Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Indonesian Chinese Fears Economic Discrimination

by Andreas Harsono
American Reporter Correspondent
Jakarta, Indonesia

JAKARTA, Nov. 10, 2004 -- Many Chinese-descent Indonesians are worried about the new Indonesian government's economic policy, fearing they may become victims of discrimination advocated by Vice President Jusuf Kalla.

Kalla has argued in some media interviews that the new government would like to help "the small and medium enterprises" but said that "90 to 95 percents of the small businessmen are pribumis."

"Pribumi" is a Bahasa Indonesia word which literary means "native." It is relatively a new word in the new language to define the different ethnic groups in Indonesia but to exclude the Chinese, Indians, Caucasians and Arab minorities. The Chinese is the largest group among those categories.

Kalla said the Chinese business community, which dominates retail business and controls major conglomerations, should help the government implement the new economic policy. "If Malaysia implements race, we should implement group (policy)," he was quoted as saying by the Jakarta-based Sinar Harapan daily.

Kalla himself is a successful businessman. He is the major shareholder and former chairman of the Kalla Group, based in Makassar in southern Sulawesi, a region is dominated by ethnic Bugis.

He was heavily involved in former President Suharto's Golkar Party during Suharto's authoritarian rule and once was fired on corruption charges as a trade minister when serving President Abdurrahman Wahid. But Kalla was never investigated and many believed the allegation was weak.

He walked away from Golkar Pary earlier this year to join presidential candidate Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The pair won a landslide election last month and were inaugurated as president and vice president on Oct. 20. It was the first direct presidential and vice presidential election held in Indonesia's modern history.

Some leading Chinese figures, however, have expressed concern over Kalla's racist remarks. A meeting was also held with Wahid, himself a leading Muslim scholar and advocate of minorities rights, the day before their inauguration.

Frans Hendra Winata, a human rights lawyer and a founder of the Indonesian Institute on Anti Discrimination, told Wahid that many Chinese businessmen are small and medium-scale traders, and that Kalla's rhetoric would create more problems in Indonesia instead of narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor. They asked Wahid to pay attention to Kalla's racist views.

Wahid agreed with his guests. "His statement is emotional and illogical. I am prepared to die to fight against it," he told the media.

The Internet news site Detikcom quoted Wahid as saying, "All citizens should adhere to our Constitution and that kind of statement is not proper to be said by someone like Jusuf Kalla." Wahid, however, called on the Chinese to "calm down," saying that the statement is a political matter which does not involve powerful institutions. He also called on President Yudhoyono to control Kalla.

Indonesia is a culturally diverse country. Modern Chinese settlers began settling in Java, a major island in this southeast Asian country in the 15th century. Kalla's statement is ironic considering that various ethnic violence that has taken place in Indonesia over the last seven years. Much of the violence took place because some local groups oppose the settlement of migrants from different ethic groups from other parts of Indonesia.

The Acehnese drove away thousands of Javanese migrants from the northern tip of Sumatera Island over the last five years. The Dayak killed more than 2,000 Madurese migrants on Kalimantan Island in a bloody headhunting rampage three years ago. The Papuans and the Molluccans are against the Bugis traders settling in Papua and the Molluccas. Many other "natives" in many parts of Indonesia also demand that governors, regents, district chiefs, and even deans in local colleges should be "putra daerah," which literally means "local sons," in order to stop settlers from becoming involved in governance or academia. It is not clear whether Jusuf Kalla understands the consequences of his racist remarks directed toward his own Bugis countrymen.

Scholars write that Indonesia is basically an artificial nation lacking firm historical roots. It comprises 13,677 islands, stretching over a distance from east to west that is approximately the same as from London to Moscow. It is the world's largest Muslim country but has a significant Christian majority in the east. Its 220 million people speak more than 300 different languages and their common history includes a Dutch colonial past and a lingua franca developed from the Malay language.

Ivan Wibowo, another Chinese lawyer, wrote in The Jakarta Post that Kalla's anti-Chinese observations could be seen in his official Website,, in which Kalla advocates an economic policy mirrored on Malaysia's "affirmative action" for the "bumiputera," which has prevailed there since the 1970s. "Bumiputera" is the Malaysian equivalent of the word "pribumi."

Kalla also advocated the reintroduction of the Assaat Movement set up by Assaat, an Indonesian businessman, once the acting president of Republic Indonesia in 1950. Assaat accused the Chinese of being "opportunists" in a public speech in 1956, calling on the government to enact an affirmative action for the pribumis.

His speech prompted a nationwide campaign and produced a 1959 government regulation which barred Indonesians of Chinese descent from owning a business beyond the local level. The Indonesian military vehemently supported the regulation, resulting in 130,000 Chinese-Indonesians leaving this country. But it created ecomnomic chaos by disrupting the chain of distribution because many Chinese traders were involved in retail businesses.

Australian scholar Herbert Feith, in his classic, "The Decline of Constitutional Democracy in Indonesia" (Cornell University Press, 1962), called the Assaat Movement "racist" and described how the Chinese issue was used to whip up nationalist sentiment among ethnic groups.

According to Wibowo, Kalla argued on his Website that Assaat's policy would provide an opportunity for the pribumi to handle distribution. Kalla said the objective of this affirmative action is "to limit the expansion and existence of non pribumi ... 75 percent of the distribution of staple commodities should be in the hands of pribumi."

But anti-Chinese riots break out regularly in Indonesia, as does other ethnic violence. A much stronger anti-Chinese fever took root in 1965 when the military, led by General Suharto, took over power from founding President Sukarno, who had built a close alliance with the Communist bloc, including Beijing. Chinese-language schools were closed down. Chinese-language characters were banned. Many Chinese temples were closed.

That era peaked in May 1998, when Suharto was forced to give up power. However, more than 2,500 people, mostly looters who died in burning buildings in Jakarta, were killed in a huge anti-Chinese riot aimed at Chinese-owned properties.

The Kalla website, however, was updated with another Website's profile of Jusuf Kalla last week. No explanation was offered for the change.

But not every Chinese leader agrees that Kalla is a racist. Sofyan Wanandi, the chairman of the Gemala group and an advisor to the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce, told Radio Australia, "... what everybody is talking about Jusuf Kalla, according to me is not true. You know he's a businessman. Sometimes he is too direct, but cannot explain that in the right way and that creates a misjudgement also from the Chinese community. I don't believe there will be a policy from the government to discriminate and have a racial policy specially against the Chinese. I don't believe that."

For now, it's a wait-and-see situation. Yudhoyono and Kalla have selected a variety of economic ministers, who include Aburizal Bakrie, a former chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, and Mari E. Pangestu, a economist of Chionese descent who is active in a Jakarta think tank, where Wanandi is a scholar, as well as other economists.

AR Correspondent Andreas Harsono has written for us since 1995 and won the Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University in 1999 and other international journalism awards. He is currently writing his first book, on ethnic and religious conflicts in Indonesia. He is a third-generation Indonesian Chinese.


Anonymous said...

Is the state of anti-Chinese discrimination severe now in 2007?

andreasharsono said...

Basically, the situation is a little bit better today but I'm afraid that the Chinese discrimination is still and will go on. Bad habit dies hard. This habit has been going on since the Dutch period.