The Disappointment of Indonesia’s Indigenous Community

Author: Richaldo Hariandja

The year 2014 is one that’s etched in the memory of the indigenous community in Indonesia. It was the first time, during a presidential election, that indigenous peoples were mentioned in the official documents of one of the candidates: Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and his running mate Jusuf Kalla had included the plans for the community in their vision and mission statement.

“For the first time, and never before in the history of Indonesia, we [were] considered to exist and our issues were made a priority agenda, [so] we welcomed this at that time,” said the secretary general of the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago (AMAN), Rukka Sombolinggi, during a presentation on the future of indigenous communities in Indonesia in Jakarta in December 2018.

At that time, the indigenous communities believed that Jokowi would be a bridge between the state and indigenous peoples—two groups whose relationship have long been tense. They saw him as a unifier; Rukka says it was the first time she had decided to vote in an election: “At that time, for the first time my finger touched the election ink. I trusted [Jokowi] then.”

In a show of support, AMAN, which acts as an umbrella organisation representing over 2,000 smaller indigenous organisations across the country, threw itself into campaigning for Jokowi. It wasn’t a half-hearted effort, either; all parts of the AMAN organisation mobilised to garner votes for the pair, including carrying out monitoring in villages to ensure that their members would choose the Jokowi and Jusuf Kalla ticket.

With over 12 million members across the archipelago, AMAN’s efforts bore fruit: Jokowi and Jusuf Kalla won the 2014 election with 53% of the votes. But the positive relationship between the indigenous groups and the candidates they had so hopefully backed ended in disappointment. Five years later, the promises that Jokowi’s campaign had made back then have still not been fulfilled.

A lack of commitment to indigenous communities

Election day is fast approaching on 17 April 2019, but this time AMAN hasn’t pledged its support to either the incumbent Jokowi or his challenger Prabowo Subianto.

It’s not hard to understand why; it seems as if neither Jokowi nor Prabowo are paying any real attention to indigenous communities. While Jokowi’s manifesto does give a brief nod to indigenous groups, the term “indigenous peoples” doesn’t appear in any of Prabowo’s campaign paperwork.

“Say it loud and clear. Don’t be embarrassed about committing to indigenous peoples, which is something that can be measured [in the manifesto],” Rukka says.

Five years later, the promises that Jokowi’s campaign had made back in 2014 have still not been fulfilled

Muhammad Teguh Surya, executive director of the Sustainable Madani Foundation, has witnessed the weak support of indigenous peoples for either of the presidential candidates. He says this could have repercussions on future government policies, regardless of which candidate wins. “Whatever is scheduled, if you do not pay attention to the interests of indigenous people, then it’ll be disrupted, as well as environmental issues, [then] what kind of development will occur if there are fire and landslides?” Teguh tells New Naratif.  

Teguh says he can comprehend the disappointment felt by indigenous groups during this current election period. While Jokowi’s camp has mentioned indigenous peoples ones more, the two points in the campaign documents this year is paltry compared to the six-point plan of the previous election. “Pruning from six points to two points must be questioned, what’s going on? [Is it] because there are points that are considered to have been completed? It’s not like that, so we consider the points [to be mere formality],” says Teguh.

Based on information obtained by Teguh, the Jokowi camp has defended the cutting down the previous six points to two as a move to simplify the manifesto. But Teguh feels that the rationale behind the decision should be more clearly, and publicly, explained. As for Prabowo’s camp, it would seem that he doesn’t view the issues faced by indigenous peoples as important at all, which is why they haven’t made it into any of his campaign material.

Teguh points out that the complete lack of reference to indigenous peoples in presidential campaigns have significant implications. “Explicit [recognition] is important to avoid misinterpretation. It was only included [in the Jokowi and Jusuf Kalla era] and even then nothing happened, so what will happen if it’s not included [this time]?” he asks.

Promises on the campaign trail

Representatives from both presidential campaign teams had been invited to attend AMAN’s end-of-year event. The Jokowi camp was represented by the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) politician Eva Sundari, while Dahnil Anzar Simanjuntak, a spokesman within the Prabowo-Sandiaga Uno team, attended.

Neither representative put in particularly inspiring performances at the event. In fact, Dahnil went as far as to say that he was only newly aware of AMAN’s existence, even though the organisation has been around for close to two decades. “Because of that, we’ll find the time for the indigenous peoples network to meet with Prabowo and we’ll hear firsthand Prabowo’s views on the Indigenous Peoples,” he said.

Dahnil also pointed to Pillar 3 of Prabowo’s vision and mission document, which lists “efforts to revitalise environmental conservation using local wisdom, in areas experiencing severe environmental degradation” as a point that could include indigenous peoples. “It’s high context, it should be understood that local wisdom is based on adat (customary law). If you want to talk about Indonesia, what else [is there] other than adat?” he explained.

AMAN - New Naratif
Speakers at AMAN’s end-of-year event in 2018. Richaldo Hariandja

Rukka argues that indigenous peoples aren’t just focused on adat, and that there’s more that needs to be taken into consideration. “There are different understandings, indigenous people have origins, indigenous territories, history and traditions. And if these are not explicitly referenced, how do we measure performance [by the government]?” she asks.

On the other hand, Eva Sundari, who is currently Secretary of the Central Board of Education, said she felt overwhelmed by AMAN’s expectations. She acknowledged that the achievement of targets involving indigenous peoples have so far not been up to par and apologised for the delays.

“We are getting sued,” says Eva while blushing, referring to cases brought against the government by indigenous communities.

She added that many members of the PDIP were upset that promises made to indigenous communities in Indonesia have yet to be completed. For this reason, she promised to encourage Tjahjo Kumolo, the incumbent Minister of Home Affairs and PDIP member, to immediately complete the protracted process of fulfilling all of Jokowi’s commitments.

“What is clear is that we’ll encourage Tjahjo to finish as soon as possible,” Eva said.

A powerful mobilising force

Failure to show full support for the issues championed by AMAN in the lead up to the 2019 election could certainly affect the way its members vote, and there are estimated to be twice the number of voters this time around than there were in 2014. If Prabowo can recognise the potential in the voting power of the indigenous community in Indonesia, it may be possible for him to take advantage of the disappointment felt towards Jokowi and his policies.

“That could happen, but until now unfortunately electoral surveys show that no one has really recognised this group [of voters],” says Syamsuddin Haris, a political observer from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).

However, Syamsuddin also says he’s unable to predict how significant the votes contributed by indigenous peoples could be in the 2019 presidential election. “I can’t answer how big [their] electability power is in this presidential election, we’ll just wait for the results later.”

An important bill fails to materialise

Indigenous peoples, many of whom still live in rural, remote communities, often find it difficult to navigate the complex Indonesian bureaucracy that citizens need to deal with to access various government programmes. “The Indonesian State runs the Ministry of Home Affairs for us to take care of our ID cards, then there is the State Ministry of Environment and Forestry for state forest areas, there are parts of ATR (Agrarian and Spatial Planning) if we are outside the forest areas, then there is the Ministry of Social Affairs if we happen to be labeled as a remote community,” Rukka explains. For individuals with low levels of education, resources and access, such complicated multi-agency systems are often a barrier to ensuring that their concerns are adequately reflected and protected.

All this be simplified by ratifying the Draft Law on Recognition and Protection of Indigenous Peoples, one of the fundamental promises made by Jokowi and Jusuf Kalla at the time of the presidential campaign. But the process is now stuck as an essential piece of documentation, the Problem Inventory List, has yet to be completed. Such a list will detail all the issues that need to be resolved before a bill can be finalised. “During the past four years, we can say that President Jokowi failed to realise the Nawacita Programme,” Rukka says.

Jokowi campaigned on the Nawacita Programme in 2014. This set of policies include the issuance of the draft law; the establishment of an independent permanent institution at the national level for indigenous peoples; the implementation of a law that will strengthen the legal standing of indigenous communities; resolving conflicts that have occurred between indigenous peoples and the state; simplifying bureaucratic systems to make them more accessible by indigenous peoples; and the implementation of a constitutional court decision to separate Indigenous Forests from State Forests.

Indigenous peoples, many of whom still live in rural, remote communities, often find it difficult to navigate the complex Indonesian bureaucracy

Due to a reduction in the amount of time given to it by the government from 2014 to 2019 period, the Draft Law on Recognition and Protection of Indigenous Peoples is still yet to be realised. However, its approval in the coming years by whoever serves as president still needs to happen.

“We are not in a position to support anyone, but whoever wins [the election] will be our president, and the Indigenous Peoples Act must be realised,” Rukka says.

Dahnil agreed with this at the AMAN event. According to him, the bill will have to be passed regardless of the victor in the upcoming election. “[I]f Prabowo wins, we’ll work on this bill together,” he promised.

Luthfi Andi Mutty, a member of the Legislative Branch of the People’s Representative Council (DPR), states that there’s been no Problem Inventory List from the Ministry of Home Affairs, which is needed as material for discussion.

The long road that the bill has taken is unfortunate considering that it was first approved by the People’s Representative Council for discussion in 2017. The government had agreed to submit the Problem Inventory List back in August 2018. “Every faction in the [council] has agreed, but we can’t discuss the bill further if the [Problem Inventory List] from the government hasn’t yet been sent,” explains Luthfi.

Back at AMAN’s December event, Rukka had been optimistic that it was still possible for the law to be introduced, as long as there was a strong commitment from Jokowi’s administration.

“In terms of time, there are only four months left for President Jokowi and Vice President Jusuf Kalla to implement the Nawacita Programme’s commitment to indigenous peoples. In that time it will be almost impossible to realise the promise if there is no strong commitment from both of them,” Rukka told the media in December.

Empty promises

Despite the commitments from both political campaigns at AMAN’s 2018 event, little has changed since. Dahnil had claimed that the Prabowo camp would reach out to the indigenous communities, but no such invitation was issued, nor any statement made by the former army general.

On Jokowi’s end, there has been little progress made to get the draft law—now years in the making—on the books. With a mere week to go before the polls, it’s unlikely AMAN will see this promise kept.

Rukka tells New Naratif that AMAN has chosen not to support either candidate this time; they merely appeal to their members to make their choice wisely. For all the hope that they’d put into one candidate five years ago, for indigenous communities and their interests, this upcoming election seems to be coming down to a choice between two candidates who have forgotten them.


Richaldo Hariandja

Richaldo has been a journalist since 2013 and spent 4.5 years at the Media Indonesia Daily Newspaper, writing about politics, science, environmental issues, design and entertainment. He is greatly concerned about environmental issues in Indonesia and has been a member of the Society of Indonesia Environmental Journalists since 2016.

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