Image source: Wikimedia commons

In the Indonesia we see today, one might take for granted the freedoms and liberties we currently have. However, older generation Chinese-Indonesians are one group that certainly do not take this lightly, many of whom continue to live with the mental and emotional scars of the country’s darker, discriminatory past.

The open cultural celebrations of Chinese-Indonesian communities during the Lunar New Year, or Imlek, are a great sign of how far the country has come. Not only are traditions honoured, for example at klenteng Chinese temples, but the celebration has been embraced by commerce too, with brands, malls and shops capitalising on the occasion — a great gauge of a culture’s assimilation into society at large! As mentioned, this is a far cry from the Indonesia of yesterday.

Under the 1967 Presidential Instruction by President Suharto, Chinese New Year, and in fact any Chinese religious practice, was prohibited from public (Instruksi Presiden Number 14/1967). This helps one to understand the levels of marginalisation the Chinese communities endured in the past. This instruction took place in the wake of the 1965-66 anti-communities killings, where historians believe that at least 400,000 people were murdered and often those of Chinese descent were targeted.

14 May 1998, source: B.J. Habibie: 72 Days as Vice President (Public Domain)

Fast forward to 1998, to the Asian Financial Crisis, where once again the Chinese population came under the scrutiny of the Indonesian population at large, fuelled by economic and political frustration. This culminated in protests, riots, destruction and racial profiling in Indonesia’s largest cities.

Yet, as terrible as that time was, it acted as a purge — not of a community, but of a population’s anger, a singular eruption that called a dire need for change, peace and acceptance. The fall of the New Order government ushered in a new Indonesia that embraced not only the democratic process at a political level, but at social and philosophical levels as well. 

The first step was taken by Suharto’s immediate successor, President B.J. Habibie: “Presidential Instruction of 1999, issued by the Office of President B.J. Habibie, which officially bans the use of the discriminative terms “native” and “non-native” in any official documents and transactions, and revokes the requirement for Chinese Indonesians to provide the Certificate of Proof of Indonesian Citizenship, known as the Surat Bukti Kewarganegaraan Republik Indonesia or SBKRI when seeking to obtain official documents and for other important purposes.” (Wacana Vol. 18 No. 1, 2017). 

Later, President Abdurrahman Wahid, colloquially referred to as President Gus Dur, took this further with the abrogation of the aforementioned Presidential Instruction of 1967 in the year 2000 (Tjiook, Wiwi, 2017). This was a major turning point, once again allowing the public practice of Chinese religion and tradition in Indonesia.

Though both of these presidents’ terms were relatively short-lived —Habibie (21 May 1998 – 20 October 1999), Gus Dur (20 October 1999 – 23 July 2001) — they were determined to undo the unrest caused by their dictatorial predecessor. They both understood the importance of a more inclusive and pluralistic approach to governance, which emphasised religious tolerance and diversity, more akin to Indonesia’s founding principles, the Pancasila.

But this goes beyond providing Chinese-Indonesians their ‘rights’. It signalled a reframing of what it meant to be Indonesian at two levels: firstly, encouraging the majority to view minorities as one and the same; but secondly to encourage minorities to embrace nationalism, to assimilate under one flag and not see themselves as separate.

This has certainly worked, as many contemporary Chinese-Indonesians identify strongly under the tenants of this modern Indonesia. So much so that there are Chinese-Indonesians who are completely detached from their Chinese roots and have no identity other than being ‘Indonesian’. This was cemented further by the Office of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, where under Law No. 12 of 2006 on citizenship, ethnic Chinese who are Indonesian citizens were given an official category as one of the ethnic groups of the Republic of Indonesia.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Significantly, under Presidential Decree of 2003 issued by the Office of President Megawati (who served under Gus Dur as Vice President prior to her tenure), Chinese New Year was declared an official national holiday, which the country celebrates in full openness to this day.

Over the years, over many small steps, Indonesia found its way to inclusivity of a previously heavily discriminated group. It serves a great example on how to improve the rights of other minority groups in the country that require recognition, and is certainly one of the positive examples of Indonesia’s democratic process playing out for good.