The law on the elimination of racial and ethnic discrimination was passed a decade ago, but many Indonesians still experience discrimination.
A survey last year on trends of socio-religious tolerance among Indonesian Muslim women showed that from about 1,500 respondents across the nation’s 34 provinces, Christians and ethnic Chinese were among the most disliked people.
In the survey by the Wahid Foundation, in which respondents were asked which people they disliked most, regardless of whether they knew them, “communists” were the least favored among nearly 22 percent of respondents, followed by people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender at 17.8 percent and Jews (7.1 percent). Christians followed by 3 percent, atheists (2.5 percent), Shiites (1.2 percent), Chinese (0.7 percent), Wahabi (0.6 percent), Catholics (0.5 percent) and Buddhists (0.5 percent).
Such findings reflect the layered discrimination against individuals like former Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, just released after serving two years in prison for blasphemy. Human Rights Watch notes that even though he was freed on Jan. 24, “Ahok’s unjust conviction is a reminder that minorities in Indonesia are at risk so long as the abusive Blasphemy Law remains in place”.
Thus, it is quite natural for many of my Chinese friends to be reluctant to speak up on any discrimination they experience. Though the young generation never experienced the May 1998 riots that targeted the ethnic Chinese, they have learned they must be careful and avoid the political world as much as they can.
As a result, discrimination continues, though president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid made Chinese New Year, which falls on Feb. 5 this year, a national holiday. Chinese culture can be celebrated since reformasi but the ethnic Chinese lack a critical voice. Highly competent Chinese-Indonesians have become agents of socio-political change but play safe because they continue to be reminded of being “victims of discrimination”; with the case of Ahok, or BTP as he prefers to be called now, being the most obvious precedent.
Yet, although the word “minority” tends only to refer to Chinese and non-Muslims, many other Indonesians are still marginalized, such as Papuans, farmers who are industrial victims, people evicted in the name of development or illiterate villagers. It is vital for the Chinese to be more active in humanitarian work especially for those who are still discriminated against and marginalized.
I have repeatedly experienced that humanitarian actions tend to melt identity boundaries faster. They even become the most powerful tool for introducing diversity. It leaves only the essence: we are all human beings who need mutual respect and love. By consistently working for humanity, minorities like the Chinese could dismiss stereotypes of being self-serving “foreigners”.
When I went to Peureulak, East Aceh, for a government educational mission, the first greeting I got from students at one school was shouts of Cina musyrik (Chinese worshiping other gods besides Allah). This may sound very hurtful — but I chose to laugh and invited some of them to play with me. A few days later, they had forgotten that “greeting” and asked me cheerfully to continue playing with them.
In Bogor, West Java, some village children glanced at me timidly. Some asked whether I was Taiwanese. Can I speak Indonesian? Why is my skin whiter than theirs? They said they had never met anyone like me before, with slanted eyes and lighter skin. While playing with them, I explained I was an Indonesian, that we are only different physically.
A Chinese friend, Margareta Astaman (Margie), also had a similar experience. As a fruit exporter she involves herself directly with farmers. They initially kept their distance but Margie’s efforts in helping them to empower themselves in the international arena made them no longer feel different from her. They said “we” — “as Indonesians, we must try to introduce our fruits to the world”.
A student of mine admitted she did not like Chinese-Indonesians because all her life her Chinese friends seemed to only care about business. She came to think that all Chinese-Indonesians were only thinking of themselves and prioritized profit over essential things like sincere friendship. This is where she got the stigma of the Chinese as “economic animals”.
Other students admitted they had hated ethnic Chinese just because their parents said the Chinese only thought of profit. They changed their minds after they began to make friends with the Chinese, experiencing wonderful friendships.
Therefore I’ve come to realize that the most effective way to introduce differences is to make people directly experience the beauty of difference. Such experiences become far more imprinted in people’s hearts than just teaching others about the importance of tolerance. Sometimes, someone is intolerant only because he or she has never experienced the beauty of friendship across differences.
That is why I encourage my fellow Chinese-Indonesians to consistently take part in humanitarian work in any field according to their preference and talent. Working directly in communities, people will see how Chinese-Indonesians are no different as fellow human beings. They can see we are also very concerned about those who are still discriminated against and marginalized.
Yes, it is never easy to care about others when we ourselves are still struggling against discrimination. But sincere friendships and humanitarian work, especially for minorities or marginalized groups, are among the most effective ways to introduce the beauty of differences and tolerance. Never give up doing that.
The results may not be immediately visible, but they can be the most tangible form of resistance to discrimination experienced by Chinese-Indonesians: that discriminatory treatment has no power to curb our essence as human beings, to continue to work for others.
Happy Chinese New Year, Gong Xi Fa Cai!
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This article published on The Jakarta Post (Monday, February 4, 2019)