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Unity in Uniformity

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Indonesia has a motto. It is ‘Unity in Diversity.’ Being an archipelago of around seventeen thousand islands and having over five hundred ethnic groups, the motto is a necessary unifying force that keeps the country together. As a matter of fact, it was this consciousness to unite and proclaim themselves one people that had made Indonesians succeed in pushing out the colonizers, particularly the Dutch, that had occupied and plundered the archipelago for over three centuries.

The challenge for any Indonesian leader is how to fulfill this ideal, the maintaining of the nation’s unity while fostering its diversity, a characteristic that has made Indonesia unique in this part of the world. Lacking a common enemy, however, the ideal of unity in diversity is more difficult to realize. Nationalistic sentiment after all, loses its urgency in times of peace and independence. Particularly if one particular ethnic group plays a lot more dominant role than the others do in developing the country.

One of the most serious mistakes that the Soeharto regime made was in enforcing too much the idea of unity without paying any attention to or appreciating the country’s diversity. This oversight turned out to be to the detriment to the unity of the country itself as can be seen in the increasingly vocal demand for separatism as soon as Soeharto is no longer in power. This is because the idea of unity was regarded by the former regime as a prerequisite for national stability, which in turn was translated as the need to over-centralize everything from the government, the economy to the education.

This would not have mattered so much if all types of Indonesians were represented in the government, both central and local, thus reflecting the country’s variety of ethnic and racial groups. However, the former president, who happened to be from Central Java, one of Indonesia’s main islands, had a clear preference for fellow Javanese in choosing his minions. Not only that, the way he governed and the political and bureaucratic culture that was fostered in his government had a distinctly Javanese style that became more and more entrenched as Soeharto’s rule turned from years into decades. Such was the influence of the Javanese culture that it became a way of life for the rest of ordinary Indonesians across the country whether they liked it or not.

The problem was, the Central Javanese culture, unlike those on the main islands of Sumatra, Sulawesi and Kalimantan or even other parts of Java, is still steeped in feudalism and mysticism. It is a culture of kingly courts, divine rights, absolute rulers, rigid caste system and the paying of tributes. It is a culture that has no room for straight-faced honesty, for open disagreement and for excessive display of emotions. It is a culture of symbols, of obsequious respect and of slavish fear. Under his leadership, the role of the president was transformed into a monarch whose every mysterious smile and subtle gestures demanded serious attention and interpretation, while the government became a kingdom whose sole purpose was to serve his needs, fill his coffers and preserve his rule.

Meanwhile, in the country’s far-flung provinces governors of mainly Javanese origin set up mini kingdoms of their own, carrying out the central government’s orders with little regard for or knowledge of local cultures and peculiarities. More often than not, local residents felt left out of the chance to determine their own future and powerless to penetrate the system that was designed to keep them out.

This cultural insensitivity was in effect a gradual process of cultural dilution to create uniformity that actually ended up threatening the very diversity that made Indonesia culturally rich to begin with. Indonesia’s colorful and varied ethnic cultures survived only as performance arts for the benefit of tourists but largely neglected in the areas where they come from.

In Irian Jaya, the Irianese who throughout the generations had subsisted on sweet potatoes, were made to plant and eat rice and live in separate cement houses instead of their communal wooden hut compound, to the detriment of their diet, health, culture and their traditional way of life. These people are now fighting to separate themselves from Indonesia altogether, preferring instead to cope with their harsh future on their own without central interference.

Cultural insensitivity too was the main problem in handling East Timor. Despite the province’s different history and culture, the central government had doggedly refused to regard East Timor as something that must be treated differently from the rest of Indonesia’s provinces. This was a mistake as the East Timorese, being a former Portuguese colony had never regarded itself as belonging to Indonesia or having a share in Indonesia’s history and nationalist struggles. With the result that there was a constant sense of alienation and misunderstanding both on the part of the East Timorese and Indonesians themselves when it came to this area.

The policy of transmigration as a way of spreading out the population more and reducing the burden on Java was another attempt at cultural dilution that only sharpened divisiveness. Most of these migrants were Javanese sent to remote parts of the country whose culture and tradition they knew nothing about and whose sole aim was to enrich themselves. In many cases they did this at the expense of the local community whose traditional way of life was disturbed and who, moreover felt excluded from the wealth-creating activities the migrants were good at.

It is only now that Soeharto is no longer in power that the damage of forced uniformity, in the shape of separatist tendencies, could be seen. In the meantime, traces of Javanese mysticism continue to dominate a lot of Indonesians’ mentality. Many even believe that the reason why the former president was forced to resign was because the divine gift that had kept him in power for over three decades and paralyzed his enemies, was finally taken away from him and left him a mere mortal.