Commentary

Why anti-Chinese sentiments persist in Indonesia

Published: 4:00 AM, September 9, 2016

When Chinese Indonesian Andrew Budikusuma, 24, was assaulted by several youths shouting “Ahok … you are Ahok …” on a Transjakarta bus late last month, the police responded swiftly by arresting the bullies in a matter of days. The incident has given rise to the question of why anti-Chinese sentiments remain embedded in the Indonesian psyche, even when Chinese Indonesians have long been citizens.

Clues to the answer may be found in the fact that Sinophobia — and xenophobia — has been a staple in the unchanging nature of Indonesian nationalism itself.

The physical bullying experienced by Andrew certainly had all the signs of being a racially motivated act, especially as his attackers were shouting the name of the incumbent Jakarta governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, who also happens to be a Chinese Indonesian.

The Basuki connection here is important; and the timing of the incident also corresponds with the trend in the national media of focusing on next year’s Jakarta gubernatorial election, in which Ahok will be running for a second term.

The mere notion that Mr Basuki may win his second term on his own merits — he was deputy governor alongside Mr Joko Widodo before the latter ran and won the 2014 presidential election — has also ruffled feathers in the anti-Chinese quarters.

Sri Bintang Pamungkas, leader of the now-defunct Indonesian Unitary Democracy Party (PUDI) and one-time opposition figure during President Suharto’s rule, was recorded on camera giving an incendiary oration against Mr Basuki at a “People’s Tribunal To Arrest and Indict Ahok” early last month.

In his speech, he alleged that both President Widodo and Mr Basuki had conspired to bring about political power for Chinese Indonesians, whom he called “damned foreign bastards”, culminating in a Basuki presidency.

He also called for the restoration of the pre-amendment Constitution, which forbade the election of a President not of “indigenous” ancestry. It is clear for people like him that nationalism means power and privilege to the “indigenous” pribumi.

Anti-Chinese provocateurs

Anti-Basuki sentiments have also become interchangeable with Sinophobia. Celebrity singer-turned-politico Ahmad Dhani told the press that his anti-Basuki stance might result in “the Chinese” ruining his business as revenge, but he wanted to ensure Indonesia did not fall to the “infidels”.

A Jakarta-based lawyer claiming to belong to the Bataknese Youth Brigade recently posted an open letter challenging the governor to a 12-round boxing match, signing himself at the end with the words “Lapak Pribumi”, which roughly translate to “indigenous space”.

Such hate speech may be appalling to modern sensibilities, but Sinophobia — and xenophobia — were present at the birth of the modern Indonesian republic in 1945, and anti-foreign sentiments became an important motivation to sustain the fight.

Although quite a few Chinese Indonesians aided the republicans during the independence war between 1945 and 1949, it is safe to say that the Chinese community was split between those who wanted to support Indonesia openly and those who did not.

The confusion seems to have originated from the question of nationality as, under China’s 1909 and 1929 laws, all overseas Chinese regardless of place of birth were citizens of China. To make matters complex, in 1910, the government of the Dutch East Indies also passed its own Act on Dutch Subjects, which categorised Chinese born in the Indies to be Dutch subjects, making the locally born peranakan dual citizens.

In his message to the nation published on Dec 15, 1945, President Sukarno made it known that the Chinese government in Chungking had officially recognised Indonesian independence and urged his fellow Indonesians to show gratitude and friendship towards the Chinese in the country everywhere. By implication, Sukarno also did not see Chinese Indonesians as citizens at this stage.

Yet the message went largely unheeded as looting, burning and killing continued to haunt Chinese Indonesians throughout the war of independence. Prior to the Battle of Surabaya in November 1945, historian Irna Soewito wrote that most Chinese shops, fearful of being targeted by the freedom fighters, were closed for business and hid behind barred doors.

Although many Chinese youths in Surabaya later joined the fight against the British Indian forces charged to occupy Surabaya, especially after a group of Chinese snipers with Dutch sympathies were identified and captured, the general feeling was that the Chinese were untrustworthy. Sutomo, better known as Bung Tomo, the republican chief propagandist in Surabaya, was a proponent of this belief, which he often expressed in unflattering terms in his radio broadcasts.

Bung Tomo’s brand of nationalism, steeped in xenophobia, evidently found much support at the time. His radio speeches were eagerly awaited by the masses and the man was posthumously honoured with the status of national hero in 2008.

Yet, research done by Rosalind Hewett of the Australian National University (ANU) elicited a testimony by an Indonesian woman that Bung Tomo had been the ringleader behind the infamous kangaroo court at the Simpang Society Building to torture and execute Dutch civilians and those accused of being their sympathisers, including Manadonese, Ambonese and Timorese Indonesians.

Nor did the woman deliver her testimony out of criticism of Bung Tomo, who was her hero. She did so to testify to his list of achievements. The rabid xenophobia in his wake did not bother his contemporaries. Rather, it seemed to fuel the revolution in parts, and it would remain a latent force in modern-day Indonesia.

Today’s anti-Chinese provocateurs, such as Sri Bintang Pamungkas, have been trying to resurrect the old demon by painting Chinese Indonesians as the common “foreign” enemy akin to the Dutch. Such a misguided and simplistic view of history still gains traction because of the way history is taught in the country.

To illustrate, any revelation of the darker deeds of Bung Tomo will probably be met with disbelief by the majority of Indonesians who were brought up learning the rosier government-sanctioned version of his life. Many would even argue his deeds were born out of necessity. Such is the selective nature of history retelling in the country that most Indonesians are unaware that Bung Tomo, touted as a revolutionary leader, never actually shot a rifle or fought on the battlefield; his endeavors were limited within the confines of his Rebel Radio studio.

One thing is certain: As long as Indonesians continue to be immured against all the facets of their own history, Indonesian nationalism is set to remain crudely inimical to diversity, gravely hampering the growth of civic culture that any modern nation-state needs. JAKARTA GLOBE

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Johannes Nugroho is a writer and businessman from Surabaya.