INDONESIA: Discrimination against ethnic Chinese


INDONESIA: Discrimination against ethnic Chinese
In Indonesia, racism is one of the most pressing problems facing society. Unlike the United States or South Africa, where racism is based on skin colour, racism in Indonesia manifests itself through

INDONESIA: Discrimination against ethnic Chinese

In Indonesia, racism is one of the most pressing problems facing society.

Unlike the United States or South Africa, where racism is based on skin colour, racism in Indonesia manifests itself through discrimination based on ethnicity and religion. This has given rise to human rights violations in the social, economic, political, legal and cultural spheres of society.

The racial prejudice embedded in our nation has deep historical roots, which stemmed from Dutch colonial policies and practices. In 1740, the worst racial violence of the 18th century took place: the slaughter of 10,000 ethnic Chinese in Batavia, now Jakarta, by the Dutch colonial government.

This slaughter was based on the political and economic conflict of interests between the ethnic Chinese and the colonial Dutch, but racial bias was reflected in the policies formulated by the Dutch colonial government thereafter.

The mobility of the ethnic Chinese was limited and they were forced to live in ghettos. The United East India Company issued an edict, called the passenstelsel, which specified that every ethnic Chinese was required to hold a special pass when travelling outside their residential district. This enabled the colonial administration to watch and control the social activities of ethnic Chinese and ensure that no economic, political and social interaction occurred between ethnic Chinese and the rest of the population.

The colonial administration also introduced wijkenstelsel, under which ethnic Chinese were prohibited from residing in the centre of the city, and were thereby ghettoised in a residential Chinatown enclave. Racial segregation was further established by dividing society into three distinctive classes, each of which was subject to different rules and regulations.

The whites were the first-class citizens. Those labelled "indigenous" were given third-class status. The "alien oriental" was in some undefined place in the middle.

Although "special facilities" and monopolies in the business sector were granted to the latter, the price was restrictions which facilitated the maintenance of the ethnic Chinese social status as one of scapegoat, to be used as a safety valve to vent explosions of popular anger about economic and political oppression.

The ideology of racism also formed an essential part of the "divide and rule" policy pursued by the colonial rulers; the peaceful coexistence of people of different racial origins was disadvantageous to the subjugation of the nation as such cohesiveness could lead to a united resistance against the colonial power.

The racial policies of the Dutch administration were adopted by the "Old Order" government led by Sukarno, through the enforcement of the PP 10, legislation which prohibited foreign and Chinese traders from conducting business in the countryside. However, citizens were still allowed the freedom to organise groups and to participate in politics.

With the establishment of the "New Order" regime under the command of General Suharto, the political atmosphere changed radically and a massive eradication of many political parties and organisations was carried out. Chinese mass media were banned and political activity was restricted.

The fear of repercussions from participating in political activity has resulted in the Chinese pursuing non-political activities, and their isolation from the rest of Indonesian society.

Racism today

Today there are 62 laws and regulations in effect which are fundamentally racist in nature. Even in the economic and political sectors, racially discriminatory policies still regulate matters. One example is the Coordination Body for Chinese Problems, which attempts to control the activities of the ethnic Chinese.

Racism fulfils several purposes. Segregation sows seeds of hostility and social jealousy within society to blind the people to the government's failure to provide social justice and welfare. The prejudiced group becomes a scapegoat and a safety valve during times of popular unrest.

Racism, and the violence which often results from it, also legitimates tight social control by the government and the army. This then becomes a basis for disadvantaged groups' dependency on the military and government, despite the state's repeated failure to fulfil its responsibility to provide safety and security for all citizens.

Racism in Indonesia is manifested in many forms, from discriminatory conduct to human rights abuses. The ongoing conflicts in Maluku and Ambon are examples of instances where social tension has built up over centuries, cultivated by a repressive atmosphere, and ultimately erupts when triggered by provocateurs.

In the May 1998 riots, ethnic Chinese were targeted for killings, torture and rape, and their houses and shops were looted and burned. Whoever was responsible, it is certain that the many riots targeting ethnic Chinese throughout 1998 were part of the systematic racism that has been part of the nation for so long.

Racism is not only about the systematic discrimination carried out by governments. It is also about the prejudice that is rooted in the minds of the people having been nurtured for decades, reproduced in many different forms and is part of the mass consciousness. To dismantle it is a difficult and long-term task.

Fighting racism

The fall of Suharto has enabled the rise of the fight against racial discrimination. We remain grateful to the student movements that led to the resignation of Suharto, which, in turn, is allowing the public to speak up against the atrocities committed against particular groups in society.

Minority groups which were politically shoved aside by the New Order regime are joining the fight. Unfortunately, the organisations existing today have not yet fulfilled their roles and mission to the fullest extent possible. There is not yet one forum able to unite these groups under a single program to ensure that racial violence will not recur.

Solidaritas Nusa Bangsa hopes to raise public awareness about the danger of racism to the stability of society. We also hope to build up international solidarity and invite other like-minded organisations to join our fight against racism and to unite in a long-term program.

We are committed to the total elimination of racial prejudice in all aspects of society and will continue to pressure the government to take serious action towards achieving this goal.


[Solidaritas Nusa Bangsa is an Indonesian non-government organisation working towards the elimination of racism and discrimination. Desi Utomo is Solidaritas Nusa Bangsa's representative in Australia.]