Into the fray

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 June, 2007, 12:00am

A s a fluent Putonghua speaker, Eddie Lembong is known for fostering relations between Chinese-Indonesians and the rest of the population in a country where ethnic Chinese have historically faced segregation and sporadic violence.

Conscious of the past yet firmly rooted in the present, the chairman of the Chinese-Indonesian Association says the time is ripe for ethnic Chinese to make the big step.

'Now is the time to get into politics,' said Mr Lembong, one of 10 brothers whose parents hailed from Xiamen .

Born in a little village in Central Sulawesi and brought up in Manado, Mr Lembong studied pharmacy at the Bandung Institute of Technology and found financially security as a pharmacist in Jakarta, despite a path dotted with racial obstacles.

'I had to endure discrimination in entering university and in my career, but back then, I saw it as 'normal consequences' of the situation at that time,' he said.

He now believes that the dark days of the past are over and that the future offers great opportunity for Chinese-Indonesians living in the archipelago.

But his wish will require a total change in the Chinese-Indonesian mindset. 'Most Chinese-Indonesians fear talking about politics, let alone being involved in it. But I believe Indonesia's political scene is ready to welcome us,' he said.

According to Mr Lembong, whose Chinese name is Wang Youshan, the deep-seated fear is rooted in the anti-communist purge of 1965, which saw then-rising general Suharto leading a merciless hunt against the so-called Reds.

The Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), closely associated with the ethnic Chinese, was accused of trying to overthrow then-president Sukarno. The purge killed an estimated half a million people. Suharto went on to freeze diplomatic relations with China, which he accused of being behind the attempted coup. He also outlawed the PKI, Chinese-language books, newspapers, Chinese names and symbols and celebration of Chinese holidays.

Building on discrimination in place since the Dutch colonial era, he issued regulations restricting ethnic Chinese from politics, academia and the military.

As local writer Julia Suryakusuma figuratively puts it, Chinese-Indonesians became Indonesia's pet cat. 'In a good mood, we stroke the cat, but when we are angry and cannot stand up to the boss, we kick it,' she wrote.

Tensions were eased by Chinese-Indonesians' prominence in business, itself partly due to Suharto's generosity towards some ethnic Chinese tycoons, such as cigarette magnate Putra Sampoerna, property mogul Ciputra and the Salim group's Soedono Salim and Liem Sioe Liong.

Although only about 5 per cent of the 240 million population, the Chinese are said to control up to 68 per cent of the private economy. But wealth is unevenly distributed, with most making a living as more lowly entrepreneurs.

The difficulties faced by the Chinese stem from the past regime's strategy to portray them as uncaring and corrupt and using them as scapegoats for the country's ills.

The bloodiest examples of this were the May 1998 riots when, as Suharto limped to a disgraceful end, pro-democracy demonstrations spurred by unemployment and high prices were channelled against ethnic Chinese quarters in Jakarta and elsewhere.

Officially, 1,188 people were killed and more than 5,000 buildings were burned, damaged or looted nationwide. Reports said more than 100 Chinese women were raped or sexually assaulted and 150,000 ethnic Chinese fled the country.

Jemma Purdey, author of Anti-Chinese Violence in Indonesia, 1996-1999, said the conditions that led to the riots were unique, but not unrepeatable.

'The combination of political and economic crisis and antagonism towards ethnic Chinese was compounded with the suspected involvement of military trained actors under the instruction of elite players battling for leadership,' she said.

'Together, these formed a rare confluence of extreme and specific conditions. In a relatively politically and economically stable Indonesia it is unlikely that '1998-style' violence could occur again, but if similar conditions were to re-emerge, it would not be impossible.'

The danger seems distant in today's Indonesia, a more stable country that is being praised for democratic progress that started after the fall of Suharto and benefited ethnic Chinese.

In 2000, Abdurrahman Wahid, the country's first democratically elected president, lifted all institutionalised bans and restrictions on the Chinese.

His successor, Megawati Sukarnoputri, made the Lunar New Year a national holiday and allowed a revival of Chinese heritage and culture.

Today there is a Putonghua news programme on TV, Chinese-language newspapers are sold openly in some cities and Putonghua is taught in foreign-language schools.

Ethnic Chinese have also gradually become more accepted in society, as highlighted by an ethnic Chinese entertainer coming second by popular vote in the Indonesian version of Pop Idol, something unthinkable only 10 years ago.

Mr Lembong said what opened the door to politics for ethnic Chinese were the Citizenship Law and the Civil Registry Law, ratified last year under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who also recognised Confucianism as one of the country's official faiths.

The laws classify as Indonesian anyone who is born to Indonesian parents and who has never changed citizenship. Officials can be punished if they discriminate against ethnic Chinese.

Previously, the constitution categorised Indonesians as 'indigenous' and 'non-indigenous' - ethnic Chinese - and gave them different rights.

'Never before have we been in a better legal position to take part in the political life of the nation,' said Mr Lembong, who advocates a bottom-up approach. 'There are some Chinese-Indonesians involved in politics, but we need the masses to get involved.'

Among the most prominent ethnic Chinese in politics are former cabinet minister Kwik Kian Gie, parliamentarian Alvin Lie and Trade Minister Marie Pangestu. In the 2004 parliamentary election there were 172 ethnic Chinese candidates, but only a handful won seats.

At this stage, Mr Lembong is just trying to drum up interest in politics, starting with the study of political theory.

'We have to start from the basics. If we do not have the knowledge, it will be more difficult to compete one day,' he said.

Mr Lembong said that since 1964, mainland China had encouraged overseas Chinese to be nationalistic and take part in the political life of the country where they live.

When it comes to jumping into the fray, Mr Lembong believes ethnic Chinese should join existing parties rather than establish new ones based on ethnicity.

'Nationalistic parties like Megawati's Indonesian Democrat Party of Struggle or Golkar are welcoming Chinese-Indonesians, while some narrow-minded, religious-based parties are not,' he said. 'In between, there are some nationalistic-religious parties, like PAN, which are kind of open.

'A Chinese-based party would be a mistake. We have to take part in the nation's politics with the rest of the people,' he said, acknowledging that Chinese-Indonesians' partial failure to fully integrate helped sustain prejudice against them.

Mr Lembong's inclusive view is shared by Purdey.

'The Indonesian constitution allows for parties along ethnic lines,' she said. 'However, attempts at this have not been successful, and experience shows that Chinese-Indonesians have a better chance of making a difference in mainstream parties.'

The Chinese Indonesian Reform Movement, led by Lieus Sungkharisma, and the United in Diversity Party, under Nurdin Purnomo, are examples of ethnic Chinese parties that have operated in Indonesia with little success.

Someone who would not join a Chinese party is Christine Susanna Tjhin, an expert on the Chinese-Indonesian issue from the Jakarta Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

'Among my reservations is the claim that such a party represents all Chinese-Indonesians, which is impossible considering their heterogeneous nature,' she said.

Ms Tjhin said Chinese-Indonesian political integration must go hand in hand with integration into mainstream society.

'There has been a positive shift in the characteristics of the movement, although there is still much to be done,' she said, citing the involvement of ethnic Chinese in the post-tsunami relief efforts in Aceh as a positive example.

But Ms Tjhin said the importance of ethnic Chinese participation in politics should not be overstated.

'I notice a 'minority within a minority phenomenon', with Chinese-Indonesian women and the younger discriminated against by their senior males,' she said.

'Such imbalance damagingly influences the quality of integration itself. It is too melodramatic to think that Chinese-Indonesians' role is more important than any other.'

Mr Lembong agreed.

'As an inseparable part of the Indonesian nation, it is of paramount importance that the Chinese-Indonesians participate actively in every walk of life of the nation. This includes the political realm,' he said. 'We do not ask more than that.'