Sat, 05 Feb 2000

A joyous celebratipon of cultural rights

By Harkiman Racheman

MEDAN, North Sumatra (JP): Any New Year's celebration, especially that which is associated with a prominent culture, will normally attract tremendous public attention. However, when Chinese New Year celebrations in Indonesia have not for so many years enjoyed similar public support, it is not the culture that is to blame, and neither are Indonesians.

As is widely known, the decades-long prohibition on Chinese New Year celebrations Hari Raya Imlek (and everything else Chinese) has, indeed, had a great deal to do with the state's cultural politics. It was Soeharto's administration, later labeled as an uncompromisingly racist regime, that first disallowed an otherwise natural celebration of cultural freedom within the Chinese Indonesian community.

It is no wonder that when there is a sudden change of government cultural policy, as exemplified in President Abdurrahman Wahid's administration, that the whole political process modifies public orientation towards Chinese culture. For example, there are now far fewer open hostilities toward the Chinese culture than two years ago.

Regardless of how its symbolism may be perceived, the suddenly welcomed observance of Chinese New Year carries great significance. It will formally cease the government-sanctioned cultural repression of Indonesians of Chinese descent.

This year, the long lost cultural rights of Chinese Indonesians can now be exercised in a truly democratic atmosphere.

In the meantime, President Abdurrahman's stand regarding oppressed minority groups, of which the Confucianist Chinese of Indonesia are one representative, can hereby be reconfirmed. This is clearly one of the reasons which will make this year's celebration of the Golden Dragon Chinese New Year of utmost importance.

The Chinese throughout the world are celebrating their new year on Feb. 5. In the midst of our country's hard-hitting multi- dimensional crises, Imlek celebrations will be a cultural milestone for most Chinese Indonesians this year.

First, this year's celebration occurs at the conclusion of the second millennium. Needless to say, this coincidence of calendars will be a springboard for a spiritual reflection on the past 1,000 years. Chinese people all over the world will therefore celebrate more wholeheartedly. The fact that it is the Golden Dragon New Year only adds to the meaning.

In the Chinese mythology, the dragon is considered the chief four-legged creature. As such, the animal carries with it a lofty ceremonial status. In the minds of the Chinese, a dragon is not just a dragon or simply a reptile. It sits atop the pantheon of divinity.

Unlike conventional description of the dragon as a huge, winged, fire-breathing lizard, the Chinese dragon is fabled to be composed of body parts from various animals. Thus, as the myth goes, the emergence of such a heaven-dwelling creature -- but only in the best season of Spring -- suggests the culmination of nature's renewed energies and productive forces.

It follows from here that the celebration of the Chinese New Year, especially when coupled with the ritualized beginning of the third millennium, will symbolize the start of a renewed and fully energized life for the Indonesian Chinese.

The fact that President Abdurrahman has assured Chinese Indonesians unprecedented liberties to observe their cultural rights in the same way that other ethnic groups have fully enjoyed theirs will conjure more excitement for this year's festivities.

The racist regulation which facilitated cultural genocide against Chinese beliefs, customs and traditions -- Presidential Decree No. 14/1967 issued by former president Soeharto -- was finally defused and deactivated by the democratically-elected President Abdurrahman.

In the meantime, a new presidential decree, No. 6/ 2000, has been passed, promising much greater cultural freedom for Chinese Indonesians. The new decree has put an end to sporadic speculations that President Abdurrahman's government would not regard all his citizens as equals and that some Indonesian citizens "would be more equal than others," as was often the case under Soeharto's regime.

President Abdurrahman's decree has brought great relief to Chinese Indonesians who, like other ethnic groups, have decided to live in and die for this vast archipelagic country. The Indonesian government has finally removed its systematic racially discriminative practices that had been fully engineered in a top- down manner.

Previous official racist practices show that the conspiratorial mistreatment of the ethnic Chinese, contrary to what we were taught to believe, could not have been solely a bottom-up social phenomenon.

The revolutionary changes in our cultural politics, triggered and accelerated by reformist and democratic transformations, will hopefully mark an irreversible commitment to human rights by the Indonesian government to treat its nationals, regardless of ethnic descent, as respected and protected human beings and citizens.

Let it not be forgotten, however, that for any thoroughly meaningful New Year celebration to take place, the whole country should be in better social, political and economic shape. As suggested by the Jakarta-based Association of Chinese Clans, chaired by Brig. Gen. (ret) Tedy Jusuf, this year's special celebrations should be made as modest as possible.

"In observance of the country's poor condition," says the Association's statement, "we call on all Chinese Indonesians to celebrate Imlek by holding charitable activities and praying for the country's safety" (The Jakarta Post, Jan 21, 2000).

Hopefully the planned Imlek celebrations by the highest body of the Indonesian Confucianist religion, MATAKIN, scheduled to be held in Jakarta and Surabaya on Feb. 17 and Feb. 19, respectively, will be a big success.

Let us remind ourselves of the urgency of a simple but solemn celebration and our gratefulness to the government of President Abdurrahman Wahid for the return of our lost freedom. Kong Xi Fa Chai! Happy Chinese New Year! Be well and prosperous!

The writer graduated from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Based in Medan, he is currently a university lecturer and freelance writer.