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Jakarta Could Be Getting Its First Ethnically Chinese Governor

The Indonesian capital — once hit by horrific anti-Chinese riots — may see Basuki Tjahaja Purnama take power.
August 17, 2014, 3:24pm
Image via VICE

This story originally appeared on VICE.

Jakarta's Bible-quoting, quick-tempered deputy governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, is poised to take control of the capital of the world's largest Muslim-majority nation. If appointed, he will become the first ethnic Chinese politician to rise to become governor of Jakarta, a city that just 16 years ago was hit by several days of horrific anti-Chinese riots.

"I think it's really extraordinary that Jakarta will have an ethnic Chinese and Christian governor," said Aaron Connelly, a research fellow at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy. "If you asked me five years ago, I'd say this couldn't happen."


Basuki, who is more commonly known by his Hakka nickname Ahok, is a double minority in a country where Christians and Chinese make up less than 10 percent of the population and are still victims of racism and discrimination.

He is currently riding a wave of popular support in Jakarta for his crusade against the chaotic capital's ineffectual bureaucracy, grinding traffic and endemic corruption. But Basuki remains unfazed by the task at hand. As far as he is concerned, this new job will be easier than his last gig.

"For me, it was more difficult as a (regent) in Bangka-Belitung," he told VICE, referring to his tiny, resource-rich home islands off the southeastern coast of Sumatra. "(The province) is 93 percent Muslim. Jakarta is more moderate… so it was more difficult for me as a minority (there)."

Basuki is well acquainted with difficulty.

Indonesian cities such as Jakarta and Medan experienced anti-Chinese violence as the Asian financial crisis wreaked havoc on the country's economy. Years of economic favoritism by Suharto's New Order regime boiled over in anger towards the ethnic Chinese community—a group scapegoated as one of the reasons behind the collapse.

Businesses were torched, women were raped and residents were attacked in days of shocking brutality. The capital's Chinese community was left to defend themselves. It was a period of fear and anger that Basuki remembers well. He barricaded himself within his community, armed with Molotov cocktails and air-soft rifles to protect his then-pregnant wife and family.


"In 1998, my wife was pregnant with my first son, so it was a very difficult time," Basuki said. "We prepared. Every resident prepared. If something happened we would attack together, defend together."

Thousands fled the country, but many others, like Basuki, remained behind. Today, he recalls the decision to remain in Indonesia with a sense of gallows humor.

"Those times — sometimes it was very funny, you know?" he said. "We still make jokes… People would ask, 'why didn't you go abroad?' We said, 'for what? This is our country.' If we went to Europe, we would have to work very hard until we die. 'So why didn't you go to China?' There are already many people there… we would search for death there.

"So it was better in Indonesia. In Indonesia, we could just wait for death. It was more relaxing."

Basuki eventually moved back to Bangka-Belitung, and was elected as the regent of East Belitung in 2005. Four years later, Basuki entered the House of Representatives, where he grabbed the attention of Joko Widodo, the then-mayor of Solo, Central Java, and later running mate in the Jakarta gubernatorial election.

The pair won the governor's race in 2012, besting the incumbent candidates despite attempts to enflame racist tempers by the likes of Rhoma Irama — an ageing rock star with Elvis-like sideburns, political ambitions and a newfound love of conservative Islam.

Now, as Joko inches closer to filling the highest seat in the world's third-largest democracy, Basuki is waiting in the wings.


"I want to prepare this nation. I want Jakarta to be a showcase for this transformed power," Basuki said. "All you need for transformation in this country is an honest and brave governor."

Compared to the mild mannered and smiling Joko, Basuki is a political pit bull. He screams at lazy public officials, publicly reprimanding them and occasionally posting the entire thing on YouTube. It's an approach that has won Basuki fans, but can also be seen as a rather blunt form of showmanship.

"There are people who say that Ahok has to be careful," said Charlotte Setijadi, a postdoctoral research fellow at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University who specializes in Chinese-Indonesian political identity. "He's quite new in the Jakarta system. He's on his own now, and he can't alienate too many people. If he wants to do all of these things, he has to learn how to work with people."

Basuki doesn't it see it that way. For him, burnt bridges are an unavoidable reality in politics.

"I just do my job," Basuki said. "Even the king of the jungle — the lion, the tiger — never eats or kills its children. It's the same philosophy: when you become a government official you never want to kill a citizen of your city. You want to help and fill their stomachs and their wallets… (But) if I have to kill 1,000 people for the sake of 10 million because (bad citizens) don't want to change, I will kill them."

But Basuki also has members of Indonesia's indigenous population concerned, and not necessarily over his brash style. Bambang Harymurti, the former editor in chief of the investigative news magazine Tempo, told a crowd of journalists that for some Indonesians Basuki's governorship signals a troubling amount of ethnic Chinese influence in the country.


"Among the educated middle-class and indigenous Indonesians, there is a feeling of insecurity," Bambang said. "Which is understandable, because Chinese-Indonesians (constitute) less than four percent (of the population), but control more than 74 percent of the economy. If they already control the economy, what if they control politics? That's the real argument they will say if you are close enough to them."

The ethnic Chinese in Indonesia make up a little over one percent of Indonesia's population and have been in the country for centuries. But they are still targets of both institutional and everyday racism and discrimination. Ethnicity and religion are still divisive issues in Indonesia, said Setijadi.

"It's still something that's quite important in Indonesia," Setijadi, who is Chinese-Indonesian, told VICE. "For Ahok, he's very much loved by a lot of Jakartans and respected by many Indonesians for his straight-shooting style and his anti-corruption rhetoric. But once in a while, you get reminded that his ethnicity still does matter."

Basuki, however, is not concerned about his minority status.

"I never think of myself as a minority," he said. "If you think of yourself as a minority, you're finished."

Though many are touting Basuki's achievement as a historic first, Henk Ngantung, who was Jakarta governor from 1964-65, is considered by many to be the city's first Christian leader of Chinese ancestry.


Hailing from Manado, North Sulawesi — an area of the country known for its large ethnic Chinese population — Henk never spoke openly about his ethnicity. He was eventually forced to step down amid accusations that he was an affiliate of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).

Still, Basuki's ascendance is a sign of hope for many in the Chinese-Indonesian community.

"It's not only a sign that racial oppression in the government is ending," said Rudolf Parma, a yoga teacher in Jakarta who is also Catholic. "For me personally, it also sheds new light on the stance Jakartans are taking on the issue. Other than a few racists, most non-Chinese Jakartans I know are thrilled at the prospect of having Ahok as number one."

Mega White, who works for Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), is slightly more pessimistic about the impact of Basuki's popularity.

"It's difficult not to be skeptical when you've seen how bloody politics become when racism is involved," she said. "It's in the culture and mindsets of many Indonesians. As much as the election means, the (racist) mentality will not magically disappear.

"He is like a hero for me, and hopefully he will be one, too, for the next generation of minorities."

For Basuki, becoming the governor of Jakarta is only the next step on the path to the presidency.

"If Joko does not deliver, or if there's success in Jakarta, I could be the next president," he said. "I want to run as president."