Newspaper article International New York Times

Jakarta Governor Shatters Barriers in Indonesia

Newspaper article International New York Times

Jakarta Governor Shatters Barriers in Indonesia

Article excerpt

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the governor of Jakarta, capital of the most populous Muslim-majority nation, says his faith and ethnicity are not handicaps.


There are at least two obstacles between Basuki Tjahaja Purnama and the presidency of Indonesia: He is a Christian, and he is ethnic Chinese.

But such barriers look less formidable than they once did. On Wednesday, Mr. Basuki, a 48-year-old Protestant whose grandfather was a tin miner from Guangzhou, was sworn in at the State Palace by President Joko Widodo as governor of Jakarta, the sprawling capital of the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation.

None of Jakarta's previous governors have been Christian or of Chinese ancestry, except for one who served briefly as an appointee half a century ago (like Mr. Basuki, he was both). And despite Indonesia's history of discrimination -- and, at times, savage violence -- against ethnic Chinese, Mr. Basuki says he considers neither his faith nor his ethnicity to be a political handicap.

"When people told me 'the Chinese are a minority,' my father would say to tell them that we are more patriotic," Mr. Basuki said in a recent interview. "If one day Indonesia is occupied by a foreign country, my father said he would be in front of the front line to fight for our independence again."

Mr. Basuki was Jakarta's deputy governor under Mr. Joko, who was elected president in July, and he has run the city for much of this year in Mr. Joko's absence. Like Mr. Joko, Mr. Basuki is one of a small but growing group of political upstarts who gained national attention for running clean, effective local governments, in a country where corruption has long been a fact of life.

Known for being brash and speaking bluntly, Mr. Basuki -- popularly known as Ahok -- is very different from the soft-spoken Javanese politicians the capital is used to. He began turning heads just weeks after he and Mr. Joko took office in 2012, when videos of Mr. Basuki berating civil servants for incompetence appeared on YouTube.

Since then, he has added to his confrontational reputation by closing the capital's most notorious nightclub after an off-duty police officer died there of a drug overdose, and by evicting thousands of illegal street vendors who had been compounding Jakarta's chronic traffic problems.

"If you want to live in comfort, you have to get everything in order," Mr. Basuki said. "And if you want to put everything in order, you have to have law enforcement."

Mr. Basuki's rise is a mark of the gains made by ethnic Chinese politicians since Indonesia's transition to democracy in 1999 -- particularly since direct elections were implemented at all levels of government, including local offices that were once filled by appointment.

"While there were no actual political restrictions, for all intents and purposes, Chinese were restricted from the public domain for decades," said Kevin Evans, founder of Pemilu Asia, an Indonesian firm that collects political data. "With direct elections of district chiefs, mayors and lawmakers at the provincial level, ethnic Chinese are running and winning, and winning in districts where the Chinese population is a small minority."

While Chinese-Indonesians make up just over 1 percent of the vast Indonesian archipelago's population, historically they have tended to wield economic clout beyond their numbers, which has often led to resentment. For decades, they were subjected to discriminatory laws and regulations.

Anti-Chinese sentiment exploded into rioting in cities across Indonesia in 1998, amid protests against then-President Suharto's authoritarian rule. …

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