Fears rise among ethnic chinese amid blasphemy probe

November 27, 2016 by  
Filed under newsletter-asia

Indonesia, November 26, 2016: Mounting street protests against the governor here are reviving painful memories for many of Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese minority, a group that has long faced discrimination and persecution across much of Southeast Asia.

Less than two decades after hundreds of people died in racially charged rioting, the resurgent tension has left some ethnic Chinese—most of whom are Christian or Buddhist—wondering about their place in a society where hard-line Islamists are becoming increasingly organized and influential.

The consequences could affect everything from the investment climate to the more-inclusive culture and democracy that emerged after dictator Suharto’s bloody downfall in 1998.

“I think it is never-ending, the discrimination,” said Himawan Tjandra Kusnadi, a 46-year-old shopkeeper in Jakarta’s Chinatown, a dense commercial area hit hard during that wave of violence. “We the Chinese are always afraid of riots because we are usually the victims.”

The latest flashpoint revolves around Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the most prominent ethnic Chinese politician, and a Christian, in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.

Crowds as large as 200,000 took to the streets in recent weeks to demand his prosecution—or worse—for alleged blasphemous comments made to supporters in September.

He has apologized for his comments but a police investigation last week named him as a suspect, and the case is expected to go to court in the coming weeks—potentially undermining his chances for re-election in February.

Ethnic Chinese make up less than 2% of Indonesia’s population of 250 million, according to the 2010 census. Many descended from waves of 19th-century immigrants who came to work in the mines or on plantations. Others were traders or merchants.

Under Dutch colonial rule, they were treated differently from native populations. Over time, their economic muscle grew, stoking resentment. They often became political scapegoats, leading to racially charged clashes.

Today, many of the wealthiest Indonesians are ethnic Chinese. Some helped build their fortunes through close ties to Suharto. Most, though, are middle class or below.

They mix in Jakarta’s Chinatown, or Glodok, where many buildings that were ransacked in 1998 remain shut up and apparently abandoned. Traders hawk electronics from small shops in narrow streets around a mall undergoing renovation. Further north, gated communities abut slums dotted with Chinese temples.

The governor, popularly known by his Chinese nickname Ahok, lives in a predominantly ethnic Chinese, gated community nearby. Some shops a few streets away were vandalized after the biggest march against him, on Nov. 4.

He was questioned again by police on Tuesday as they prepare a file for prosecutors. He faces up to five years in prison if convicted.

At risk is more than his political future, according to some Indonesia analysts. They fear the impact on the moderate, inclusive Indonesia that emerged after the fall of Suharto. In the transition to democracy, Chinese-Indonesians for the first time in decades were able to use their traditional names instead of Indonesian ones, speak their own language in schools and celebrate Chinese holidays.

“It seems to be a fundamental degradation of Indonesia’s really good track record since 1999,” said Doug Ramage, a Jakarta-based analyst with Bower Group Asia.

“It isn’t just an attack on Ahok, but an attack on the secular constitution,” said Christianto Wibisono, a Chinese-Indonesian economist.

President Joko Widodo, whose election in 2014 cleared the way for his then-deputy, Mr. Purnama, to become governor, has been meeting with political, security and religious leaders in an effort to control the situation.

His spokesman, Johan Budi, said the president has been emphasizing national unity and mutual respect for the country’s ethnic and religious diversity.

“The president has stated that the security condition is stable and all citizens have no need to worry regarding their safety, including Chinese-Indonesians,” he told The Wall Street Journal on Friday.

Three days earlier, Mr. Widodo sought to reassure investors about Indonesia’s business climate.

“The political situation has been a little heated recently, but this is very normal around elections,” he said in a speech. “There is no reason to be pessimistic.”

Police as well as mainstream Muslim leaders have urged hard-line Islamist groups to call off another rally planned for Dec. 2 and respect the legal process.

Some ethnic Chinese say that, as a precaution, they have scheduled trips out of town or even out of the country to avoid the planned protests.

Alexander Ferry, a board member of the Jakarta branch of the Chinese-Indonesian Association, said community leaders have sent around a security circular in neighborhoods that could be targeted. He also said he has heard more reports of verbal abuse against ethnic Chinese over the past month, particularly through social media.

Adityo Yogiswara, a 25-year-old financial consultant and third-generation Chinese Indonesian, is Muslim himself. He says he doesn’t fear being attacked, but worries the country could be taking a step back.

“Where the country is going is being decided,” he said. “Whether we can be more like an open-minded country or not.”

– wsj

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