INDONESIANS, and especially those of Chinese descent, have just celebrated Chinese New Year. Chinese-Indonesians who, for over 30 years during the New Order regime, were forced to celebrate this event behind closed doors, are now free once again to celebrate it publicly.
Whereas during the 300 years of Dutch colonial subjugation this event could be celebrated freely, in an independent Indonesia under the Suharto regime, ironically, basic cultural, religious and language rights were severely restricted. Citizens of Chinese descent were even required to change their names and could not attend Chinese schools.
It is true that now many of the cultural rights of the ethnic Chinese have been restored. In actuality, however, the government is still far from going all the way in recognising the human rights of our ethnic Chinese population. Many of their political rights are still limited, and as human rights are universal, to grant some cultural rights and to deny others is simply wrong.
Acknowledging the cultural rights of the Chinese does not give the government an excuse to forget about the recognition of other rights. Human rights are something that cannot be abolished or limited in any way. For 30 years under the New Order regime, the political rights of ethnic Chinese citizens were violated and completely ignored -- a fact that, to the present day, causes unease and trepidation among Chinese communities throughout Indonesia.
Such restrictively encompassing political pressure as suffered by Chinese-Indonesians during the Suharto regime has caused a section of the Indonesian community to lose their identity. Many ethnic Chinese have tried to deny their identity in various ways due to this political pressure that, at times, associated their “Chineseness” with Communism, betrayal, disloyalty, insularism, with their ancestral country and various other undesirable attributes that added to the political pressure and stigma weighted against them.
The result is that the Chinese community is still afraid to become engaged in or even talk about politics, let alone become politicians themselves. There are few communities in the world as apolitical as Chinese-Indonesians.
It is difficult to convince them that, in order to struggle for equality in political rights and equality before the law, they must link up with other democratic forces in Indonesia. Ethnic Chinese are passengers in this ship we call Indonesia, and what is experienced by some passengers will also be experienced by others.
What must be fought for is the destiny of Indonesia as a whole - the struggle for democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights. If these things can be achieved, then discrimination against the ethnic Chinese will surely be eradicated.
The discriminative legal system inherited from the Dutch and propagated by the New Order regime through political segregation must be abolished in its entirety, because it creates different classes of citizens based on ethnicity.
Already from birth, citizens are classified according to race and ethnicity. The state gazette on civil registration must be replaced with a national law on civil registration that is more humane and respects equality before the law. The Constitution must also guarantee democracy, respect for human rights and adherence to the ideal of rule of law.
This is the second year in which Chinese New Year has been celebrated as a national holiday. There is a kind of euphoria about marking Chinese New Year, but the rights of ethnic Chinese - like other human rights conditions in this country - are still far from perfect due to violations by power-holders who do not respect law and human rights.
For instance, the anti-Chinese riots of May 1998 are still yet to be investigated properly and those responsible held accountable for their crimes. This increases the possibility that such tragedies can recur. It is ironic that Chinese New Year is being celebrated as a national holiday just five years after the tragedy of May 1998.
The struggle to abolish discrimination is still a long one, because discriminative laws against ethnic Chinese still exist and the DPR and the government show no political will to abolish them. Although the government has annulled the Indonesian Citizenship Certificate required solely by ethnic Chinese (SBKRI), in practice it is still often required in day-to-day administrative processes.
The SBKRI requirement has been perpetuated through a new citizenship law, although the original intent was to provide proof that a foreigner had been naturalized as an Indonesian citizen. Worse still, Karawang and Bekasi provinces still issue national identity cards that specify keturunan, which indicates persons of Chinese descent. This may have occurred through ignorance, stupidity or because the official was racist - nevertheless, the discriminative mentality is evident.
According to the principles of human rights, all human beings are equal and must not be discriminated against based on race, religion, skin colour, socio-economic status, cultural identity, political belief or ethnicity. Indonesia has signed the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination and therefore must be consistent in implementing this in its legal, political, cultural and economic spheres.
There is euphoria now as we celebrate Chinese New Year; but the actual struggle for equality before the law is only begun and it may be some time before real equality can be achieved. Ethnic Chinese youth need to get involved in politics and join in the reform struggle with other democratic forces.
In this struggle, we must eradicate the fears of the past and look forward to a new day when democracy, human rights and the rule of law are respected. Ethnic Chinese must enter fields like public administration, law, national defence, policing, the judiciary and education in order to develop Indonesia in the right direction in partnership with other ethnic groups of this great and diverse nation.
At the same time, the government and legislature need to open up to Chinese-Indonesians so that they, too, can contribute fully to national development.
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