Chinese Indonesians reflect on life 25 years from Soeharto’s fall
The ethnic minority can now openly express their cultural identity but remain vulnerable to prejudice.
Jakarta, Indonesia – Indonesia’s strongman Soeharto stepped down 25 years ago this week after protests and unrest across the archipelago, some of which targeted the country’s ethnic Chinese minority.
Soeharto’s departure – after more than 30 years in power – brought new freedoms not only for Indonesians, who are mostly Muslim, but also for Chinese Indonesians who had endured government-sponsored discrimination since colonial times and often been the focus of violence for their perceived wealth.
Soeharto called his administration the New Order to underline its focus on strong, centralised government closely aligned with the military.
He also adopted a policy to try and assimilate the ethnic Chinese minority and make them more “Indonesian”, but effectively turned them into second class citizens.
They were pressured to adopt Indonesian-style names and often asked to show Indonesian citizenship certificates (SBKRI), unlike other ethnic groups, while cultural displays like Chinese characters and the celebration of the Lunar New Year were banned.
Charlotte Setijadi, an assistant professor of humanities at Singapore Management University, however, says the Soeharto regime was “opportunistic” in its treatment of the Chinese, since the government worked closely with some ethnic Chinese tycoons in its efforts to boost the economy.
According to the 2010 national population census, there were about 2.8 million people of Chinese ethnicity in Indonesia, compared with a total population of about 237 million. The most recent census in 2020 did not list the nation’s ethnicities.
“It’s important to emphasise that discriminatory practices and exclusionary narratives about ethnic Chinese didn’t start from the Soeharto period,” the author of the forthcoming book Memories of Unbelonging: Ethnic Chinese Identity in Post-Suharto Indonesia, told Al Jazeera.
Even before Indonesia’s independence in 1945, Dutch colonial rulers classified the ethnic Chinese in the middle of a social pyramid – below the Europeans and above the so-called “natives” – of Indonesian society in a typical colonial policy of divide-and-rule.
Following the resignation of Soeharto, who died in 2008, the country reversed many New Order-era laws.
Lunar New Year is now a national holiday, while Confucianism – locally known as Konghucu – has been recognised as one of the country’s six religions. Meanwhile, SBKRI are no longer required in everyday life.
Chinese Indonesians have also become more visible in politics since 1998, including former Indonesian government minister Mari Elka Pangestu and ex-Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok.
“We’ve seen a lot of really positive changes that have taken place over the past 25 years but inevitably, community-level and daily-level prejudices still exist,” Charlotte said.
And as Indonesia prepares for elections next year, Chinese Indonesians are aware they could be a target.
“The anti-Chinese narrative is still very much alive and well under the surface and can be used for the purpose of political mobilisation whenever the political circumstances are prime for it,” said Charlotte, who has researched Chinese-Indonesian identity politics.
Ahok, for instance, was sentenced to two years in prison after he was accused of blasphemy by Islamic groups for comments made as he campaigned for a second term as Jakarta governor.
Al Jazeera asked five Chinese Indonesians who grew up under Soeharto, or since 1998, about their experiences in the multiethnic and multicultural country.
Evi Mariani, 46
Evi Mariani has been the co-founder and executive director of Project Multatuli – an independent media outlet reporting on marginalised people in Indonesia – since 2021.
Born and raised in the West Java provincial capital of Bandung, she now lives in South Tangerang near Jakarta and has more than 20 years experience as a journalist.
Evi’s parents married in 1970, but divorced the same year because her father’s Indonesian citizenship documents were not registered in the Indonesian civil registry so he was not considered an Indonesian. Based on the citizenship law at the time, that meant that none his children would be considered Indonesians either.
The divorce meant that while their children would be “born out of wedlock” they would be able to get Indonesian citizenship because their mother was Indonesian and her documents were considered authentic.
Evi’s parents remained together and remarried in 1999, while her father sorted out all paperwork to officially become an Indonesian citizen that year.
“It was incredibly difficult for [ethnic] Chinese people to be called Indonesians,” Evi told Al Jazeera.
“[For] my parents, so that their children were called Indonesians, [they] must pretend to be divorced first,” she added. “We had to be legally fatherless to be Indonesian. That is the condition we grew up with: the most real and obvious discrimination from the state.”
As a student in 1994, she recalls a university official in Yogyakarta asked for her SBKRI for “administrative purposes“ only to realise he wanted her to give him some money – something her non-Chinese peers did not experience.
While life has improved considerably in the past 25 years, she also hopes the Chinese community will not forget the pain of discrimination and stand against it.
“As victims of racism, we must be in solidarity with people who are subject to class discrimination, with people who are subject to other racial discrimination,” she said.
Angelique Maria Cuaca, 32
Angelique Maria Cuaca regularly advocates for religious diversity and interfaith dialogue in her hometown of Padang on the island of Sumatra, through the Pelita Padang interfaith youth organisation she founded in 2019.
According to the Tolerant Cities Index 2022 launched by Indonesia’s SETARA Institute for Democracy and Peace in April, Padang recorded the third-lowest tolerance score out of 94 cities surveyed across Indonesia.
“Cities with leadership that prioritise certain religious identities both in vision and mission tend to issue policies (that appear to show) favouritism for religious identities that represent themselves,” the institute said in a statement on the scores.
Born into a multiethnic and multireligious family – with her paternal grandmother a Minang Muslim and paternal grandfather a Chinese Catholic – Angelique has participated in various cultural and religious celebrations with her family since she was a child. However, her parents were concerned about her safety when she got involved in activism.
Angelique was seven years old when the May 1998 riots broke out. The chaos in her hometown was mild compared with the situation in major cities like Jakarta and Medan, she said, but she remembers seeing her parents phoning their relatives in Java to check on them.
“At that time, the tense atmosphere in Java could be felt in Padang, too.”
Angelique also said that Chinese-Indonesian parents became worried if their children chose a social-political major in college or got involved in social activism because of what they saw during the New Order era.
“For a decade, they tried to convince me that what I was doing was a big mistake,” she told Al Jazeera, adding that her parents later relented.
Even though her work with Pelita Padang mainly focuses on religious diversity, Angelique says the group also collaborates with other organisations on other issues.
“Diversity issues can never just be diversity issues. If we do this alone, it is going to be exhausting and tends to get stuck in the problem of inter-identity battles,” she said.
During COVID-19, Pelita Padang worked with one of the oldest Chinese associations in Padang to hold a mass vaccination event. She also joined other organisations and communities to support the Chap Goh Mei festival – held every 15th day on the first month of the lunar calendar – in Padang in February. The festival involves the famous Sipasan parade, where children dressed in traditional attire sit on top of a centipede-like vehicle carried by adults.
“We really need to build more civic power and intercultural meeting opportunities because the trauma [Chinese Indonesians experienced] can only be healed by community support and presence,” Angelique said.
Dédé Oetomo, 69
Dédé Oetomo has been the founder and trustee of the GAYa NUSANTARA Foundation, which has been campaigning for the equality and welfare of gender and sexual minorities in Indonesia since 1987. Before that, he was active in Lambda Indonesia, which he described as “the first gay organisation” in the country.
Originally from Pasuruan in East Java province, Dédé’s father had an Indonesian name for him as early as 1964 and describes his family as “Westernised”. His parents were fluent in Dutch and spoke no Chinese languages. Besides Indonesian, Dédé is fluent in Javanese. He does not speak any Chinese languages because his family no longer speaks any of them, which means he had no exposure to any of those languages growing up.
The lecturer and scholar, who has been openly gay for about 40 years, says most Chinese Indonesians were now “more or less” free but other forms of discrimination persist.
“As queers, not OK. You live with this hatred around you,” he told Al Jazeera. “I personally am strong enough, so I ignore it.”
According to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2023, “Indonesia has also increasingly used other laws to target and prosecute LGBT people, including the 2008 Anti-Pornography law”.
Dédé, who lives in Indonesia’s second-largest city of Surabaya, believes activism goes beyond differences.
“If [we are] already part of the movement, ethnicity doesn’t matter,” he said. “Diversity should not be discriminated against [and] should not be restrained.”
Aurelia Vizal, 21
Aurelia Vizal is an undergraduate studying international affairs in Taoyuan, near Taiwan’s capital Taipei. Born and raised in Jakarta, her family is originally from West Kalimantan on the island of Borneo and Jambi on Sumatra island.
Popularly known as Orei, she regularly posts about Chinese-Indonesian culture and history on her Twitter account @senjatanuklir, which has more than 242,000 followers.
She said her interest in Chinese history was relatively recent – she did not like the idea of participating in traditional Chinese rituals and celebrations during her primary and high school years.
“I found the rituals very bothersome and tiring. More so, I did not get why we did it,” she said.
That changed in early 2020 when she realised her hatred towards her ethnic identity and heritage was probably the result of a lack of knowledge.
“There used to be a lot of things I disliked but started to like and wanted to learn more about after studying it. Why didn’t I apply this mindset to ’Chineseness’?” she said.
That realisation propelled her to read more about Indonesian Chinese culture. As part of Gen Z, she believes her generation has become more aware of their identity.
“People used to participate out of obligation. Now we participate in it consciously and carry it as a part of us with pride,” she told Al Jazeera.
Iskandar Salim, 49
Iskandar Salim was born in Medan on Sumatra and now lives in Jakarta where he works as a comic artist and illustrator.
Through his Instagram account @komikfaktap, which has more than 136,000 followers, Iskandar often makes humorous and satirical comic strips on Indonesia’s social and political issues, ranging from law enforcement to hate speech.
At first, the comics were just an outlet for him to speak his mind but then some of them went viral.
“There were concerns from family and friends but they never tried to stop me [from creating comics]. They just reminded me to be careful,” he said.
Iskandar admits he sometimes has to be more subtle with his criticism given the sensitivities around some issues.
“Consciously, I tried to work around the idea so I can still criticise without getting into trouble.”
As a child in the New Order era, Iskandar saw how the regime banned public Chinese cultural displays and curbed freedom of expression. He remembers his mother had to hide a book she bought from abroad as she passed through customs at the airport because it was written in Chinese, and how Lunar New Year could only be celebrated quietly at home after finishing classes.
“Teachers would purposely hold examinations on Lunar New Year so students had no choice but to attend school. If there were no tests, we would’ve skipped school to visit relatives,” he told Al Jazeera.
Iskandar says he used to struggle with his identity as an ethnic minority, even after the fall of Soeharto.
He felt like he was not Indonesian enough but not fully Chinese either. Now, he is more comfortable with the man he has become and is proud to define himself.
“I can simply say, ’I am Indonesian, more specifically Chinese Indonesian’,” the artist said. “In the end, our identity is ours to decide and define.”