When discussing the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia today, there is a tendency to differentiate between the period before and after the massive riots of 13–15 May 1998, which occurred primarily in Jakarta and Solo and in a number of other Indonesian cities. As a matter of fact this periodization holds for the country as a whole, as one of the major consequences of this incident was the forced resignation of Soeharto on 21 May 1998.
For the ethnic Chinese, May 1998 was another, or perhaps the most recent, watershed, in that it marked the beginning of a basic change in their attitude and behaviour, especially in the socio-political arena. In the earlier period from the beginning of the Republic, the periodization of the history of the ethnic Chinese can be subdivided into the Soekarno regime, the Soeharto regime, followed by the current period of Reformasi.
This chapter focuses on four key concepts: unity, diversity, nation-building, and the ethnic Chinese.
All four concepts are very pertinent at this stage of Indonesia's development, when the very existence of Indonesia as a nation-state is being threatened. The concept of unity, expressed in Negara Kesatuan Republik Indonesia (NKRI) (the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia) has to be reviewed in the face of the turmoil of secessionist armed conflict, and of inter-ethnic and inter-religious strife that has torn apart the fabric of society, since the last ten years or so of the Soeharto government and accelerating after his demise as president. Demands and threats of secession are rife in Aceh, Irian Jaya/Papua, and the Riau Islands. Mainly to head off this development, the government, then under Habibie, enacted Law No. 22 and No. 25 of 1999 on regional autonomy, and implemented them on 1 January 2001.
Much has been written and numerous seminars and discussions have been held on the regional autonomy and its implementation, most with an undertone or with an overtone of scepticism and concern as to the readiness of the region as well as the central government's ability to implement this regional autonomy successfully in the sense of having the expected beneficial impact on the people involved.