Renegotiating Unity and Diversity: Problematic Multiculturalism in Post-Suharto Indonesia*


J.S. Furnivall once argued that because of the lack of common social will between them, unless some of formula could be devised, Southeast Asian pluralism seemed doomed to a nightmarish anarchy (Azra 2007, p.228). Compare to other South East Asian countries it is safe to say that Indonesia is the most diverse society in term of ethnic, language, custom, and religion. The need for a common social platform as asserted by Furnivall is even more important today as Indonesia is now in its pivotal time after the demise of an authoritarian regime of the New Order Suharto. In the wake of regional autonomy (otonomi daerah) and local politics, the country is now in a very critical juncture where all of its region tries to redefine itself and its relationship with Jakarta.

Much has been said that when the New Order gradually took shape after 1966, the tensions between processes of nation building and primordial attachments was no longer a threat to the nation-state. Academic research has then shifted from the issue and concentrated more on the nature of the state (Nordholt and van Klinken 2007, p.3). Now after Suharto stepped down, the policy on regional autonomy has created the popularly known “little kingdoms” with “local little kings” who are adding the intricacies to the problematic relationship between the center government with its subordinates in the nascent local democratization era. The situation is exacerbated by the emergence of the (new) ethnic elites (van Klinken 2002, p.68-72) who are competing with each other for local leadership, to be the little king in their respective little kingdom.

After more than three decades of living under the doctrine of “national identity” and “national unity”, the identity politics is one of the crucial issues in the post New Order Indonesia. However even when Suharto was still in power, there was a growing concern among observers about the tendency of ethnic identification in the competition of local leadership. National integration and increased contact between different groups did not erode ethnic identities. Since the 1980s the government policies, migration and intensified competition for scarce resources has instead led to an intensification of ethnic consciousness (Nordholt and van Klinken 2007, p. 23). The issue of “native Son” (putra daerah, or native born leader), someone considered to be the person most entitled to serve as the head of a particular region, for instance, had been a heatedly debated issue since the early of 1990s. Meanwhile the resistance to the government’s efforts of homogenizing the nation, of creating a common culture, symbols, and valuesbased on the Javanese cultural styles and valuescould also be seen when people used the term  “Jawanisasi” (Javanization) to refer to and as a protest against the imposition of the predominant cultural system throughout the country. It was nevertheless just recently that some provinces and districts rushed out to formulate their respective local identity based on either a particular religious teaching or a particular ethnic identity or a combination of both.

Albeit not constitutionally a multicultural country like Canada, Indonesia has been a state based on the ideas of multicultural society. From Sukarno to Suharto to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the adoption of multicultural ideas can be seen not only in the use of official state’s motto of “unity in diversity” (Bhinneka Tunggal Ika), but also in the enactment of some regulations, even often contradictory to each other, aimed at addressing the problem of diversity. On the other hand, the concept of a unitary state of the republic of Indonesia (Negara Kesatuan Republik Indonesia) shows that on top of this multicultural setting the government put the priority on preserving political sovereignty. But the need to preserve political sovereignty means that the state also has an interest in creating a unified polity (Turner 2007, p. 257). More often than not, the efforts of unifying polity were taken at the expense of ethnic diversity, local differences, indigenous normative ordering and religious laws. The New Order Suharto was widely known for its emphasis on the unity (Tunggal Ika) at the expense of differences (Bhinneka). It should not come as a surprise that every attempt of the government will now clash with the interest of preserving local identities. The flux of unity and diversity has brought the country into a long and winding road of problematic multiculturalism.

This paper discusses some critical problems that Indonesia has been faced with in dealing with diversity. It argues that far from being something that should be seen as a complete project, Indonesia is still in unfinished negotiations between the nation with its sub-national nations. As will be explored in the next section, Indonesia was considered a radical departure from the old nations of the past. Now it seems like she is being haunted by the nations that erupt from the ruin of the past she left behind when declaring herself as a nation-state. In other words Indonesia is in need for redefining and rediscovering herself in facing some great social disruptions brought about by the changes in political climate after the old utopia of the unity of Indonesia Raya (the Great Indonesia) has been devastated fiercely by economics and political failures of the old regime. More specifically, the government has to refine its policies regarding the multiplicity of identities and values of her citizen. The big question now is how to make it possible that the seemingly incommensurable identities and values can be placed in the fledgling democratic space.

The paper is structured into three main sections. The first section discusses Indonesia as a multicultural country not much as a descriptive reality but more as an abstract entity depicted in some of the early notions of Indonesian nationhood. On the second section, this paper sketches out some policies taken by the government of the state of Indonesia in the realms of religion and culture. Both will show how the policies on diversity have been diverted to only promote ideas of national unity based on the “stability approach” of the New Order regime, and how the government understood and defined diversity.

There are many form of diversity. In Rethinking Multiculturalism, Bhikhu Parekh (2000 p. 2-4) differentiates between three types of cultural diversity, i.e. subcultural diversity, perspectival diversity, and communal diversity. Indonesia exhibits all the three types of diversity. However, on the third section this paper will be focused on the communal diversity, and be narrowed-down to the ethno-religious communities that can be found in various parts of the country. It assess the impact of the state’s policies on multiculturalism on the life and existence of some local ethno-religious communities, and a brief discussion on the cultural strategies taken by these groups in their negotiation with the predominant values and identity.

Early (Contesting) Ideas on Multicultural Indonesia

The problem of multiculturalism within the context of Indonesian nation-state can also be traced back to the unfinished negotiation between what is in Indonesian word called “bangsa” (nation) and “nasion”, which by some have recently often been considered to be a more appropriate translation of the English word “nation”.[1] Diverse nations (bangsa-bangsa), each with their own shared experiences and memories of having been subjugated by the Europeans colonialism, arrived at an agreement (or claimed to be in agreement) to converge into a new idea or, to use Anderson’s (1991) terminology, imagination of a nationhood, a fiction of the nation of Indonesia. The establishment of Indonesian nation-state therefore, involved the process of the augmentation of the people’s imagination beyond territorial claims and their previous cultures, extending towards a national scope. One of the intriguing question was how the myriad of nations each with its own culture, language, custom, traditional laws and religious teaching could possibly be united without ignoring each of their unique characters.

Which bring us to the discussion on the early notions of multicultural Indonesia. In October 1928, at an event called Kongres Pemuda (Youth Congress) some young activists representing their respective youth organization pledged the oath of “one country, one nation, and one language, Indonesia”. The nation of Indonesia and Indonesian nationhood preceded the dawn of the Indonesian modern state. And on that day, the work of composer W.R. Supratman, Indonisch, Indonisch, later to be named Indonesia Raya, was sung and later declared as the country’s official national anthem. The oath is popularly known as “Sumpah Pemuda” (the Youth Oath), and this particular juncture is often referred to as the onset of the spirit of multiculturalism in Indonesia. The youth chose not to settle on the Javanese (the largest ethnic) or Sundanese (the second largest ethnic) to represent this new nation. The Indonesian language that rooted from the Malay vernacular was chosen as the lingua franca of the newly born nation. What united them was a sentiment of belonging to a community (Guibernau 2005, p.47), a shared feeling of being united by a historical fate as an object of the Dutch colonialism. Note that the youth did not even bother to discuss religion as a uniting factor for their “imagined community”.

Early ideas on the nationhood of the so-called founding fathers of Indonesia also showed how diversity had caused concern among them and how they viewed diversity as a factor that should be taken into account in forming the nation. In this paper I will only discuss ideas of the two of them, i.e., Sukarno and Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana (STA). They came from different perspectives and arrived at different conclusions but their ideas were obviously representing intellectual responses toward cultural diversity in relation to the fate of a nation blessed (or cursed) with it.

In his first speech on the Pancasila state ideology on 1 June 1945, Sukarno eloquently said:

In brief, the nation of Indonesia, Natie Indonesia, are not simply a congregation of people living with “désir d’être ensemble” (desire to unite–HB) in smaller regions such as Minangkabau, or Madura, or Jogya, or Sunda, or Bugis, but the nation of Indonesia embraces entire individuals who according to the geopolitics decreed by Allah, God the Almighty, coexist in the union of all islands across Indonesia from the Northern tip of Sumatra to the farthest end of Irian![2]

Sukarno used the word “Natie” to accentuate on the difference between the concept of bangsa (nation) adopted in the phrase “bangsa Indonesia” with the idea of bangsa that refers to the territories and cultures before the birth of Indonesia. In another part of his speech, Sukarno further elaborate the concept of nation-state in the following sentences:

Thus, not all regions in our motherland that were sovereign territories in ancient times are nationale staat. We have only twice experienced the status of nationale staat, i.e. during the rule of the Sriwijaya and Majapahit empires. Apart from that we are never a nationale staat. I say with full respect that we once had our revered kings, I say with most sincere admiration to Sultan Agung Hanjokrokesumo that Mataram albeit an independent region was still not a nationale staat. With all deference to Prabu Siliwangi in Pajajaran, I say that his kingdom was not a nationale staat. With my highest regard to Prabu Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa, I say that his empire in Banten, although self-governing, was not a nationale staat. With tremendous respect to Sultan Hasanuddin in Sulawesi who established the Bugis Kingdom, I say that the independent land of Bugis was also not a nationale staat.[3]

Sukarno’s conception of a nationale staat in the excerpt above presupposes a national-state that is beyond the form of the independent nations that once existed and at the same time merged these nations into one nation-state. He drew a superlative relationship between Indonesia and its sub-nationals. The concept of Indonesia as a national unity therefore supersedes the interests of the sub-national nations. For this new nation Sukarno strived hard to discover a platform layer that presumably can mediate differences among pre-Indonesian nations. He named the platform Pancasila (literally means five basic principles). It is a Weltanschauung, a guiding-principles whose values are believed to be dug and synthesized from the country’s old traditions. His passion for the unity of the nation can be seen in the inclusion of the term “Indonesian nationality” as the first principle of the draft of the Pancasila manuscript he proposed.[4]

Is Indonesia then a continuation of the earlier nations? For Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana (STA) the answer is a resounding no. For him becoming an Indonesian nation is a historical process to break free from the darkness of the past that he termed “pre-Indonesia Jahiliyah” (Age of Ignorance). In an article entitled “Menuju Masyarakat dan Kebudayaan Baru” (Toward a New Society and Culture) published in Pujangga Baru of August 1935, STA (1977 p. 2-11) wrote:

It must be clearly stated that the history of Indonesia in the twentieth century upon the birth of a new generation within the setting of this archipelago has consciously embarked on a new path for the nation and the country. In earlier times, the period prior to the closure of the 19th century is the age of pre-Indonesia, of Indonesia’s Jahiliyah, that only recognizes the history of Oost Indische Compagnie, the history of Mataram, history of Aceh, history of Banjarmasin and others.[5]

The Arabic word “jahiliyah” adopted by STA in the above passage refers to the period of Arabian society’s existence before the advent of Islam. The term carries a negative connotation because the Arabs prior to Islam were typically depicted as people from an inferior state of civilization whose rational thoughts remained cast in darkness. Moving away from this period of gloom means that the Indonesians have entered the era of enlightenment (Aufklarung), celebrating the age of modernity. STA believed that the past did not contribute to the discovery of the Indonesian nation in the twentieth century. Sukarno treated “the earlier nations” as part of the process of forming Indonesia’s nationale staat. In contrast, STA suggested that the people of Indonesia free themselves from such traditional binds.

The word free does not suggest that the people are ignorant of the particulars, the word free merely means unchained (tidak terikat).  This is because whoever has failed to liberate himself from the Javanese culture, will attempt to incorporate this spirit of Javaneseness (kejawaan) into the Indonesian culture, whoever has not set himself free from the Malay culture will attempt to incorporate this spirit of Malayness (kemelayuan) into the Indonesian culture and so forth. For these people therefore, Indonesian culture is a slightly altered version of the Javanese or Malay culture. (STA, ibid).

With this notion, STA has instigated an intellectual debate considered to be the most outstanding in the history of Indonesia’s modern thinking, what was more commonly known as the Polemik Kebudayaan (Cultural Polemic). Unlike several of his critics at that time, who were more inclined toward suggesting that the development of Indonesia’s culture be inspired by Eastern cultural values as well as the virtue of old traditions, STA on the contrary, viewed that modern Indonesia must construct a completely new culture, the culture of Indonesia Raya (the Great Indonesia).[6] Hence, he did not recommend choosing a dominant ethnic culture as the national culture, nor was he interested in the amalgamation of existing cultures into a modern Indonesian container, neither was he also an advocate of a cultural mosaic like the contemporary multiculturalists, but he was instead an exponent of the creation of a new (national) culture. It was obvious that for STA the pre-Indonesia empires, including Majapahit and Sriwijaya, were not the precursors to the modern Indonesian nation-state.

For both Sukarno and STA a nation then is an entity that struggles to set itself free from the cradle of the past, a rational project that betrays the past to grasp and welcome the future. Sukarno felt that he was obligated to apologize to the kings of ancient kingdoms because their historical role should then be immediately unseated to make way for new generation in a newly established nationale staat, whereas STA ascertained that the pre-Indonesia age should be abandoned entirely to accomplish a similar goal. Both Sukarno and STA viewed the earlier nations as being at a lower level from that of a nation-state. The dissimilarity between the two lies in their stance towards the role of these nations in an independent Indonesia. Regardless of the difference in opinion about the newly birth nation-state, Pancasila was then accepted as the state’s official ideology with which the country set a foundation for dealing with diversity. There was no particular ethnic, religion, race, and culture that was given higher status over another. Suharto then took his own way in reshaping the country where diversity not only economically exploited but also manipulated culturally and was taken advantage of politically.

Forcing Unity into Diversity

Since the Dutch colonial era, the composition of the populace inhabiting the East Indies had given rise to various intricate problems. To cope with such issues, the colonial government imposed the politics of segregation that divided the population into groups that were strictly monitored and extremely discriminatory. In 1884 for instance, the colonial government issued the Algemene Baplingen van Wetgeving (General Regulation on Legislative Principles) that divided the population of East Indies based on religious orientation into two categories: Europeans (who embrace Christianity), and the Natives (all non-European residents). A year later in 1885, the colonial government issued the Regerings Reglement (Government Regulation) that no longer divided the population based on religion but on race into three groups: Europeanen (Europeans), Inlanders (indigenous population), and Vreemde Oosterlingen (Foreign Orientals) that included the Indians, Arabs, and Chinese (Gautama and Hornick 1974, p.3-4).

In post-colonial era, the policy of the government of Indonesia was rather contradictory to each other: while it ceremoniously accepted and heralded diversity as a national asset for the sake of nation’s greatness, yet at the same time it discouraged plurality based on the view that differences cause troubles for the state and for the nation. High degree of cultural heterogeneity was viewed as obstacles that can hinder the national economic development trajectories. In other words, differences are seen as a threat to the national stability. To handle the variety of difference, the New Order imposed control on diversity at several level, two of which will briefly be discussed below. On the first level it diminished the number of religions embraced by society through the imposition of a policy on “agama yang resmi diakui di Indonesia” (religions officially acknowledged in Indonesia). On the second level, the government set a standardized national culture by imposing values and symbol of the dominant culture to lessen cultural differences.

In 1965, Presidential Decree No. 1 was enacted and provided a list of the official religions recognized in Indonesia consisting of Islam, Protestant, Catholic, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucian. Confucianism was unlisted as official religion in 1978. In the Surat Edaran Menteri Dalam Negeri (Internal Affairs Ministerial Circular Letter) of 1978 on the procedure for filling in the column on religion in the identity card of Indonesian citizens, the authority will only recognize five main religions: Islam, Protestant, Catholic, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

If the consequences of the Circular Letter of the Internal Affairs Minister of 1978 only specifically affect the followers of Confucius, the more fundamental issue actually lies in the policy of determining the “official religion” category. The implications of this policy will not only have a bearing on Confucius believers but also on other faiths outside of the five “formal” religions. Some people identify those religions as “ethnic belief” which is inferior compared to the five recognized religions. Others however consider such faith not as religion whatsoever but merely as a traditional belief system that yet to be fully perfected by converting them into one of the five official religions.

This categorization brings forth a general perception on the identity of Indonesianness where to become an Indonesian citizen one must embrace one of the five religions acknowledged by the state. Beyond that, individuals or communities who observe other religions are categorized as “non-religious” or “heretics” or even be identified as member of ex-communist party (the PKI, or Partai Komunis Indonesia). The category of “non-religious” is typically used to identify followers of a belief system outside of the official religion, and the label of being “heretic” is attached to followers of the same “official religion” but who adhere to a different interpretation and ritual of the religion in question. Meanwhile the label “bekas PKI” (ex-PKI) used arbitrarily by the government to identify anyone who was opposing the policies. When these minority identities were expressed forthrightly during the era of political openness of post-Suharto era, they were immediately confronted with the majority (actually it is only a small part of the majority) followers of a particular official religion (particularly Islam) that resulted in the provocation of social tensions that has occurred in recent years. Since January until November 2007 for instance, Setara Institute of Jakarta recorded at least 135 incidents that can be categorized as violations of religious freedom (Koran Tempo, 19 December 2007).

Standardized Cultural Diversity

Much of the same can be said about the New Order policies on culture. It used diversity to promote national integration and as a propaganda against “bahaya laten komunisme” (latent threat of communism). The diversity in ethnicity, culture, language, custom, traditional attire, and even local delicacies are displayed on an immense scale by the government on virtually every important state event. This parade of diversity is starkly obvious in visual representations printed on calendars, stamps, tourism brochures, post-cards, pamphlets, schoolbooks, television broadcasts, and the establishment of the Indonesia in Miniature Park (popularly known for its acronym TMII – Taman Mini Indonesia Indah). The huge efforts to promote the state cultural policies were then proven to have made its citizens accustomed to equate unity with homogeneity and equity with uniformity. As a consequence, each form of diversity that deviate from or that does not conform to the standard determined by the state will then be viewed as an anomaly and as something that should be “tamed” or standardized to ensure its integration into the unity of Indonesia. Suharto’s policy on SARA (Ethnicity, Religion, Race, and Intergroup Relations) put the final nail on the coffin of the discourse on diversity in Indonesia. This policy positioned issues pertaining to ethnicity, religion, race, and intergroup relations as a social taboo not to be publicly discussed because of the assumption that any mention of such matters will disrupt the national stability.

The paragon of Suharto’s cultural policies that reflects the obsession of the New Order on the unity of Indonesia is the establishment of the Indonesia in Miniature Park. TMII’s role is very crucial to such an extent that when discussing New Order cultural policies in dealing with diversity one would almost naturally refer to it (Spyer, 1996, p. 26). Without having to recount on the numerous controversies and intellectuals critics on TMII’s construction, it is safe to say that the park is essentially one of the epitome of the New Order cultural policy (Pemberton 1994, Acciaioli 1996, Boellstorff 2002). TMII was an attempt to represent the cultures of (at the time) 27 provinces throughout Indonesia. How is it possible for the heterogeneity of diverse cultures to be encapsulated simply into 27 representations in a park enclosure, indeed reflecting how the state interprets national culture. As noted in Acciaioli’s study (1996, p.38), TMII indeed merges both the administrative and cultural domains. Being a Batak native, therefore means that you are from North Sumatra, and being a Bugisnese means that you reside in South Sulawesi. Ethnicity and locality presume each other, and essentially becomes a single concept, identical and inseparable becoming of what Boellstorff (2002, p.25) identifies as “ethnolocality”.

Although it can be argued that since the colonial period the state in Indonesia has encourage a process of dissociation of ethnicity and religion (Kipp 1993), New Order cultural policy had made association of ethnic and formal religious became more apparent. There was a stereotype that being a Batak or Manados or Ambonese means that you are a Christian, and being a Balinese means you are a Hindus. On the other hand, by diminishing cultural diversity as can bee seen in TMII the government have created state-monitored differences: at a certain level diversity indeed is acknowledged providing that it has been standardized, and aligned by the state to ensure uniformity and national stability. TMII is also a place where Javanese culture is the standard culture against which all other cultures should be measured up.

The Impact on Ethno-religious Minorities

The government policies on religion and culture has also severely impacted the life of local minority communities in various parts of the country, one of which is the ToWana community that will be discussed first here. ToWana belongs to Ta’ ethnic, a minority ethnic compared to other major ethnics in Sulawesi like Bugis and Makassar.[7] They live in the area of the Morowali Nature Preservation Park of district Morowali, Central Sulawesi. Like many other local communities that will also be discussed in this paper,  ToWana is a minority within a minority ethnic.  For the lack of a better term, I will call the communities the within-ethnic minority or ethno-religious minority interchangeably. Since religion is almost inseparable from their culture, the government’s policies on culture will simultaneously impacted their religious life vice versa.

In the year 2000, there was a crucial moment in the Park.  Although went unnoticed on a national-wide level, it was of great importance in the context of the dynamics of multiculturalism in Indonesia. After enduring unrelenting pressures, coercion to assimilate, forced resettlement, accusations from missionaries for being pagan since colonial times, with support from the Morowali-based NGO, Sahabat Morowali, the ToWana community made a declaration of their political stance that was very critical in discussing multiculturalism in Indonesia. Their posture was encapsulated in the expression “Tare Kampung, Tare Agama, Tare Pamarenta”.[8] Its literal translation is “No Village, No Religion, No Government”.  Village, religion and government are three social institutions that virtually inextricable from each other. They are a three-in-one package, a trident of state’s policies that persistently ask ToWana to become part of the unitary Indonesia nation-state. But to become a part of the unity they are pressured to live in the kampung, and no one can live in the kampung without subscribing to one of the five state-sanctioned religions. An existence outside of this framework insinuates that they are not a citizen but an untamed human being or be viewed as traditional societies only worthy of survival for tourism projects (Budiman 2005, p. 2).

Kampung is an icon of government efforts to normalize its citizens through the politics of demography and settlement. Residing in villages entails not only the physical movement from the forests to settlement areas outside of the nature preservation, but also the process of succumbing to various requisites that they were initially unfamiliar with. Kampung in other words is state-monitored settlement (through the head of sub-district, village chief, and the neighborhood association or RT/RW). To live in the kampung one also has to have the KTP (Kartu Tanda Penduduk or citizen ID card) in which he or she must explicitly state what official religion she/he belongs to. Without KTP (at often times it also means not embracing one of the five religion) you are considered illegal resident.

Religion is the representation of the restriction in the number of official religions acknowledged by the state. During the colonial era, religion became part of the work of missionaries to steer those who have been viewed as pagans or heretics to the revelation of Christianity, and in post-colonial times, religion is part of state politics intended to exert control over its citizens. Government is considered the hub of the link between village and religion, the ultimate authority whose powers can be acted on behalf of all interests to force ToWana into becoming part of the national unity of Indonesia.  The only choice left to the people of ToWana for them to become Indonesians was to resettle to village areas beyond the conservation area and to convert into one of the official religions.

Thus far, most of the ToWana community chooses the strategy of surviving in the forest to avoid forced resettlement and religious assimilation. Some others have just recently moved to a resettlement location in Taronggo, a village located outside the Morowali nature preserve. The presence of the Morowali Nature Preservation Park can be a blessing and yet it can also be a threat to their continued existence. A blessing because living in the enclosure allows them to inhabit a relatively safe and secure habitat away from the intervention of people beyond their territory. On the other hand, the presence of the people of ToWana is also an advantage to the management of the state-owned nature preserve because of the stereotype attached to the ToWana community, portrayed as people brandishing traditional weapons “sumpit” (shoot with a blowpipe) who still relish in slaying “foreigners” who dared venture into their territory, hence the area has been kept relatively safe from the possibility of further destruction. Such circumstances also make it increasingly difficult for them to access various public services such as healthcare and education. In addition, the ability to remain secure in this safe haven to some extent depends on the person who wields the authority in the nature preserve (Sudaryanto 2005, p. 223-255).

A similar case with a different response and strategy of resistance also occurred in other parts of Indonesia. The communities of Tanah Toa Kajang and ToWani Tolotang in South Sulawesi, for example, also suffered a similar dilemma in dealing with the relationship between religion, village, and government. The two communities also are revealing a distinct contrast between two local strategies adopted by the respective communities in circumventing government projects to impose uniformity. While the people of the Kajang community used the strategy of “accommodation” in dealing with the process of Islamization by formally agreeing to become followers of Islam, the ToWani Tolotang followed an entirely different course by formally accepting Hinduism as their religion. The Kajang community resisted and negotiated with predominant Islam through the creation of contesting narratives and interpretations of their religious teachings that are distinctively their own. Instead of turning to the Qur’an, Hadith (sayings of the Prophet) and the Sunnah (exemplary conduct of the Prophet) as is the practice of the Muslim majority for instance, the people of the Kajang community frame their lives based on the concept of kamase-masea that exhorts simple and unpretentious living. They admit to being devotees of the Patuntung teachings sourced from the Pasangri Kajang (Adhan 2005, p. 257-323). As a consequence, they are regarded as believers whose faith in Islam needs to be perfected, forced to observe teachings and rituals of mainstream Islam and they are obligated to discard all other ancestral rituals and belief that they have dutifully performed from generations to generations.On the other side of the fence, the local government in this area adopted policies that were contradictory to each other. On one hand, they focused all efforts to categorize these communities into community groups that must be developed and their lives improved upon to be on par with other societies. However, on the other hand and at the same time, they were also unyielding in ensuring that these communities should continue to retain the authenticity of their ancestral cultural legacy for the purpose of local tourism projects. Diversity is encouraged not as a recognition of difference but to promote the economic of state’s project on tourism.

The Wetutelu (Islam) community in West Lombok also pursued a relatively similar strategy (and face similar fate) (Prasetia 2007, p 107-167). As with other comparably similar cases in various parts of the country, the word “wetutelu” (literally means “three-times”) attached to them originated from outside of the community. The identity of the people of Wetutelu points toward several distinctions that distinguish the community from the Muslim majority around them. Some presumed that they are known as the Wetutelu community because of their belief in only three of the five pillars of Islam (syahadat or the declaration of faith; shalat or the five obligatory daily prayers; and puasa or fasting in the month of Ramadhan), while mainstream Islam observes the five articles of faith (syahadat; shalat; zakat or the obligation of giving alms; puasa; and the haj pilgrimage to Mecca). Others argued that the term Wetutelu is affixed to the community for their different interpretation on the obligation to perform the daily prayers in Islam. If standard Islam followed by the Muslim majority contends that performing the five-time daily prayers (wetulima or literally means “five times”) is an indubitable duty, the Wetutelu community consider it suffice to only observe three prayers in a year. And even this is not performed by each individual but deemed adequate if only the customary leader observes the prayers on behalf of the others. Due to these differences they were then subjected to  perpetual violent acts intended for complete submission committed by the followers of mainstream Islam around them and intense assimilation efforts exercised by the state through the Department of Religious Affairs. Following the G 30 S/PKI tragic incident in 1965, for instance, they were indiscriminately categorized as being advocates of communism and supporters of the Indonesian Communist Party (known for its Indonesian acronym PKI) and faced with only two choices: either to be killed or to accept one of the official religions acknowledged by the state. Prior to this incident their number reached 20% from the total population in Lombok and the aftermath caused it to drastically plummet to a mere 1% (Prasetia, 2005, p.133). It must clearly be stated, however, that the sudden plunge in numbers was not only attributed to the rampant killings of the Wetutelu people but also due to the mass conversion into Islam or other legitimate religions.

On the other hand, even though they are formally registered as devotees of Hinduism, the people of ToWani Tolotang in Amparita subdistrict of Sidenreng Rappang district, South Sulawesi, have still not given up the hope that their identity as followers of the Tolotang belief will eventually be recognized by the state. Their decision to prefer Hindu rather than Islam, which is the religion most identical with the ethnic Bugis culture, can be seen to be an effort to elude an even more unpleasant possibility if they had remain adamant in not choosing one of the five religions sanctioned by the state. Becoming believers of Hinduism therefore is a strategic move that provided them with the guarantee of security from the possibility of being targeted by Islamic groups outside of their community who will typically resort to forceful measures to ensure that the people of ToWani Tolotang forsake their ancestral belief.

By formally accepting Hinduism they managed to free themselves from threats imposed by the religious majority outside of their environment and are relatively free to practice their rituals based on the Tolotang teachings because of the somewhat less intense intervention from Hindu religious authority both in Bali and in Jakarta (Prasetia 2007, p. 59-106). On the other hand, if they had opted for Islam, one can only imagine on how they will endure a similar fate as the Tanah Toa Kajang community considered to be in deviation of the true teachings of Islam. Or they could even suffer a worst fate such as the experience of the Jamaah Ahmadiyah who were not only judged to be followers of “a misleading religion” but also suffered recurring repression and acts of aggression by hardliner Islamic groups.

The cases of the ToWana, Tanah Toa Kajang, Wetutelu, ToWani, and Parmalim communities illustrate that religion cannot be isolated from locality. Mentioning the word ToWani, Wetutelu or Parmalim would instinctively conjure up a conceptual connotation on their religious teachings and rituals uncommon when compared with the main religions in Indonesia. When religion becomes the explanatory factor of the Indonesian identity  or ke-Indonesiaan (the Indonesian-ness), believers of a faith not endorsed by the state will automatically be excluded and not fully recognized as an Indonesian citizen. Simultaneously, they are also subject to seclusion. They are discriminated from the rest of the population through a social distance between the majority group (officially recognized by the state) and the minority group (whose position is viewed as problematic) and a cultural gap for being heretics. These differences therefore, become a social legitimization to ensure separation through the discovery of “the others”, “the minor”, and “the imperfect” in contrast to a particular collective similarity. “The others” and “the minor” are then secluded through the creation of a psychological (cultural) chasm that prevents them from freely participating in exercising the notion of a nation-state and nationhood of Indonesia.

Exclusion and seclusion also operate within the context of the social relationship between main ethnic groups with communities typically presumed to be its sub ethnic group, which can be explained from the process of unifying and subduing diversity. The Tanah Toa Kajang and ToWani Tolotang communities in South Sulawesi, the Parmalim community in Medan, and the Wetutelu community, for instance, experienced one of the following two possibilities: they can either be considered to be different from the more dominant ethnic group (such as in the case of Parmalim community in North Sumatra or Sedulur Sikep in Central Java) or the religion that they embraced is considered to be of a lesser religion, misleading, and even evil (as with the case of Wetutelu, Ahmadiyah followers, or ToWana community). Not only were they treated as separate citizens in the same country (discrimination), but also practically all of them experienced what is commonly known in the glossary of social science as marginalization.

ToWana,ToWani Tolotang, and several other communities mentioned earlier are minority groups in terms of their numbers when compared with the remaining population in Indonesia. Even if the total number of these groups is aggregated as statistical figures, the ratio will still be insignificant compared to the remaining majority. The concept of ethnic-minority may not be accurate in an attempt to categorize them because in essence they are part of a larger ethnicity in their respective regions. These groups are minorities-within-ethnic, although their own ethnicity is not necessarily a minority. They do not demand for special rights nor do they wish for political representation in the parliament but they insist that their people be treated as citizens with equal rights despite practicing a faith, culture, and social reasoning different from the majority of population around them.

In reference to the discussion above, the problem with multiculturalism and at a certain level also the issue of minority rights, at least within the context of Indonesia, does not mainly lie in the fact that there are indeed differences between a particular community with another, but rather on the ongoing practices of distinction carried out by one on the other. If the concept of difference is a description that each community group has a set of characteristics and identity different from each other, the concept of distinction refers more to the process of determining the uniqueness of each character that is then used as reference to ascertain the form of social relationship that exist among them.

Due to numerous historical processes, Kajang community and ToWani Tolotang, for instance, in many respects are different from the majority of Bugis or Makassar ethnics in general or that the Wetutelu community is different from the other Lombok inhabitants. The difference becomes the source of problems when it serves as the basis for distinction in treatment toward the respective groups. Ironically, such distinction also occurs as a result of the process of seeking similarities and integration through the process of assimilation. Those who are not the same are (forcefully) made to merge into “the same”, “the majority” and thus those who choose to remain different will become “the others”, “the minority”. Therefore, the minority issue in this context refers not only to the population ratio but also the social (and discursive) process causing the distinctions.

The Sedulur Sikep community in Central Java is part of the largest ethnic in Indonesia, but it is also part of a minority group not because “they are non-Javanese” but because they choose to live a life that culturally (and religiously) different from those practiced by the Javanese majority. The choice makes them viewed as “lesser Javanese” than the rest of the Javanese. They are a minority within the ethnic majority. ToWani community in South Sulawesi is a part of the Bugis ethnic group who despite being smaller in number compared to the Javanese or Sundanese ethnicity are still considered to be a major ethnic group in Indonesia. They experience minoritization not because they are not “Bugisnese” but because they comprehend and practice their “Bugisness” in a manner different from the rest of the Bugis community based on which they are treated unequally. On the other hand, statistically the Indonesian Chinese group in Indonesia at present probably exceeds the population of the Bataks ethnic, and while the Batak community is a minority when compared with the Javanese or Sundanese they have never been perceived as a minority in the national context in a way how the rest of society perceive the Indonesian Chinese  to be of a minority group. With the same manner we can also say that the minority issue does not initially refer to the presence of a group with a relatively smaller population in comparison with the populace outside, but instead refers more to the process through which they have become a group that is constantly perceived as a minority. This is an illustration on how the concept of minority that solely based on numerical number is always problematic.[9]

Closing Notes

Since the dawn of modern Indonesia, the country has formally attempted to negate the notion that diversity is a threat to social cohesion and can cause troubles to the integrity of the nation. It is also worth noting that the current tourism board, which is under the state department of tourism and culture, uses the tagline that goes “ultimate in diversity” to promote the so-called “Indonesia Visit Year 2008″ program. Once again, the state utilizes diversity to promote its own agenda (in this case economic agenda through tourism projects). The tendency behind this is also essentially the same: the state attempts to exert centralized control toward its citizens through  “standardized” diversity.

There are at least two contradictory issues that can be drawn from the above observation. First, national unity that has been excessively enforced by the authoritarian regime has instead resulted in the tendency toward the search for local particularities following the downfall of the regime. In the New Order era, unity was widely criticized as it was considered to be masking and yet legitimizing the practices of state violence. At the time, it was perceived that the concept of unity does not allow room for differences. The Bhinneka Tunggal Ika slogan was diverted into placing more emphasis on “Tunggal Ika” (unity) with total disregard of the aspect of “Bhinneka” (diversity). The Pancasila ideology particularly manifested in the form of state policies on “demokrasi Pancasila” (Pancasila democracy) was accused of being a justification to encumber freedom and public participation. Second, when the democracy space opens up, and diversity celebrated in every corner of the country, the discourse that then surfaced was instead on the necessity to protect national unity. Pancasila that was initially suspected of being a legitimization for repressive measures against the people by the state has now been recommended for its revitalization. The irony of the wake of identity politics in local democratization in Indonesia is that the emphasis on difference turns out to be the process that tends to become anti-diversity.

If the New Order era was characterized by its preoccupation with uniforming diversity under national imperatives, the subsequent years were instead marked by the obsession of similar magnitude on the reinforcement of identity drawn from ethnic and/or religion distinction. There is an urgency to conduct critical studies on the process of exclusion and seclusion toward ethnic/religious minority groups to delve into possible scenarios for a better future for Indonesia. At least two things need to be taken into serious consideration:

First, it is inevitable that a nation necessitates a unity as a foundation for its establishment. However, unity is not identical with uniformity as exercised by the New Order, but it is an attitude of accepting that to maintain the common purpose of one nation there must be a set of shared values. The youth who pledges the Oath in 1928 and Sukarno and his contemporaries had given a perfect example that to build a nation from a myriad of differences they had to find the lowest common denominator to bind up the diversity with. They had to let go, in a particular moment, their attachment to their primordial roots to find something in common with others. They still belonged to their own root but they realized that the root was not enough to singlehandedly hold the entire nation in the quest for liberating the people from foreign occupation. This where Sukarno played it best role as a solidarity maker in the struggle against colonialism.

The problem with multiculturalism that has increasingly been discussed after the downfall of Suharto is that it tends to divert the dicsourse into the notions that granting special rights to a particular group is the the answer to the eruption of political identity. As has been the case with Aceh and West Papua province, the conferring of special rights to a particular region based on cultural and/or religious distinctiveness has the potential of prompting dozens of other regions which are also illegible of demanding for the same privilege. The province of Bali for example, where local residents are mostly Hindus, there is a strong possibility for them to insist on being given equal treatment. That will defeat the purpose of the regulation: what so special about special status if every other region is given the exact same status? The cases of ToWana, ToWani Tolotang, and other ethno-religious minority communities have also showed us that what they really need is not a special status as a particular group of society but a recognition that they have their own rights to decide what good and bad for their life. As citizens of Indonesia they have the same rights to get access to the public service. Providing them with basic public facilities is a must in a democratic country. They do need education and health services, but it does not necessarily mean classical education at modern schools or to force them to go instead to a public health service miles a way from their homes. Providing public services that are designed accordingly to specific conditions of the people is more justifiable than treating them as minority groups entitled for special rights.

The discourse on multiculturalism in Indonesia also can easily entice people into believing that for the local cultures or identity to survive, we have to abandon the concept of shared values, loyalty to the nation, and to give the privilege to ethnic and local differences as if a nation could instead be replaced with a large number of diverse minorities. If this is what multiculturalism try to offer what makes it different from the practices of segregationism during the Dutch colonial era? When translated into government policies, multiculturalism without a strong commitment to the nation is a rampant multiculturalism, an unbounded multiculturalism that will make no benefit to the country.[10] It put the emphasis on particularity by ignoring altogether the need to share something in common to make the nation possible in the first place. In the context of democratization in Indonesia, it can also bring about a reverse reaction that is anti-democratic such as the ever-increasing religious fundamentalism and anti-minority tendencies. Paradoxically, it also tends to be anti-culture in that it denies the cultural dynamics that naturally involve the process of sharing, borrowing, and even the stealing of certain elements of one culture by other cultures. It draws thick borders among identities and cultures and is suffocated by the illusion of cultural purity.

Second, democracy undeniably necessitates national unity. Establishing democracy presupposes the presence of the integrity of a nation-state. However, the national integration approach enforced through excessive coercion could no longer be maintained, and it has steered Indonesia into a turmoil situation until today. The national integrity of a nation-state will of course require the loyalty of its citizens toward their nation. Citizen loyalty, on the other hand, can only be accomplished if the state is capable of giving back all that has been given by the people into the improved well-being, prosperity, freedom, guarantee of social and political rights, and security. The problem with the New Order was that while it persistently demands people’s loyalty to the nation, and in doing so it often used militaristic coercive power, it was not capable of delivering prosperity and justice to the people due to rampant corruptions and collusion among the Suharto’s cronies and their families. The unity was not threatened by primordialism from below but by criminality from above (Nordholt and van Klinken 2007 p. 6). That was the case with Aceh struggle against the so-called “Indonesia Jawa” (Javanese dominated Indonesia), and that is also the case with West Papua province.

As Indonesia is now in a process of renegotiation with its sub-national nations through regional autonomy, local democratization and decentralization, it is worth mentioning that in the absence of justice, prosperity, freedom and security, not only will democracy be crippled but the search for a nation will also become irrelevant for the existence of the people.

Jakarta, 20 April 2008

*) Based on a paper presented at the CENS Social Resilience Workshop, Singapore, 21 February 2008.

References and Footnotes

  1. The concept of "bangsa" in the Indonesian language at oftentimes fails to fully represent the meaning of the English word "nation". "Bangsa" can blur the understanding of the notion of Indonesia as a new "nation" because the concept of "bangsa" also refers to nations that have existed even before Indonesia became a nation-state. Therefore, the term "nasion" is frequently used to produce a closer match with the phonetics of the English version. This is to emphasize that Indonesia as a nasion is widely different from the idea of the earlier "bangsa" that existed in pre-nation-state Indonesia. Without disregarding the reasons of those who prefer to adopt the two expressions in different ways, for the purpose of this paper I have opted for the word "bangsa" as the synonym of the English word "nation".
  2. Sukarno, "Pidato Lahirnja Pantja Sila" [Speech on the Birth of Pancasila] in Lahirnja Pantja – Sila. Pidato pertama tentang Panca sila yang diucapkan pada tanggal 1 Juni 1945 oleh Bung Karno [the Birth of Pantja – Sila. The first speech on Pancasila declared on 1 June 1945 by Bung Karno]. (Jakarta: Yayasan 17-8-45, without the year of publication), p. 22. The words in italics do not mean to emphasize on a particular part of the sentence but instead intend to highlight the words as a foreign expression in the vocabulary of the Indonesian language.
  3. Ibid, p. 23.
  4. The text of Pancasila formulated by Sukarno was slightly different from what was then officially accepted as the ideology of the Republic of Indonesia. In Sukarno's formulation, Pancasila consists of (1) The Indonesian nationality; (2) Internationalism and humanity; (3) Consensus or democracy; (4) Social welfare, and; (5) Belief in the one and only God. Whereas the official Pancasila text that remains until today reads: (1) Belief in the one and only God; (2) A just and civilized humanity; (3) The unity of Indonesia; (4) Democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the consensus arising out of deliberations/representation and; (5) Social justice for the whole of the Indonesian people.
  5. This article was reprinted in Horison, July, 1986. The words in italics were originally from STA.
  6. Sanusi Pane was the first to respond to STA's writing in his article, "Persatuan Indonesia" (The unity of Indonesian), featured in the Harian Umum daily on 4 September 1935. Pane rejected STA's dichotomy of Indonesia and pre-Indonesia, and stated that rather than to imitate the West, the culture of Indonesia should be rooted to the past and the virtues of Eastern cultural values. But contrary to the perception of some of his readers in Indonesia, Pane was far from being anti-Western. He suggested that Indonesia embrace as many sources for its cultural advancement including Western cultural elements. However, he repudiated values that were considered to be "harmful" in Western culture such as materialism, individualism and intellectualism. Refer to Sanusi Pane, "Persatuan Indonesia", in Polemik Kebudayaan, p. 13-24.
  7. ToWana literally means "people from (or who lives in) the forest". The name comes from a mix of  a native word "To", which means "people" and a Javanese word "Wana", which means "forest". There is no clear cut explanation for the use of the name ToWana to identify them despite the fact that they prefer to be called the people of Ta' ethnic (orang suku Ta'). Some says that the name was given by the Dutch missionaries, some other point to the tendency of the New Order regime of naming something based on the Javanese vernacular. However these people then internalized the name of  ToWana as theirs.
  8. Based on a conversation with Jabar Lahadji, director of the Sahabat Morowali Foundation, Kolonedale, Morowali Central Sulawesi, 4 February 2008 in Puncak, Bogor, West Java.
  9. Perhaps for the same reason that Minority Rights Group International (MRG) does not limit its scope of focus on numerical minorities, but instead gives particular attention to the "non-dominant" (be it ethnically, religiously as well as linguistically) as category to differentiate the minorities from the majority groups of society. MRG also recognizes that for various reasons these communities may not wish to be classified as minorities, and that these groups are not homogeneous. See, "Who Are Minorities?" in Minority Rights Group International <http://> (accessed, 7 February 2008).
  10. For a brief discussion on this topic see "The Diversity Within Unity Platform" in The Communication Network < > (accessed, 10 January 2008).
Pendiri, Peneliti Senior The Interseksi Foundation, Jakarta