Mindful of a Turbulent Past, Wary of an Uncertain Future

Long resented in Indonesia as financiers of the powerful, and discriminated against in mainland China, overseas Chinese search for peace and place outside of Asia

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE quiet river coursing through this East Java market hub belies a chilling past.

During frequent explosions of anti-Chinese violence over the last half century, the Brantas River was choked with dead bodies.

So terrified were the Chinese that mothers were afraid to identify sons. Families sneaked out to recover relatives only after midnight.

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Tulungagung today looks like a town that has shed its past.

In a commercial grid of storefronts and restaurants, ethnic Chinese shopkeepers prosper quietly.

They live separately but amicably with the Javanese who farm, work in factories, sell food on the street, and clean Chinese homes.

In deference to majority Muslims, Chinese no longer dance and party in public.

And in a concession to Chinese, the local Buddhist temple has been reopened and freshly painted.

But the Liu family in Tulungagung and other small Chinese businessmen across Indonesia cannot forget the terror of the past.

Unlike four siblings who left and earned college degrees, and now live in China, the remaining Liu brothers and sisters in Tulungagung were shut out of Indonesian higher education because they were Chinese.

They relentlessly pursue profits, indulge in few Chinese traditions, nurture a deep insecurity about their future in Indonesia, and aspire to send their children to the West. And despite their common Chinese heritage, differences continue to grow between the Indonesian Lius and their mainland relatives.

``I feel like a guest when I go back [to Indonesia,]'' says Liu Jinfeng, the oldest sister who returned to this town for the Chinese New Year in February and found herself at odds with the Indonesian Lius over her decision to invite along foreign journalists.

``They should have new ideas. But they still live as if it was 30 years ago.

``They should have gotten rid of those ideas,'' she says, referring to their concerns their safety.

Resented by Indonesians for decades as middlemen of colonial rulers, financiers of the corrupt and powerful, and symbols of vast wealth among millions of poor, the ethnic Chinese of Indonesia struggle to overcome the past.

Numbering more than 7 million in Indonesia, they are the second largest community of overseas Chinese in the world. Although a handful of tycoons control much of the economy through their wealth and political connections, the ethnic Chinese account for only 4 percent of Indonesia's 180 million people and are too small and vulnerable a minority to exert any political influence.

``In the past, Chinese were always playing in between. So many Indonesians still see us as Chinese first and Indonesians second,'' says Sofjian Wanandi, a prominent ethnic Chinese industrialist.

The history of overseas Chinese in Indonesia is the most tragic in Southeast Asia, for nowhere have more overseas Chinese been killed or persecuted in the last five decades. During the Indonesian war for independence, which lasted from 1947 to 1949, the Chinese were targeted for helping the Dutch colonialists preserve their hold on power.

As the Dutch departure turned colonial society on end, an indigenous political elite challenged the social and economic privilege of the ethnic Chinese. In the late 1950s, rising anti-Chinese sentiment and Javanese racism provoked the government to bar Chinese retailing in rural areas, forcing a Chinese exodus to towns and cities.

Economic deterioration, closer foreign ties to the Soviet Union and Communist China, and a powerful Indonesian communist movement set the stage for the holocaust of the mid-1960s.

In 1965, a failed coup of disputed origins touched off an anticommunist wave that left tens of thousands of party members, their sympathizers, and other Chinese dead or imprisoned. As the emerging regime of General Suharto blamed China for the uprising, the anticommunist campaign became a pogrom targeting Chinese, many of whom tried to flee to China.

``I suffered a lot. I went to prison so many times, I can't remember right now,'' says Huang Danji, an elderly activist in overseas Chinese organizations in East Java. ``They did not like me so they alleged that I was a communist. I was in prison because I devoted myself to ... the well-being of the ethnic Chinese.''

Today, Indonesian Chinese feel more comfortable under General Suharto's rule, which has calmed anti-Chinese fervor, reformed and revived the economy, and boosted the fortunes of influential Chinese businessmen. In 1990, Suharto restored relations with China over the objections of the military, Islamic groups, and businessmen fearing a flood of Chinese goods.

But for the Chinese, trepidation about their relations with indigenous Indonesians is just below the surface. The ethnic Chinese are still excluded from the armed forces, civil service, and all professions, and barred entry into leading universities. Chinese schools and Chinese characters on public signs are banned. Growing numbers of Chinese convert to Islam in a bid for more security.

With memories of Indonesia's last cataclysmic political transition still vivid, ethnic Chinese wonder who will follow an aging Suharto, and worry about an Islamic revival that bears anti-Chinese undercurrents.

In Indonesia, which is predominantly Muslim but officially secular, there have been sporadic incidents of violence against Chinese shopkeepers and Chinese Christians in recent years.

``There could be social turmoil because of the gap in wealth and because the Chinese are seen as being protected by the elite,'' says C.P.F. Luhulima, a political analyst in Indonesia.

Tensions over the years also have left 330,000 ethnic Chinese in Indonesia in a citizenship limbo. Since independence in 1949, the government has vacillated over citizenship for the Chinese minority, many of whom remained Chinese nationals.

After the abortive coup in the 1960s, tens of thousands of Chinese fled their homes and were stranded when boats promised by China failed to arrive. Others who had gone to China and then left for Hong Kong during the Cultural Revolution returned to Indonesia and were detained as illegal aliens.

Although China and Indonesia have resolved differences, domestic politics prevents Jakarta from naturalizing many poor ethnic Chinese who say they want to become Indonesian citizens.

Wealthy Chinese businessmen allied to the Suharto regime are trying to prod the government and buy citizenship, but they report slow progress. Chinese say paying off the bureaucracy and completing formalities for new citizenship can cost $7,500 per person.

``They are scapegoats. These Chinese have become victims of corruption in this country because for decades they have been squeezed,'' says Frans Hendra Winarta, a human rights lawyer who is handling citizenship lawsuits for some Chinese.

But it is in towns such as Tulungagung, a commercial center of 500,000 people, that Chinese feel most exposed, and paranoia runs deepest.

On a recent visit to her home town, Liu Jinfeng, who had been thinking of returning to live and care for her elderly mother, found herself in a family maelstrom that signaled there was no turning back.

Liu says she grew up in an insular, uncertain family. In Tulungagung, the Lius lived exclusively among other Chinese, renting a corner building where her father had his denture clinic because they were always convinced they would return to China. In the Chinese school she attended, Liu was taught that China, not Indonesia, was the motherland. Derided with the slur ``cino'' or Chinese, she had no Indonesian friends.

But the pain of the Cultural Revolution, coming even as it did amid political tumult after the abortive Indonesian coup, shook the family. Liu's younger sister, Liu Ruiyun, was poised to return to China in 1967 when the Indonesian government closed down all Chinese schools. A fire in the government office in Tulungagung of overseas Chinese, started by anti-Chinese rioters, burned her application.

``This was lucky for me because I would have been more miserable in China than my two sisters,'' Liu Ruiyun, who now goes by the Indonesian name Megawati Suthopo, said during a visit to China last year.

Now, Liu says, her brothers and sisters regard Indonesia, and not China, as home. They have assumed Indonesian names, become Indonesian citizens, and do not teach their children Chinese. A new supermarket is going up where the old Chinese school once stood.

But their Chinese background underpins cultural confusion and insecurity. During the Chinese New Year, Liu and the Indonesian family invited US journalists to Tulungagung to observe the festival.

But when some family members became alarmed that the visit would arouse Indonesian security officials, they refused to meet the journalists and turned on Liu, accusing her of undermining their safety. Deeply superstitious, they urged her to drink water prepared by a local conjurer to remove the taint of contact with foreigners. ``In attitudes about foreigners, Indonesian Chinese are very behind,'' Liu observes sadly.

Out of place both in China and Indonesia, the Liu family is refocusing on new migrant countries. Like many overseas Chinese of Southeast Asia who realize they are happier outside China and Asia, several of the Liu siblings hope to send their children to the West.

Many returnees to the mainland from Indonesia subsequently fled China and relocated in Hong Kong. But facing the upcoming Chinese takeover of the colony, Indonesian Chinese in Hong Kong are scrambling to find overseas options for their children.

For Liu Jinfeng, her new dream world is Texas, where her eldest daughter, Jing, is an accountant, and where she hopes to educate her younger child, Li. With many of her colleagues having left China, Liu says she feels little emotion for the mainland and hopes to spend part of the year in the US. ``I like the US,'' she muses. ``I hope my daughters will have a brighter existence.''

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