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The forgotten role of ethnicity in Indonesian history

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Papuan protesters demonstrate in Jakarta in September. SONNY TUMBELAKA/AFP

The forgotten role of ethnicity in Indonesian history

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 categorisation, 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 markings of a particular group include language, coverage of a specific geographical area, political organisation, 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 does a 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.

Division of identity

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 marginalised, and historical writing that ignores marginalised 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.

To support lasting governance, the social order constructed by the colonialists was based on a division of identity, including ethnicity.

British historian Anthony Stockwell has said that 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 considered to have better martial skills than the Javanese.

The number of KNIL soldiers continued to increase because of the need to conduct counter-insurgency 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 cinema-goers 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 it became a cause of discrimination at film screenings.

Paradoxically, the discrimination created a strong bond among the natives who watched films.

Flexibility of boundaries

In Ruppin’s study, historian JS Furnivall’s categorisation 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 class seats.

Given a large number of seats, cinema owners would make the most profit if the audience members, from whatever ethnic background, could pay for the seats they wanted.

This indicates the flexibility of the boundaries of ethnicity and socio-economic class in colonial cinemas.

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 passe, and it’s time to move on to a 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.

Teuku Reza Fadeli is a PhD student at the Department of History at the University of York in the UK. He previously worked at the Faculty of Humanities at Universitas Indonesia (UI).

The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network