More Chinese running for election

More Chinese running for election

When Indonesian businessman Karna Brata Lesmana was a boy in the 1960s, strangers would often harass him to his face.

"I would be walking down the street and people would yell, 'Eh, Cina!'," said the ethnic Chinese politician, using the derogatory term used to refer to the Chinese in Indonesia. "I did not feel comfortable."

Fifty years on, Indonesia is a different country, he said.

"Race is no longer an issue," said the 54-year-old, who is running for a seat in the national Parliament from Jakarta with the People's Conscience Party (Hanura).

In eight months of campaigning, he met thousands of people, all with "a smile on their face".

Mr Karna is among 700 Chinese Indonesians running in the April 9 elections - for seats at the national, province, district and regional levels. This is out of some 200,000 politicians fighting for nearly 20,000 seats.

In 1999, just after race riots which left more than 1,000 dead, fewer than 50 candidates took part in elections. In 2004, that number rose to about 150, and has continued to swell in elections since.

The growing numbers of Chinese Indonesians going into politics stems from deliberate policy changes in recent years, which have helped the Chinese assimilate into society.

Since 2000, the government has stopped suppressing the practice of Chinese customs and religions, the norm during the Suharto era. In 2002, Chinese New Year became a public holiday, and the government began referring to China and Chinese with the more neutral terms "Tiongkok" and "Tionghua" respectively, rather than "Cina".

Within the Chinese community, there is the growing realisation that political participation is the "only way change can take place", said Dr Hoon Chang Yau, assistant professor of Asian studies at Singapore Management University.

As a result, race is no longer as controversial as it was during the time of the 1998 riots, which were sparked by food shortages and widespread unemployment.

"The Chinese are no longer 'singled out' or 'set apart' from the rest of Indonesians as in the previous regimes that had them set as convenient targets by 'conflict entrepreneurs'," said researcher To-bias Basuki at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta.

Ethnic Chinese make up 3.7 per cent of Indonesia's 250 million population, according to the 2010 census. But there are no hard and fast definitions for race as ethnic affiliation is self-declared, and many Chinese do not mention their race.

Candidates have also been inspired by Jakarta deputy governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known by his Hakka moniker Ahok. He has made a name for himself as a forceful leader who has confronted key issues such as traffic congestion, accountability of government officers, and raising the minimum wage.

"People have learnt from Ahok that everybody is the same as long as you are doing your job properly," said Mr Eddie Lembong, founder of non-governmental organisation Nation Building Foundation.

"The 'Ahok effect' has created favourable conditions for many Chinese to become enthusiastic about participating in politics."

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