Looking at Indonesia from Aru Islands
Five reflections looking out of Indonesia’s East Window
By: Jacky Manuputty
“Indonesia .. hm hm ku…hm..tumpah darahku. Di sanalah aku berdiri jadi pandu ibuku. Indonesia kebangsaanku, bangsa dan hmmm.. hmm.. ku. Marilah kita berseru…..” (“Indonesia my hm hm… hm…where my blood first flowed. The place I stood up to guide my mother. Indonesia my country, my people and my hmmm.. hmmm… Let us cry out…”)
The Indonesian phrase for homeland is ‘tanah air’, land and water, but in this version, each mention of land or water was replaced by ‘hmmm’. The reason being, his land and water had been forcibly taken from him. I heard a similar ironic attitude when I interviewed several people to find out their perspectives about Indonesia in preparation for writing this opinion.
Looking at Indonesia from the east, we first have to deconstruct the labels that are (possibly unfairly) used to describe this eastern area. The term ‘Eastern Indonesia’ has not always only been understood as meaning the territories that lie in the eastern part of Indonesia. Recently these territories have come to be identified as downtrodden, poor and backward. This is not an entirely mistaken impression. Maluku takes third place on the list of Indonesia’s poorest provinces. It has the lowest quality teaching in the whole country. The public health index is also the fifth worst in Indonesia. However, those of us who live in the east feel that if this point of view becomes the only lens through which to comprehend the East of Indonesia, then we are not getting a complete picture.
I feel the need to underline this point, because I am increasingly suspicious of the tendency to politicize jargon such as poverty in a very manipulative process of ensuring submission. “You are poor, ignorant, downtrodden, separatists” – these are images which will be continually thrust in your face, and which over the course of time will end up destroying your identity. Instead of becoming liberated people, you submit to accept whatever is prescribed to you to you as therapy to free you from your poverty, ignorance and downtroddenness. This has tended to be the case for those of us in the East of Indonesia in recent years, and so now it is what we will strongly criticize as one of our conceptions of what Indonesia means.
The paradox of being poor and downtrodden arises when it comes to economic security. The problem is, the authority to decide what security means is held by those with power and money and not by the people, the “victims”. Symbols of security, foreign and manipulative, are introduced to local communities as standards they must aspire to. What happens next is that people compete to attain these standards of security which are mere illusions, and that means trading in all the riches they actually already possessed.
Stories of the fertile land on Seram island which was pledged to an oil palm company for 25-50 Rupiah per square metre for a period of 30 years have become common knowledge in Maluku. In the beginning all the company’s plans were promoted to the local communities who held customary land rights as part of the process of providing them with a secure future. After their desire for security was not realised, they felt poverty’s bitter blow, thrusting these local indigenous landowners into the company’s arms as uncontracted day labourers, set to work amongst the uniform rows of oil palm trees growing thirstily on land once crowned by ironwood, meranti and lenggua trees belonging to the village and indigenous nation.
We need to equate perceptions of how we talk about Indonesia and the methods of becoming Indonesia. For the most part, we in the eastern part of Indonesia were lucky to be born amongst truly extraordinary natural and cultural riches. We are not malnourished infants borne of a dry womb of a land. The riches of Eastern Indonesia have been a legend since before the time of Jesus. There are indications that many spices written about in the Bible actually came from the Spice Islands in East Indonesia. Alfred Wallace, the British naturalist, when he first visited the Aru islands, found them to be a truly bewitching place after extensive travels around Indonesia. The unique and extraordinary wildlife consumed hundreds of pages in his report into his studies, and is immortalised in his famous book, “The Malay Archipelago.” This outstanding natural wealth is a feature of Eastern Indonesia, but ironically it is often denied in when we examine the figures in the poverty and underdevelopment indices.
Therefore, from this standpoint, we in the East of Indonesia are serious when we reject the label of poverty which has become synonymous with us. We prefer to identify ourselves as “the defeated”. People who have been forced to accept defeat over their natural ecological wealth. When Insist published a book called “The defeated people” several years ago, it was a fitting title for an explicit portrait of how indigenous groups in Maluku were forced into defeat. The book was a description of how people have been alienated from the ecological wealth around them and structurally impoverished through the murky practices of regulation and legislation that always take the side of business and the powerful.
The same problem continues to the present day, if we pay careful attention to just how much manipulation of policy is currently destroying the ecological sovereignty of communities in the East of Indonesia. One of the most visible examples at the moment is the looting of the indigenous people of the Aru Islands’ ecological sovereignty in the name of enhancing their security, which ironically is supposed to come about through the development of large-scale sugar-cane plantations.
This is the second observation of what we understand about Indonesia from the east. In the colonial era, the submission of the indigenous people to give up their traditional land rights was ensured through violence and physical pressure. Nowadays in Indonesia, submission and the theft of the people’s traditional rights instead take place through the manipulation of jargon such as poverty and security, and the manipulation of legal structures and regulations to benefit business and the powerful.
This reality we have described in turn pushes us to see Indonesia as a country which practices democracy in a paradoxical way. On one hand, we are presented with the success of structures of procedural democracy, including that which is achieved through direct elections. The problem is that on the other hand, we are forced to use rotten political techniques and explicitly play antagonistic roles, just as demonstrated by the present clutch of political parties. The end result is that we are constantly taught to accept democracy as something simply superficial.
The rights of marginal communities to participate in establishing what is best for them is not guaranteed, to the point that they almost have no freedom to use the wealth they already possess to build their future with dignity. What is happening in the Aru islands at the moment is a naked portrait of just how this system of illusory democracy is motivated by a feudalistic and paternalistic spirit. This is clearly seen when the Aru Islanders’ security is determined without their involvement, via an intrigue between the state elite and business, secretly supported by many representatives of the people. In the end, the dramatic destruction of the environment and ancestral domain and its replacement with a sugar-cane plantation is considered as a project which will bring security to the people of the Aru Islands.
Until the present day we are still of the opinion that Indonesia has not yet been able to bring about the existence of civilised democracy. Diminishing levels of tolerance, the blossoming of corruption, the increasing uncertainty in the law and its implementation all push us to conclude that Indonesia is a democratic state without the spirit of democracy. That is our third observation about Indonesia.
The brittle and hollow construction of this nation confront us with our increasingly blurry identity as people who live in a territorial entity that goes by the name of Indonesia. We experience an acute identity crisis as a nation, or maybe even so far Indonesia is only a State, and cannot yet be described as a nation.
In the conditions described above, contests between identities can often grow into long and bloody conflicts. Unfortunately, when so many identities do not give rise to a feeling of ease in the space of social transactions, religion will emerge as the final stronghold, and at the same time it can become a weapon of attack. The 1999-2003 Maluku conflict can be understood as a conflict caused by a struggle of identities, and in fact it only used religion as its vehicle.
Sometimes I think that the contest of identities is turning into a conflict that is being systematically managed. Even though it is hard to prove such an assertion because this problem is like a fart. Its stink hits our noses but we can never see it. One tendency which often appears each time identities clash leading to conflict, is that there are always concessions in the aftermath, in the form of “win-win solutions” or “win-lose solutions”. Who knows if this is to gain political advantage, or a social-economic advantage connected to control over access to economic resources.
The conflict between communities that has started to occur recently in the Aru Islands over local people’s attitudes to PT Menara Group was already predicted to occur a long time ago. The worry is that these small conflicts can be managed to become wider by all those with vested interests in developing large-scale sugar-cane plantations, including the security forces.
What can we call our fourth observation from the east in an effort to give Indonesia meaning is that this country is still in the process of becoming a nation. On many occasions, when people in the East express their annoyance about the process of state-building, I hear them say irrationally and not completely seriously “maybe it would be better if we were just good neighbors than family members who deal out injustice or are always quarreling.” Of course we hope that such attitudes of irrational anger don’t reach the point where they find the momentum of rationalization.
Determining the right choices and models for future development is the fifth observation with which to give meaning to Indonesia from the East. We in the East still hold the opinion that Indonesia’s development is concentrated in the west (Java and Sumatra). The choice of a maritime model of development which would reflect the character of many parts of the east of Indonesia currently appears a distant hope. The east of Indonesia’s extensive marine resources are more becoming an arena for illegal fishing than being used to provide security for local inhabitants.
The choice that has been made to develop a large-scale plantation in the Aru Islands, appears to be more of an emotional choice than a rational one. At a celebratory meal in Dobo city, Aru, the head of the Aru Development Planning Board (BAPPEDA) said that they had chosen to develop a sugar cane plantation because the ocean’s riches which provide Aru with its primary industry simply don’t make a significant contribution to Aru’s development. This indicates a deep feeling of frustration, because the local authorities are not able to exercise control over the marine resources in their area. It is no secret that control lies with higher authorities in Jakarta.
Demanding a special law for island areas could be a decisive choice which could provide a measure of how seriously Indonesia cares about its Eastern Regions. Unfortunately this idea has yet to be realized, having been pushed back and forth between the national government and the House of Representatives for years now. At the same time we angrily witness how the government has agreed to build a bridge over the Sunda straits to connect Java and Sumatra. The allocated budget for this bridge, over 250 trillion Rupiah, really feels like a kick in the teeth to us in the east who constantly have to put up with limited sea-transport infrastructure or bridges between islands.
The demand for a comparable level of development in the Eastern part of Indonesia is not only linked to efforts to develop human resources, but also legislative reform to ensure this equality is created, and of course a better connectivity between the capital and the regions.
Aside from the imperfect portrait of Indonesia we see from the east, of course we are not pessimists that have lost hope for Indonesia’s future. We see and experience human solidarity through movements such as #SaveAru, #SaveBangka and so on
In many places we find a trend emerging to defend humanity and the environment which takes many different forms and means. Young people are voluntarily building it into something massive, as a lifestyle. These movements promote a social consciousness across territorial, ethnic or religious boundaries, although sometimes only in the virtual realm. These movements for humanity can even develop to mean civil society’s gains power over the often-chaotic official structures of power. All this gives hope to those involved of a new atmosphere of what it means to be Indonesian. And so we hope that we will be able to sing Indonesia Raya together complete, without any words missing. Complete on our tongues, in our hearts and in our actions. (translated by Selwyn)