This article is part of a series to commemorate Indonesian Independence Day on August 17.
Indigenous People fought alongside youth movements in the creation of an Indonesian nation. But, in the historical writing of Indonesia’s struggle for independence from colonial powers, stories of Indigenous People’s role are nearly non-existent compared to that of the elite educated youth leaders.
This lack of representation reflects the marginalisation of Indigenous People’s, which continued throughout Indonesia’s 75 years of independence.
Indigenous People, whose traditional knowledge and way of life proved to be a force to be reckoned with during the current COVID-19 pandemic and who for generations serve as guardians of forests and natural environments, continue to be stigmatised and experience oppression in their own country.
Nearly 20 million, out of a total of 268 million Indonesians, Indigenous Peoples are often being associated with “dirty, primitive, underdeveloped, alien, to forest encroacher.”
The stigma resulted in them being underrepresented, either economically, socially, politically, and culturally. In addition, these communities suffered oppression from the government’s economic driven investment, evicting them from their customary lands to make way for large scale forestry, mining, and plantations.
History books barely mention how Indigenous Peoples took arms with the Youth movement during the struggle for independence and helped to finally established the Republic of Indonesia.
Rukka Sombolinggi, who comes from the Toraja tribe in South Sulawesi, recalled the experience of her own family. She said that her great grandfather and grandfather were freedom fighters who fought along with students.
Rukka is the secretary-general of the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago (AMAN). The alliance currently represents 2,366 indigenous communities throughout Indonesia or more than 18 million individual members.
“My grandfather died as a veteran. The history might not have recorded Indigenous Peoples’ roles for fighting the colonialism, but there were hundreds of thousands of them who died in the wars. Unfortunately, history recorded only the youths movements,” said Sombolinggi.
Sandra Moniaga, a Commissioner for Assessment and Research at the National Commission of Human Rights (Komnas HAM), said the majority of Indigenous Peoples, such as Sedulur Sikep in Java, were among the groups who rejected to collaborate with the Dutch colonialists.
Sandra added that Indigenous Peoples have a unique contribution to Indonesia’s struggle for independence. “They preserve Indonesia’s local cultures, protecting our identity as a nation known with hundreds of tribes and cultures,” she said.
Most of Indigenous Peoples customary lands are within and near the country’s forests. They play a huge role in protecting the country’s forest and natural environment.
In her recent study about the Marind-Anim Indigenous Peoples in Merauke Regency, Papua Province, anthropologist Sophie Chao who has been living among them for more than a decade, mentioned how the tribe is “caring for the forest, respectable to plants and animals, and nourishing relationships with the natural world.”
Under the administration of Indonesia’s first president Sukarno, Indigenous Peoples got their recognition through the State’ agrarian law in 1960.
The law was the first to mention Indigenous Peoples. But it stipulates that customary law applies as long as it aligns with national and State interests.
After Soeharto took power in 1966, there was systematic destruction on customary rights during the New Order, according to Sandra.
She said that the government carried out land-grabbing by issuing forest permits on customary lands for forestry, mining and large scale plantations.
“Most of these customary lands were also claimed by the government to be handed over to migrants and TNI (the army) or the police,” she added.
Towards recognition of Indigenous rights
Things started to change for Indigenous Peoples in following the end of Soeharto’s rule in 1998.
The 2nd Amendment of the 1945 Constitution enacted in 2000 acknowledged their “traditional existence” and “traditional way of life”.
This became the legal basis for the Constitutional Court to rule out customary lands (Hutan Adat) as State’s forests in 2012, or locally known as MK35.
Another progress, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo had revived the Indigenous Peoples Bill, which will strengthen Indigenous Peoples existence in the Republic and to resolve ongoing conflicts related to customary lands.
“Still, it is difficult to realise these regulations. Instead of RUU MHA (Indigenous Peoples Bill), the government and lawmakers are more eager to pass the Omnibus Law on Job Creation” slammed Rukka Sombolinggi.
She said currently, Indigenous Peoples are facing another form of “colonialism”. Since decentralisation in 2001, the regents and governors were the ones issuing permits over Customary Forest without their consent.
“We are no longer fighting foreign companies, but locals, like the bupati (head of regent), the governor. Their own people,” she said citing Sukarno’s famous speech: “My struggle was easier because it was to expel the colonialists, but yours will be more difficult because it is against your own people.”
During the pandemic, Indigenous Peoples that are still practising their traditional knowledge are considered to be the most resilient groups because of their closeness to nature.
“Indigenous Peoples who are guarding their areas and not massively exploited their resources and have the spirit of sharing, they have strong resilience against this pandemic. They can even provide their own food,” said Rukka Sombolinggi.
Meanwhile, those who are exposed to modernisation or in conflict with the industries suffer from unemployment, food security, and lacking in health, clean water and sanitation access.
“The claim and promises from big corporations to provide food, open access to education, or employment, they are now becoming helpless due to the characteristic of the virus,” Sombolinggi added.
Sophie Chao admired the courage, resilience, endurance, and creativity of Indigenous Peoples, in general, in the face of ongoing threats to their lands and ways of life.
“For me, my hope is that the cultures and values of Indigenous Peoples will be fully recognised, protected, and promoted by the Indonesian state and by the international community,” said Chao. “This means making sure that their rights to land are guaranteed, that their full consent is sought where development projects are being planned, and their development takes place in a bottom-up way, based on Masyarakat Adat‘s own aspirations, dreams, and hopes.”
Correction : It should be “The 2nd Amendment of the 1945 Constitution enacted in 2000” not “the 4th Amendment of the 1945 Constitution enacted in 2002”.
Rukka Sombolinggi, secretary-general of the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago (AMAN), and Sandra Moniaga, a Commissioner for Assesment and Research at the National Commission of Human Rights (Komnas HAM) were interviewed for this article.