Jakarta. Chinese-Indonesians have long been the victims of discrimination in Indonesia and paid a heavy price for it, many times with their lives. In October 1740, more than ten thousand Chinese residents of Batavia – modern day Jakarta – were slaughtered during an anti-Chinese pogrom. In one of the latest major cases, Chinese-Indonesian women became victims of mass rapes and murder during the May 1998 Jakarta riots.
Stereotypes abound about Chinese-Indonesians – they have been called communists, "economic animals," unpatriotic – that many of them have chosen to hide or dismiss their Chinese identity.
Roy Thaniago, the director of media studies center Remotivi, recently wrote his master's thesis at Lund University in Sweden on this subject, titled "Disciplining Tionghoa [the Chinese]."
In a discussion at Kwitang 14, a library and mini cinema in Central Jakarta on Saturday (05/05), Roy said, "The idea for my research was to question 'abnormal' things that have been made to seem normal — especially the denial of our identity as Chinese-Indonesians."
Roy said he still feels uncomfortable whenever people address him as "Koko," the Chinese appellation for brother or mister.
Some Chinese-Indonesians Roy knows even avoid wearing Chinese costumes or putting up decorations with a Chinese theme.
Roy said Chinese-Indonesians often resort to censoring themselves to avoid confrontation.
He mentioned an open letter written by the famous Chinese-Indonesian entrepreneur Jaya Suprana at the height of former Jakarta governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama's blasphemy case, in which the businessman criticized Ahok – also a Chinese-Indonesian from Bangka – for his hot temper and urged him to show more politeness to avoid resentment.
Jaya had written in the letter: "It's not impossible that your impolite words will trigger public hatred and be followed by riots," and "Some Chinese people deserve to be hated."
According to Roy, these are examples of "self-regulation for the sake of survival."
Chinese-Indonesians have refrained from showing their cultural and political identity for so long that they often feel apologetic for their own behaviors or see their own culture as something foreign.
Roy said, following French philosopher Michel Foucault, that this is a case of "normalizing power" at work.
"Repressive power attacks the body, while normalizing power attacks our mentality," he said.
How 'Normalizing' Began
According to Roy's research, this process of normalizing began under Dutch rule.
In 1920 and then in 1930, the Dutch authorities conducted censuses that classified Europeans as the colony's first-class citizens, followed by "Foreign Orientals," which comprised the Chinese (Tionghoa) – who actually arrived in Indonesia in the 15th century, more than one hundred years before the Dutch – and other East Asians, and then the natives (Inlanders) in the lowest rung of the ladder.
Indonesianist Benedict Anderson in his book "Cina di Indonesia" ("The Chinese in Indonesia") said before the censuses, the residents of the Dutch East Indies, as Indonesia was then called, were never officially classified according to their ethnicities.
Historian Leo Suryadinata said in his book "Politik Tionghoa Peranakan di Jawa 1917-1942" ("The Politics of Chinese Peranakan in Java: 1917-1942") that discrimination against the Chinese ran deep enough that the Chinese were not even allowed to grow their hair in pony tails as was their fashion.
"Slowly, the Chinese in Indonesia were made to become 'the Other,'" Roy said.
As compensation, the Dutch gave Chinese-Indonesians leeway to "dominate very profitable businesses such as the opium trade."
From this was born the "Chinese-Indonesians are economic animals" stereotype.
Chinese-Indonesians Under New Order Regime
Having studied 134 news reports published in 1966, 1976 and 1986 in Kompas newspaper and Tempo magazine, Roy concluded that the image of Chinese-Indonesians as "opportunistic aliens who are disloyal and unpatriotic" is well and truly entrenched in the public psyche.
New Order ruler Suharto rolled out an "assimilation" program to indigenize Chinese-Indonesians, which required them to change their names to sound more "Indonesian" – a short film on this theme, "Sugiharti Halim" (2008) by Ariani Darmawan, was screened at the discussion, refrain from displaying Chinese attributes and confine Chinese New Year celebrations to temples and homes.
But ironically, New Order policies often worked against this very desire for assimilation.
Chinese-Indonesians's identity cards (KTP) were stamped with a special code identifying them as people of Chinese descent, a similar code had to be stamped on their birth certificates and they also have to apply for a special letter to prove their Indonesian citizenship.
Many Chinese-Indonesian businessmen were granted economic concessions, but at the same time the state kept blaming them as the culprits behind Indonesia's economic inequality.
The New Order’s paradoxical attitude was needed to maintain the legitimacy of a regime built on anti-Communist and anti-Chinese sentiments, Roy said.
Multiculturalism the Answer, or Not?
Chinese-Indonesians are often confused about how to behave in public because of these contradictory policies – not to mention the recurring anti-Chinese riots.
An article by Melbourne-based academic Arief Budiman, "Portrait of the Chinese in Post-Soeharto Indonesia," argued the younger generation of Chinese-Indonesians tend to feel guilty about their "Chineseness" and consequently try to erase it.
During the discussion on Saturday, Roy was asked if embracing multiculturalism could be the answer to the "Chinese-Indonesian problem."
The researcher did not think so. According to him, even though a multiculturalist approach is often said to be the key to end discrimination in Indonesia, it tends to "essentialize differences" and increase the potential for more conflicts.
"In politics, multiculturalism puts people in ethnic boxes," Roy said.