Discrimination against Chinese Indonesians

Discrimination against Chinese Indonesians

Discrimination against people of Chinese descent in Indonesia has been recorded since at least 1740, when the Dutch Colonial Government killed up to 10,000 people of Chinese descent during the Chinezenmoord. In the period since then, discrimination and violence have been recorded both foreign and Indonesian governments. The worst outbreaks took place in 1998, when hundreds of Chinese were killed and dozens more raped during the May 1998 riots.

The discrimination can take the form of violence, diction or language use, and restrictive legislation. Due to this discrimination, Chinese Indonesians have suffered an identity crisis, unable to be accepted by both native Chinese and native Indonesians.




Violence against Chinese Indonesians is generally limited to property, including factories and shops.[1] However, killings and assaults have happened, including in Batavia in 1740, Tangerang in 1946, during the period after the 30 September Movement, and during the May 1998 riots.[2]

Chinese Indonesians have become “the typical scapegoat” in situations where widespread discontent and social unrest becomes violent. The scapegoating has become more pronounced during the period since Indonesia’s independence.[3]


Terms considered disparaging against Chinese Indonesians have entered common Indonesian usage, at both the regional and national levels. The term Cina, the use of which was mandated in 1967 instead of the then-commonly used Tionghoa, was perceived as having similar negative connotations to inlander for Native Indonesians and nigger for people of African descent.[4] The term Tionghoa began to be used again after the beginning of Reformation, but by then Cina was not considered negative by the younger generation of Chinese Indonesians.[5]

In different regions different terms have come into use that reflect common stereotypes. The following examples are from Surakarta.[6]

Original Translation Meaning
Porsi Cina Chinese portion The largest portion of food
Mambu Cina Smelling of the Chinese Newly-purchased items
Tangisan Cina Chinese tears False tears, crocodile tears


Beginning in the Colonial Era, legislation was introduced specifically against Chinese Indonesians. One of the first was in 1816 and required ethnic Chinese to carry a special pass at all times.[7] This was later expanded on during the Sukarno regime, with all Chinese Indonesians being required to state their intent to stay Indonesian citizens in 1958[A] and in 1959 being forbidden from doing business outside of urban areas.[B][8]

This continued into the New Order. Chinese Indonesians were forced to choose Indonesian-sounding names,[C][9] forbidden to practice their traditions,[D][10] and required to obtain extra proof of citizenship.[D][11] In total, forty five directly or indirectly discriminatory laws were passed during the New Order.[12] Although the majority of this legislation was rescinded during the presidencies of Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati Sukarnoputri,[13] instances of enforcement continue.[14]



Chinese junks Sin Tong Heng and Tek Hwa Seng in the Singapore Strait, c. 1936

Based on Chinese artifacts found in Indonesia, China is thought to have had trading relations with the Indonesian archipelago since the first century B.C.[15] However, the first recorded movement of people from China into the Maritime Southeast Asia was the arrival of Mongol forces under Kublai Khan that culminated in the Mongol invasion of Java in 1293. The Mongols introduced Chinese technology to the island, particularly shipbuilding and Ancient Chinese coinage. Their intervention also hastened the decline of the classical kingdoms and precipitated the rise of the Majapahit empire.[16]

Later, Chinese Muslim traders from the eastern coast of China arrived at the coastal towns of Indonesia and Malaysia in the early 15th century. They were led by the mariner Zheng He, who led several expeditions to southeastern Asia between 1405 and 1430.[17] These traders settled along the northern coast of Java, but there is no further documentation of their settlements beyond the 16th century. Scholars believe that the Chinese Muslims became absorbed into the majority Muslim population,[18] until no Chinese communities remained when the Dutch arrived.[19] Trade from China was re-established when it legalized private trade in 1567 and began licensing 50 junks a year. Distinct Chinese colonies emerged in ports throughout the archipelago, including the pepper port of Banten.[20]

Colonial era

Chinese-owned houses were burned, while bodies were dumped into rivers and canals

By 1740, there were over 2,500 Chinese-owned houses within the Batavia city walls, with another 15,000 individuals living outside of the city limits.[21] Due to Chinese support of Native Indonesian campaigns against the Dutch, on 25 July 1740 the Dutch passed a resolution to "kill or disappear" Chinese who did not have a pass (Dutch: permissiebriefje) and were unemployed;[22] in practice this included traders and businessmen unwilling to be blackmailed. Those so rounded up were put on ships to Ceylon. Other Chinese homes were subject to random searches, often accompanied by assault and robbery.[23]

Rumours soon spread that those sent to Ceylon were being killed, and the Chinese armed themselves. As the situation became tenser, Governor General Adriaan Valckenier held an emergency plenary session. On 7 October 1740, a group of hundreds of Chinese Indonesians attacked a Dutch stronghold in Tanah Abang, killing 50. In response, a troop of 1,800 Company soldiers led by Gustaaf Willem van Imhoff, together with militia (Dutch: schutterij) and conscripts (Dutch: pennist, began an ethnic cleansing campaign.[23] They were later joined by Native Indonesians, fed by rumors of Chinese plans for rape and mass murder.[24] For two weeks, the troops burned Chinese-owned houses and stores, killing ethnic Chinese and dumping their bodies in the Ciliwung River.[25] Eventually an estimated 10,000 were killed, including 500 prisoners and hospital patients.[26] The surviving Chinese Indonesians in Batavia were moved to an area outside of the wall, in what is now Glodok.[27] This was later applied to other cities, where Chinatowns (Indonesian: Pecinan) were built to segregate the Chinese and other ethnic groups.[28]

When the VOC was nationalized on 31 December 1799, the freedoms the Chinese experienced under the corporation were taken away by the Dutch government.[29] An 1816 regulation introduced a requirement for the indigenous population and Chinese traveling within the territory to obtain a travel permit. Those who did not carry a permit risked being arrested by security officers. The Governor-General also introduced a resolution in 1825 which forbade "foreign Asians" from living within the same neighborhood as the native population.[30]

During the Java War, thousands of Chinese Indonesians were killed by Prince Diponegoro's forces during raids on the southern coast of Java. Survivors fled to the northern coast or to Dutch settlements for protection. Setiono cites the Chinese's status as tax collectors and loan providers as a cause, as well as Diponegoro's belief that the Chinese brought bad luck upon his campaign.[31]

In 1848, the Dutch colonial government enacted the legislation sorting all inhabitants of the archipelago into two groups, based on whether or not they practiced Christianity. This was later amended in 1855, combining Native Indonesian, Chinese, Arab, and Indian Christians with non-Christians. However, in practice the “foreign Orientals”, were subject to separate regulations.[32]

"The establishment of Sarekat Islam ... marked a watershed for ethnic Chinese in Indonesia."

—Jemma Purdey[33]

By 1912, the Dutch government had abandoned the policy of segregation. During the same period, the Xinhai Revolution awakened Chinese nationalism in the ethnic Chinese, while Sarekat Islam worked to awaken Indonesian nationalism in the Native Indonesian populace.[33] Tensions between Sarekat Islam and the ethnic Chinese led to racially-charged riots in Surakarta (1912), Tangerang (1913), and Kudus (31 October 1918). Of these riots, the largest was in Kudus, where a group of rioters burned and looted forty houses and numerous Chinese temples. At least 16 were killed in the riots.[34]

Japanese occupation and National Revolution (1942–1949)

After the Japanese occupied Indonesia in 1942, at least 542 ethnic Chinese from Java and Madura were arrested and detained in the Cimahi concentration camp; this group included leaders, spouses of Europeans, and Chinese who were legally considered Europeans. Chinese organizations were disbanded and banned. Not long afterwards, ethnic Chinese were required to register themselves and pledge their allegiance to the Japanese army. Despite Japanese attempts to quell dissent,[35] there were several underground resistance movements led by ethnic Chinese.[36]

This was followed by the Pontianak affair in October 1943. Over 1,500 people were arrested or killed by the Japanese occupying forces in an attempt to prevent a multi-ethnic rebellion. Ethnic Chinese were the largest single group targeted, with 854 killed in the affair.[37]

From 30 May to 4 June 1946, attacks from Indonesian freedom fighters killed 653 Chinese Indonesians. Roughly a thousand Chinese Indonesian-owned homes were burned; Mely G. Tan notes this as the worst of the violence targeted at Chinese Indonesians during the war.[38] More cases were reported in Karawaci, Bayur, and Bagansiapiapi.[39]

Old Order (1949–1965)

Sukarno's government enacted legislation limiting Chinese Indonesians' trading rights

In 1955, Zhou Enlai declared that Chinese citizenship was jus sanguinis. This led to a treaty between China and Indonesia regarding the legal status of Chinese Indonesians, which formed the basis for the Citizenship Law of 1958.[40] This law required all Chinese Indonesians to choose between Chinese and Indonesian citizenship, making a statement at the nearest district court.[41] Approximately 390,000 ethnic Chinese rejected Chinese citizenship.[42]

In May 1959, the Sukarno government passed legislation revoking the trading rights of foreign nationals in rural areas; this was based on two previous, lower-level legislations.[43] Due to uncertainty relating to the legal status of the ethnic Chinese, they were included as well.[8] This led to the exodus of between 102,000[44] and 136,000 Chinese Indonesians,[45] who left for China on ships sent by the Chinese government.[46]

Between 1963 and early 1965, the situation for Chinese Indonesians generally became more stable. Numerous Chinese-language schools were opened and a the Chinese-language press flourished. However, there were still minor attacks on Chinese Indonesians in Cirebon, Sukabumi, and Bandung in 1963.[47]

New Order (1965–1998)

During the riots following the abortive 30 September Movement coup, Chinese Indonesians were targeted due to suspected ties to the Indonesian Communist Party. Property was targeted by rioters, and numerous Chinese Indonesians were killed; the number killed has been subject to debate, with the total ranging from “hundreds” to “hundreds of thousands”. Large pogroms happened throughout Java, as well as in Makassar and Medan.[48]

"The history of the ethnic Chinese during the Suharto regime can indeed be described as the history of a minority ethnic group that had no choice but to comply with the policies applied to them."

During the same period, numerous discriminative laws were passed. In April 1966, all Chinese schools (at the time numbering 629) were closed.[50] On 8 May 1966, Territorial Military Commander of Aceh Ishak Djarsa declared that all ethnic Chinese had to leave Aceh prior to 17 August 1966; this was followed by a similar decree by the North Sumatra government.[51] In 1967, the usage of the term Cina, considered disparaging, became mandated for all official communications.[52]

On 5 August 1973, a riot in Bandung, West Java, caused by three Chinese Indonesian teenagers beating another driver to death after a minor traffic accident, led to the looting and destruction of more than 1,500 Chinese Indonesian-owned shops and houses. The riots were not stopped by the local military; nineteen soldiers were arrested for participating in the riots. The riots were later blamed on an underground section of the PKI.[53]

On 15 January 1974, student demonstrations against corruption, foreign investment, and President Suharto's clique of personal assistants were diverted by suspected Special Forces provocateurs into a full riot.[54][55], and later an anti-Chinese Indonesian pogrom. Stores in Glodok, owned by ethnic Chinese, were looted and burned; the largest of these was the Senen shopping complex. The security forces did almost nothing to stop the looting.[56] The demonstrations and their aftermath came to be known as the Malari incident.[55]

In 1978, the government began requiring a Letter of Proof of Citizenship of the Republic of Indonesia (Indonesian: Surat Bukti Kewarganegaraan Republik Indonesia, or SBKRI). Although the SBKRI was legally required for all citizens of foreign descent, in practice it was generally applied to the Chinese. This led to difficulties for Chinese Indonesians when enrolling in state universities, applying to be civil servants, or joining the military or police.[57]

The exchange rate of the Rupiah plummeted during the Asian financial crisis

Suharto's economic programs continued to work, with Indonesia experiencing an economic boom with its Gross Domestic Product growing at a rate of 8 percent in 1996, led by the manufacturing sector.[58] However, the Asian Financial Crisis caused the rupiah to collapse and economic growth slowed to 1.4 percent in the fourth quarter. Unable to stabilize the economy, the government sought assistance from the International Monetary Fund.[59] With rising unemployment and inflated food prices, the public lost confidence in the government's ability to turn the economy around.[60] By the beginning of May 1998, students had been demonstrating in campuses throughout Medan for nearly two months. The growing number of demonstrators was coupled with increasing calls from the public for overall reforms.[61]

On 4 May, more than 500 protestors from the State Institute of Teacher Training and Education (Institut Keguruan dan Ilmu Pendidikan Negeri, IKIP Negeri) were barricaded and allegedly had Molotov cocktails thrown at them. Eventually, police reportedly stopped a group of students and assaulted them.[61] Word of this attack spread through several witnesses, and a large group later attacked and destroyed a traffic police post. When more officers arrived to confront the group, the station was attacked. Not long after, shops owned by Chinese Indonesians were looted, while they reportedly left those marked with the words "milik pribumi" (owned by the indigenous pribumi) in graffiti alone. When the Mobile Brigade arrived in the afternoon, the crowd was dispersed with tear gas. As businesses in Medan closed on the following day, thousands of people attacked markets throughout the city and its surrounding districts. Police and anti-riot soldiers fired rubber bullets at the crowd to disperse them but were unsuccessful. When the violence ended two days later, six people had died and one hundred were injured.[62]

A man wearing a buttoned shirt, pants, and flip-flops throws an office chair into a burning pile of other chairs in the middle of a city street. Behind him, several dozen people gather in front of a building with broken windows.
Many homes and businesses owned by ethnic Chinese in Jakarta were looted and burned in the riots.

On 12 May, less than a week after the violence in Medan subsided, the police shot four protesting students. Mass violence began almost simultaneously throughout Jakarta the following day. Mobs also attacked Glodok in the northwestern part of the city, where the commercial area of Jakarta's Chinatown was badly damaged. Some store owners reportedly paid local thugs to protect them from the violence because security forces were largely absent.[63] This violence spread to numerous cities throughout Indonesia on 14 and 15 May, including Surabaya,[64] Palembang, Surakarta,[65] and Boyolali.[66] After the riots, there were dozens of documented accounts of ethnic Chinese women being raped;[67] the total number of mass gang-rapes may have reached 468, with 168 victims in Jakarta alone.[68] The incidents caused President Suharto to resign and Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie to become President of Indonesia.[69]

Reformation (1998 – present)

After the fall of Suharto, numerous discriminative laws were recalled and others promoting unity were passed. President Habibie passed legislation requiring the elimination of the terms pribumi and non-pribumi (native Indonesian and non-native) in 1998. In 2000, the next president, Abdurrahman Wahid, recalled the legislation forbidding the practice of Chinese culture and use of Mandarin in public. In 2002, Megawati Sukarnoputri declared Chinese New Year a national holiday. However, some discriminative legislation still remains.[70]

Chinese Indonesians have been “embraced” by the government, with numerous mixed-ethnic cultural presentations and media activity.[71] By 2004, there were three Chinese Indonesian members of the Peoples Representative Council, as well as one cabinet member.[72]


The use of Chinese Indonesians as scapegoats is partly caused by their lack of political power and government protection.[73] The New Order policy of assimilation has also been seen as a factor; the need to assimilate the ethnic Chinese “indicated that Chinese cultural elements are unacceptable”.[74]

Discrimination, distrust, and violence against Chinese Indonesians is caused in part by a perception that they are still loyal to China, and only see Indonesia as a place to live and work. They are also seen as being “exclusive”, unwilling to mingle with other ethnic groups, as well as discriminating against native Indonesians in their business relations.[75]


During the Old and New Orders, Chinese Indonesians generally complied with legal restrictions as best they could. However, the May 1998 riots caused a change in attitude, including greater political activity and assertiveness.[76] Additionally, the discrimination led to an ethnic identity crisis, with Chinese Indonesians with strong Chinese ties feeling unaccepted by the Indonesian populace, and those with strong Indonesian ties wanting equal rights.[77]

Sociologist Mely G. Tan notes that presently many Chinese Indonesian families have prepared escape plans in case of further riots and find themselves unable to trust ethnic Indonesians. She also notes that younger Chinese Indonesians are increasingly impatient with the inability of the government and military to prevent inter-ethnic violence.[78]

See also


  1. ^ Law Number 62 of 1958 (text in Indonesian)
  2. ^ Presidential Regulation 10 of 1959 (text in Indonesian), which required all foreign national-owned businesses to be located in urban areas. Due to uncertainty relating to the status of Chinese Indonesians, they were included as foreign nationals as well.[8]
  3. ^ Cabinet Presidium Decision 127 of 1966 (text in Indonesian)
  4. ^ Presidential Instruction 14 of 1967 (text in Indonesian)
  5. ^ Decision of the Minister of Law No. 3/4/12/1978


  1. ^ Tan 2008, p. 241
  2. ^ Tan 2008, pp. 239–248
  3. ^ Tan 2008, p. 239
  4. ^ Setiono 2008, pp. 986–987
  5. ^ Tan 2008, p. 2
  6. ^ Kinasih 2007, p. 111
  7. ^ Phoa 1992, p. 12
  8. ^ a b c Setiono 2008, pp. 811–815
  9. ^ Setiono 2008, p. 987
  10. ^ Tan 2008, p. 230
  11. ^ Setiono 2008, p. 1028
  12. ^ Tan 2008, p. 247
  13. ^ Setiono 2008, pp. 1090–1091
  14. ^ Purdey 2006, p. 179
  15. ^ Setiono 2008, p. 20
  16. ^ Reid 2001, p. 17
  17. ^ Ma 2005, p. 115
  18. ^ Tan 2005, p. 795
  19. ^ Reid 2001, p. 33
  20. ^ Reid 1999, p. 52
  21. ^ Setiono 2008, p. 109
  22. ^ Setiono 2008, p. 112
  23. ^ a b Setiono 2008, p. 113
  24. ^ Setiono 2008, p. 114
  25. ^ Setiono 2008, pp. 117–118
  26. ^ Setiono 2008, p. 119
  27. ^ Setiono 2008, p. 121
  28. ^ Tan 2008, p. 14
  29. ^ Phoa 1992, p. 11
  30. ^ Phoa 1992, p. 12
  31. ^ Setiono 2008, pp. 173–181
  32. ^ Tan 2008, p. 15
  33. ^ a b Purdey 2006, p. 6
  34. ^ Setiono 2008, pp. 383–387
  35. ^ Setiono 2008, pp. 530–531
  36. ^ Setiono 2008, pp. 534–535
  37. ^ Purdey 2006, p. 7
  38. ^ Tan 2005, p. 792
  39. ^ Setiono 2008, pp. 586–592
  40. ^ Effendi & Prasetyadji 2008, pp. 14–15
  41. ^ Setiono 2008, p. 751
  42. ^ Purdey 2006, p. 9
  43. ^ Purdey 2006, p. 11
  44. ^ Purdey 2006, p. 12
  45. ^ Setiono 2008, p. 815
  46. ^ Tan 2008, p. 28
  47. ^ Purdey 2006, p. 13
  48. ^ Tan 2008, pp. 240–242
  49. ^ Tan 2008, p. 243
  50. ^ Setiono 2008, p. 979
  51. ^ Setiono 2008, pp. 981–982
  52. ^ Setiono 2008, pp. 986–987
  53. ^ Setiono 2008, pp. 1023–1024
  54. ^ Setiono 2008, p. 1026
  55. ^ a b Schwarz 2000, p. 34
  56. ^ Setiono 2008, p. 1027
  57. ^ Effendi & Prasetyadji 2008, pp. 50–51
  58. ^ Purdey 2006, p. 39
  59. ^ Purdey 2006, p. 79
  60. ^ Purdey 2006, p. 80
  61. ^ a b Purdey 2006, p. 115
  62. ^ Purdey 2006, p. 116
  63. ^ Purdey 2006, p. 123
  64. ^ Wijayanta, Hanibal W.Y.; Sen Tjiauw (1 June 1998). "[A Smouldering Stain Throughout the Archipelago]" (in Indonesian). Percik Bara Seantero Nusantara. Jakarta: Forum Keadilan. pp. 18–22. 
  65. ^ "Kota Solo Penuh Asap [Solo is Full of Smoke]" (in Indonesian). Kompas (Jakarta): p. 11. 15 May 1998. 
  66. ^ "Amuk Massa Landa Boyolali [Masses Rage in Boyolali]" (in Indonesian). Kompas (Jakarta): p. 7. 16 May 1998. 
  67. ^ "Ethnic Chinese tell of mass rapes". CNN. 23 June 1998. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/events/indonesia/special_report/118576.stm. Retrieved 15 May 2009. 
  68. ^ "The May 1998 Riot in Jakarta, Indonesia, Analyzed with GIS". http://www.esri.com/Ḕnews/arcnews/fall01articles/may1998riot.html. Retrieved 15 May 2009. 
  69. ^ Purdey 2006, p. 130
  70. ^ Setiono 2008, pp. 1088–1099
  71. ^ Tan 2008, pp. 230–231
  72. ^ Tan 2008, pp. 20–21
  73. ^ Setiono 2008, p. 977
  74. ^ Tan 2008, p. 24
  75. ^ Tan 2008, p. 217
  76. ^ Tan 2008, p. 218
  77. ^ Tan 2008, p. 29
  78. ^ Tan 2008, pp. 229–230

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