A New Strain of Religious Populism Finds a Familiar Scapegoat in Indonesia
Protestors hold a lion used in a traditional Chinese New Year "barongsai dance." Photo by Renaldo Gabriel


This story is over 5 years old.


A New Strain of Religious Populism Finds a Familiar Scapegoat in Indonesia

Islamist groups behind Jakarta's blasphemy protests say the next battle will be over Chinese Indonesian wealth.

A rise in racially-tinged populism in Indonesia is leaving some to question whether the country has done enough to repair its fraught relationship with its ethnic Chinese minority in the nineteen years since the May 98 riots left more than a thousand dead and scores of Chinese Indonesian-owned businesses in flames.

It's a stark contrast to just four years ago when President Joko Widodo was widely believed to symbolize a new kind of Indonesian populism—one that that eschewed racial or religious rhetoric for a reformist platform. Jokowi's rise from the streets of Solo, Central Java, to the State Palace was seen as a positive sign for the future of what is arguably Southeast Asia's strongest democracy.


Fast-forward to today and his replacement in Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, is behind bars, jailed for committing blasphemy in a highly controversial case that quickly took on racial and sectarian tones. Ahok, as he is popularly known, is ethnically Chinese and Christian, two distinctions that were made plainly clear during a series of massive protests calling for his arrest.

One of the main groups behind the protest, the National Movement to Safeguard the Fatwas of the Indonesian Ulemas Council or GNPF-MUI, has now set its sights on the country's economic inequality or more specifically, as the organization's chairman recently told Reuters, on Chinese Indonesian's relative wealth. "It seems they do not become more generous, more fair," Bachtiar Nasir said. "That's the biggest problem."

The country's ethnic Chinese minority make up less than 2 percent of the population, according to recent data, but they are believed to hold the largest share of the country's wealth.

But this belief—that all Chinese Indonesians are rich—isn't based in reality. While there are many wealthy Chinese Indonesian families, there are far more middle and lower income households, explained Charlotte Setijadi, a researcher at Singapore's ISAS-Yusof Ishak Institute who studies the Chinese Indonesian community.

"The vast majority of Chinese Indonesians are middle class, and there are also many Chinese who are poor and in rural areas," Setijadi told VICE Indonesia. "For instance the 'Cina Benteng' community in outer West Jakarta is not only poor, but have been the subject of evictions in the past as well."


The Chinese Indonesian community has, instead, long been used as a scapegoat by those in power. The Dutch colonial government originally used the ethnic Chinese as middlemen between themselves and indigenous Indonesians. Suharto's policies further isolated the community, cementing divisions that still haunt today.

"This kind of problematic history is hard to shake off," Setijadi said. "And the New Order's policy of restricting the Chinese to an economic class only served to solidify negative connotations of 'Chineseness' as associated to concentrated wealth, capitalism, foreignness, and political disloyalty."

In the months leading up to the May 98 riots, the county was struggling through a region-wide economic crisis that was perceived to hit pribumi Indonesians hardest. As the crisis progressed, those in the Suharto's New Order regime began to use coded language to lay the blame on Indonesia's ethnic Chinese minority. Press conferences were called that warned of the threat of "conglomerates," pegging the country's economic woes on the actions of "traitors," "rats," and those with "henchmen operating overseas."

Again, reality paints a very different story. When the Asian Financial Crisis hit Indonesia, it was the actions of foreign investors, and poor decisions by the Suharto regime and international financial institutions, that caused the worst of the crisis. Suharto's unwillingness to step away from the cronyism that characterized much of his time in power did little to calm public concern.


By the time the protests turned into riots, Indonesia's ethnic Chinese were left to shoulder much of the blame.

A scene from the May 98 riots. Source: Wikimedia Commons

But today, anti-Chinese sentiment doesn't have as wide an appeal. Ahok, regardless of his religion or race, still earned 42.5 percent of the vote in a Muslim-majority city despite repeated efforts to highlight ethnic and religious divisions during an ugly campaign.

And he isn't the only Chinese Indonesian to embrace politics. Some of the racism of the late 90s may still be boiling under the surface, but out in the open, Indonesian society is more intertwined than before.

"The political situation now is very different from what it was in the lead up to May 1998," she said. "It is true that the anti-Chinese sentiments and rhetoric are worryingly similar—now with the added amplified religious sentiment—but I think Indonesian society as a whole appreciates the roles Chinese Indonesians play at various levels of society much more than before."

So what does this rise in racial populism really mean? We are living in a time when this kind of populism is on the rise across the globe. The international NGO Human Rights Watch recently warned that there was a growing appetite for authoritarian leaders who use populism to gain power in times of uncertainty.

"They scapegoat refugees, immigrant communities, and minorities," the group wrote in a report titled "The Dangerous Rise of Populism." "Truth is a frequent casualty. Nativism, xenophobia, racism, and Islamophobia are on the rise."


Are the same factors at work here in Indonesia? It's hard to tell because, at least on the surface, recent events appear so contradictory.

President Jokowi was recently photographed visiting a mosque in mainland China in an apparent attempt to show that religion doesn't follow ethnic lines. But the same week, Vice President Jusuf Kalla was seen exploiting the same ethnic divisions, telling a crowded room that "in Indonesia, the rich and the poor are of different religions."

Kalla later refused to back down from the statement, claiming that for every 10 Chinese Indonesian businessmen there was only one Muslim. But these statements were only meant to encourage more Muslims to enter the business world, not to enflame racial tensions, Kalla told local media. "The issue remains," he said. "It's always been an ongoing issue, I don't know why."

The country's wealth gap is one of the worst in the world. A recent report by the Credit Suisse Research Institute found that Indonesia's top 1 percent owned 49.3 percent of the country's wealth. But the country's top 1 percent isn't exclusively one ethnicity.

"We can't blame one certain ethnicity," said Enny Sri Hartati, the executive director of the Institute for National Development of Economics and Finance (INDEF). "Ethnicities and religions can't be used as justification since they are irrelevant when explaining economic problems, especially the wealth gap."


Government policies that favor the country's wealthy elite, not the actions of ethnic minorities, are the root cause of Indonesia's income gap.

Yet, populist claims aside, Indonesia is already more economically equal than it was three years ago. The country's GINI coefficient, which measures income inequality, began to fall for the first time in more than a decade in 2015. Between 2000 and 2014, the ratio rose from 0.3 to 0.41. By 2016, it dropped to 0.39 on a scale where 0 is perfect equality and 1 is perfect inequality.

But it will take a dramatic bureaucratic reform to get that number down to an ideal figure, like Denmark's impressive 0.248.

"Everything depends on the commitment of the government," Enny told VICE Indonesia. "Even when the president is replaced, nothing will change if the bureaucracy is still the same. Jokowi relies on his Nawa Cita [or nine priorities] program and he is committed, but, in reality, it hasn't been that successful."

But Indonesia's massive economy is complex and difficult to explain in a soundbite or a slogan that will rally the masses. That's why those looking for a quick boost in their popularity would rather find someone else to blame for all these economic problems—especially if that "someone" is a minority with a history of being scapegoated, explained Geger Riyanto, a sociologist at Koperasi Riset Purusha.

"Our dire economic situation here is hard to explain, and some people know they can blame it on someone else, in this case a different ethnicity," Geger told VICE Indonesia. "It makes them feel more certain about things. They feel like they can get their revenge."