Yogyakarta -- Indonesia's proverbial melting pot

Tenris Sihite, 32, is of Batak origin, born and bred in the North Sumatra town of Sampali. Fate, however, led him to frequently move from one town to another in order to make a living, mostly by selling rattan furniture.

As such, he has tasted the heated life of Jakarta, the rough living of the East Java provincial capital Surabaya, and the tough competition of Bandung, West Java.

Now in Yogyakarta, where he currently lives with his Batak wife and their three-year-old son, he has found a home away from home.

"As outsiders, we feel that we are completely accepted here. The local predominantly Javanese Muslim villagers do not treat us differently just because we are Batak or Christians," Sihite says of his four years in the ancient city.

Sihite, who now runs a small rattan furniture shop in Sleman, said locals are always inviting him to take part in village activities, including the neighborhood watch patrol, or ronda as it is locally known.

Sihite is not alone. There are many other "outsiders" who feel the same way. An overwhelming number of non-indigenous Javanese are always impressed by the way locals welcome and accept them.

So homely is Yogyakarta for them that they enjoy being addressed with the common Javanese forms of address like mbak (for women) or mas (for men), regardless of whether they are Javanese or not.

Despite having a distinctive Batak name like Pakpahan, for example, the person will be referred to as mas in Yogyakarta, instead of abang which is more familiar for a North Sumatran. Or a Western Sumatran girl with the family name of Lubis will easily be referred to as mbak instead of her native uni.

"Yes, I'm accustomed to being called mas and I really enjoy it," said lawyer Afnan Malay, hailing from the West Sumatra town of Maninjau who now resides in Bantul regency.

Having lived in Yogyakarta since he was a university student -- afterwards trying his luck in Jakarta and Bandung for two years before returning to Yogyakarta -- Afnan says he finds Javanese people here very accommodating.

"Of course there is always a bargaining process between the indigenous people and newcomers. However, the process runs smoothly without inciting conflict. It gives an impression that Yogyakartans are accepting (of newcomers)," Afnan says.

Marto Darsono, an elder Javanese villager from Pakuncen in Wirobrajan subdistrict, agrees, saying that newcomers who can get along well with the surrounding community, and who have a willingness to open themselves to society, will certainly win total acceptance from locals.

"The key lies in how they place themselves in the surrounding community. If they make themselves close to the community, the community will do the same. If otherwise, the community will also distance them," Marto remarked.

Yogyakarta indeed has often been referred to as a mini Indonesia in terms its ethnic diversity and pluralism.

"I've learned from my own experience that pluralism is very well understood and practiced here. People respect one another regardless of their ethnicity or religion," says Budi Satyagraha, a Chinese Indonesian who runs a store selling construction materials in Yogyakarta.

"I felt this even before I decided to convert to Islam," adds Budi, who is also a former chairman of the Yogyakarta branch of the Association of Indonesian Chinese Muslims (PITI) and a local politician with the National Mandate Party.

Being of Chinese descent in Yogyakarta, he says, does not cause him much difficulty both in society or in the business community. He makes friends with anyone of any ethnicity, especially the Javanese majority.

That explains why, he says, when the May 1998 riots took place in many cities across the country, Yogyakarta remained relatively secure.

Since converting to Islam in 1983, Budi has found it even easier for him and his family to get along with the Yogyakarta's predominantly Muslim community while at the same time maintaining good relationships with the non-Muslim Chinese community.

"Being of Chinese descent and a Muslim at the same time has allowed me to be a bridge between indigenous Javanese and the non-indigenous Chinese, thus reducing prejudices that may persist between the two communities," he adds.

The presence of non-Javanese people in Yogyakarta is not a new phenomenon. The city has been open to 'foreigners' since the era of Sultan Hamengkubuwono (HB) I who established the Yogyakarta kingdom in the 18th century.

"Even the first and second 'Bupati Kutha' (regents of the capital city), namely Adipati Reksonegoro and Adipati Setjodiningrat, were of Chinese descent," an expert in Javanese culture Suryanto Sastroatmodjo said.

However, at that time, according to Suryanto, the presence of immigrants in the region was strictly controlled both under the colonial regulations and by the royal Yogyakarta court.

For example, an immigrant, after being appointed as a government officer was only allowed to take with him his core family members (his wife and children) to live inside the palace compound (kraton).

Those who were placed outside the compound could to bring with them their extended family as long as it did not exceed 10 persons.

Chinese and Europeans were also permitted to seek work in Yogyakarta as long as their stay did not exceed one year. These were mostly investors or employees of sugar factories.

The Chinese immigrants were given a special area along the city's main streets of Malioboro, Pringgokusuman, and Gedongtengen, while the Europeans were placed in the Kotabaru and Demangan areas.

"There were not many of them, only some 35," said Suryanto, adding that during the rule of HB VI (around 1850s) the number of Chinese increased and they began to live in the kampongs.

Suryanto, however, said that the growing number of local immigrants -- non-Javanese, Chinese or European -- rose significantly in the early 1950s, after the countrys independence and following the establishment of Universitet Negeri Gadjah Mada (now Gadjah Mada University).

Anthropologist P.M. Laksono of Gadjah Mada University also pointed out that this phenomenon was also the result of the Indonesian capital being temporarily moved from Jakarta to Yogyakarta.

As educational institutions began to mushroom in the city, more and more people of different ethnic groups from all across the country began arriving. This resulted in greater interaction between locals and the newcomers.

"Such a phenomena actually can also be found in other cities that have education centers like Yogyakarta. Yet, people of other ethnic groups find Yogyakarta much more enjoyable to live in mostly because Yogyakartans are accustomed to interacting with non-Javanese people since the beginnings of the Yogyakarta kingdom," Suryanto said.

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