Meeting Kafka on the Road to Citizenship in Indonesia

Veeramalla Anjaiah recalls the herculean feats he overcame on the path to marriage and citizenship in Indonesia. After running the bureaucratic gauntlet, he pleads for the country to amend its citizenship laws to be more fair and equitable to mixed-nationality households.

Is mixed-nationality marriage a status symbol? For some, such as elite personalities or the very rich, it may be-but not in my case. I met my wife, an Indonesian, in a Jakarta hospital and we fell in love, later deciding to tie the knot.

At the time, we didn’t foresee the difficulties that would arise from a mixed marriage in Indonesia. Looking back, I recall that I obtained permission from twelve institutions to get married in 1996.

It was similar with our different religions – getting the approval of her parents was difficult. In addition, if you are not wealthy and not well educated, getting a work permit in Indonesia is also a tough task. Bureaucracy is a hard nut to crack in this country. Troubles and discord lurk everywhere.Yet people are willingto undergo strenuous tests, and make sacrifices and adjustments for the sake of love.

Unfortunately, there was no counseling or briefing from the Civil Registry Agency about the implications of mixed-nationality marriages before our nuptials. We only discovered later that the most important aspect of our legal union was the prenuptial agreement that lays out the assets of the couple. In retrospect, we should have signed the agreement prior to our marriage.

It was only when my wife wanted to buy a house in her name that we realized the difficulty of our situation. Under the Marriage Law No. 1/1974, both the wife and husband, irrespective of their nationality, have equal rights to family assets, but this is contradictory to the Land Law No. 5/1960, which states that foreigners cannot own land in Indonesia.

As a result, an Indonesian wife of a foreigner loses her rights as a citizen to buy land and borrow money from a bank. The two laws are both discriminatory and contradictory.

More problems arise when multinational couples have children. Previously, children were granted their father’s nationality, which meant that a mixed-marriage couple had to spend a significant amount of time and money getting visas every year for their children if the father was foreign-born.

In 1998, as a solution to our situation, my daughter and I decided to become Indonesian citizens. This turned out to be a perplexing and bureaucratic process. Any Indonesian law or regulation is not a single entity. One has to fulfill a number of conditions mentioned in other laws and regulations. Bureaucrats often use the interpretation of laws as a big weapon, depending on the requirements of respective officials and departments. One immigration officer told me that we would not get Indonesian citizenship even if the law allowed it. Later, an agent offered me help to obtain Indonesian citizenship for the price of Rp 100 million (US$10,800).

Because of the bureaucracy, I decided to spend whatever money I had on my daughter’s education, while waiting for a new reformist government that might bring new citizenship and immigration laws. But I continued to spend time and money every year to extend my daughter’s visa.

Thanks to President SusiloBambangYudhoyono and then Justice and Human Rights minister Hamid Awaludin, a new and revolutionary law regarding Indonesian citizenship was enacted in 2006, with implementing regulations released a year later.

Article 41 of the Citizenship Law No. 12/2006 allows children born to mixed couples to obtain Indonesian citizenship, and allows them to keep their original nationality until they reach twenty-one years of age.

According to Article 19 of the Citizenship Law No. 12/2006, foreigners who have resided in Indonesia for five years continuously, or ten years with gaps, can apply for citizenship.

I had to go to more than twenty offices, some of them repeatedly, to get my citizenship papers processed. My main weapons were patience, a smile and determination. I carried dozens of photocopies of documents, photos of different sizes, a stapler, glue and original certificates for me and my family.

In many offices, people suspected I was a private broker or agent who processed official documents after seeing my bag was full of papers.

Surprisingly, officials never asked for extra money other than the official fees when I applied for my daughter’s Indonesian citizenship. Maybe the officials I met were either honest or they didn’t know much about the new law and other related regulations.

In 2007 my children finally became Indonesian citizens. Once I received the citizenship memo signed by the minister, I returned to another fifteen offices to complete the paperwork.

I became an Indonesian citizen in 2010. This was thanks in part to my habit of hoarding all my receipts and documents. The Immigration Office asked me to produce the photocopies of my temporary stay permits for the past eighteen years in order to obtain a certificate stating that I lived in Indonesia legally. This certificate was the key to applying for citizenship. The second requirement was marrying an Indonesian man or woman.

The Indonesian government must overhaul the way their offices function in order to increase speed, quality and reliable services. These attributes are important to boost the image and productivity of the way our government and its offices serve the people.

All these years, my family and I experienced considerable discomfort. Until 2007, my wife, an Indonesian, was the only foreigner in my house. After 2007, I was the only foreigner in my house. Now we are a proud and happy Indonesian family.

Veeramalla Anjaiah , The author is a staff writer at The Jakarta Post