Known for its apparently great diversity, Indonesia is comprised of myriads of individuals from many disparate backgrounds, one of which is the heterogeneity of ethnicity. There are approximately more than 1000 ethnic groups living together as a single community and the Chinese have become one integral part of it. The Chinese, albeit merely constituting less than one percent of the entire population, have been playing significant roles throughout the Indonesian history. Notwithstanding, it does not mean that they do not encounter much persecution and discrimination. In fact, they have struggled tenaciously, even hitherto, to have their rights and contribution recognized by other dominant groups. So arduously have they endeavored that they are eventually able to reap the fruition of their efforts. Such betterment can be observed through several substantial changes regarding their existence nowadays vis-à-vis those living in the past, notably under the previous regime.
Firstly, it is noteworthy to observe how the Chinese-Indonesians strived during the 33-year-old oppressing New Order regime led by the notoriously strict erstwhile president Soeharto. After he took office in 1967 replacing his predecessor Soekarno, he directly issued Presidential Letter No. SE-06/Pred.Kab/6/1967 which specified that the use of the ameliorative appellation “Tionghoa” be ceased and replaced by the word “Cina.” Such alteration sounded rather trivial indeed, yet the latter term was actually kind of derogatory vis-à-vis the term “Tionghoa.” Furthermore, the ensuing policies exacerbated the condition of Chinese-Indonesians, especially in their political and cultural activities. Through the coercive reinforcement of the so-called “assimilation” policy, the government barred Chinese-Indonesians from establishing any organizations, encompassing political parties, cultural groups or schools. Many Chinese-oriented organizations active in the Old Order Regime were abolished as they were alleged as parts of the insurgence of Communist Party in 1965. Also, all sorts of Chinese festivals were restricted to mere private celebrations, leading to the curb on their freedom of expression. The policy also banned the use of Chinese language in any means (e.g. books and newspapers), resulting in the deteriorating ability of the Chinese younger generations to converse in their own inherited language. Such discriminations kept ongoing until the termination of Soeharto’s tenure in 1998 when violent commotion occurred, causing the agony of Chinese-Indonesians to be in its worst extent. All the distress was just few of much victimization towards them during the era and it seemed that they were so powerless that they could not even voice their disagreement over the suppressing discriminatory policy.
Nonetheless, as Indonesia entered its reformation era, there were finally some significant amendments as to the policies concerning the presence of the Chinese-Indonesians. The horrible riot in 1998 had a major impact on how most Indonesians perceived the Chinese-Indonesians, i.e. some of them started to use the word “Tionghoa” in lieu of “Cina.” This was even endorsed by the government’s recent move to revoke the 1967 Presidential Letter regarding the term. Besides that, the era of reformation has given Chinese-Indonesian the open doors to engage in political and social movement. As a case, the riots instigated the establishment of Chinese organisations, such as PSMTI and INTI, founded to promote anti-discrimination policy. Likewise, the rising number of political participation of Chinese figures, like Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (or Ahok), the vice governor of DKI Jakarta, has shown that Indonesians have grown mature enough to embrace such inevitable difference. Chinese culture also got restored after the ban had been lifted by the then president Abdurrahman Wahid, widely known as Gusdur. Moreover, his supportive policy was further followed by his successor, Megawati Soekarno Putri who declared Chinese New Year as a national holiday. Thus, Chinese-Indonesians do not have to be afraid of being prosecuted merely because of celebrating Chinese New Year. One more thing to note is that the government is finally not averse to the use of Mandarin language, proven by the mushrooming Chinese language centres and the inclusion of it in school materials. All of these changes have elevated the self-respect of Chinese-Indonesians, for they are eventually able to garner public acknowledgement.
In a nutshell, how the present Chinese-Indonesians can manage their livelihood more securely than those in the past has conveyed one important message: the resilience of Indonesia as a multi-ethnic nation. Realizing such fact that Chinese-Indonesians are also inextricable parts of Indonesia, this country is finally able to be consistent with its well-known jargon, i.e. Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity). Hence, Indonesians of Chinese descent can finally live peacefully as they will less likely face much discrimination only because they are “Cina.” (Written by Anderson Hidarto, student of English Department, Unika Atmajaya—Jakarta)
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