Indonesian lawyer fights decades-old ban on ethnic Chinese owning land

by Rina Chandran | @rinachandran | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 6 March 2018 08:21 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Indonesian Muslims leave a mosque after attending Friday prayers in Yogyakarta, Indonesia's central Java province May 6, 2011. REUTERS/Dwi Oblo

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Ethnic Chinese make up less than 5 percent of Indonesia's population, but they control many of its large conglomerates and much of its wealth

By Rina Chandran

BANGKOK, March 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An Indonesian lawyer said he will appeal a verdict by a regional court that upheld a decades-old ban on ethnic Chinese people owning land in Yogyakarta province, which he called racist and discriminatory.

Handoko Wibowo had filed a petition in a district court in Yogyakarta, calling for a repeal of the 1975 edict that gives only indigenous Indonesians the right to own land in the central province. Minorities only get usage rights.

The court last week dismissed the lawsuit, reasoning that the edict was imposed to protect the interests of indigenous Indonesians who are less wealthy than ethnic Chinese people, said Handoko, who rejected that conclusion.

"The Chinese are also Indonesian citizens. To discriminate even now on the basis of ethnicity is racist and unlawful," he said.

"The edict goes against the agrarian law that gives all citizens the right to own land. It is time we repealed it," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation over the phone.

Ethnic Chinese make up less than 5 percent of Indonesia's population, but they control many of its large conglomerates and much of its wealth.

The wealth gap has long fed resentment among poorer "pribumi", Indonesia's mostly ethnic-Malay indigenous people.

Former president Suharto blocked Chinese Indonesians from many public posts and denied them cultural expression. Marginalised politically and socially, many turned to business and became wealthy.

Tensions against them have flared in recent years.

In 2015, Indonesia's National Commission on Human Rights urged authorities in Yogyakarta to repeal the land edict, saying it was discriminatory and would hurt development.

At the time, officials denied it was unconstitutional.

It is difficult to repeal local laws, because the regions "have a constitutional right to implement policies according to local preferences and needs," said Diego Fossati, a research fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute.

He said that many municipalities have regulations that discriminate against minorities.

"The target is always the Chinese minority, because they are perceived as prospering at the expense of native populations," Fossati added.

Handoko, who is of Chinese descent and works with farmers to help them claim their rights, said he was prepared to exhaust all legal avenues in order to get the law scrapped.

"I will appeal the ruling in the High Court, and if that is also rejected, I will go to the Supreme Court," he said. (Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran. Editing by Jared Ferrie. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit to see more stories.)

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