Jakarta’s new governor used sectarian rhetoric in his inauguration speech. Indonesia risks returning to ethnic violence due to such politicking.
By Azira Mohamed
Jakarta’s newly-minted governor Anies Baswedan has sparked controversy. He pitted the country’s majority against the minority Chinese in his inauguration speech. Baswedan said that the native Indonesians should take back control of the country. “We pribumi people were oppressed and defeated. Now, after independence, it is time for us to be masters in our own country.” Baswedan declared. The term “pribumi” excludes Chinese Indonesians who have lived in Indonesia for generations.
Baswedan’s political play
Baswedan has never held an elected post before his recent victory. He was a moderate Muslim who aligned himself with conservative Muslim groups. His turn towards the Islamists has been decisive in his winning. The FPI is known for targeting minority groups in Indonesia. In its rallies, there were protests with slogans to “crush the Chinese.” The group’s support has been key in securing the majority vote that won Baswedan the governor seat. “But to legitimise FPI in the process… simply means Anies is just another politician, not the inspiring progressive and pluralist statesmen he always said he aims to be,” analyst Evan Laksmana from the Centre of Strategic and International Studies commented.
Baswedan had earlier criticised hardline groups such as the FPI. “Indonesia is a built on a foundation respecting diverse ethnicities and religions. The FPI is a radical group that forces Islamic values that will tear down that building,” he said. The switch raised questions about his commitment to protecting minority rights.
Historical discrimination of Chinese in Indonesia
Baswedan’s statements risk re-instigating anti-Chinese sentiments and violence. Indonesia has a history of Chinese discrimination dating from the Dutch colonial era. In 1965, the state army instigated mass killings of the ethnic Chinese. They are accused of being communists. The government only acknowledged the massacre in 2016. President Suharto banned Chinese cultural expression during his reign. Government blamed Chinese Indonesians for fiscal failures during the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Rioters stormed Glodok, Jakarta’s Chinatown and damaged many Chinese businesses. Anti-Chinese violence has flared periodically during times of crises. Chinese Indonesians are often regarded as aliens in their own country.
Systematic discrimination against Chinese Indonesians is still alive today. Racial politicking by opportunist politicians could easily translate to sectarian violence again.
Toxic election along ethnic and religious lines
Baswedan’s political opponent, Ahok, is serving a two-year sentence for blasphemy. The FPI misappropriated his quote of the Quran. It orchestrated mass protests calling for his prosecution. Ahok was the star candidate primed to win the election. His apparent blasphemy was critical in Baswedan’s eventual victory.
As a Christian Chinese, Ahok was a double-minority. His candidacy was a symbol of Indonesia’s progress towards pluralism. Baswedan’s win against Ahok’s controversial downfall signals Indonesian politics shifted to conservative Islam. Two Islamist figures, FPI leader Rizieq Shihab and Muslim cleric Bachtiar Nasir contributed to his victory. Both men have been very public as anti-Chinese figures in the country. Nasir had earlier announced a campaign targeting Chinese businessmen.
Baswedan’s victory emboldened the hardline Islamist groups that brought him to power. Such groups are blaming economic inequality in Indonesia on wealthy Chinese tycoons. However, the claims of these hardliners are not founded. A select few of Indonesia’s richest businessmen are ethnic Chinese. But the majority of Chinese Indonesians are middle-income. They work in small businesses or the private sector.
Ultraconservative groups have been more vocal in calling for a greater role of Islam. These groups’ visibility coincides with increased attacks against minority groups. These racist acts could lead to ethnic violence during periods of national crises.
Is there a place for Chinese in Indonesia?
President Suharto’s forced assimilation campaign successfully integrated the Chinese in Indonesia. Chinese Indonesians now identify strongly with Indonesian culture. They speak Indonesian or local dialects and have little identification with China.
Chinese are questioning their role in Indonesia. Some Chinese are contemplating leaving the country. They fear the ethnic violence and are already selling their Indonesian assets. The election brought upon racist atmosphere. It prevented some Chinese from exploring business opportunities in the country.
Rise of identity politics in Indonesia
Attacks on Ahok’s ethnicity and religion are signals of rising identity politics. Baswedan promised to work towards safeguarding Jakarta’s diversity after his win, But he has yet to make reparations for the racial slurs by his strongest supporters.
Indonesia is known for its tolerance and democratic pluralism. However, the rise of divisive politicking by expedient politicians poses an upcoming challenge for progressive forces in the country. The turn to the Islamic vote is a new trend in Indonesia. Most of its presidents have historically come from secular, broad parties. Baswedan’s politicising of religion could set a precedent for other astute politicians.