Yogyakarta court upholds law preventing non-indigenous (i.e. Chinese) Indonesians from owning land

One of the nicknames for Yogyakarta is “City of Tolerance”, reflecting the history of the special region’s capital as a place of culture, learning and pluralism. But despite that reputation, Yogyakarta Special Region still enforces one of Indonesia’s most blatantly discriminatory laws, a relic of anti-Chinese racism from decades past that continues to prevent citizens who are not considered to be pribumi (a controversial term to describe “native” Indonesians) from owning land within its territories.

Yesterday, the district court of Yogyakarta once again rejected a legal challenge to the racist regulation, deciding that it was not within the court’s discretion to nullify the policy based on higher law.

The policy in question is Yogyakarta Regional Head Instruction Letter No. K.898/I/A/1975 on the Unification of Land Rights Issuance Policy for Non-Pribumi (non-native) Indonesians. The law was signed by Yogyakarta Deputy Governor Paku Alam XIII in 1975 and says that all regents and mayors in Yogyakarta are not allowed to issue land ownership certificates to non-natives.

Explaining his ruling, lead judge P. Cokro Hendro Mukti said that because the law was originally issued as an “instruction” by the deputy governor utilizing his executive privilege, it was not a statutory law that could be legally challenged using higher law (including several national laws against discriminatory land ownership policies) within the court.

“An instruction is a regulatory policy and not a statutory law, and meaning it cannot be tested using higher laws and regulations because there is no legislation that was used as the basis for making it,” Mukti said as quoted by Tribun.

Besides contradicting higher law, the lawsuit also aimed to test the policy on the legal principle of good governance (AAUB), which basically amounts to whether a law can be argued to be of some benefit to citizens.

The judges’ ruling considered this but sided with the argument made by the Yogyakarta Administration’s lawyers who defended the policy on the basis that it protected citizens who were “relatively weak economically” people (because apparently there are no relatively poor Chinese-Indonesians in Yogyakarta…) and helped the government achieve its “development goals”.

“According to the assembly and according to the facts in the hearing, the policies imposed by the defendant are not contradictory to AAUB because their objective is to protect the public interest, namely the weak economic community, as it relates to their privilege and explicit special authority in the field of land ownership to maintain the culture and the existence of the Ngayogyakarto Sultanate,” judge Mukti said.

The court rejected the lawsuit, filed by a Chinese-Indonesian citizen named Handoko, and ordered him to pay court fees of IDR407,000 (USD 30).  

How such a blatantly racist and discriminatory law has been allowed to exist in Indonesia so long is troubling, but even more so is the sultanate’s active attempts to defend it. The “City of Tolerance” has been criticized over several recent acts of intolerance, including hardliner Islamists shutting down a church charity event (which the sultan chose not to denounce) and a radicalized lone-wolf attacker who assaulted a church congregation with a sword. But this racists land ownership policy shows that intolerance has long been institutionalized in Yogyakarta and until the the sultan and local government move to get rid of it, things will only get worse.

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