I had not watched television for a long time when an acquaintance wrote an article about the Primitive Runaway TV series. His piece in Koran Tempo (Dec. 24) described how our entertainment industry treats indigenous communities in Indonesia in a shockingly inappropriate manner.
Having never watched the show, I quivered while reading of the cruelty dished out on our televisions, explicated by Mr. Roy Thaniago. Two celebrities were taken to the area of a tribe in Mentawai, West Sumatra. In one scene, the camera sharply highlights the tribal people licking a parcel brought from the capital city. In another scene, both of the celebrity contestants are forced to follow the local custom of filing their teeth and tattooing their bodies. Backward and primitive, that’s how the community was depicted.
Such sadism was screened for the tens of millions of viewing eyes. Moreover, more than a few have complimented the program. Has it become our habit to treat indigenous communities in such a manner, thus a program with such indecent symbolic violence has become decent entertainment?
Look at how urban people perceive people from Borneo. Headhunters, cannibals, men with tails, such horrific images could flow freely in any informal chat taking place in a coffee shop in Jakarta. In such racist jokes, we who live in big cities chuckle on lies in a mind-set inherited during the era of Dutch military expedition. This piece will take us on a short tour of the origin of colonial mentality.
In the second half of the 19th century, the Dutch began to taste the pleasure of mining exploration activities that previously were only a cursory activity. Industrialization and the progress of maritime transportation in Europe resulted in soar demand of minerals.
As described by Denys Lombard in his book Nusa Jawa Silang Budaya, the Dutch began to magnify their military expedition in opening up new investment fields. In 1868, only nine years after the world’s first oil field started to be processed, petroleum exploration began in the area of Cirebon. Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Bali, Lombok and Flores slowly but surely were absorbed under Dutch rule.
“Behind the monumental tall buildings of our metropolis, perhaps, we never have really moved forward since several centuries ago.”
Indonesia’s territorial base of nowadays quietly began to form in that colonial period. However, establishing outer areas as a part of the Dutch East Indies was filled with scenes that rend our sense of humanity. Take the final scene of the conquest of Bali.
Facing the Dutch military intervention in 1906, the local royal family spiritually cleansed themselves. They dressed all in white in preparation of divine death. Then, only armed with spear and dagger, they charged ahead to be cut down by the firing rifles of the colonial troops. Kings were killed, as well as women and children.
Even for the most tragic event in history, the authorities certainly have the power to wrap it in their version of moral justification. Lombard explained, Dutch literature at the time of the expedition described the Balinese with a dark imagery. Society’s addiction to opium, the civil war, the slave trade and looting, and the subjugation of women, especially by cremating widows alive, was strongly visualized in the geography encyclopedia composed by Elisee Reclus from 19th century Dutch literature.
Such descriptions gave a totally different face to the Dutch attempt to weld its power over the entire Indies archipelago. The expansion of the colonies, which brought untold financial and political pleasure to the Dutch, was considered a process of liberation and civilizing the indigenous communities from the chains of feudalism. To quote Edward Said, “Every Empire, however, tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate.”
However, the climax of this tragedy occurred when the Indies attained independence from the Dutch. In the mid-1960s, as Iwan Pirous research shows, the Iban Dayak tribe, which had lived on the Borneo-Sarawak border for hundreds of years, was suddenly forced by Indonesian authorities to finish off fellow tribesmen who were suspected of engaging with communists. Otherwise, they themselves would be suspected of sympathizing with the leftists.
Two decades after Dutch colonialism, the New Order classified the indigenous communities as tribal people who were vulnerable to the penetration of communism. Indonesia was simply treated as a field that had to be kept unified due to its economic value that they could exploit, no matter what happened to the local people. The myth of the “outer people” being primitive continued to be passed on, as it was in the colonial period, to mask the practice of resource exploitation and political manipulation with an elegant veil of pembangunan (development).
Taman Mini Indonesia Indah (TMII), a colossal cultural park built by the New Order, for example, displays the Papuans with sculptures of vicious hunters. They hold their spears and are lined up in straight formation. Their posture is slightly hunched, as if they are moving with great caution.
The hunters’ body language shows a life of savagery and danger, especially compared to TMII’s representation of local people from other provinces, which stand erect and wear traditional clothing. It made the New Order’s pembangunan — which we now know was systematic exploitation for the good of the elite — as if an effort to elevate “outer” community from a primeval lifestyle. State violence has obtained a civilized appearance.
And today? Not much to say, perhaps. There is the TV program that enjoys high ratings by making fun of other people in the country. Among educated urban people, there is a belief that people from indigenous communities grow tails.
Behind the monumental tall buildings of our metropolis, perhaps, we never have really moved forward since several centuries ago. We still enjoy the violent attitude we inherited from then.
The writer graduated from the Department of Sociology, University of Indonesia, Depok, West Java.