Chinese Descents in Indonesian Military and Police Forces

6:29:00 PM

Since Indonesia gained independence 72 years ago, at least eight Indonesians of Chinese descents had achieved the ranks of general in the military and one of them is a national hero.

Exactly when rising anti-Chinese sentiment was posing a serious political challenge for President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, he fearlessly made a decision perceived to be risky. In March of this year, the President made Surya Margono a director of the prestigious Intelligence Agency of the Armed Forces (BAIS TNI) and at the same time raised his rank from Air Colonel to Air Commodore which equals army brigadier general. The news of the appointment is not special, except that he is an Indonesian of Chinese descent.

It also happened that at the same time residents at Jakarta and the Indonesian people as a whole were witnessing rapidly rising political tensions relating to the capital’s gubernatorial election. The ethnic Chinese and Christian Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama was taking center stage as his opponents and radical groups held massive public campaigns including huge street protests to block his reelection in April of this year, less than a month before Surya’s promotion as BAIS TNI director.

Ahok’s heavy loss in the election and his sentence to two years in jail for blaspheming Islam and the Quran are said to remain a ‘divisive wound’ among the Indonesian people.

Although some of Ahok’s opponents and others who dislike him as a person were also Christians and Chinese descent themselves, public campaigns which at times appeared dreadful, still carry some anti-Chinese sentiment until today. Anti-Ahok campaigners also alleged that President Jokowi, one of the then governor’s close allies, favored ethnic Chinese groups and China. This leads some people to warn that such sentiments seriously affect the President’s potential reelection in 2019.

Economic inequality: the root cause?

Meanwhile some political analysts, academicians and politicians claimed that growing radicalism in Indonesia had not been due to religious reasons. Instead, according to them, social and economic inequality is the root cause of growing radicalism and the prevalence of ‘anti-Chinese’ sentiments.

And in order to eradicate radicalism, some have called for the introduction of ‘affirmative action’ and policies that can introduce more opportunities for historically excluded groups of ‘pribumi’ or native Indonesians in social and economic life.

Against all this backdrop, and despite the fact that at least eight Indonesians of Chinese descents had achieved the ranks of general in the armed forces and that one of them had even been made a national hero, Surya’s promotion as BAIS TNI director in March has incited negative comments, notably via social media. Below are some of such remarks.

“Jokowi has installed an air commodore of TNI who is an ethnic Chinese. (Similar promotions) for an ethnic Chinese from the navy and the army will follow,” netizen Ari Leksmana cynically posted in his Facebook account as shared in

Another netizen, Rahmad Hidayat Syah posted, “New history…!!! In the Jokowi-JK regime, Tionghoa (ethnic Chinese) became an Air Commodore of the Navy.”

Meanwhile, Tiffi Tiffany Ayu lamented, “Innalilahi Wainailaihi Rojiun (We surely belong to God and to Him we shall return), Jokowi has installed an Air Force commodore from the ethnic Chinese group.”

On such comments, TNI Commander Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo responded by saying that Surya’s promotion had been based on professionalism principles and tight evaluation.

The 55-year old Surya Margono (Chen Ke Cheng alias Tjin Kho Syin) was born in West Kalimantan and graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1987. He served as defense attaché at the Indonesian embassy in Beijing. And, from September 2009 he held posts at the Air Force and at BAIS TNI.

Surya is now the only Chinese descents with a high-rank star in TNI. Others had already retired or passed away, and they include national hero John Lie from the Navy (2-star), Daniel Tjen from the Army (2-star), Iskandar Kamil from the Army (2-star), Tedy Yusuf from the Army (1-star), Indarto Iskandar from the Navy (1-star), Billy Tunas from the Air Force (1-star), Paulus Prananto from the Army (1-star), and Teguh Santosa from the Army (1-star).

Since Indonesia’s independence in 1945, the number of Chinese descents entering the military, the police and the civil service sector had been strictly limited. And then, after being forced to build professions mainly in the business sector, most ethnic Chinese played a major role in the Indonesian economy, which unavoidably caused social jealousy.

William and Liliana

The 1998 Reformation had sparked hopes among many in the public that such anti-Chinese sentiments will end and that Chinese descent officers will one day get promotions to three and four-star levels, which had allegedly been closed to them.

This situation had incited greater attention from the media which then carried special ‘supportive’ news stories about the promotions of Chinese descent officers from the military and police forces and also about the admittance of cadets who are Indonesian of Chinese descents.

In February 2016, for example, news websites carried special reports about William Irawan, a Chinese descent from North Sumatra who was inaugurated as an army cadet in Magelang (Central Java), along with 800 other young men and women from across Indonesia.

The proud William then told the press, “My big family members are all traders. I am the first in my family to become a TNI officer. I wish to work for the state.”

Then, in March of this year, a newly graduated female police officer caught media attention because she looks ‘fully’ Chinese while in fact she is mix-blood namely half ethnic Chinese from her Central Java’s mother and half pribumi from her West Sumatra’s father. In addition, what is also special about Liliana Wijaya Joni, the police officer, is that she is pretty and is a Muslim.

Liliana would soon leave her Balikpapan office in East Kalimantan for the UK where she would attend her postgraduate education in transportation at Leeds University, still as a police officer,

Tedy Yusuf’s ‘revenge’ story

Meanwhile, the reformation spirit more strongly stressed by President Jokowi may hopefully push Indonesian of Chinese descents towards a more visible presence in the country’s military and police forces. And, no doubt, the strongly reform-minded President is hoping that Chinese descents joining those forces is based on their purely patriotic spirit, in spite of the suppressed intention to ‘revenge’ as shared by Tedy Yusuf.

In his autobiography published in 2015, Kacang Mencari Kulitnya (Soybean Seeks Its Shell), Tedy Yusuf wrote about two neighborhood security people one evening violently kicked his father’s chair while cursing him, in Teddy Yusuf’s presence. They did it after his father told the security people that he could not give them money because he did not have any.

“There were tears behind my father’s glasses. I was only ten years old then, but I understood what had just happened. My eyes were tearful,” Tedy Yusuf wrote.

He continued, “Then I began to think about becoming a soldier. I do not want to see people treat my father that way.” Tedy Yusuf enrolled in the military academy after finishing his high school in 1962. He served as deputy assistant to the army chief of staff in charge of planning before his retirement from TNI.


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