By Calvin Sidjaya
29 August, 2012
Early last month, the Indonesian government held its first ever congress of Indonesian diaspora in Los Angeles. With the rising importance of Indonesia in international relations, engaging its citizens overseas is one logical way to increase the country’s soft power and culture abroad.
The 2010 census revealed there were about 63,000 Indonesians registered in the United States, making them the 15th largest Asian minority after the Myanmarese.
Human rights, however, may foil Indonesia’s bid to achieve the goal of increasing power and culture aborad, as it has been experiencing a brain drain during its modern history due to persecutions which mostly remain unresolved.
In 1945, the Dutch Indonesians became the target of persecution during the Bersiap anti-Dutch movement, triggering flight from the capital of the new republic to the Netherlands, which only ceased in 1963. Due to various issues, such as an inability to adapt to the climate, as well as economic problem in the Netherlands, many then opted to migrate to the United States.
However until this day, Dutch Indonesians remain the most underrepresented minority in modern Indonesia.
Their history was erased from school history books, and Bersiap is not recognized as a part of Indonesia’s collective memory, even though they could be considered Indonesians, at least technically.
Another brain drain occurred in 1998, when Chinese Indonesians fled overseas due to rise of violence targeting the ethnic minority, and accusations of their role in the country’s economic crisis. Many were traumatized and too afraid to return to their country of origin.
A similar experience occurred in 2012 when about 70 Chinese Indonesians living in New Jersey received a deportation warning from United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Many are afraid to returning due to fear of facing persecution in Indonesia. While it might sound like an overstatement from the government’s point of view, the fact illustrate otherwise.
Indonesia’s pluralism is now facing a serious threat.
The intrusion of radical ideologies has polarized and segregated society. This is quite evident in the Jakarta gubernatorial elections, where several prominent public figures have openly attacked candidates on basis of their religion and ethnicity.
Indonesia has been long heralded as a role model of how Islam and democracy is compatible. Dubbed the third largest democracy in the world, the country has a long tradition that promotes diversity in terms of ethnicity, race and language. It is the Indonesian language that united Indonesians.
Minorities are an irreplaceable part of our country which contribute to public opinion of, and in, Indonesia. The Chinese Indonesians living overseas have legitimate reasons to be afraid of returning to Indonesia, as the government has been continuously failing to protect the rights of various minorities.
The recent attack on the Shia community in Madura just after the Idul Fitri holiday celebrations, which claimed two lives and displaced hundreds, is just one of many examples of persecution against minorities.
With many politicians trying to build a positive image of themselves in front of their Muslim voters at the expense of minorities, these sentiments and actions of persecution will most likely last until the 2014 elections.
The government has also brought the atrocities against the Rohingya in Myanmar to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and signed a declaration in support of Palestine’s bid to become a United Nations member. But nothing has been done to address Indonesian Christian Church (GKI) Yasmin or the closure of churches.
The denial of Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa’s entry to Ramallah by Israel mirrored the situation in Papua, where the government closes the door for humanitarian agencies and human right watchdogs.
It is quite ironic that the government boasts its defense of human rights in international forums, but is turning a blind eye to the mess in its own yard.
The government should practice zero tolerance in relation to human rights violations if it wants to engage its citizen overseas, including minority groups.
There should be protection of, and an improvement to, human rights record at home, starting with such basics as issuing a formal apology to the victims of past persecutions, or ratifying the Rome Statute so as to eliminate acts of violence perpetrated by security forces. The government should also proactively protect its citizens, and ensure the laws are enforced against radical groups that threaten pluralism.
If the government can only sit idly and watch violence against minorities continue, it is time to cast doubt over the longevity of Indonesia’s pluralism. Or it may end up as a myth.
The writer is a researcher at Royston Advisory. The views expressed are his own.