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Yogyakarta Region Upholds Decision to Bar Chinese Indonesians from Owning Land

FILE - Residents watch a dragon dance ahead of the Cap Go Meh festival on Monday, which marks the end of Chinese New Year celebrations, on Malioboro street in Yogyakarta, Central Java, Indonesia, Feb. 7, 2009.
FILE - Residents watch a dragon dance ahead of the Cap Go Meh festival on Monday, which marks the end of Chinese New Year celebrations, on Malioboro street in Yogyakarta, Central Java, Indonesia, Feb. 7, 2009.

A decision by the Special Region of Yogyakarta, a major cultural center of Indonesia, to uphold its statute to bar ethnic Chinese Indonesians from owning land has reignited claims the practice is discriminatory and unconstitutional.

The region, in the heart of Java island, has asserted since 1975 that only "native-born" Indonesians, or pribumi, can own land, although it contradicts Indonesia's earlier Agraria Laws that say any "Indonesians" can own land in Indonesia.

The term pribumi is contentious, denoting the vague concept of "original Indonesians" to the exclusion of ethnic Chinese, even though many have lived in Indonesia for generations.

The decision settled a court case brought by a Chinese Indonesian named Handoko against the Yogyakarta Regional Government, claiming the policy was discriminatory. He was ordered to pay a fine of about $30.

A regional land official, Suyitno, told Tirto last year that the land ownership policy would even out wealth and land distribution that he claims is disproportionately skewed in favor of ethnic Chinese.

The claim is a popular one in Indonesia, where many of its richest citizens are ethnic Chinese, but also where Chinese-Indonesians have been periodically subjected to brutal violence, including in the military-led mass killings that ushered in the Suharto dictatorship in 1965 and again in 1998, when the dictatorship finally fell.

Activists are decrying the decision to continue barring Chinese Indonesians from owning land.

"The Yogyakarta policy that was established in 1975 is not in line with the Indonesian Constitution and several federal laws," said Sandra Moniaga, of the national Human Rights Commission. She said the Commission cannot intervene in the regional statute in question, but suggested that "the local government and Regional People's Representative Assembly should revise the verdict… If they do not, the Interior Ministry could do an executive review, or a judicial review may be filed to the Supreme Court."

Chinese Indonesian wealth

Chinese Indonesians have historically enjoyed a degree of business success in Indonesia, and many of the nation's richest citizens are ethnic Chinese diaspora (known locally as "Tionghoa"). But a major reason for this is that Tionghoa were long barred from government or civic professions, leaving them few options beyond private enterprise.

The last two years has seen a renaissance of anti-Chinese sentiment.

In late 2016, a series of mass Islamist protests against Basuki "Ahok" Tjajaja Purnama, a Chinese Christian governor who rose to unusual political prominence as the governor of Jakarta, was a turning point that consolidated long-simmering resentment of Chinese Indonesian wealth with Islamic populism, according to upcoming research from Australian academic Marcus Mietzner.

For instance, the leader of Indonesia's National Ulama (cleric) Council, the nation's top Muslim body, declaimed the "trickle-down theory" for failing Indonesians. Bachtiar Nasir, another prominent Islamist who helped organize the anti-Ahok rallies in 2016, explicitly said last year that ethnic Chinese wealth was their next target, and advocated for affirmative action for pribumi Indonesians.

That populist sentiment is reflected in the logic of Yogyakarta wanting to "redistribute" wealth and property. It's worth noting that, despite numerous high-profile wealthy Chinese-Indonesians, the majority today are middle-class.

Before Handoko's lawsuit, other Chinese-Indonesians in Yogyakarta have protested the discriminatory statute. Willie Sebastian, an activist with the Nation's Child Against Discrimination Movement, wrote a letter to the president in 2015 accusing Yogyakarta's sultan (who is also its governor) of discrimination. But it, too, had no effect.

"The court decision is yet another concerning episode that exposes the vulnerability of Chinese Indonesians in a country where anti-Sinocism is deeply rooted," said DiegoFossati, a research fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute."Such instances of intolerance are often initiated by social/political groups with an extremist agenda, such as radical Islamists, but sometimes, like in the Yogya case, they may involve government officials."

Special administrative region

Yogyakarta, a sultanate, is a special administrative region, which is a big reason why it can uphold idiosyncratic local statutes.

In 1975, the Deputy Governor of Yogyakarta, Paku Alam XIII, authorized a law that says regional officials may not issue land ownership certificates to non-native citizens.

"The 1975 deputy governor's letter contradicts the constitutional rights of Indonesian citizens (the right to land ownership without discrimination on racial, religious, and ethnic lines), and also clearly violates the [federal] Basic Agrarian Law of 1950, which makes no distinction between pribumi and non-pribumi citizens," said Didin of the Legal Aid Institute of Yogyakarta.

The lead judge in the case, P. Cokro Hendro Mukti,argued that since the 1975 law was an "instruction" issued with executive privilege, it could not be challenged for conflicting with federal anti-discrimination laws.

"An instruction is a regulatory policy and not a statutory law, and meaning it cannot be tested using higher laws and regulations because there is no legislation that was used as the basis for making it," Mukti told reporters last week.

Handoko said that he is undeterred by the setback and plans to appeal his case.

"My ID card is the same as the Sultan's," he said, explaining that it doesn't distinguish between "native" Indonesian and ethnic Chinese. "I will keep fighting, because this [the statute and the prohibition of Chinese citizens from owning land] is not right."