The Chinese Indonesians with long memories and escape plans in case racial violence flares again – despite signs of tensions easing
With Chinese former Jakarta governor in jail for insulting Islam, and less than 20 years after Asian economic crisis sparked deadly anti-Chinese riots, some families are taking no chances, with escape routes from country at the ready
Former Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama celebrated the 20th anniversary of his marriage to Veronica Tan last month. He did so from behind bars, sending her a bouquet of flowers and a letter that read: “I think I love you more now than twenty years ago.”
Once a leader who enjoyed comfortable approval ratings, the ethnic Chinese, Christian politician was jailed in May after being found guilty of insulting Islam. His wife said at the time that “it isn’t easy for me either, but I’ve learned to forgive and accept all of this if it is for the benefit of the nation and the country”.
Purnama was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment just days before the 19th anniversary of an event widely referred to as Tragedi Mei ’98. Between May 13 and 15 in 1998, riots broke out amid economic crisis, in Jakarta, Medan, Solo and other cities with ethnic Chinese, or “Tionghoa”, populations, targeting shops and homes. More than 1,000 people were killed and more than 100 women were raped.
Months of religious and racially charged demonstrations against Purnama in late 2016 and early 2017 sparked fears of a return to violence.
“The situation has cooled down because Ahok is in jail. A lot of people are happy about that,” says Jessica Handoko, a Chinese Indonesian postgraduate student.
She recalls the events of May 1998, when she was eight years old and living in Medan. “I was looking at my mum, and she was carrying a samurai sword. Some of my primary school friends went to Singapore and Malaysia. I wasn’t from a well-off family, so we couldn’t go,” she recalls.
Despite the dismantling of official discrimination against Tionghoa during Indonesia’s Reformasi democratisation period since 1998, many Chinese Indonesians continue to have a “backup” plan – a possible escape route if mass violence targets them again.
Many wealthy Indonesians famously make Chinese-majority Singapore their second home, and particularly since 1998, have kept a lot of their financial assets there.
Professor Jemma Purdey, from the Australia-Indonesia Centre at Monash University, says that with any form of systemic violence against Tionghoa, “ultimately capital flight will follow”. Purdey, who wrote the 2006 book Anti-Chinese Violence in Indonesia: 1996-99, argues that it will “take more than one generation to break that cycle of ‘we’re vulnerable here, we need a plan B’”.
According to Christine Tjhin, a researcher from the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Chinese Indonesians studying in China are often told by their parents to get a job there after graduating, saying, “Don’t come home yet, it’s not safe”. “But it would only be temporary,” Tjhin says. “They would definitely want to come back to Indonesia.”
The 18-year-old rapper Brian Imanuel, who goes by the stage name Rich Chigga, recently caused controversy online in Indonesia when he told Rolling Stone magazine his parents urged him to move to the United States in part because the climate in Indonesia was growing more hostile towards Chinese Indonesians.
“People have been getting shot more often. It’s pretty scary,” he told the magazine.
Although Imanuel is a Tionghoa from a wealthy West Jakarta neighbourhood, many pointed out that there is little to suggest there is rising gun violence in the capital or even more violence in general.
“A lot of these decisions to flee or escape are more based upon paranoia than an understanding of their own home country,” says Tjhin. “Even among the Chinese Indonesians ourselves, we are very ignorant.”
The violence of 1998 was the culmination of centuries of state-endorsed racism and discrimination against the Chinese. It began with Indonesia’s Dutch colonial rulers, who divided the people into three racial classes: the Europeans, the “foreign Easterners” – Arabs, Indians and Chinese – and finally the Pribumi, Indonesia’s “indigenous” populations.
Ethnic Chinese were granted privileged economic and social status under Dutch rule – including the gainful task of collecting export-import duties on behalf of the Dutch East India Company – sowing the seeds of resentment and division along the lines of class and race. From the 1820s, the Dutch even forbade Chinese from living in the same neighbourhoods as native Indonesians.
The country’s revolutionary hero and first president, Sukarno, sought to rectify the oppression of his people. Part of his nationalist agenda was forcing Chinese Indonesians to officially declare their intention to remain Indonesian citizens and making it illegal for them to do business outside urban areas.
State-endorsed racism against the Tionghoa intensified under dictator Suharto’s New Order regime after 1966, when he banned Chinese education and newspapers. He also forced the community to take “Indonesian” names. While embracing wealthy Chinese Indonesian businessmen into the dealings of his corrupt, cronyism regime, Suharto simultaneously exploited widespread anti-Chinese sentiment. This boiled over in 1998, as rising fuel and electricity prices saw certain groups scapegoat Indonesia’s Chinese community and their businesses.
“As a kid, my siblings and I were reminded by our parents that we were the minority, we were different,” says Daisy Santoso, who owns a Jakarta-based fashion label. Santoso was studying in Australia in May 1998, but says her relatives’ businesses were attacked.
University of Indonesia student Fandi Andrian, 21, says that although he was too young to remember the events, his parents had told him that his family fled their home in Tegal, Central Java to a nearby village for fear of their lives. “The locals were kind enough to hide us,” he says of the non-Chinese villagers. “[They were] very protective.”
On November 4, 2016, up to 200,000 Muslim hardline protesters took to Jakarta’s streets to call for Purnama’s imprisonment over comments he made about an interpretation of a Quranic verse. Many Christian schools and international organisations closed their offices. In Penjaringan – an affluent, overwhelmingly ethnic Chinese area of North Jakarta – young and old watched on television as Islamists flew black flags, some calling for the governor to be beheaded. There were banners that read Ganjang Cina (Crush the Chinese).
As night fell, some demonstrators grew violent. A group headed for Penjaringan, where they raided a convenience store – no doubt for some sparking memories of May 1998. The only recorded fatality was an elderly man among the protesters. That didn’t stop many parents of young Chinese Indonesians warning their children, though. “Almost all of my relatives called me. Some told me to go back to Tegal [300km from Jakarta] immediately,” Andrian says.
Many Chinese Indonesians reported facing intensified discrimination and outward hostility in public throughout the so-called 212 movement against Purnama. In a highly publicised incident in August last year, a 24-year-old ethnic Chinese man was dragged off a Jakarta bus and punched by several assailants who called him “Ahok”.
A climate of fear was exacerbated by online chatter and an abundance of fake news from all sides. When asked whether he has ever feared for his safety as a Tionghoa Indonesian, Andrian says, “not really”, except for during the 212 rallies. “At the time, I really did feel like my life could potentially be threatened. A lot of that was because I went on social media, though.”
Santoso says: “A random lady I encountered in the toilet thought I was cutting in the queue and screamed ‘f****** Chinese!’ That was terrible. A busker that I politely declined to give money to called me dasar kafir (basic infidel).”
Although such overt racism is shocking, there is little to suggest another major outbreak of violence against Chinese Indonesians is on the horizon.
According to the Indonesian census of 2010, there were only about 2.8 million Chinese Indonesians – accounting for little more than one per cent of the population. But many think the real figure is much higher. Prominent Chinese-Indonesian businessman Sofjan Wanandi has claimed there are closer to 10 million ethnic Chinese in the country. Meanwhile, according to Tjhin, Indonesian diplomats in China routinely claim there are 20 million Tionghoa.
“Outside of the census, these identities are very flexible,” says Tjhin, who remains optimistic for the future of Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese communities. Wanandi, for example, may describe himself as Padang or Chinese, depending on who he is speaking to, she says.
According to Tjhin, enduring racism against Tionghoa is merely a symptom of the fact that the “general management of pluralism in Indonesia is still problematic”.
In terms of violence, the cause of May 1998 was economic hardship and political crisis, underlined by state-endorsed discrimination against a relatively wealthy minority. Indonesia in 2017 lacks these conditions.
At signs of possible racial tension – such as church bans over the past 15 years that could have sparked anti-Chinese violence – inter-religious bodies or other authorities have stepped in to keep the peace. Chinese Indonesians don’t appear to be leaving the country in significant numbers. “I don’t see that brewing,” Purdey says of a repeat of the May 1998.
Santoso believes “the scale [of the tension] is getting smaller”.
“The ethnic tensions of those days have slowly disappeared. The current generation of Chinese Indonesians are even slowly forgetting their ethnicity and listing themselves as simply Indonesians.”