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Jakarta Post

Nationalism: Poisoned chalice or panacea for Indonesia?

  • M. Taufiqurrahman

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Fri, August 23, 2019   /   09:21 am
Nationalism: Poisoned chalice or panacea for Indonesia? The aggrieved: Escorted by military personnel and police officers, Papuans demonstrate in front of the Presidential Palace in Central Jakarta on Thursday. Protesters called on the government to take seriously cases of physical and racial abuse against Papuan students by security personnel in Surabaya, East Java, on Saturday. (JP/Seto Wardhana)

In the wake of the latest conflagration in Papua, many were quick to surmise that racism was at the heart of the problem, especially after evidence found that protesters who targeted Papuans in East Java hurled the word “monkey” as an insult to Papuan students alleged to have refused to celebrate the country’s 74th Independence Day.

The racial epithet appeared to have confirmed the long-standing belief that Papuans have long been targeted with negative stereotypes and racial abuse mostly because of their skin color. But reducing the long-standing persecution against Papuans to a simple problem of racism ignores the larger context of why the injustice persists, why suspicion lasts and why tension remains between the central government and Papuans.

This is not to underestimate the role that racism plays in our relationship with Papuans or to downplay the fact that racism does exist in our society, but it constitutes only half of the equation and that in the final analysis, racism is only a symptom of a greater, more chronic problem that is a specific brand of nationalism that is unique to Indonesia.

When white supremacists took to the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, two years ago and begun chanting “blood and soil” (followed with the slogan “Jews will not replace us”), many were appalled by the racist overtones and swiftly condemned the rhetoric (except for US President Donald Trump). It does not take a German history buff to know that the “blood and soil” slogan was propagated by the Nazi Germans.

The blood and soil reference can be found in abundance here, albeit sanitized from any racial connotations. From the national anthem to patriotic poems sung and recited every week in every schoolyard around the country, the theme of blood and soil (tanah tumpah darahku, the soil on which I spill my blood) permeates through many aspects of Indonesian life.

The absence of unifying traits, especially in terms of ethnicity or race, has made soil (i.e. geography) the defining character of Indonesian nationalism, and it is this type of national identity that has loomed large over Indonesian society in the past seven decades.

And since there were no agreed upon territorial boundaries that would mark Negara Kesatuan Republik Indonesia (the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia), political leaders had to conjure up an imaginary line drawn in the sand. Anti-colonial leaders like Sukarno certainly did not want to accept the fact that modern Indonesia would be founded on boundaries set by the Dutch colonial government, so he conjured up a concept called Nusantara, based on the territorial reach of the 14th century Majapahit kingdom, which is thought to have ruled over a large swath of territory in Southeast Asia, including territory currently controlled by Malaysia and Thailand.

There was a debate over whether Majapahit’s sphere of influence ever reached Papua, but Sukarno was determined to make Papua part of Indonesia. In 1962, he launched a military operation to occupy the territory. And although Malaysia and Singapore were never occupied by the Dutch, Sukarno ordered another military operation in a futile attempt to make them part of Nusantara.

Sukarno’s use of the military to safeguard Indonesia’s territorial integrity became the modus operandi for the country’s subsequent leaders.

Sukarno’s successor, Soeharto, expanded the definition of Nusantara by incorporating in 1977 East Timor, a former colony of Portugal. This lasted for close to 30 years before the territory broke away in 1999.

The secession of East Timor was a turning point that marked the hardening of Indonesia and came to be what we now know as NKRI Harga Mati(Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia is Undisputed). The English translation cannot fully capture the angst coming from the slogan, which includes the Indonesian word mati (death). Indonesia is final and it needs defending and whenever necessary it would involve death, a lot of it.

The Acehnese were the first to bear the brunt of the hardened version of the NKRI when the demand for a referendum was first dealt with through a military operation that led to the death of thousands of civilians. The prospect of losing another territory spooked then-president Megawati Soekarnoputri, who launched a massive military operation involving more than 55,000 troops and paramilitary police.

In Papua, despite a number of benevolent policies ranging from the implementation of special autonomy to the current initiative by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to build more infrastructure and economic programs for native Papuans, the “NKRI harga mati” paradigm, that Indonesian sovereignty over Papua must be defended at all cost, that security measures would take precedence over dialogue, continues to drive major policies.

When a band of militant separatists killed 19 construction workers in Nduga, in the Papua highlands last year, Jakarta responded by unleashing a military operation that led to the displacement of thousands of local people.

Again, responding to this week’s rioting in some key cities the central government used the same playbook of dispatching more paramilitary police and soldiers, further fortifying the region and putting a stronger chokehold on Papuans who were already under tremendous pressure.

When explaining the origin of nationalism, political scientist Ben Anderson theorized that national communities more often than not were imagined by people who perceived themselves to be part of something bigger, and what glues people together in a nation-state is at times imagination which continues to be propagated through the printing press.

Nationalism may be imagined, but when enforced with the presence of boots on the ground, its implications are real and it has come down hard for Papuans today.