The issue of pribumi (indigenous people) has re-emerged in Indonesia. Earlier this month, during the National Working Conference of Islamic party, the United Development Party (PPP), its chairman, Mr M. Romahurmuziy, proposed amending Indonesia's Constitution to restore the original clause that the "president of Indonesia must be an 'indigenous Indonesian' (orang Indonesia asli)". He also noted that this racial criterion should be applied to both president and vice-president.
After the fall of Suharto, the Constitution - also known as the 1945 Constitution - was amended to make it more relevant to modern and democratic Indonesia. The clause on the presidential candidate was also amended. Article 6 clause 1 reads: "The presidential and vice-presidential candidates must be Indonesian citizen by birth and never voluntarily obtain the citizenship of another country." Any Indonesian citizen who meets the legal criterion can be the presidential or vice-presidential candidate.
In other words, the racial restriction in Article 6 was removed. This also coincided with an Indonesian anti-racial discrimination law promulgated after the end of Suharto's authoritarian regime.
The raising of the pribumi issue has been closely linked with anti-President Joko Widodo forces. Racial and religious issues have been used twice to discredit him. The first time was during the 2012 Jakarta gubernatorial election, when he was paired with Mr Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (better known as Ahok) to be the governor and deputy governor, respectively.
Ahok is ethnic Chinese and Christian. Opposition groups campaigned against him and Mr Joko, to little avail. The pairing won. Mr Joko left the governor's office after winning the presidency, with Ahok inheriting the governorship, running the capital of the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation.
The second time the issues surfaced was during the 2014 presidential election, when candidate Prabowo Subianto's camp launched a smear campaign falsely accusing Mr Joko of being ethnic Chinese and a Christian.
Today, the raising of the pribumi issue appears to be linked with Jakarta's upcoming gubernatorial election next year. Last month, the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) endorsed Ahok for re-election next year. Ahok's running mate is Mr Djarot Saiful Hidayat of the PDI-P.
The Ahok-Djarot pairing until recently appeared to have higher electability as they are incumbent and popular with the Jakarta people. Indeed, a social movement arose amid Jakartans to get Ahok to run on an independent ticket. Before Ahok was accepted as the PDI-P candidate, he was supported by a volunteer group called Teman Ahok (Friends of Ahok), a non-government organisation led by young indigenous Indonesian intellectuals. They collected one million photocopies of the identity cards of Jakarta's residents willing to support Ahok - showing that the people are more concerned with the quality and capability of the candidate than his racial and religious background.
NEW PRIBUMI PARTY FORMED
However, Ahok now has two pairs of strong indigenous opponents. The first duo - former education minister Anies Baswedan and businessman Sandiaga Uno - are supported by the Gerindra party (led by Mr Prabowo).
The second duo of Mr Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono and Ms Sylviana Murni are supported by the Demokrat Party (led by former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Mr Agus is his eldest son). Although the Election Commission has urged supporters not to use the racial and religious background of candidates as an election issue, many of those behind opposition candidates have ignored the appeal.
In August last year, a group of indigenous politicians, including retired army general Joko Santoso, who is linked to the Gerindra Party, established the Partai Priboemi (Pribumi Party), declaring that it wants to restrict non-indigenous Indonesian political and economic rights. The Islamic radical group, the Front Pembela Islam (Front for Defending Islam), has long been campaigning against Ahok, on both religious and racial grounds.
While the Jakarta gubernatorial election will be held only next February, many believe the probability of Ahok winning is quite high. According to the Jakarta rumour mill, certain interest groups fear that if Ahok is re-elected, he might be invited by President Joko to be his vice-presidential candidate in 2019. So these groups want to re-amend the Indonesian Constitution to prevent Ahok from running as vice-presidential candidate.
The PPP proposal to re-amend the Constitution signifies the resurfacing of indigenism in the political arena. Nevertheless, the PPP leadership in fact has not given the details and the real meanings of "orang Indonesia asli". The chairman of the PDI-P central executive council, Mr Hendrawan, was asked to comment.
He noted that the return to the old clause violates the spirit of the 1945 Constitution and contradicts the existing anti-racialism laws in Indonesia.
Indeed, the original 1945 Constitution - born during the era of the 1945 revolution - is not based on race, except the clause on the president of Indonesia.
Chinese Indonesians were, for a long time, not considered part of the Indonesian nation (Bangsa Indonesia). However, many Chinese Indonesians took initiatives to identify themselves with Indonesia. In 1962, then President Sukarno, in a speech to the Baperki - the largest Chinese Indonesian mass organisation at that time - stated that the Indonesian nation comprised many ethnic groups (suku bangsa). He said the Peranakan Chinese were one of them, comparable to the Javanese, Sundanese, Balinese, Bataks and Buginese among others. In other words, the Peranakan Chinese were Indonesians and could maintain their ethnic identity without assimilating themselves into other Indonesian ethnic communities.
The term Peranakan Chinese refers to local-born Chinese. Many have mixed parentage in their ancestry, but their major characteristic - in this instance - is the use of Indonesian or Indonesian dialects as their home language. They form the majority of the Chinese population in Java.
However, when Sukarno was overthrown and General Suharto came to power, he abandoned Sukarno's concept of the Indonesian nation and redefined it as an indigenous one. All Chinese Indonesians (including Peranakan Chinese) were required to be assimilated into the pribumi community to become "Indonesian".
After his 32-year rule, Suharto was removed, and the indigenous concept of the Indonesian nation was abandoned. Members of the Indonesian Parliament began to accept a non-racial concept of the Indonesian nation as reflected in the amendment of the 1945 Constitution. Nevertheless, some Indonesian politicians still cannot accept that Chinese Indonesians are an inseparable part of the Indonesian nation.
Leo Suryadinata is a visiting senior fellow at the Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute.
S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.
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