Another article largely examining the problems that Indonesia is facing in regards to developing a working model of multi-ethnic and religious relations. Enjoy
The problem of multi-ethnicity in Indonesia
Indonesia is a multi-ethnic and multi-religion society but for most of its 62-year history as an independent nation-state, the Indonesian ruling elites have chosen not to deal with this reality. Their offensive and degrading interactions with colonialism in the past, together with their bad experience with various 'local' uprisings during the early years of independence, led to a 'a strong obsession with unity'. Now we can see how much this obsession has harmed the Indonesian people. Today we are paying the price.
Soekarno's decision in 1959 to adopt Guided Democracy as the governing principle of his reign and Soeharto's New Order policy to prohibit discussions on issues of SARA (Suku, Agama, Rasial and Antar Golongan-Ethnic groups, Religion, Race, and Intra groups) were all motivated by that obsession. So for more than five decades, Indonesians pretended to have a harmonious relationship with each other even when conflicts were occurring everyday. The Soeharto regime in particular has, for the three decades of his power, successfully 'put conflict under the carpet'. Except for recurring incidences of anti-Chinese sentiments in 1974, 1977, 1980 which reached its peak in the tragic May 1998 Riots, there was little information about conflicts around the country. Some ethnic Chinese Indonesians would argue that anti-Chinese sentiments were purposely nurtured in order to divert the people's attention away from other kinds of conflict, especially state-society conflict.
The situation went out of control after the 1996/1997 economic crisis which led to the fall of Soeharto's regime in 1998. During the first six-seven years after the new era of 'Reformasi' was proclaimed, social unrest happened in various places of the country, from Kalimantan and Maluku to Aceh, Poso and Papua. Nowadays, ethnic and religious issues have become the most important determinant in Indonesia's social and political life. It seems that after years of 'forced unity', the people have become too over- enthusiastic about re-learning the diversity among them and emphasizing the differences. In so doing, locality, ethnicity and religion have begun to create new problems of ethno-nationalism and separatism.
Our question now is 'shouldn't we re-learn unity and be united again?'
Considering the archipelagic nature of our country, where each island produces different goods that are being exchanged for the consumption by others, we actually should rediscover the meaning of unity. No island, especially the small ones like West Timor, would be able to support itself without the help from the peoples of the other islands, a reality that is reflected in the busy flow of people and goods in every day inter-island exchanges.
But how should we re-learn unity? The answer is 'from history'.
Clearly, mutual dependency, common interest, and a simbiosis mutualistic relationship have been developed over the ages and created a connectivity between the islands as well as between the people who occupy these islands. Our history has shown that the Nusantara archipelago, through its inter-island trading network, has become a social, economic and political entity which can only grow with cooperation between the inhabitants of its numerous islands.
As many historical records indicate, way back in the past Nusantara was widely known as a rich and prosperous place which attracted many foreigners to come and trade various local crops with the natives. Obviously it was the cooperation between the natives themselves which created a good impression of them in the eyes of foreigners and was an attractive pull factor.
If in the past unity gradually became a valuable necessity, today unity is similarly a must, if not more crucial, particularly under the pressures of current economic globalization. Without cooperation and unity, we certainly would not be able to compete with other countries.
In forging this unity, even the ethnic Chinese, Arab and Indian Indonesians should be included because each group has their own unique sociological role that cannot be replaced by other ethnic groups. Their contribution to the so-called Indonesian nation-state was written in the stories of their migration, settlement and existence in this country full of social and cultural exchanges, not to mention their friendly cooperation with the locals throughout the generations particularly before the Dutch colonial occupation. These groups, together with the locals, as a whole represent the diversity of Indonesia. As many have said, this diversity is a social asset that should be utilized to achieve the common goals specified in the 1945 Constitution of Indonesia, namely the people's freedom from oppression, their prosperity, security and dignity.
Finally, as a lesson learnt, the Indonesian case has proven that diversity and unity is not a zero-sum choice. Both are an undeniable part of the society with neither one more important than the other. The mistake made by Indonesians was to emphasize the importance of unity by neglecting diversity. The result was chaos still felt today.
To change the situation, the Indonesian leaders have to find the proper equilibrium between their desire for national unity (repeatedly articulated by military leaders as NKRI-short for Negara Kesatuan Republik Indonesia or Unitary State of Republic Indonesia-being "a fixed price") and adequate respect for the Indonesian people's diversity, their different beliefs, cultures and traditions. Only then can Indonesia achieve peace and stability.
By Thung Ju Lan, Senior Researcher, The Research Center for Society and Culture of The Indonesian Institute of Sciences
Asiaviews, August-September 2007