Is anti-Chinese sentiment coming back in Indonesia?

June 01, 2017 09:29
Former Jakarta mayor Ahok was found guilty of blasphemy against Islam and sentenced to two years in prison soon after he failed to get reelected. Photo: Reuters

In the mayoral election in the Indonesian capital Jakarta last month, the incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as “Ahok”, a baptized Christian of Chinese descent and a close political ally of President Joko Widodo, failed to get reelected.

Shortly after the election, Ahok was found guilty of blasphemy against Islam and sentenced to two years in prison. As the political climate in Indonesia has continued to intensify, there are growing concerns among the Indonesian-Chinese community that another wave of large-scale and nationwide violence against them could be looming on the horizon. And their concerns are not unfounded.

Even though many believe Ahok could have been just a scapegoat as the entire saga over his alleged blasphemy was in fact a carefully masterminded political onslaught against President Widodo mounted by radical Islamic groups, the fact that Ahok is Chinese and the first ever non-Islamic governor of Jakarta did cause a substantial amount of dismay among many Islamic Indonesians.

And their hate against Ahok might reignite anti-Chinese sentiment across the country, something which has persisted in Indonesia since the Dutch East Indies era.

Besides, there are increasingly worrying signs that the religious right, after having eliminated Ahok, is planning to escalate their action.

As Bachtiar Nasir, leader of the National Movement to Safeguard the Fatwas of the Indonesian Ulema Council who facilitated the downfall of Ahok, recently declared, the next target they are after would be affluent Chinese in the country, whom he said have been able to get rich at the expense of local interests.

If Nasir really meant what he said, then it is not entirely impossible that the political onslaught against Ahok, which might have been initially aimed at undermining President Widodo, might continue to snowball into an even more widespread and violent movement against all non-Muslims in Indonesia, and eventually, ethnic Chinese.

In fact, major Islamic countries around the world such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey and even the tiny state of Brunei have witnessed Islamic radicalization in recent years, with the political influence of Islamic fundamentalist groups continuing to grow.

In particular, the growing popularity of radical Islamic groups in Indonesia is already casting a shadow over secular rule in the country, which is the most populous Islamic state in the world.

If their influence is allowed to grow unchecked, these radical Islamic groups in the above countries might form a united front in spreading Islamic fundamentalism, and the result could be catastrophic.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 31

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal