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FOCUS March 2006 Volume 43

Discrimination against Ethnic Chinese in Indonesia

Discrimination against Ethnic Chinese in Indonesia

Chinese-Indonesians comprise 3% of the total population of Indonesia, or approximately 7 million. As a minority group, they still suffer from discrimination.
It is a fact that most Indonesians consider the Chinese-Indonesians as a separate group from the majority indigenous Indonesians due to different "ethnicity". The Chinese-Indonesians are not considered part of the nation in violation of the principle of equality before the law enshrined in the 1945 Indonesian Constitution

Arrival of the Chinese

Long before the arrival of the Dutch colonialists the Chinese had been an integral part of what was then Indonesia. They integrated into the then Indonesian society in the same way that the Chinese in other parts of Southeast Asia (Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Vietnam) did. While the first Chinese are believed to have arrived in Indonesia in the fifth century, people from southern China came much earlier (prehistoric era) to the then Southeast Asian region to comprise the so-called Malays. The latter Chinese and the Malays are thus considered to belong to, or share, the same racial genealogy.[1]

Admiral Cheng Ho, a Chinese, introduced and spread Islam in Java island and some parts of Southeast Asia more than 600 years ago. He arrived in Semarang, Central Java from China with his followers and taught Islam to the indigenous Indonesians. He used the traditional gamelan music to support his teaching of Islam. Java was at that time a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom. The nine respected Islamic saints (Wali Songo) in Indonesia[2] are considered followers of Admiral Cheng Ho. They are considered the pioneer missionaries in teaching Islam in Java island and believed to have Chinese blood
Despite the fact that Java was a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom, the mission was considered successful, with 80% of the population having been converted into Islamic religion. Gujarati traders, on the other hand, introduced Islam in other parts of Indonesia such as Sumatera, Kalimantan and Sulawesi

The integration of the Chinese into the society was disrupted when the Dutch colonialists came to Indonesia in the seventeenth century for trading purposes. They eventually colonized Indonesia for political reason, and ruled for about 350 years. To maintain its existence, the Dutch colonial government employed the divide and rule strategy (divide et impera) and divided the people in Netherlands Indisch (the Dutch colonial name of Indonesia) into several categories. Under State Regulation/Indische Staatsregeling No. 163 IS/1854, the population was divided into 3 categories:

  1. Europeans or Westerners
  2. Foreign Easterners (Chinese-, Indian-, and Arabdescent)
  3. Indigenous people.

The division of the population caused tension among the groups particularly between the Foreign Easterners and the Indigenous groups due to their socio-economic differences. Religious and cultural backgrounds were highlighted in the Dutch colonial legal system by having a dual legal system, i.e., Western law mainly for the Europeans or Westerners and Customary Law for the indigenous people. The indigenous Indonesians were further segregated into Moslems who were bound by Islamic legal system, and the non-Moslems who were bound to the Western legal system. The ethnic Chinese were caught in between the two legal systems, each having a different court

At the beginning of the Dutch colonial rule, the political rights of the ethnic Chinese were recognized. But the 1740 Chinese rebellion (with 10,000 Chinese getting massacred, killed and slaughtered in Batavia [Jakarta]) changed the situation. Since that incident the Dutch colonial government denied political rights to the Chinese. They were only allowed to engage in trade and business. The Dutch controlled agricultural plantations, mining, oil, finance, banking and other activities. Most indigenous people were marginalized as peasants and lower rank government officials. This structure of society and the legal system under the Dutch colonial rule was maintained and continued by the Indonesian government

Independent Indonesia

When Indonesia declared independence on 17 August 1945 the two-part legal system was maintained, but the political rights of Chinese-Indonesians were acknowledged. Some Chinese-Indonesians were involved in the drafting of the 1945 Indonesian Constitution and in the preparation for the birth of an independent Republic of Indonesia. Some became legislators, politicians and ministers during the Soekarno administration (1945-1966). But this changed during the Soeharto era

The 1965 failed communist coup d'etat heightened the anti-Chinese sentiment in Indonesia. The military and the "New Order" government of Soeharto accused the People's Republic of China of supporting the failed communist coup. The anti-Communist sentiment linked the negative view of the People's Republic of China to the sentiment towards the Chinese-Indonesians

Most of the Chinese-Indonesians are Indonesian citizens. The people and the government do not distinguish between ethnic Chinese-Indonesians who are mostly Indonesian citizens and Chinese of non- Indonesian citizenship. This is due to the segregation policy during the Dutch colonial rule that Soeharto continued even more severely with the issuance of more than 60 anti-Chinese laws and regulations. Presidential Decrees, Ministerial Decrees, Cabinet circular letters and the People's Assembly Decrees were all issued based on ethnic, linguistic, and religious discrimination. They, among others limited the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration and Tao worship activities, prohibited the use of Chinese language and writing system, and the establishment of schools. All of these are considered discrimination by the state against individuals or citizens

Only after the fall of the Soeharto government in 1998 that the Chinese-Indonesians were able to again celebrate the Lunar new year, teach the Chinese language, use again Chinese characters in public, etc. This change was pioneered by President Habibie, and maintained by Presidents Abdurrahman Wahid , Megawati Sukarnoputri and Soesilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who are supportive of human rights

The Chinese-Indonesians

The Chinese-Indonesians are mostly economically better off compared to most Indonesians although in some regions they are also poor and mainly peasants. Three decades ago they were required to obtain a certificate of citizenship (SBKRI), a discriminatory requirement. They have to pay an unofficial price ranging from US$ 200 to US$ 700 to obtain the document. Most Indonesians do not have this kind of document. It is only applied to the Chinese-Indonesians. The obligation to possess SKBRI has provided an avenue for blackmailing Chinese-Indonesians. This system remains at present

Human rights treaty obligations

Indonesia recently ratified a number of United Nations human rights instruments in response to national and international pressures. The following instruments were ratified:

  1. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESR)
  2. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
  3. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

As a state party to ICESCR, ICCPR and CERD, Indonesia must faithfully report to the respective treaty monitoring bodies in the United Nations on the state of human rights in Indonesia.[3]

For further information, please contact: Indonesian Legal Studies Foundation, Jl. Gading Kirana Barat IX, Blo C 10/21 (Rukan Nusa Kirana) Kelapa Gading Permai, Jakarta 14240 Indonesia; ph (6221) 4587-4046; 7091-1743; fax (6221) 4587-4047; email: yphi05@dnet.net.id


1. Christian Drake, National Integration in Indonesia - Patterns and Policies (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989), page 17

2. See Slamet Muljana, Runtuhnya Keradjaan Hindu-Djawa Dan Timbulnja Negara-negara Islam Di Nusantara (The Fall of the Hindu-Jawa State and the Occurrence of Islamic States in Indonesia) (Jakarta: Bhratara, 1968), pages 102-107 and Sagimun M. D., Peninggalan Sejarah Masa Perkembangan Agamaagama di Indonesia (The Heritage of the History of Development of Religious States in Indonesia) (Jakarta: CV Haji Masagung, 1988), pages 62-65

3. Wiwiek Setyawati Firman, "Arti Ratifikasi Dua Konvensi HAM (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights dan International Covenant on Economics, Social and Cultural Rights) Bagi Penegakan Hukum Di Indonesia", paper presented in a seminar organized by National Law Commission of Indonesia, (Jakarta, 9 March 2006), pages 3-4

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