By Julliete Koning
From the point of view of Indonesia, the current crisis is merely one in a series. To illustrate this, I will reflect on the Asian Financial crisis of 1997 and the subsequent crises that ‘hit’ Indonesia up until the eve of the present global crisis.
The end of 1997 was the start of a severe financial crisis in various Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia. The country encountered 13% of economic downfall while the currency went from about 3,000 Rupiah to one US dollar, to a low point of 14,000 in roughly a year or so.
The financial crisis was followed by a series of crises that created extremely insecure living conditions for most Indonesians, both in a material and in an immaterial sense. The financial crisis was just the first domino-stone to tumble.
Politically the country was unstable: there were various reform movements, interim governments, rising forms of corruption, and separation wars in East Timor, Aceh and Papua New Guinea. The country also encountered extreme natural disasters such as the Tsunami in 2004, a severe earthquake in 2006, and terrorist bomb attacks in Bali 2002 and 2005. In addition to all this turmoil, there were various religious conflicts, in particular between Christians and Muslims.
In all, this decade of multiple crises not only hit the Indonesian economy very hard (for example, the tourism industry almost came to a standstill), it also created an atmosphere in which people were just waiting what catastrophe would hit next. During these troublesome times (in 2004 and 2007), I investigated the upsurge of Pentecostal-charismatic movements at the time, and the influx of, in particular, ethnic Chinese citizens to these movements.
The ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, who are important players in the economy, have nonetheless, as an ethnic minority, been confronted with a long period of forced assimilation, discrimination and suppression. The decade of crises was particularly traumatic for this group, because the start of the crisis went hand in hand with severe violent outbreaks against ethnic Chinese: houses and shops were burned and ethnic Chinese women were raped in various major cities on Java. Being active in the economy, they were also under a lot of financial stress because of the lingering Asian crisis. Many left the country for Singapore and Australia, and some never returned. The majority however, stayed and had to cope.
The life, business and conversion stories that I assembled during this particular research, reveal a common turning point in the lives of the ethnic Chinese in my study: economic problems in their enterprises, fear for their safety, and a feeling of insecurity about the political changes and how the new regimes would ‘treat’ them.
For some, this turning point meant conversion to Pentecostal‑charismatic Christianity. The charismatic movements in fact were thriving at that time (as they did during the economic boom years of the 1980s). It seems that the explicit prosperity narratives found in many charismatic churches worldwide, offers answers both in times of plenty (endorsing wealth creation) and in times of hardship (giving guidance in times of insecurity).
For ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, this connectedness to a global religious community reduced their insecurity and created a forum where they could share and discuss their insecurities. There was care and relief, the get‑togethers with fellow Christians and in most cases co‑ethnics bringing them moral and material support.
In a sense, amidst ongoing crises, one specific ethnic minority found a safe heaven in a religious movement that provided moral support and guidance, at a personal, group and professional level.
Julliete Koning is lecturer at the Department of Culture, Organization & Management of VU University.
The Financial Crisis Worldwide: short introduction to this series.
See also Freek Colombijn’s posts on Indonesia on this weblog (in Dutch).
issue January-March 2009: on Chinese Indonesians
issue January-March 2007: on Religion in Indonesia
issue April-June 1998: on Financial Crisis in Indonesia