Chinese Indonesian politician Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (center), who is a Christian, speaks to animal rights activists in Jakarta as part of election campaign that targets groups ignored by Indonesia's mostly Muslim political class. (Andrew Higgins/Washington Post)

When mob violence swept across the Indonesian capital in May 1998, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese geologist and businessman, joined terrified neighbors in the heavily Chinese district of Pluit to defend their lives and property. They used sticks, gasoline bombs and even a few old shotguns to fend off attackers drunk with anti-Chinese fury.

The frenzy of looting, rape and murder — triggered by a deep economic crisis and a vicious struggle for political power — stirred comparisons to Nazi assaults against the Jews. It so traumatized Indonesians of Chinese descent that many fled abroad, despairing at the seemingly ineradicable racism of their home country.

Basuki, urged by friends and relatives to flee, decided to take a gamble and stay, judging that “the people who should leave are the rioters, not us. This is my country. Why should I leave?”

Since then government bureaucrats have destroyed Basuki’s mining business, and, as a Christian, he has endured taunts that Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, doesn’t need “infidel” interlopers.

Yet, Basuki has done something that not long ago seemed impossible: He has become a successful politician, confounding predictions that Indonesian voters, who are mostly Muslims of indigenous blood, would never support an ethnic Chinese Christian, a member of a small and vulnerable minority that plays a major role in Indonesian business and in many professions.

Basuki, who first entered politics in his home region of Belitung, an island in the Java Sea, and is trying to repeat his success in Jakarta, thinks Indonesia is moving toward an “Obama moment” — a rupture with a long and often violent history of prejudice and resentment.

Indonesia, a vast and sprawling archipelago, boasts extraordinary and potentially explosive ethnic and linguistic diversity. Its population of about 240 million comprises more than 1,000 ethnic groups and subgroups, the biggest of which is Javanese. Nearly all are classified as “pribumi,” or “sons of the soil,” a term coined during Dutch colonial rule to designate “native Indonesians.”

Chinese Indonesians, despite roots in Indonesia that stretch back centuries, have often been regarded as alien intruders by this overwhelming pribumi majority. A 2000 census, the last such comprehensive survey, put the number of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia at just 1.7 million — about 0.9 percent of the population — but the census asked people to identify their ethnic group, something that many Chinese would have been reluctant to do. Their real number is thought to be several times as high. About a third of Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese are reported to be Christian.

Challenging the norms

On a trip to the United States in 2008, Basuki visited Denver during the Democratic National Convention and marveled at the nomination of Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan who spent part of his boyhood in Jakarta, for president. Indonesia, Basuki said, has been breaking down old barriers, too, and will one day elect a leader from a minority.

Basuki remains a long way from becoming Indonesia’s president, although that is now theoretically possible thanks to a new nationality law that ends the classification of ethnic Chinese as different from “native Indonesians” and thus ineligible for the nation’s highest office.

For the moment, Basuki, better known here by his nickname “Ahok,” is focused on trying to win a runoff next month to become vice governor of Jakarta. Denouncing the corruption-addled ways of Indonesia’s established political elite, Basuki and his election partner, gubernatorial candidate Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, easily won a first-round vote last month with pledges to bring change and competence to a capital city blighted by paralyzed traffic, decrepit infrastructure and greedy, sluggish officials.

The election campaign has been marred by scattered outbursts of bigotry, most notably by a popular singer who, during a sermon in a Jakarta mosque, said Islam bars voters from backing an “infidel.” Indonesian law bans the use of race, religion and other toxic identity issues — known here by the acronym SARA — to rally voters, and the closely watched gubernatorial contest has become a test of how far Indonesia, or at least Jakarta, has defeated demons that took hold of the capital in 1998.

“A few years ago, this would have been very difficult,” said Basuki, commenting on his candidacy during a campaign stop last weekend at a Ramadan-fast-breaking dinner. The event was held at the big South Jakarta house of a Muslim preacher, who is also an old family friend. Those attending included congregants from a local mosque; an association of street vendors, who waved a banner denouncing SARA divisions; and even an activist in the Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI, a fundamentalist Islamist group notorious for stoking religious and ethnic tensions and for helping force the cancelation of a Jakarta concert by Lady Gaga early this summer.

As an organization, FPI, along with a big mainstream Islamic party, is backing the rival ticket of the incumbent governor, who is a Muslim. But Eka Zaya, the FPI activist who attended the fast-breaking event, said he wants “to see change, so we need to support a new figure,” even a Chinese Indonesian who is not a Muslim and doesn’t fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ended this weekend.

To avoid causing offense, Basuki doesn’t eat or drink in public between dawn and sunset during Ramadan, but he sees no reason to observe Islamic norms in private: “I’m a Christian. I don’t like pretending.”

Didi Kwartanada, a Chinese Indonesia researcher at a foundation that promotes interethnic concord, said he doubts that Indonesians outside wealthier districts of Jakarta are ready to vote yet for a non-Muslim Chinese for the presidency or other high office. That, he predicted, will “take two or three generations,” but “things have definitely improved a lot. I don’t say there is no anti-Chinese feeling, but Chinese can now live in peace here.”

A history of discrimination

For much of Indonesia’s modern history, first under the dominance of the Dutch East India Co., then as a formal Dutch colony and, after 1949, as an independent nation, ethnic Chinese have rarely been able to live in peace.

“No country harboring a Chinese minority possesses a blacker record of persecution and racial violence than Indonesia,” according to “Sons of the Yellow Emperor,” a study of overseas Chinese communities written by Lynn Pan, a leading authority on the subject.

A massacre triggered by economic unrest in 1740 left thousands of Chinese dead. Dutch authorities later barred Chinese Indonesians from traveling without special permits and introduced a system of racial classification that separated residents of Chinese descent from other groups. At the same time, they also gave Chinese economic privileges over other ethnic groups.

Independence in 1949 brought a severe backlash, with the new government, led by a fiery nationalist, banning trade in rural areas by non-indigenous Indonesians and imposing other restrictions.

A failed communist coup in 1965 led to a spasm of horrific bloodletting targeted at ethnic Chinese and supposed supporters of the Indonesian Communist Party, or PKI, a revolutionary outfit that had been encouraged, funded and armed by Mao Zedong’s Communist regime in Beijing. Amid the chaos, a new regime took over in Jakarta, led by Suharto, who ruled Indonesia with an iron hand from 1965 until the mayhem of 1998.

Discrimination against local Chinese became a pillar of Suharto’s authoritarian New Order regime. After rejecting forced emigration as a solution to the “Chinese problem,” authorities opted for coerced assimilation, banning Chinese newspapers, schools, festivals and other expressions of identity different from that of the indigenous majority.

“Under Suharto, everything Chinese was suppressed,” said Myra Sidharta, an 85-year-old, third-generation Chinese Indonesian who has chronicled the Chinese minority. Sidharta said that she sometimes played golf with Suharto before he seized power and that she found him “very boring” but not a frothing bigot. His anti-Chinese policies, she said, derived from a political calculation that the relatively well-off Chinese minority served as an easy and popular scapegoat.

The crumbling of Suharto’s dictatorial authority in 1998 initially proved a nightmare for Indonesian Chinese as pro-democracy student demonstrations morphed into an orgy of rioting that hit Chinese-owned shops and homes with particular fury. But, as the country stabilized into a functioning democracy, the first elected president, the liberal-minded Muslim cleric Abdurrahman Wahid, and his successors introduced legal and social reforms aimed at undoing past discrimination.

They lifted bans on expressions of Chinese culture, revised nationality rules and even declared Confucianism an official religion, alongside Islam, Hinduism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Buddhism. The Ministry of Religious Affairs now has a special unit dedicated to promoting and protecting an ancient Chinese system of Confucian ethics that China itself does not consider a religion.

The shifting landscape has led to some curious allegiances. Basuki, the rising ethnic Chinese politician, this year joined a political party led by Prabowo Subianto, a former son-in-law of Suharto and an ambitious military man who has been widely blamed for instigating the 1998 violence, allegedly in a bid to grab power. Basuki said it is “unfair” to “blame only him” and does not think Prabowo has Chinese blood on his hands.

Basuki said race and religion may be losing their force in Indonesian politics, particularly as a surging economy — it grew by 6.4 percent in the second quarter — helps to erode a widespread view that, other than corrupt officials, only ethnic Chinese become millionaires.

“In the last 10 years, many locals have got very rich. They are richer than the Chinese,” Basuki said. “The issue is not race or religion but the welfare of the people. If you want clean, competent government, you vote for me.”