suharto regime. Both Lie and Setiawan are parliamentary candidates who are now busy campaigning for the Indonesian election scheduled for Monday.

Taking off his business suit and tie, Setiawan jumps on a motorcycle almost every day to roam the dozens of remote villages in the Karanganyar area close to Semarang to meet his would-be voters. Lie, on the other hand, prefers to attend bigger rallies. Clad in PAN's blue-and-white T-shirt, he regularly gives speeches to urban middle-class voters.

Chinese make up five per cent of the 1.1 million people in Semarang, Indonesia's fifth largest city and the most important city in the central part of the main island of Java.

Other Chinese figures in Semarang have other approaches. Budi Dharmawan, perhaps the most senior Chinese figure in Semarang, preferred not to officially join any political party. But it is an open secret that he is in the Megawati camp.

Dharmawan, alias Kwik Kian Djien, is a younger brother to Dutch-trained economist Kwik Kian Gie, a close aide to Megawati. Older Kwik is also a popular columnist whose pieces appear in the Kompas daily every Monday. Kwik Kian Gie is perhaps the most popular Chinese figure in Indonesia and was once labelled as the most trusted economics writer in Indonesia.

Kristanto, a veteran politician who used to help thousands of poor Chinese to overcome Indonesia's red tape and get their Indonesian passports, believed that he could do his job better by staying inside Golkar, the party which the Chinese were mostly forced to vote for during the Suharto rule.

Another Chinese leader, Adi Tresnanto, chose to join the Nation Awakening Party of Muslim leader Abdurrahman Wahid. Tresnanto took the name of Anwar Mujahid when he converted to Islam not too long ago. Meanwhile, Arief Pawiro joined the Indonesian Bhinneka Tunggal Ika Party whose official platform is an open party but in practice woos Chinese voters with Chinese messages.

All of these parties, with the exception of the Indonesian Bhinneka Tunggal Ika Party, are widely expected to receive sizable votes in the election.

''As a Golkar cadre, I'm sad to know these people are leaving Golkar. But as a Chinese politician, I'm glad that they are voluntarily participating in politics. They're players, now albeit still on the margin,'' said Kristanto. He himself decided to stay with Golkar although his move is less popular among his peers.

The on-going campaign period has been accompanied by antagonistic feelings directed not only towards Golkar's nomination of President B J Habibie as its sole presidential candidate, but also towards the ruling party itself. Golkar flags and banners have been torn down and burned throughout Indonesia, including Semarang.

Interestingly, Chinese politicians such as Kristanto, Tresnanto, Pawiro and Lie actually share similar goals on the Chinese question. They want the new government to scrap anti-Chinese regulations such as discriminative land ownership or the ban on the construction of new Chinese temples.

Suharto issued a presidential decree in 1967 which basically bans the Chinese minority from publicly displaying such cultural activities as the dragon dance or the commemoration of Confucian-related religious affairs. The racist decree is still in place today. In fact, it is usually referred to by other government officials when enacting other anti-Chinese regulations.

Lie said that his chairman, Amien Rais, had agreed to launch a party platform in which the party would try to change such racist regulations. ''We will legalise the usage of Mandarin in schools as well as other cultural activities,'' he said.

The Chinese were periodically made scapegoats during the Suharto rule. He implemented a divide-and-rule policy in which he encouraged some of his Chinese cronies to develop huge business empires in a bid to hamper politically-strong non-Chinese from exercising their economic muscle.

Dharmawan believes that younger Chinese Indonesians have no problem in being involved in politics. ''They are very active, unlike their parents.'' He estimated that if the on-going reform process goes smoothly, in the next five years, the Chinese will be blended into mainstream politics. Then there would not be any need for an ethnically-base political party.

Andreas Harsono is The Nation's Jakarta correspondent.

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