Sun, 02 Feb 2003

`Imlek' blessed, but equality still elusive

Hera Diani and Maria Endah Hulupi, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Commercialism never fails to adapt to the latest situation, the most recent example being the celebration of the Chinese New Year, called Imlek here.

Two weeks before the New Year on Saturday, shopping centers were competing with each other to present the best and most complete atmosphere of Chinese culture.

They put up festive decoration, sold related items like cheong sam dresses and sponsored musical or artistic performances.

And television was no exception, with seemingly every show dealing with Imlek.

After being banned for more than three decades during the regime of Soeharto, Indonesians of Chinese descent can now publicly celebrate their New Year, thanks to the revocation of Soeharto's policy by former president Abdurrahman Wahid in 2000.

And this year, for the first time ever, President Megawati Soekarnoputri formalized Imlek as a national holiday.

However, the recognition feels superficial because discrimination against Chinese-Indonesians remains, and is even institutionalized by various discriminatory regulations.

One example is the Republic of Indonesia Citizenship Certificate (SBKRI), which is obligatory only for Chinese- Indonesians.

While the decree requiring ethnic Chinese to obtain an SBKRI has been revoked, the certificate is still required by many institutions, such as the immigration office and state universities.

"When I questioned them about that at the immigration office, they blasted me, saying, 'It was the minister who revoked it, so just go to the minister,'" said a Chinese-Indonesian man.

With the decree requiring a certificate officially revoked but some institutions still requiring it, the SBKRI has become that more difficult to obtain and the process the source of corruption.

According to data from non-governmental organization Solidaritas Nusa Bangsa (SNB), there were no fewer than 12 bureaucratic institutions involved in the process of issuing an SBKRI, before the certificate can be signed by the minister of justice and human rights.

These institutions are the neighborhood unit, the subdistrict office, the district office, the mayoralty office, the gubernatorial office, the police subprecinct, the police precinct, the city police headquarters, the prosecutor's office, the district court and finally the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights.

Only last year, top badminton player Hendrawan was only able to receive his SBKRI after President Megawati personally intervened. The most surprising aspect of the story, however, was not that Hendrawan had a difficult time obtaining a certificate but that he needed one in the first place, having represented Indonesia at numerous international events, including helping the country win last year's Thomas Cup world men's team championship.

Obtaining an SBKRI can cost up to several million rupiah, which is not a problem for wealthy Chinese-Indonesians. But for those who are poor, like the majority of the residents of Tegal Alur in Cengkareng, West Jakarta, the price is beyond their reach.

And because they do not have an SBKRI, many of them cannot obtain ID cards, making them practically "stateless".

"We cannot register our marriages and obtain marriage certificates. As a consequence, our children are declared born out of wedlock on their birth certificates," said Tjan E. Lie of Tegal Alur.

Other discriminatory rulings include a decree issued by the ministry of religious affairs saying Confucianism is not one of the country's recognized beliefs.

That decree affects those practicing Confucianism, or Khonghucu, like those in the village of Kampung Pulo in Bogor, West Java.

Marriages between the Konghucu believers in Kampung Pulo are considered illegal and their children also rules to have been born out of wedlock. Unless, of course, they "convert" to one of the five religions recognized by the government -- Islam, Catholicism, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism.

"But we don't want to do that. That's hypocritical. I just don't see why our religion is not considered a religion. We believe in one God, we don't believe in superstitions," said Tan Im Yang, 55, a prominent figure in Kampung Pulo.

SNB has been working on this matter, but to no avail. According to activist Candra M., people in Tegal Alur do not have their rights protected, but their votes are used by political parties when a general election comes.

Chinese-Indonesian expert Andrie Wongso said the problem was a lack of technical instructions from high-ranking officials on how their subordinates should implement new decrees, like the revocation of the SBKRI.

"Why does the government fail to issue such instructions to make institutions comply with new decrees?" Andrie asked.

Government officials, however, do not seem to be putting much effort into ending this problem.

Abdul Gani Abdullah, director general of regulations at the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, had a difficult time explaining the SBKRI controversy recently.

"Well, there was a case when a Chinese-Indonesian applied for immigration papers. But the person could not speak Indonesian at all, or any other native language. Yes, he had a legal birth certificate but it was questionable whether he was truly an Indonesian citizen," he said during a recent discussion.

"It is true that the SBKRI is no longer required. Well, if there are still some people who ask for the paper, just inform us. We will talk about this during discussion of the upcoming citizenship bill at the House of Representatives," he said.

But it will take more than discussion to rid the country of the institutionalized discrimination faced by Chinese- Indonesians. When that day comes, Imlek celebrations truly will be joyful events.