World view: A nation's search for self

May 11, 2001

C. W. Watson examines the steps Indonesia is taking to ensure that identity does not become a crisis.

Well aware of the fragility of the unity of the Indonesian state, successive governments have been concerned with how to create a sense of national rather than simply local belonging.

In the colonial period, the task was much simpler: with the Dutch the common enemy, the various groups could happily work together and identify with each other. From the 1920s and 1930s, the idea of an Indonesian nation with a defined territory and a common language became generally accepted.

After independence, and the expulsion of Dutch economic interests, it was less easy to identify a common purpose, though for a time the cold war helped to create a siege mentality of Indonesians against the rest.

Great hopes were pinned on the creation of a national education policy with a uniform curriculum that would inculcate a sense of Indonesian-ness, especially with the state ideology of Pancasila, the five principles taught in compulsory citizenship classes that ran through the curriculum from primary school to higher education.

Simultaneously strenuous efforts were made to build on Dutch and Japanese colonial administrative structures to recreate some bureaucratic uniformity throughout the archipelago.

Inter-ethnic violence across the archipelago, Aceh's and Irian's demands for independence and the apparent breakdown of law and order elsewhere may suggest that those intellectual and administrative initiatives ultimately failed to keep the nation together.

There is a different perspective in Indonesia itself. There is an acknowledgement that the situation is alarmingly perilous for the future of the country, but there is a belief that difficulties will be resolved.

The overwhelming majority of the population wants to remain part of Indonesia, even in those areas riven by conflict - with perhaps the exception of Irian. And there is evidence that the government is trying to accommodate the complaints made against structural arrangements.

For example, the overcentralised bureaucracy and government with its intensive focus on Jakarta and the main island of Java has led to an over-concentration of resources to the disadvantage of the peoples of the outer islands.

During President Suharto's period of office (1966-98), Java clearly benefited disproportionately. Since his overthrow, the new regime has worked to correct the situation by introducing steps towards greater autonomy for the outer islands.

Major problems still have to be sorted out, most arising from insufficient qualified and trained manpower in the regions. The government is trying to deal with the problem, as are the various aid bodies that have traditionally handled development.

Cynics on the left argue, with some justification, that the aid is predicated on self-interest in the belief that the countries of the north have everything to gain by ensuring economic and political stability.

Apart from the proposals that deal directly with poverty reduction and income generation at a local level, there are a number of schemes to raise the capacity of people throughout the country and at all levels of society to participate in decision-making and to contribute to democratic forums.

Many fall under the general rubric of governance and civil society, devised by Indonesian non-governmental organisations that made impressive strides in creating civil society even during the dark days of the Suharto period. The British Council, the Ford Foundation and the Asian Development Bank work closely with these NGOs and there is considerable excitement in the take-up of initiatives by Indonesians working in various development spheres from conflict resolution to environmental protection. Educational techniques from formal workshops to street theatre and the use of photography to reflect on images of the other are employed.

Universities and research institutes are also active in assessing the contribution they can make to tackle problems.

At the University of Indonesia, a Centre for Research into Inter-Group Conflict Resolution has been established with assistance from the University of Ohio.

In addition to holding workshops and seminars to examine the roots of inter-ethnic conflict and learn from the experience of other countries such as Northern Ireland, it seeks to build networks throughout the country to share information and promote good practice.

A recent British Council-sponsored seminar at the centre drew a warm response to discussions of the relevance of multiculturalism to Indonesia. At the teacher training university in Bandung, a Centre for Indonesian Civil Education has been set up. A workshop was held recently to consider comparable experience in other countries and to re-examine the ideological mainstay of the earlier regimes in the first 50 years of independence. The individuals who will be responsible for drafting the revised school curriculum for the core subject of citizenship took part.

It is, of course, too early to tell how successful these initiatives will be in the long run or, indeed, what their short-term impact will be on the way in which conflict sometimes seems to be spreading hydra-like throughout the archipelago.

In contrast to what is going on in elite circles in Jakartan politics, however, one cannot but admire the seriousness with which concerned individuals at local level are striving to confront and overcome often apparently intractable problems.

C. W. Watson is senior lecturer in anthropology, University of Kent at Canterbury.

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