Indonesia and the Denial of Indigenous Peoples’ Existence

A recent opinion editorial from a member of Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights, Hafid Abbas, attempts to claim that there are no Indigenous People within the state of Indonesia. Abbas seeks to argue that prior to Dutch colonialism, which introduced the term, Indigenous, –”to disintegrate the unity of Indonesia as a nation”–there was a unified Indonesia. That the South Sulawesi independent Kingdom of Bone, neighboring independent kingdom of Gowa, that the many ethnic groups of Papua and those on Timor and the multitude of varied others, along with the dominant Javanese of the Sumatran island, had belonged to a unified national identity of Indonesian. That they were not forced into this situation through colonialism and imperial expansion.

This repeats the Indonesian claim during its 2012 Universal Periodic Review at the Human Rights Council, a four–year human rights check-up for all countries, which notes that: “The Government of Indonesia supports the promotion and protection of indigenous people worldwide… Indonesia, however, does not recognize the application of the indigenous peoples concept…in the country.”

Before that, in 2009, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination responded to a joint complaint from Indigenous Peoples organizations in Indonesia. The response mentioned laws that deny any proprietary rights to indigenous peoples in forests and which ensures that the government is the sole arbiter of whether indigenous peoples exist or not, a situation that allows the presence of indigenous peoples to be denied when expedient for the Government and denies the right of self-determination from Indonesia’s indigenous peoples.

In fact, Indonesia is actually home to an estimated 50-70 million indigenous and tribal people.

Indonesia is not the only state which denies the existence of Indigenous Peoples within its territory. Kenya, Botswana, China, India and others have all claimed that while they support the rights of Indigenous Peoples, there are none within their territories and so the rights are not relevant in those countries.

However, among the worst countries for it’s reputation in treatment of Indigenous Peoples, Indonesia’s denial that they even exist within its borders further intensifies their maltreatment. In West Papua, killings, torture and rape of Indigenous people are routine – a conservative estimate is that 100,000 people have been killed since 1963.

Recent plans in West Papua for more than a thousand Indonesian soldiers to build 1,500 km of new roads in the next two years to accelerate ‘development’ has caused much concern for the native people. Challenging the governments claims that turbulence in the region is based in a lack of ‘development’, Papuans are blaming their troubles on the consistent violations of their human rights. An influx of soldiers and road construction is not likely to bring peace nor development to the region.  The purpose for these roads will not be for the benefit of the Indigenous communities, but rather to assist in opening up the forests to illegal logging, mining, and further encroachment on the native Papuan lands.

Contrasting ‘Indigenousness’ in the Indonesian context from that of the United States and Australia, Abbas points out the complexity of the identity in Indonesia. Identifying Indigenous Peoples in the United States and Australia may be more clear and defined than it is in Indonesia, however, a complex history of settlement, colonialism, and the development of an authoritarian state system that resulted from earlier liberation movements should not lead to the conclusion that there are no Indigenous Peoples.

While there is no standard definition of Indigenous, the seminal 1987 UN report by Jose Martinez Cobo has been used as one of the most authoritative in highlighting the characteristics that go into ‘Indigenousness’:

Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion  and pre-colonial  societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of society now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop,  and transmit  to future generations  their ancestral territories and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems.

Comparing these descriptive elements with the continued experience of many ethnic groups in the current state of Indonesia, it is clear that many fit into the identity of Indigenous. Not to mention, that they also self-identify as Indigenous. Non-dominant tribal peoples that wish to continue their livelihoods, their cultural practices, and legal systems on the margins of the newly created post-colonial Indonesian society are in fact, Indigenous Peoples.

The denial of their existence is not acceptable. It is time for the government of Indonesia to secure and respect Indigenous Peoples’ rights.


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