Indonesia's 'minority within a minority' celebrate Lunar New Year

By Stanley Widianto
FILE PHOTO: People pray as they celebrate Chinese Lunar New Year of the Rat at a temple in Medan

By Stanley Widianto

JAKARTA (Reuters) - As he does every year, ethnic Chinese Indonesian Purnama celebrated Lunar New Year on Saturday at a dinner with his extended family of more than 50 in Jakarta where they exchanged traditional red envelopes containing money.

But the 49-year-old Purnama, who uses one name, is unlike most of his ethnic Chinese family: he is a Muslim.

At the dinner, he and his immediate family were at a table where all the food was halal, while the rest of the tables featured non-halal dishes for the non-Muslims. But the difference in the food was not a big deal for Purnama.

"Lunar New Year just means hanging out with the family. There are no extraordinary traditions for me," he told Reuters.

Ethnic Chinese Muslims like Purnama, who converted in 1994, have a peculiar identity in Indonesia: a minority within a minority.

Chinese Indonesians make up less than 5% of the 260 million people in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country. Chinese Muslims number around 131,000 out of 2.8 million ethnic Chinese, according to a 2010 census.

Agni Malagina, an expert on the Chinese community in Indonesia, said Chinese Indonesians are usually Christian, Buddhist, or follow Confucianism.

"But we've seen cases of assimilation, while the Chinese embrace of Islam has also has a long history," she said. "They're heterogeneous, their motivations vary."

She has observed ethnic Chinese Muslims who have identified as such for generations.

Chinese Indonesians have been the targets of ethnic violence in the past, and Chinese cultural expressions were heavily restricted during the presidency of the late strongman Suharto, said Malagina.

It was not until 2000 after the fall of Suharto that President Abdurrahman Wahid lifted a ban on celebrating the Lunar New Year.

Naga Kunadi, 44, also an ethnic Chinese Muslim, said that after converting to Islam in 2002 some of his non-Muslim family made fun of him not eating pork, but he still celebrates the Lunar New Year.

"I also still get looks from mosque-goers sometimes, until they see that I pray in the right way," he said.

Kunadi is a member of the Haji Karim Oei Foundation, named after a renowned ethnic Chinese Muslim, which is based in the Lautze mosque in Jakarta.

Kunadi said it can be easier for Chinese Indonesians to be accepted when they convert to Islam.

"But my principle has always been when I converted to Islam, I'm still Chinese," he said.


(Reporting by Stanley Widianto; Editing by Ed Davies and Giles Elgood)