Rising anti-Chinese sentiment dampens Lunar New Year spirits

While shopping malls in Jakarta are decorated with red lanterns and dragons to welcome the Chinese New Year, rising anti-Chinese sentiment – fuelled by election rivalry – is causing uneasiness among some Indonesians.

“We’ve been told by our community leaders to tone down Chinese New Year celebrations and not to show off too much,” said Amie Liem, a Chinese-Indonesian who works at a private bank in Jakarta.

“Taxi drivers often ask me if I’m Chinese because I look Chinese, and that has made me uneasy,” she said.

Anti-Chinese sentiment has risen in the mainly Muslim country after Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian, made remarks in September that some Muslims interpret as insulting to the Koran.

Ahok, who is running for a second term in office in elections in mid-February, denies the accusations and blames his critics for taking a verse from the Koran that suggests Muslims should not take Christians and Jews as allies, and using it against him.

Nevertheless, Ahok is on trial on charges of blasphemy and could face five years in jail. He remains free to campaign for the February 15 poll.

As in the United States last year, unconfirmed reports on social media have played a part.

Rumours that have fanned the flames include reports shared widely on social media and messaging platforms that millions of illegal Chinese workers are flooding Indonesia, or that Chinese nationals are secretly planning to destabilize the country.

The Chinese embassy in Jakarta was forced to deny some of the allegations, calling them “very worrying.”

“The current ethnic and religious tensions that are threatening our pluralism are being fanned by political interest groups,” said Emrus Sihombing, a political analyst at Pelita Harapan University.

“I believe the vast majority of Indonesians are tolerant, but we have to be vigilant and a threat to unity no matter how small it is must be dealt with properly,” he said.

The Islamic Defenders Front, a hardline group notorious in the past for smashing nightclubs they accused of harbouring drug addicts and prostitutes, has been at the forefront of efforts to prosecute Ahok, the first ethnic Chinese to lead the city of 10 million people.

A rally demanding Ahok be jailed on December 2 was attended by more than 300,000 people, mostly conservative Muslims.

An earlier protest on November 4, attended by some 100,000, ended with clashes between police and protesters who picketed the presidential palace.

The Front’s leader, controversial cleric Rizieq Shihab, is himself facing a police investigation over accusations he insulted the state secular ideology, Pancasila.

Ethnic Chinese have long been resented due to their perceived wealth and dominance in the Indonesian economy.

But since 2000 they have been free to celebrate their culture and identity after the government lifted a ban on Chinese cultural expressions imposed by dictator Suharto and declared the Chinese Lunar New Year a national holiday.

Suharto, who ruled for 32 years, stepped down in 1998 after riots that targeted ethnic Chinese businesses at the height of the Asian financial crisis.

“Since the Dutch colonial times the Chinese have always been the whipping boy, even though all they want is to do business in peace,” said Retno Sukardan Mamoto, a cultural studies professor at the University of Indonesia.

“They have always been fearful because they have been attacked from left and right, and even when they try to be in politics, they are being scapegoated,” she said.

But Retno praised President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo for his handling of the situation.

He has met Islamic religious leaders to try to calm tensions while also asserting his authority by calling on security forces not to compromise on the country’s motto “unity in diversity.”

“He’s used lobbying and persuasion to dealt with extremists and has not resorted to force and for that we should take our hat off to him,” she said.

Jokowi himself was a victim of a smear campaign in the run-up to the 2014 election. At the time rumours circulated that he was the son of communist and Chinese parents.

Amie, the bank worker, said she would still go out for dinner with her Chinese friends to herald the year of the rooster, which falls on Saturday.

“We’ll forget about politics and eat some duck,” she said.

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