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SINGAPORE — The first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year will be celebrated Saturday on a grand scale in many shops and homes. This has been the tradition among overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, particularly in Singapore and Malaysia.

But for Indonesia’s 6 million ethnic Chinese, the festivities will be modest and on a low key — as they had been in the past 30 years. Apart from the token performance of the dragon dance or barongsai in the Chinese quarters of Jakarta and perhaps other Indonesian cities, there will be no public display of gaiety on the scale of their counterparts in Singapore and Malaysia.

This is despite the recent lifting of restrictions on Chinese cultural and religious practices by the administration of President Abdurrahman Wahid, which in principle allows them to do so for the first time in 30 years. Chinese New Year, or Imlek as it is called in Indonesia, will instead be quietly marked by visits to the temples, friends and relatives and private dinners.

It is 100 days since popular Muslim cleric Wahid was elected Indonesia’s fourth president. As part of his wider moves to bring about economic and political reforms in the gigantic archipelagic nation of 210 million after the fall of Suharto in 1998, Wahid or “Gus Dur” is overturning many of the restrictions imposed on the Chinese by former mercurial president’s New Order Government since 1967.

Suharto, a former army general, seized power after the failure of a communist coup in Indonesia in October 1965. His administration had blamed communist China which was friendly to the previous regime under Sukarno for supporting the local communists. One of the consequences of Jakarta’s estrangement with Beijing was to assimilate the country’s 3 percent Chinese minority to ensure their complete loyalty to Indonesia.

Seeds of repression

The broad-based directive or Presidential Instruction 41/1967 closed down Chinese schools, banned the teaching of the Chinese language and publication of Chinese newspapers (except for a government-controlled one), prohibited the public display of Chinese signboards in front of their shops and put tremendous pressure on the Chinese to change their names to Indonesian-sounding ones.

But after 30 years, it was clear that assimilation had not meant the end of official discrimination against the Chinese. They continued to face numerous obstacles in dealing with government bureaucrats on matters relating to business and citizenship and were forced to resort to bribery to overcome such obstacles.

There was even a surreptitious code in their official papers to distinguish (and discriminate against) Chinese with Indonesian names from indigenous Indonesians. And the tense situation prior to Suharto’s dramatic resignation on May 21, 1998, led to serious riots and rapes in Jakarta and other cities that greatly traumatized the Chinese.

After he was elected president last October, Wahid followed up on the measures to pacify and reassure the greatly distressed Chinese. Interim President B.J. Habibie had initiated them following worldwide condemnation of Indonesia’s brutal treatment of its Chinese minority. Among the countries Wahid first visited in his capacity as president were Singapore and China.

In China, Wahid publicly declared that he was part-Chinese as his ancestors had left the Xinjiang autonomous region some 500 years ago to settle in Indonesia.

In Singapore, Wahid called on Indonesian Chinese businessmen, many of whom had sought refuge from the riots and trauma, to return home and help rebuild the country. Like Habibie, Wahid was anxious for the return of some $20 billion capital that fled the country with their Chinese owners.

The huge amount was crucial for the rehabilitation of Indonesia whose economy had plunged by nearly 14 percent since the Asian financial crisis of July 1997.

Despite protestations by prominent Indonesian Chinese leader Kwik Kian Gie that most Chinese in Indonesia live from hand to mouth, the general perception, based on the high profile of several Chinese tycoons close to Suharto, was that the Chinese played a significant role in the country’s economy out of proportion to their numbers.

Exodus of ’98

This partly explains why certain sectors of the Indonesian economy, particularly the distribution network, collapsed after the riots in 1998 when many Chinese fled the country. The exodus aggravated the problem of the shortage of essential commodities and widespread unemployment affecting many poor indigenous Indonesians.

Though the Chinese as a whole appreciate what Wahid is doing to remove all discriminatory barriers, they have yet to feel completely reassured. But they have nevertheless felt cautiously optimistic and are adopting a wait-and-see attitude.

The last thing they would do at this stage is to celebrate Chinese New Year on a grand scale which would inevitably involve lavish spending on visible consumer items and arouse the envy of many indigenous Indonesians badly affected by the recession who are still trying to make ends meet.

All it needs is a minor incident involving a Chinese and a native to spark off widespread disturbances in a country with a long record of anti-Chinese riots.

Much as they would have liked to, many Chinese are not inclined to openly put up signboards with large Chinese characters in front of their shops and publicly revert to their Chinese names in response to Wahid’s moves to accord them equal treatment with the other indigenous communities in post-Suharto Indonesia.

Wahid had come to power in an Indonesia that is still undergoing political and economic transition. There are many visible signs of instability generated by growing Islamic intransigence in the 90 percent Muslim-majority nation, such as the sectarian violence in Maluku, and secessionist tendencies in outlying regions like Aceh.

In Indonesia’s first relatively free and fair elections, Wahid’s Islamic-based party only managed to secure some 12 percent of the popular vote. But by his clever maneuvering, he was the chosen president in the fractured highest legislative-making body ahead of Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose party secured some 30 percent of the popular vote.

The Chinese could see that Wahid’s minority support makes him extremely vulnerable to moves to oust him. But so far Wahid, the astute politician, has displayed an uncanny ability to stay in power by playing one faction against another. His moves in paving the way for a more transparent government has earned Wahid the admiration of not only the Chinese, but also many indigenous Indonesians.

Eroding the military

The Chinese also approve of his circumspect manner in eroding the power of the unpopular military whom they felt was responsible not only for May 1998 riots and rapes in Jakarta, but also the mass killings in East Timor after the former Portuguese colony voted for independence from Indonesia in a referendum last year.

Wahid is in the process of sacking Wiranto as his security coordinating minister after a government-backed panel had charged the former army general with responsibility for war crimes against the East Timorese.

The Chinese are prepared to wait as long as necessary for Wahid to consolidate his position as president. But they are worried about his health and do not know whether Vice President Megawati would be as astute as Wahid should the president become incapacitated.

The 59-year-old Wahid is blind in one eye and a stroke has constrained his mobility, requiring his daughter to lead him anywhere he wants to go.

Still, when all is said and done at this stage, Wahid has proven to be just and fair in his first 100 days as president within the severe constraints that he faces. This is reassuring to the Chinese, although the reassurance may not be full.

As prominent Indonesian Chinese lawyer Frans Winarta put it: “People need to see that the law is being upheld. . . . Otherwise how would you feel secure in doing your business here?”

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