PRAMBANAN, Indonesia — When Willie Sebastian bought a tiny piece of land to build a storage space, government officials in the heart of the island of Java delivered him an unpleasant surprise: He could not register the purchase, since he was of Chinese descent, and therefore the land would belong to the local sultan.
The men at the land office knew he was Chinese, he said, even though his family had changed their last name from “Lee” in the 1970s, during his country’s right-wing dictatorship, to avoid discrimination.
“They just looked at this face and knew,” Sebastian said recently, pointing to his light skin and eyes, while working in his humble general store outside the historic city of Yogyakarta.
“But my family has been here for generations. They say the land can be owned by ‘natives,’ but I am native. Chinese Indonesians are Indonesians.”
Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most-populous country, is a plural democracy that no longer recognizes racial divisions. But 20 years after the end of the violently anti-communist Suharto dictatorship, which banned Chinese-language materials and suspended relations with Beijing for decades, Sebastian and others in the region still face official discrimination, despite the intervention of the government’s human rights commission.
Questions about the role of Chinese Indonesians have loomed large in the world’s most populated Muslim-majority country over the past few months as Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known simply as “Ahok,” the most prominent politician of Chinese descent in decades, wages a reelection campaign while facing trial for allegedly insulting Islam.
At the same time, President Trump’s arrival has made foreign-policy experts question whether Indonesia will have to rethink its relationship with China now that it is hard to predict the behavior of the United States, a long-standing ally that backed Suharto.
And here in Yogyakarta, a special region governed partially by a sultan with a lifelong position, Sebastian and others are pushing back against a 1975 decree that they think is being used against them unfairly.
“My wife bought some land to open a convenience store near the airport, but it’s still not ours. They want us to rent our own land from the sultan, which we don’t accept,” says Siput Lokasari, a civil engineer who tried to take his case directly to the government with Sebastian. They received no response, despite recommendations from the National Commission on Human Rights that the policy be changed.
“We are a minority. There’s been discrimination before this, and even though we have the law on our side now, a lot of other people are still afraid to speak up,” Lokasari said.
Other local Chinese Indonesians, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they had similar problems but chose not go to public for fear of hurting their cases.
Local officials said they could not comment on government issues and directed questions to the special governor. Representatives for Sultan Hamengkubuwono X did not respond to questions or interview requests.
“There’s much less discrimination now against Chinese-descendant citizens than there was in the Suharto era, and this is one of few remaining official policies, but it’s still very much in practice around here, and it’s very much felt,” said Budi Setyagraha, head of the Yogyakarta chapter of Indonesia’s Chinese Muslim association. “And it’s not just an economic issue, but also a symbolic one. We all built this nation, and we all deserve to be treated the same now.”
For centuries, people from China have been active in the thousands of islands that make up Indonesia, often as traders working alongside indigenous farmers and kings. The Dutch colonial government imposed a system of racial divisions here — as they did in South Africa — before Indonesian independence in 1949, but many of the modern laws concerning the Chinese population were passed during the Cold War.
In 1965, six Indonesian army generals were killed by other high-ranking officers, and conservative generals backed by the United States responded by accusing Communist Party leaders of attempting to orchestrate a coup.
Over the months that followed, military and civilian groups killed an estimated 500,000 to 1 million people, exterminating the world’s third-largest Communist Party (behind China and the Soviet Union) while torturing and killing untold numbers of people accused of association with communists. The government the military formed afterward, led by Suharto, ruled Indonesia until 1998.
“Suharto used domestic elements that already existed, such as some anti-Chinese sentiment, as well as the geopolitical situation and the perceived eternal threat of communism, to craft his policy on the local Chinese population,” said Baskara T. Wardaya, a professor at Sanata Dharma University at Yogyakarta who studies the role of the Cold War in Indonesian history.
“But it was discrimination with uneven results. Chinese Indonesians were effectively banned from public life, from participating in politics and the military, while their children found it hard to enter public schools or universities. At the same time, Suharto relied on powerful Chinese businessmen to build the economy, and many became very wealthy while common Chinese citizens were left behind.”
In 1998, anti-Chinese riots erupted across the country as business executives in the minority group were blamed for the country’s economic crisis.
It is estimated that there are at least 3 million Chinese-descended citizens in Indonesia, out of a population of approximately 260 million. A few prominently wealthy people contribute to the myth that the entire community is rich.
Across the country, Chinese Indonesians of more modest means, such as Sebastian and Lokasari, are closely watching Ahok’s trial and election, hoping it turns on the law rather than on race. Closer to home, they’re pressing for the same principle to be upheld as they pursue their case against the government.
“I don’t feel that regular people treat me differently because I’m Chinese. We get along great,” says Sebastian, as customers make their way around a set of pink children’s bicycles, his radio blasts the song “Every Morning” by the 1990s rock band Sugar Ray, and two women wearing light-colored headscarves work alongside him. “Right now my problem is the way the government is treating me.”
Additional reporting by Bambang Muryanto.