Molotov cocktails and machetes were what Basuki Tjahaja Purnama’s family once needed to fend off rioters bent on driving ethnic Chinese from Jakarta. Sixteen years later he’s set to become the Indonesia capital’s first governor from the minority group.
“We just needed to survive,” Basuki’s younger brother Basuri Tjahaja Purnama recalled of the May 1998 attacks. “Why should we leave? We were born here, grew up here. It’s our land and our soil. So we just needed to defend ourselves.”
The violence that left more than 1,000 people dead and buildings burned was fueled by an economic crisis sweeping Southeast Asia that helped eject dictator Suharto weeks later. His fall set Indonesia on the path to democracy, a process that saw current Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo elected president last month and left deputy Basuki, known as Ahok, next in line to lead a city with an annual budget of $6.2 billion.
While ethnic Chinese, who officially make up 1.2 percent of the population, have lived in Indonesia for centuries and now run some of the country’s conglomerates, they faced government discrimination in a nation with the world’s largest Muslim population. Under Suharto, who suspended diplomatic ties with Communist China, some Chinese adopted Indonesian-sounding names and their schools and newspapers were closed. Politics is an arena where hurdles remain, with few having served in senior posts.
“Ahok’s definitive appointment as governor will indeed be a watershed from the standpoint of ethnic tolerance,” said Kevin O’Rourke, a political analyst who wrote the book “Reformasi: The Struggle for Power in Post-Soeharto Indonesia.” “Ahok’s appointment will be particularly poignant as a point of comparison with the atrocities of 16 years ago.”
Ahok and Widodo, a former mayor from central Java known as Jokowi, were elected to a five-year term in 2012 on promises to tackle Jakarta’s notorious traffic, build infrastructure, shake up the bureaucracy and cut corruption. Ahok, 48, said there was no discussion about him joining Jokowi’s Cabinet because the president-elect wants him to stay on in Jakarta to execute their plan and be a “role model” for other provinces.
“I told Pak Jokowi, ‘I’ll be more comfortable and faster than you because the president in the past didn’t say ’I’ll guarantee anything,’” Ahok, who took over as acting governor while Jokowi, 53, campaigned for president in June, told reporters on July 24. “Now Jokowi will guarantee.”
While Jokowi’s appeal to voters is rooted in his plain talk and an everyman image burnished by bicycling to work and daily visits to slums and markets, Ahok is known for a no-nonsense attitude and sometimes abrasive approach.
“The bad cop-good cop analogy is a very fair one,” Keith Loveard, head risk analyst at Jakarta’s Concord Consulting, said of the pair. He said Ahok impressed voters by not tolerating underperforming officials. On July 23, Ahok berated workers at a vehicle testing center in west Jakarta for approving cars that weren’t roadworthy, and for having faulty equipment.
“Given his willingness to clean up long-ignored dirt, a lot of people are not concerned one way or another about his ethnicity,” Loveard said. “He does perhaps need to be more pragmatic and learn to be more diplomatic as he moves into the top job.”
Ahok’s style isn’t unique in the family, his brother said. “At home we spoke very loudly, even when we’re discussing things,” Basuri, 46, said, recalling one occasion when a neighbor called their relatives to check on the boys, thinking he heard fighting inside their house. “We were just discussing stuff.”
His brother said Ahok has a caring nature and would watch out for his three younger siblings. He recalls a brother who without asking would drive to pick him up from school when it was raining. “Don’t look at his temperamental side,” said Basuri. “He is indeed temperamental, but all of us are angry when we see injustice.”
That fighting spirit was instilled as children when their father, a doctor, would get upset about people who complained about corruption or social injustice yet did nothing about it, Basuri said. “If you want to change the system, you have to enter the system,” he remembers their father telling them. “If you want to fight officials, be an official.”
Ahok, who went to university in Jakarta before becoming a businessman on his home island of Belitung, was elected to the local parliament in 2004, and the next year voted in as regent, the equivalent of mayor, for part of the island. In 2009 he entered the national parliament before being tapped as Jokowi’s running mate in Jakarta. Basuri is now a regent on Belitung, while sister Fifi Lety Tjahaja Purnama ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Pangkal Pinang in 2008.
‘Go to Hell’
Ahok’s ethnicity, coupled with the fact he is a Christian, has made him a target for religious hardliners. He said he doesn’t think that will hamper his ability to govern, calling his background “an old story.”
“When I was a regent, people said ‘Vote for Ahok and you will go to hell’,” he said, pointing out that strongly religious parties didn’t make substantial gains in April’s national parliamentary election. “Those parties have not reached hell yet, but have been punished by the people. Parties selling religions will tumble. The era has changed.”
While Ahok is poised to become Jakarta’s first self-identified Chinese governor, one Christian predecessor who declined to specify his ethnicity hailed from an area with a large Chinese presence. Henk Ngantung was Jakarta’s leader from 1964 to 1965, when he resigned amid accusations he was a communist sympathizer and lived the rest of his life in seclusion, only being paid a state pension from the 1980s. Though he was rumored to be Chinese, he never said so publicly.
During the presidential race Jokowi, a Javanese Muslim, faced claims on social media that he was a Chinese Christian. With his poll numbers slipping, he broke from campaigning in the final days before the vote to make a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Even as Ahok will be the first Chinese governor of the province he’s inheriting the job rather than being voted in, said Hui Yew-Foong, coordinator of the Indonesia studies program at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
“Jakartans are more cosmopolitan and are likely to accept his governorship, especially if Jokowi continues to support him,” said Hui, who studies the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia. “This does not rule out opposition to his governorship, especially from the more conservative Islamic quarters.”
Loveard said while there is still racism in the country “this is increasingly becoming a minority view and Ahok is in a strong position to change the general perception of the ethnic group.”
Prisca Liong, a small business owner who attends the same church as Ahok and once studied in his Sunday school class, isn’t so sure. While the 27-year-old notes that there have been positive changes since her parents’ generation and ethnic Chinese in Indonesia are more integrated, she said she is still scarred by her childhood memories of 1998.
“We saw with our own eyes what our own country did to us,” she said. “That’s also why I find it strange to see people like Ahok stepping up to serve the country. Why would you want to do that? You’re only opening yourself up to so much hostility and what’s there to gain? It’s not a smooth road for an honest politician.”
For Ahok, the task will be to deliver on his promises, she said.
“He carries all the Chinese Christians’ names on his shoulders. If he should stumble, that ruins it all.”
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at email@example.com Tony Jordan