- Purchase/rental options available:
positions: east asia cultures critique 9.3 (2001) 501-533
[Access article in PDF]
Citizenship, Inheritance, and the Indigenizing of Orang Chinese” in Indonesia
Filomeno V. Aguilar Jr.
The national motto of Indonesia is Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, roughly translatable as “Unity in Diversity,” but the segment of the Indonesian population composed of “Chinese” is often excluded from the moral community of the nation because of their supposed absence of “roots” on Indonesian soil. Sharing formal citizenship status and many cultural practices with other Indonesians, the Chinese are nonetheless ideologically constructed as aliens and often used as scapegoats. The events of 1998 brought to the fore the highly problematic position of Chinese persons in relation to the Indonesian nation. This article seeks to understand the history that has indigenized and concomitantly alienated the Chinese in Indonesia by retracing the trails of the controvertible word Cina, the interminable forks on the citizenship road, and the seeming dead ends on the lifespan of wealth and capital accumulation. [End Page 501]
Continuities amid Ruptures
The conflagration and sexual violence that occurred in Jakarta on 13 and 14 May 1998, part of a train of events that culminated in the resignation of President Suharto on the twenty-first of the same month, were widely believed to have been instigated by certain state, particularly military, officials.1 Most controversial were the rapes of scores of Chinese women, which some pribumi (indigenous) Indonesians would dispute as untrue but which galvanized overseas Chinese in several countries to mount street demonstrations. The rapes signified, in Ariel Heryanto’s view, a “spectacular public display of violence directed against sanctified sites and rules of sexuality,” with media reports and public discourse about these events resulting in their “racialization” and the reproduction of “externally imposed stigmas.”2 Confirmed by the official Joint Fact-Finding Team, the involvement by statist provocateurs signaled the known and familiar world of state violence.3
The certainty of an identifiable cause behind the troubles provided a sense of predictability in a time of social upheaval. The manipulation of the crowds by high authorities was a source of reassurance, particularly for the pribumi middle classes, that no matter how violent the situation, the “masses” would not spin out of control and ravage the nouveau rich.4 Chinese who felt entitled to protection, largely because of established practices of corruption at different levels of the state apparatus, were angered by the failure of the commodity to materialize. This reaction, James Siegel argues, fell ultimately within the workings of Indonesian political discourse and its assumption that disruptive forces can be contained.5 Barbed wires and road hazards within private residential subdivisions as well as steel gates that could close off side streets in predominantly “Chinese” districts emblematize the siege mentality that has gripped many Chinese after May 1998. At the same time, these privately initiated devices testify to the tenacious, if modified, assumption that primal desires and mob rule can be contained through means other than and supplementary to the state.
Had there been no statist hands behind the rampage and rapes, coming to terms with these ugly episodes might have been more difficult, as it would have meant the total breakdown of sociality. Had the conflagration been totally spontaneous, it might have departed from the familiar pattern in which [End Page 502] state culprits orchestrate the beginning and end of a violent episode, leaving room for Chinese to rebuild their lives from the ashes. In other words, for some, the absence of state provocateurs might have meant a deep rupture in the conventional story of Chinese engagement with Indonesian society. The prevailing interpretation suggested, however, that rioters and victims could still somehow reconstruct their everyday roles. This fundamental assumption has also underscored the endeavor of activist Chinese after May 1998 to end three decades of depoliticization under Suharto’s absolutism, but in addition they want to break with a past that restricted Chinese to living in and for the economic sphere alone. Had the violence erupted spontaneously out of pure racial hatred, the recent past would also demand a...