Wed, 24 Mar 1999

Looking back at the attempts to promote Chinese assimilation

By Emmy Fitri Hastuti

BANDUNGAN, Central Java (JP): Ill feeling toward ethnic Chinese is nothing new. In fact, the tension was obvious decades ago. And if you think the government has never done anything to overcome the problem, you would be wrong.

The government did make an effort to handle the problem, as reflected in the signing of the 1961 Assimilation Charter here in Bandungan, Ambarawa, seven kilometers from Semarang, the provincial capital of Central Java. Whether its efforts paid off is another matter. But one thing is sure, and this is a fact only a few are aware of: the historic charter was signed by 27 youths of Chinese descent and three Javanese youths on Jan. 15, 1961.

The document, known as the Bandungan Charter, was the brainchild of the Ministry of Education and Culture's director general of culture, who believed that culture was important in the assimilation process.

It was designed to advocate the assimilation of ethnic Chinese to be part of Indonesia and its people.

"We read the declaration out loud at 2 p.m., after drafting the concept and discussing it many times," Junus Jahja, one of the figures who signed the charter, said proudly.

Only five of the signatories of the declaration are still alive: Lauwchuantho, who is now known as Haj Junus Jahja; Tjoa Tjie Liang alias Anang Satyawadana; noted historian Onghokham; Dora Lie Bo Tan; and D. Sutjiadi (now in Hong Kong). All are more than 60 years old.

Junus and Anang recently showed up at the house where the declaration was signed to deliver speeches at a three-day discussion about assimilation. The event was organized by the Ministry of Education and Culture's Directorate General of Culture.

Both Anang and Junus acknowledged that the historic Bandungan declaration did not work as expected because of the country's political situation at the time.

"After we signed the declaration and set up the Tunas Bangsa foundation to design further measures, the political situation didn't allow us to move ahead," Junus said.

Only four years after the declaration was signed, an attempted coup blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party shattered hopes for unity when the country witnessed people killing each other for their ideological believes.

Many link the involvement of ethnic Chinese in the now-banned party.

"Everything that had anything to do with Chinese was then condemned," Anang recalled.

Indonesia then cut off diplomatic ties with China, and it was not until 1990 that relations were restored.

After the attempted coup, the process of assimilation continued.

"The process is still going on," Junus said optimistically.

He believes that the "dream of unity", will be realized if both Chinese and indigenous are willing to open their minds and hearts wide.

He observes that the Chinese younger generation has progressed further in the process than the older generation. Many young people speak Indonesian instead of Chinese in their interactions with other ethnic Chinese, he said.

In the process of assimilation, Chinese were asked to change their names. Which is why Lauw Chuan Tho is now called Junus Jahja and Tjoa Tjie Liang is called Anang Satyawadana, while Ong Hok Ham made his name one word, Onghokham.

Junus, a member of the Supreme Advisory Council, defended the policy, saying that in Thailand, all ethnic Chinese had to change their names to Thai names, while Chinese-Indonesians could choose their names.

In order to make Chinese-Indonesians become Indonesian, the government tried hard to cut cultural ties between the Chinese here and their ancestors. Chinese schools were closed down, Chinese writing was banned and Chinese arts and activities were made taboo.

"If the younger generation of Chinese descent wish to learn and preserve typical culture, to celebrate imlek (Chinese New Year) or to learn Chinese calligraphy, they can do it on their own," Director General of Culture Edi Sedyawati said.

But all these superficial efforts to boost assimilation have not been successful.

There are often conflicts between the Chinese and the indigenous, which reached a climax in last year's riots. In such incidents, the Chinese become vulnerable targets, apparently because many people perceive the Chinese as economic animals who dominate the country's economy.

Many participants of the recent discussion said they had difficulty mixing with ethnic Chinese. They said the Chinese only made friends with people they found beneficial to them. Some acknowledged that there were Chinese-Indonesians who could mingle easily with people in their neighborhoods, but most of these were poor.

They all agreed that the root of the problem was the policies made by the Dutch colonialism government and the New Order government.

The Dutch colonial government put people in Indonesia into three categories: Europeans as first-class citizens; vreemde oosterlingen (eastern foreigners like Chinese, Arabs and Indians) as second-class citizens; and the lowest was the inlander (indigenous).

The categorization is believed to have influenced many Chinese who apparently did not mingle with the indigenous. In response, the indigenous responded by erecting a high wall around them, according to the participants.

After Indonesia gained independence, ethnic Chinese, who were removed from the political arena, played an important role in the economic sector. Some of them were reportedly given facilities and privileges and cooperated with corrupt government officials in a quest for wealth.

However, Edi Sedyawati said there was no need to blame past policies or history.

"Let's not bring up what was mistakenly applied in previous years, but let's find the positive points which can be useful for the country's survival," she said.

"It would be better if we could project for the future by learning from the past," she said.