Date: Wed, 25 Feb 1998 14:08:08 -0500
Sender: Southeast Asia Discussion List <SEASIA-L@msu.edu>
From: E Phillip Lim <alsona@PACIFIC.NET.SG>
Subject: ID - Anti-Chinese riots: Perennial problem but major disaster
Anti-Chinese riots in Indonesia Perennial problem but major disaster unlikely
A commentary by Leo Suryadinata,
in Straits Times
25 February 1998, p. 36
The writer, an Associate Professor at the
National University of Singapore's Political
Science Department, is an author of
several books on Indonesia. He contributed
this article to The Straits Times.
"In the eyes of most indigenous Indonesians,
as long as the ethnic Chinese have not been
completely absorbed into indigenous society,
the 'Chinese problem' will remain."
Domestic politics also play an important
role in this ethnic conflict. It seems that
there is competition among the Indonesian
elite and some groupos want to use ethnic
conflict in order to achieve their political
objectives. A few observers maintain that
there is always a pattern in the occurrene of
the anti-Chinese riots:
SINCE last year, anti-Chinese riots have occurred
periodically in Indonesia, reminiscent of the
mid-1960s situation. Observers begin to ask
whether anti-Chinese riots will deteriorate in the
country. What are the prospects for the ethnic
Chinese in Indonesia?
- They are especially frequent during and
prior to general elections or presidential
- Both sides appear to be fond of using the
ethnic Chinese issues to gain mileage.
- The ruling group may use limited conflict
to release the anger of the indigenous
population while the opposition may hope
to use the conflict to de-stabilise the
The six million Chinese (out of a 200-million
population) in Indonesia are a heterogenous group.
Culturally they are divided into peranakan and
Peranakan Chinese are older settlers who are
partially assimilated. They speak Indonesian in daily
life and behave like the indigenous population. The
totok are "newcomers", usually either first or
second-generation Chinese and still speak Chinese.
However, with the end of immigration from mainland
China the number of totok has been reduced
drastically and their descendants have also been
Most Chinese are Buddhists, Taoists, Confucianists
or a mixture of these three. There are also many
Chinese who are Christians. Lately some Chinese
have converted to Islam, but the number is still small.
Politically some are pro-Beijing or pro-Taipei, but the
largest group is pro-Jakarta. In terms of citizenship
some are citizens of the People's Republic of China
or stateless, but the majority are Indonesian citizens.
Some of Indonesia's wealthiest citizens are Chinese,
but most Chinese are not rich. As an urban-based
minority, they are the major component of the
Indonesian middle class.
Not always same problem
In business, the most successful groups are those
who are least assimilated as they still possess an
immigrant entrepreneurial ethos, still speak Chinese
and are able to make use of a Chinese network
within and without Indonesia.
Dozens of wealthy Chinese form expedient
alliances with members of the Indonesia power
elite for mutual benefit. Sometimes, however, this
may not give them safety in a crisis situation
where there is a shift in power. This
heterogeneous Chinese minority are often
perceived as a homogeneous group by both the
indigenous government and indigenous society.
Since Indonesia's independence in 1945, the
Chinese have been seen as a problem, although
the problem has not always been the same.
Initially they were regarded as pro-Dutch and
anti-Indonesian; later they were perceived as
profiteers who continued to exploit the poor
indigenous Indonesian masses, not long ago
they were seen as either communists or
communist sympathisers. Most recently they
have been sees as capitalists and heads of
conglomerates who accumulate wealth without
a sense of patriotism.
Indonesia achieved independence half a century
ago but the so-called "Chinese problem"
continues to exist.
Some believe this is because the Chinese are
only "half assimilated", meaning they have not
been transformed into part of the indigenous
For many indigenous Indonesians, the Chinese
can only be accepted if they become indigenous
Indonesians. But there are Indonesians who
are of the view that "Indonesian nation" should
not be defined narrowly.
The objective of the Indonesian policy is not to
make ethnic Chinese indigenous Indonesians,
but "genuine Indonesian democrats". However,
people who hold this view belong to a minority.
In fact, Indonesia is a multi-ethnic society which
adopted the objective of "unity in diversity". But
the slogan is only applied to indigenous
Indonesians, not to the ethnic Chinese. At one
time solution to the so-called Chinese problem
appeared to be at hand with the concept of
"suku peranakan Tionghoa" (peranakan Chinese
ethnic group) proposed by Sukarno.
In 1963, Sukarno said that Indonesia comprised
many suku (indigenous ethnic groups), namely,
suku Jawa, suku Sunda, suku Batak, suku Minang. . .
and suku peranakan Tionghoa. But this concept
was abandoned in President Suharto's Indonesia.
Complete assimilation has become the objective
of today's administration.
Nevertheless, policy implementation has not
always been consistent. Education and name-
changing policies which have been implemented
were aimed at assimilation.
However, the government continues to
differentiate between indigenous and non-indigenous
groups based on descent. Even the
identity cards of ethnic Chinese are given
special codes. Government categories of
economically strong and weak groups are also
along indigenous and non-indigenous lines.
In addition, the domestic situation does not
allow the ethnic Chinese to be forced into the
indigenous population. Indonesia is a pancasila
state which recognises humanitarianism and
In other words, the ethnic Chinese can observe
minority religions (Buddhism, Taoism,
Confucianism, etc). With religious freedom,
ethnic Chinese in Indonesia will be able to
preserve their ethnic identity.
Since the last decade, there has been a revival
of ethnicity worldwide, and the emergence of the
People's Republic of China as a major economic
force. These new developments have posed a
challenge, if not hinderance, to Indonesia's
In the eyes of most indigenous Indonesians, as
long as the ethnic Chinese have not been
completely absorbed into indigenous society,
the "Chinese problem" will remain.
In the last few months, especially after the Asian
currency crisis, there have been periodic anti-
Chinese riots throughout Indonesia. Many
observers maintain that the source of conflict
lies in the economic disparity between the
indigenous and Chinese population. In their
view, this is class conflict rather than ethnic
conflict. This class theory is not very convincing
as both class formation and class consciousness
in Mr Suharto's Indonesia are still at an embryonic
Nevertheless it is undeniable that economic
disparity is an important factor in this ethnic
conflict. The current economic hardship puts
additional pressure on ethnic relations.
Domestic politics also plays an important role
in this conflict. It seems that there is competition
among the Indonesian elite and some groups
want to use ethnic conflict in order to achieve
their political objectives. A few observers
maintain that there is always a pattern in the
occurrence of these riots. They are especially
frequent during and prior to general elections
or presidential elections. Both sides appear to
be fond of using the ethnic Chinese issues to
gain mileage. The ruling group may use limited
conflict to release the anger of the indigenous
population while the opposition may hope to use
the conflict to de-stabilise the government.
If we look at modern Indonesian history, anti-
Chinese riots have been on and off, but only
very rarely were they on a large scale and
nation-wide. These exceptions include the 1940s
following the Indonesian revolution, when many
Chinese were branded as Dutch sympathisers;
the early 1960s following the presidential
regulation No 10 prohibiting alien Chinese
engaging in retail trade in the rural areas; and
in the mid-1960s following the abortive coup in
which Beijing was blamed for its alleged
Will the recent riots, which are accompanied
by economic difficulties in Indonesia, develop
into major riots? It is difficult to answer. However,
if Mr Suharto is able to control the situation (there
is no sign yet of him losing control) and the
Indonesian economy does not go bankrupt, a
major disaster is unlikely.
Is there a solution to the so-called Chinese
problem? Many ethnic Chinese themselves have
in the past proposed a number of "possible
solutions", including the creation of a strong
non-indigenous middle-class, complete
assimilation into indigenous society, conversion
to Islam, restructuring the Indonesian economy,
and even the adoption of the so-called socialist
economy. But none has been successful. Many
observers maintain the so-called Chinese problem
cannot be solved.
In other words, anti-Chinese riots will recur as
a perennial problem. Nevertheless, the level of
conflict can be reduced if economic disparity
between the indigenous and non-indigenous
population were reduced. A few wealthy
Chinese or those with marketable skills have
migrated to other countries to look for a safer
place but the majority will continue to live in
Indonesia -- often at the mercy of the powerful