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Fear subsides for Indonesia's ethnic Chinese community

Optimism grows as law redefines meaning of 'native'

JAKARTA , Indonesia -- It wasn't so long ago that Chinese writing was banned from public places here and Chinese schools and newspapers were prohibited. But walk into the former office of Suharto, the retired Indonesian strongman who maintained these laws in an effort to integrate the ethnic Chinese community, and a large decorative poster of Chinese characters greets visitors.

"In the old days I would have been arrested for this," Dino Patti Djalal, an adviser to the government and now the occupant of Suharto's office, said as he glanced back at his poster. Djalal, who is not Chinese, added: "This shows the progression of Indonesia. We now take multiculturalism as a given in life."

After centuries of segregation, periodic violence and tension over their higher levels of wealth, Indonesia's Chinese community, which makes up 1 percent to 2 percent of the population of 245 million, is enjoying what many are calling a golden era.

"The situation of the Chinese has never been as good as today," said Benny Setiono, head of the Chinese Indonesian Association, a nonprofit group that represents the community. "We feel more free, more equal."

As someone whose forebears arrived in Indonesia here from China about eight generations ago -- he has lost count -- Setiono speaks with authority when he says the Chinese community is more secure than it has ever been, just eight years after anti-Chinese riots, part of the unraveling of Suharto's authoritarian rule, left scores of Chinese dead and many shops burned.

One of the main reasons for the optimism is a fundamental change in Indonesian law: The country has redefined what it means to be a "native."

A citizenship law passed this year proclaims that an indigenous Indonesian is someone who was born in this country here to Indonesian citizens, a radical departure for a society that separated the Chinese in one way or another through colonial times and more recently during Suharto's 33-year reign that ended after the riots in 1998.

Other laws have erased the preferential treatment for "pribumi," or indigenous groups, in bank lending and the awarding of government contracts, a policy that still exists in Malaysia, where racial tensions are creeping higher. In the eight years since Suharto stepped down, Indonesia has dropped the draconian rules that banned expressions of Chinese culture and adopted Chinese New Year as a national holiday.

The horrors of the anti-Chinese violence in 1998 were the prime impetus for the legal overhaul. But Indonesians also realized that espousing the concept of a "native" could be explosive for everyone, not just the Chinese.

"The question of who was here first became very dangerous," said Andreas Harsono, a journalist who is researching a book on nationalism here. "The logic has been manipulated by many politicians."

The so-called transmigration policies of Suharto dispersed hundreds of thousands of families, mainly Javanese, across the archipelago, creating conflicts with other ethnic groups.

Today, instead of using the word "pribumi," some politicians assert they are "putra daerah," or local sons, and contrast that with "pendatang," or newcomers.

A country that sometimes seems to have as many ethnic groups and dialects as inhabited islands -- about 6,000 -- will probably never be clear of racial rivalries, but tensions are nowhere near the levels of a few years ago.

As late as last year, a US court of appeal ruled that the threat of violence was enough to justify a Chinese Indonesian's plea for asylum. In Glodok, a warren of warehouses not far from Jakarta's old port that was badly damaged during the 1998 riots, a consolidated peace now reigns. Chinese shop owners and their employees say they cannot recall any racial arguments breaking out in recent years. "I don't feel any tension," said Phie Ching Huat, who runs an electronics shop.

Phie, whose Indonesian name is Sukino, said many ethnic Chinese families now send their children to schools that teach Chinese dialects, mainly Mandarin. With the rise of China as a world power, learning Chinese is becoming popular among Indonesians of all ethnicities.

Indonesians said mentalities are also changing here, especially the notion that all Indonesian Chinese are rapaciously rich, a common perception during the Suharto years, when a select group of Chinese cronies controlled large, high-profile businesses.

Tension involving overseas Chinese has been a recurring theme in Indonesia and throughout Southeast Asia, both before and after countries in the region became independent. Like Jews in Europe, the Chinese were often traders or financiers, and many, although far from all, achieved commercial success. During the days of Mao Zedong's rule in China, overseas Chinese were looked upon with suspicion in Indonesia and tens of thousands were killed in anti-Communist massacres of the 1960s.

This is now all ancient history for some young people.

"There are some very rich Chinese, but there are some very poor Chinese, too," said Sayidah Salim, a 20-year-old student at the Islamic State University, outside Jakarta. "If people want to work hard they will earn more money."

Djalal, the government adviser, credited the Chinese government for changing attitudes in Indonesia about the Chinese minority here.

"They are projecting a very friendly, benevolent face," he said of Beijing.

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