Indonesian Chinese brace for change

There is mounting concern in some Indonesian business circles that incoming vice-president Jusuf Kalla will push forward with economic policies that discriminate against the country's prosperous ethnic Chinese minority.

    Jusuf Kalla (R) will be number two in Susilo's government

    The Jakarta daily Sinar Harapan (Voice of Hope) this week quoted Jusuf saying he was considering changes to lending polices that would lower the interest rates on loans to a group overwhelmingly comprised (by his own admission up to 95%) of indigenous Indonesian businessmen.

    Jusuf claims the policy will level the business playing field and reduce the amount of discrimination directed at the nation's tiny ethnic Chinese community.

    When asked whether the policy was discriminatory, he replied: "Would you (Indonesian Chinese) choose to be discriminated against or you prefer to be burned out and hunted down?"

    A well-connected businessman from South Sulawesi province, Jusuf built his wealth by taking advantage of similar legislation implemented by the former Suharto regime in the 1970s that was supposed to jump-start indigenous pribumi (sons of the soil) enterprises, according to Jakarta lawyer Ivan Wibowo.

    Suharto-era policy

    "Some of the indigenous, pribumi traders like him make issues with us to draw more political support," Wibowo said.

    Suharto's policies favouring sons
    of the soil may make a comeback

    "It all depends on the political situation but judging from his comments, he seems to be in favour of those kinds of Suharto-era practices again. Basically he's saying 'Put up with the discrimination or get burned out of your homes'."

    Indonesia's president-elect Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono chose Jusuf as his running mate in April. They soundly defeated incumbent president Megawati Sukarnoputri in the country's first direct presidential elections last month and are due to be sworn in on 20 October.

    Jusuf has repeatedly denied he is anti-Chinese. However, rumours followed him through the six-month election campaign. His official website contained the following quote: "Favoritism for pribumi businessmen should be reaffirmed and maintained."

    Price of success

    There's no denying the success of many of Indonesia's ethnic Chinese businessmen. Although they represent fewer than 5% of the nation's 230 million people, one is struck by the pervasiveness of Chinese faces in vegetable markets, business strips and exclusive members-only clubs the length of the archipelago.

    "Basically he's saying 'Put up with the discrimination or get burned out of
    your homes'"

    Ivan Wibowo,
    Jakarta lawyer of ethnic Chinese descent

    By some estimates ethnic-Chinese-owned business conglomerates such as the Salim Group, Sinar Mas, Lippo Group and Barito Pacific control upwards of 80% of the Indonesian economy. But with the appearance of wealth and prosperity has come an ugly legacy of violence and repression.

    Discrimination against the ethnic Chinese minority in Indonesia is well entrenched, dating back to the Dutch colonial period. Tens of thousands were killed in the bloody anti-communist putsch after Suharto assumed power in 1965, ostensibly to head-off a Chinese-backed coup. It would be a quarter of a century before full diplomatic ties were renewed between the two countries.

    Under pressure

    Although he personally nurtured contacts within the domestic Chinese business community, Suharto's regime also enacted dozens of discriminatory laws against them, including a sweeping prohibition against joining the military and civil service.

    Anti-Chinese sentiments came to
    the surface during the 1998 riots

    In an effort to blend in, many ethnic Chinese (Wibowo among them) "Indonesianised" their names and converted to Islam.

    The weeks prior to Suharto's resignation in 1998 were punctuated by vicious riots targeting ethnic-Chinese communities around the country. When the smoke cleared, an estimated 1500 people were dead and thousands of Chinese-owned shops and homes had been destroyed.

    The repeal in 2000 of laws that banned the use of Chinese characters, Chinese language publications and outlawed public celebration of Chinese New Year sparked a renewed interest in the old country, according to one Jakarta businessman.

    "I can remember as a child that we never told people we were ethnic Chinese, and because we had darker skin we were able to get away with it," says Sinartus Sosrodjojo. "But since Suharto left, that's all changed. My dad is out there with his arms open talking about being Chinese."

    Fortress system

    "Would you (Indonesian-Chinese) choose to be discriminated against or you prefer to be burned out and hunted down?"

    Jusuf Kalla,
    incoming Indonesian
    Vice-President

    Jusuf's critics believe he wants to re-introduce a variation of the so-called Sistem Benteng (Fortress System), created by founding president Sukarno. The system provided direct loans to pribumi businessmen and gave them control over the distribution of food staples.

    Under the system, ethnic Chinese merchants could not expand their businesses beyond the regency level, thus reserving inter-provincial and international trade for indigenous Indonesians.

    Activists such as Wibowo want some acknowledgment of the sacrifices and suffering of the ethnic Chinese community. "The major point is that many of us don't feel secure," he says.

    "The Indonesian Chinese have survived hundreds of years in this land. This is our land, our country, we bled and died for this country but we can never feel secure."

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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