Spotlight shines on wealthy minority 

Anti-Chinese riots in May 1998 in Jakarta. Source: Wikimedia

The tiny community of ethnic Chinese-Indonesians in Jakarta has vast influence and could be key to Indonesia’s long-term relations with China itself. 

Indonesia is largely impartial in the South China Sea dispute but as Asean’s largest economy and most significant military power, it potentially has a key role to play.

The economically dominant Chinese or Tionghoa community in Jakarta is often seen as a potential bridgehead to Indonesia in Beijing and could become a go-between between to the two giant nations.

But the massively disproportionate wealth and influence of its ethnically Chinese community has recently been brought into focus by the controversy surrounding Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnam who is seeking re-election in February.

Chinese-Indonesians, estimated to make up 1 per cent to 4 per cent of Indonesia’s 250 million people, have built many big projects in Jakarta and the economic dominance of the ethnic Chinese elite has sparked periodic outbreaks of violence.

The governor, a Chinese-Indonesian commonly known as Ahok, has proven that despite a tradition of political exclusion, important roles can be secured.

Now a growing Islamist, xenophobic anti-Ahok campaign has forced Indonesia to question how well the minority is integrated.

A store was ransacked in a Chinese-Indonesian area of Jakarta, bringing back memories of riots in 1998 in which more than 1,000 mostly ethnic Chinese residents were killed.

Islamists are unhappy that Ahok is ethnically Chinese and Christian. More protests are planned similar to a November 4 event that attracted more than 100,000 people. Police say they will block a protest planned for Friday, but observers fear it may increase the potential for violence.

Sibarani Sofian, an urban development analyst, said Jakarta was divided into pro- and anti-Ahok areas. Ahok uses Tionghoa, which means “of Chinese descent”, and attempts to avoid assumptions of links to Beijing, as is sometimes alleged of the community. “I personally think there is still considerable risk today facing Tionghoa society, although people already learned the lesson of the ’98 riots,” Sofian said.

In October 1740 in the Dutch colony of Batavia, bitterness from the indigenous Javanese and the colonists towards the growing wealth of the small Chinese community led to a pogrom in which nearly the entire population was killed.

After independence many ethnic Chinese were denied citizenship by laws that labelled them “aliens”. Even the Indonesia Communist Party, which was popular among the Tionghoa community, would not allow them into its leadership.

Indonesian dictator Suharto attempted to solve the “Chinese problem” with forced assimilation under his New Order administration, banning Chinese schools, books and languages during his three-decades in power.

But he also made secret deals with ethnic Chinese tycoons, providing them with monopoly rights to boost the economy.

In his book Asian Godfathers, Joe Studwell argued that Suharto worked with “people who would get a job done and who posed no political challenge to his authority. These individuals tended to be Chinese immigrants”.

Among the most prominent of these traders is Mochtar Riady who founded the Lippo Group, which managed an empire spanning property, banking, health care and natural resources reportedly worth more than US$10 billion.

Sudono Salim, who was once named the richest person in Indonesia, ran Salim Group, the world’s biggest instant noodle producer, and Eka Tjipta Widjaja founded Sinar Mas, a conglomerate that owns Asia Pulp & Paper with interests in 120 nations.

But Chinese-language newspapers and the community’s festivals were banned as Tionghoa-owned firms made billions and owners used their Indonesian names.

Chinese-Indonesians were rumoured to control 70 per cent of the economy and a 1995 study by Australia’s Foreign Affairs Department reported that the community controlled 60 per cent of Indonesia’s top 300 conglomerates.

In May 1998, ongoing tensions resulted in mobs of looters attacking Glodok, Jakarta’s historic Chinatown.

More than 1,000 residents were killed and an estimated US$300 million in damage was caused. Numerous ethnic Chinese women and girls were raped.

Afterwards the community built iron gates at the entrances to every alley and residents kept watch at night. The gates remain today, with spikes added more recently.

The assimilation policy has since been abandoned and Chinese New Year is now a public holiday and in Glodok, Chinese dialects are heard.

Ahok is accused of blasphemy for claiming rival politicians exploited the Koran. He is a police suspect and could be jailed over the allegations.

The head of the Criminal Investigation Agency Ari Dono Sukmanto said last week that the investigation on the alleged blasphemy case conducted by Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama was 70-per-cent complete.

The outspoken Ahok is also divisive among the Tionghoa community. His forced relocation of thousands of slum dwellers from Jakarta’s riverbanks has been controversial and many Chinese-Indonesians fear that anger at Ahok might reflect badly on the wider community.

Increased attention from Beijing or because of political scandals involving Ahok is no doubt unwelcome to a community that likes to stay under the radar.