Chinese community saved by legacy of discrimination

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 May, 2006, 12:00am

In an ironic twist of fate, it seems one of the darker legacies of deposed Indonesian dictator Suharto may have saved many in the region's ethnic Chinese community from the worst of Saturday's earthquake destruction.

Suharto's policy of active discrimination meant that the town of Bantul, where the majority of the quake victims lived, was off limits to Chinese until recently.

'In Suharto's time no Chinese were allowed to live in Bantul,' said Alung Xiau Dhu Lung, a shopkeeper in what passes for Yogyakarta's Chinatown, just off the city's main shopping strip.

Chinese say acceptance of their ethnic group within the town was limited to those who had married into an ethnic Indonesian family, and then only grudgingly. Only recently had things become more relaxed and Chinese merchants and families begun to inhabit the border region between Yogyakarta and Bantul.

'In a way it was lucky because even though there is now a bigger Chinese population around Bantul, they are still only around the border,' Mr Xiau said.

The quake flattened almost everything in its path as it ran from the coast south of Bantul through four of its central sub-districts.

Suharto's discrimination against Chinese stemmed from the alleged involvement of the mainland government in a 1965 communist coup attempt. Laws were instituted to segregate them and stifle their culture. Lunar New Year celebrations, Chinese writing and language were banned.

Eight years after the dictator was forced from office, it is not easy to find people willing to talk about the lingering divide between the two communities. Indeed, when quizzed on the matter they tended to change the subject, or begin talking about the festival that was to be held tomorrow in Barangtritis, a beach within Bantul's city limits.

Although it looks set to be cancelled because of the earthquake damage, the Peh Chun festival - the Indonesian equivalent of tomorrow's Tuen Ng festival - received the backing of the Bantul local government, and would have featured lion dances and other cultural activities.

'It has been run only three or four years,' said Xiau Shu Cen, Mr Xiau's sister, who teaches Putonghua at Yogya's Muhammadiyah University. 'It should have been held every year as it celebrates the heroes of our past, but practising the Chinese traditions was not allowed.'

The disaster now is being used as an opportunity to bridge the remaining divide.

'So many Chinese organisations - Buddhist, Christian, business - from this area are supplying aid for the victims,' Mr Xiau said. 'I don't see any difference between Chinese and non-Chinese. I live here, we all live here in Indonesia.

'All of us have suffered a loss of some kind, and we were all out in the street together with the wounded when the quake hit. It is just about being human.'

But while progress is being made, some, like the newly homeless Probo Sandoso, whose family was spending its third night outdoors in the wet under a tarpaulin on the outskirts of Bantul, believe changing people's attitudes is a slow process.

'When there is an emergency like this we help each other,' the ethnic Chinese businessman said. 'But a rule is a rule, even if it isn't written down any more. And seven or eight kilometres that way,' he says pointing towards Bantul, 'there is still a line'.