History, Racial Animosity, and Progress in Indonesia by Elena Alimin (3/3)

(Jakarta, 1998, James Nacktwey)

My name is Elena and I am an 18-year old Chinese-Indonesian planning to study Business Economics at UCLA this fall. Born and raised in Jakarta, I have both experienced and learned about the many conflicts and political upheavals that Indonesia has faced over the years.


For historical context, Indonesia was trapped beneath the colonial rule of the Dutch for centuries, followed by the Japanese. We finally achieved independence in 1945, and the independence proclamation was ratified at the capital, Jakarta, the place I call home. This is part three of three of my series on Indonesian politics.


Despite having achieved a remarkable amount of national progress towards political transparency over the years, Indonesia has had a long history of abuses of power and authority for personal gain. An extreme instance of this occured in 1998 when large-scale inflation, food shortages, and mass unemployment, primarily caused by rampant corruption and poor leadership, had reached a tipping point. The racial animosity towards Chinese-Indonesians (who were seen as immigrants who were stealing opportunities from the native Indonesians) resulted in rioting, theft, rape, and mass murder, targeted towards the Chinese-Indonesians population. Many eyewitnesses have supported the claim that the Indonesian military supported the riots, worsening the situation.


Under the orders of then President Soekarno, the assimilation law was also adopted, forcing Chinese-Indonesians to abandon their cultural identity by changing their last names to Indonesian sounding ones and converting to Islam. This racially charged tragedy, one that many still struggle to recover from, remains an enduring example of the crimes that resulted from corruption, greed, and poor governance.


A more recent example of violence erupted during the aftermath of the 2019 presidential elections, initially arising from a dispute contesting the legitimacy of the outcome brought about by Prabowo Subianto (the current Defense Minister), and his political party (Gerindra). Prabowo claimed that the votes were miscounted to his disadvantage. Following his declaration, he took extreme measures to incite public protests, most of which turned violent. As small businesses were raided and made victims of arson, many feared a repeat of the May 1998 protests, despite the absence of racially charged animosity. Many families chose to avoid going to work or school, with some even leaving the country out of fear, evidence of the lasting scars left behind by the May 1998 riots, some of which may never heal.


Personally, I have always felt that, despite being a Chinese-Indonesian, history will not repeat itself. I feel mostly welcomed as an Indonesian (regardless of my heritage) by those around me, both friends and strangers. As the daughter of two Chinese-Indonesians who are also the children of Chinese-Indonesians, I feel that the pain of the trauma has lessened. Perhaps it is in part due to the fact that my generation was born years after the conflict. Our generation is also more progressive and accepting of racial differences. Despite this, I have seen racial discrimination, and I recognize that racism in Indonesia’s past still burns today, except now, it has become a problem on both sides, wherein each feels that they have been wronged by the other. While there are limits to what we can change, I believe that it is imperative that the students of today (the leaders of tomorrow) understand the importance of correcting the historical flaws in Indonesia’s political framework. We have already achieved much, but there is still more to do to address corruption, the politicization of religion, and the abuse of power.