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Jakarta Post

The forgotten role of ethnicity in Indonesian history

  • Teuku Reza Fadeli


York, United Kingdom   /   Fri, October 4, 2019   /   06:14 pm
The forgotten role of ethnicity in Indonesian history Unity in diversity: Open University students from across Indonesia attend the opening ceremony of the Academic Discussions and Sports and Arts Week (Disporseni) in South Tangerang, Banten. (JP/Arief Suhardiman)

Indonesians always have an uneasy relationship with their identities. Recently, racist insults aimed at a number of Papuan students ignited a series of protests in the Papua province. The Indonesian government ostensibly asks the people of Papua to forgive, and relies on a security approach rather than in-depth dialogue.

Not quite long ago, the 60th anniversary of the Indonesian National History Seminar was held in Yogyakarta. The three-day seminar was filled with presentations from 176 speakers, yet only seven papers discussed race and ethnicity. This suggests that race and ethnicity have not been given its proper, central attention in Indonesian historiography.

The lack of discussion of ethnicity, both in the Indonesian historiography and public discourse brings direct consequences, including racism, which subsequently leads to violence and mass protest.

The concepts of ethnicity and race partially overlap. Some ethnic differences may exist in unalterable characteristics, but others can also exist without genetic determinism, according to Thomas Hylland Eriksen in Ethnicity and Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives. The notion of cultural uniqueness and social solidarity is associated more closely with ethnic categorization, whereas biological or genetic traits are more closely associated with race, as written by Chris Smaje in a journal article "Not Just a Social Construct: Theorising Race and Ethnicity". So although members of a race may not have cultural similarities, they remain part of the same group. Although members of an ethnic group generally assume they have the same cultural origins, cultural equality and social integration are more important as a bond of solidarity.

The understanding of ethnicity dictates that the important question of “who belongs to the group” and “what characteristics they have” to have the same ethnicity. Such boundary marking of a particular group include language, coverage of a specific geographical area, political organization, religion, or other visible or invisible attributes. These boundaries then constitute an ethnic group distinct from others. Sometimes this difference is difficult for outsiders to determine, so it is necessary to use the perception from within the ethnic group itself.

But how did the boundary of ethnicity arise in a region? Several ethnic groups in the Indonesian archipelago, for various reasons (migration, trade, war, religion, etc.), have merged or changed their identity for economic and political causes. This can lead to wider (or narrower) boundaries for certain ethnic groups. Ethnic groups eroded by the more dominant group boundaries are sometimes lost to history after they become marginalized, and historical writing that ignores marginalized people is a legacy of colonialism.

The instinct of the colonialists to have full power over their colonies' territory often encouraged them to produce knowledge with the function of perpetuating power. They produced narratives that demonstrated the need for the strict control of the state and community relationships. The communities were controlled through the dichotomization, diversification, and segregation of the community to allow effective and efficient administrative processes (or exploitation).

To support lasting governance, the social order constructed by the colonialists was based on a division of identity, including ethnicity. The British historian Anthony Stockwell has said that the Europeans exploited the differences among indigenous peoples in Southeast Asia to control them all. From the Indonesian colonial period, he noted that the Dutch East Indian Army (KNIL) recruited the Ambonese from Maluku because they were known to have better martial skills compared to the Javanese. The number of KNIL soldiers continued to increase because of the need to conduct counterinsurgency operations and maintain Dutch power in the archipelago.

Ethnicity during the colonial period was a matter of great contrast and formed divisions within the configuration of a hierarchical society. Dafna Ruppin, who examined the emergence of a modern audience for cinema in Java in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, highlights the plurality of the cinemagoers based on social class, dialect, and ethnicity. She observes that the intersection of gender, ethnicity, and class at the cinema and the problem of ethnicity within cinema became a cause of discrimination at film screenings.

Paradoxically, the discrimination created a strong bond among the natives who watched the movie. In Ruppin’s study, historian JS Furnivall's categorization of community groups is still clearly visible, particularly in the ticket pricing categories that divide the three classes: Europeans, Asians from elsewhere, and natives. The distribution of seats in the cinema was also based on ethnicity. First-class seating was for Europeans. The second and third class seats were for Asians from elsewhere. Indigenous people had a place in the lower classes. Special tickets were sometimes offered to Asians from elsewhere who were willing to pay more, and this was also true for natives who could afford better seats. Given a large number of seats in theatres, cinema entrepreneurs would make the most profit if the audience members, from whatever ethnic background, could pay for the seats they wanted. This situation indicates the flexibility of the boundaries of ethnicity and socio-economic class in colonial theaters.

Until recently, the social engineering of the past continued to be reproduced by academics in the post-colonial period. In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson contrasts anti-colonial nationalist movements in the Indies and French Indochina, which were not based on ideology, politics, or social class but rather on geography and ethnicity. In the Dutch East Indies, the anti-colonial nationalist movement attempted to unite the archipelago (Nusantara) and the various ethnic groups into a unified Indonesian state based on the idea of “unity in diversity.”

In Indochina, by contrast, ethno-geographic divisions were not united by a general reaction to French colonialism, and the colonies eventually disintegrated into the separate states of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. The responses of Indonesians, Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians against colonialism represent examples of what David Henley calls integrative and exclusive nationalism, respectively. Henley and Anderson's explanations show how important it is for scholars to see the historical processes of ethnic groups.

The demographic composition of Southeast Asian society, which is made up of various ethnic groups, shows the importance of looking at ethnicity in the nation-building process and the creation of nationalism.

Ethnic-based nationalism is passé, and it's time to move on to the new form of nationalism. However, all of that must begin with lucid historical understanding of our society in order to enhance our understanding of the present and prepare for future challenges.


PhD student at the Department of History, University of York, United Kingdom. He previously worked at the Faculty of Humanities, Universitas Indonesia (UI). He can be contacted at [email protected]

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.