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Jakarta Post

Some misinterpretations about indigenous people

  • Hafid Abbas

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Thu, August 15, 2013   /  10:36 am

The International Day of the World'€™s Indigenous People on Aug. 9 was first proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in December 1994, to be celebrated every year during the first International Decade of the World'€™s Indigenous People (1995-2004).

In 2004, the assembly proclaimed a second International Decade, from 2005 to 2014, with the theme '€œA decade for action and dignity'€. To achieve the goal of the decade, in the context of Indonesia, various misinterpretations in the text and spirit of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples have to be addressed.

First, the term '€œindigenous people'€ in an Indonesian context could lead to a great misinterpretation. Geographically, Indonesia is an archipelagic country with around 18,000 islands covering a total of 2 million square kilometers. In 2013, its total population stood at 250 million, comprising more than 1,000 ethnic and subethnic groups.

Prior to independence, these groups lived with their own cultures and traditions under their respective kingdoms. In South Sulawesi, for example, Bone was an independent kingdom with its own unique political systems, cultures and traditions. Similarly, its neighbor Gowa was also a unique kingdom. In Papua, there are some 300 local languages spoken by different ethnic and sub-ethnic groups. Within this context, it is indeed a misleading concept to dichotomize those ethnic groups into indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, especially given Indonesia'€™s tenet of unity in diversity.

US society is different because despite the fact that it is greatly diverse, its peoples have lost their context of origin. The majority of Americans are immigrants from many countries across the world. To '€œAmericanize'€ US residents is therefore much easier than to '€œIndonesianize'€ those in the archipelago. For the United States to identify its indigenous populations, such as American Indian or Hawaiian minorities, is also quite easy. Similarly, the indigenous Australian Aboriginal population is also quite easy to recognize. In Indonesia, diversified ethnic groups remain in their respective entities and social environments despite their faith in the unitary state of Indonesia'€™s system.

Within this context, Indonesian laws use various terms to refer to indigenous peoples, such as masyarakat suku terasing (alien tribal communities), masyarakat tertinggal (neglected communities), masyarakat terpencil (remote communities), masyarakat hukum adat (customary law communities) and, more simply, masyarakat adat (cultural communities). Indeed, the term '€œindigenous'€ was introduced by Dutch colonialists to disintegrate the unity of Indonesia as a nation.

Second, according to Article three of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. This article has been tendentiously misinterpreted by some international and local NGOs to support the separatist movement in Papua. They have argued that local Papuans are indigenous. Again, this is a great mistake. To avoid such a misinterpretation, the term '€œself-determination'€ has to refer to Article 46 of the declaration, which states that '€œnothing in this declaration may be interpreted as implying for any state, people, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act contrary to the Charter of the United Nations or construed as authorizing or encouraging any action which would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and independent states.'€

So, the interpretation of Papua'€™s self-determination cannot be perceived as a means for separatism but rather the freedom to determine its own economic, social and cultural development within the unitary state of the Republic of Indonesia. From this perspective, special autonomy for Papua and West Papua is the solution that allows both provinces to pursue economic, social and cultural development.

Third, at the eighth session of the United Nations Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), one international NGO called IWGIA released a publication titled, The Indigenous World 2009. The book has a special chapter on Papua separate from the one on Indonesia. This publication appeared to present bias by separating Papua from Indonesia and putting West Papua within the cluster of Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific group. This type of publication could lead to a misinterpretation about Papua that could provoke its secession from Indonesia.

However, The Indigenous World 2013 publication has been greatly improved. The previous misinterpretation of grouping Papua with Australia and New Zealand has been removed. Overexposure of one country'€™s internal matters while neglecting those of others may lead to misinterpretations about the motives of such a publication. It seems that no country in the world is free from human rights violations, especially in dealing with its indigenous population.

Australian Aborigines, for example, continue to feel misunderstood by white Australian politics. As Senator Rachel Siewert of the Australian Greens Party said, '€œRacial discrimination is embedded in the Australian Constitution and continues to be enacted in the laws and policies of our states and territories.'€

Similarly, although the Nordic countries of Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland are among the wealthiest and most developed countries in the world, they are also facing serious concerns regarding their local indigenous peoples. According to the UN, the Sami people continue to be marginalized, suffering from serious health concerns, extreme poverty and hunger.

Finally, in the multidimensional crisis in the early part of Indonesia'€™s transition to democracy, many respected international academic analysts predicted a gloom and doom transition that could have culminated in a national breakdown along the lines of the former Soviet Union or Yugoslavia. But it did not. Instead, Indonesia showed remarkable resiliency and strength by bouncing back to manage its transition, and by 2004 it had fully recovered, defying all predictions. As the World Bank noted, '€œNo country in the recent history, let alone one the size of Indonesia, has ever suffered such a dramatic reversal of fortune'€.

Indonesia could be a shining example to international communities of how to manage indigenous issues, even though Indonesia does not have specific indigenous peoples.

The writer is a professor at the State University of Jakarta and was head of the Indonesian delegation at the eighth session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, (UNPFII), New York, May 18-29, 2009.

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