Tue, 16 Aug 1994

As Indonesia celebrates the 49th anniversary of its independence on Aug. 17, many wonder what holds the 180 million inhabitants of this archipelago together, while other nations of similar diversity have split up. Historians and other observers interviewed by The Jakarta Post believe that the nation is tied together by hopes, legacies, myths and threats.

Unity will likely prevail ...

By Ati Nurbaiti

JAKARTA (JP): The busy area around Senen to Salemba in Central Jakarta houses a number of forlorn buildings with billboards reminiscent of a young generation (pemuda) with fiery ideals who were caught up in the political frenzy until the late 1960s.

The faded signs bear the names of the original youth groups like Gerakan Pemuda Ansor, Gerakan Pemuda Marhaen Indonesia, while one, adorning a run down building on Jl. Kramat Raya, reads Gedung Sumpah Pemuda 1928.

This building, now a museum, reminds passersby of one of their most important history lessons. It reminds them of a gathering that formed the core of the nation.

The dark faces of the 50 or so men peer out of an old picture in front of the building. Clad in suits and Javanese kain, they represented several ethnic youth groups such as Jong Java, Jong Ambon and Jong Sumatra and were picking up on a failed first attempt to talk in 1926.

"They had questioned whether anything could bring them together, and the first (youth) congress failed," explained historian Taufik Abdullah about the meeting of Oct. 28, 1928.

The need to work together stemmed from what the youths felt was a widespread feeling of backwardness and inferiority, inherited from an almost 3-century-old Dutch colonial structure in which they were born and bred third class citizens or Inlanders.

"This feeling brought together strangers from all the colonial towns," said Abdullah. These urbanites were strongly bound to their home villages and therefore brought the identity of Inlanders back when they returned. The Europeans came first and then "Eastern Foreigners" second while Indonesians were last.

It is this mixed identity, Abdullah points out, which was behind the failure of the first meeting. Nobody really felt like clashing with their elders, despite the urgent need to unite against backwardness in their respective ethnic groups.

"Modern ideas, mainly democracy, were the main reference for progress," Abdullah said. Progress was the key word of each ethnic group, since the often cited 1908 Javanese organization of Boedi Oetomo.

Yet as concepts like equality contradicted traditions like the hierarchical language of the Javanese, the second meeting acknowledged this "cultural deadlock".

Abdullah said the men then made up "a new, modern sphere of democracy, while maintaining a dialog with their old communities," and embodied it in the Sumpah Pemuda declaration (Youth Pledge).

This declaration, which every child now recites from kindergarten onwards, was the vision of one motherland, one nation, one language -- each called Indonesia.

The name Indonesia, coined by British ethnologist G.R. Logan in 1850, was first adopted in 1922 by Inlander students in Holland who were grouped into Perhimpunan Indonesia and chaired by Muhammad Hatta. Hatta later became the new country's first vice president.

At that time no one had a solid idea about the boundaries of this tanah air (literally land and water, archipelago) and simply envisioned the Dutch reign covering most of the archipelago from Sumatra to the eastern islands.

But "one language", as political scientist Mochtar Pabottingi states, was "providence".

Those who gave birth to Sumpah Pemuda decided at last that bahasa Indonesia be based on the vernacular known as bahasa Melayu, used for centuries across the archipelago.

Observers stress this agreement on one language, lacking in large diverse countries such as India, is one of the strongest sources of Indonesia's unity.

"No one was jealous," said another political scientist, Burhan Magenda, of the fact that the national language was not that of the majority Javanese.

Besides language, Islam markedly influenced cultural networking as it had infiltrated through several points of the archipelago from the 15th century.

"We must be grateful that the Islam that entered here had a sympathetic face," says Pabottingi. It was accustomed to different peoples with different faiths, he added.

Abdullah also points to this shared Islamization as a genuine source of unity up to the present. Those from South Sulawesi, for instance, remember their Islamization came from Minangkabau in West Sumatra who, in turn, recall theirs was strengthened from Aceh in North Sumatra.

That the majority in the archipelago are Javanese is also a boon says Pabottingi, as this ethnic group, "is also accustomed to being exposed to different cultures."

Abdullah added that extraordinary high mobility, where "not a single small town remained homogeneous" long before the birth of Indonesia weakened any ethnic orientation in the new country.

Trade links, then formal education and modern bureaucracies under the Dutch colonial government further brought together people of different ethnic groups, most evident in the many inter-ethnic marriages.

Pabottingi says any ethno-nationalistic aspiration that might have existed "did not resound in their respective communities," and adds it was in the interest of the Dutch to exploit ethnic differences.

Decades of struggle under Dutch and Japanese colonial rule culminated in the 1945 proclamation of independence.

"We were so proud," says Surastri Karma Trimurti, 82, then a reporter and a witness of the event on Jl. Proklamasi, originally Jl. Pegangsaan Timur, Central Jakarta.

A tug of war with the Dutch and resistance to integration in some aristocratic areas continued for years after independence was declared, while national symbols to unify he nation were sought.

Local leaders, for example, who fought against the Dutch were recognized as Indonesian heroes. Attempts to write a national history included accounts of the grandioseness of earlier kingdoms said to form the basis of Indonesia.

Observers regret that some have used this part of history to idealize strong forms of government. The "myth" of the great kingdoms of Mataram, Majapahit and Sriwijaya, Magenda says, "is nevertheless a uniting symbol," drilled through history and civic lessons across 27 provinces.

The late intellectual Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana once remarked, "present Indonesia and the period before Indonesia don't smell alike at all."

Another historian, Ong Hok Ham, stresses that these kingdoms never resolved conflicts within themselves but, "were always divided."

Pabottingi states that these kingdoms "only make us proud of their ability in creating large polities." Thanks to these monarchies, "from an early time we were not an obscure people in international relations."

However, historians had noted these achievements "regardless of how the kingdoms treated their subjects," in a period where the notion of equality was almost non-existent.

Therefore there is no use in continuing such myths as they are "irrelevant with our political agenda," stressed Pabottingi referring to the aspirations of democracy flourishing here since the early 20th century.

Abdullah likens the focusing on myths and discussions of "national identity" to the task of former court writers, who had to psychologically sustain the power of the rulers when the Dutch stalked their territories.

He regrets current discourses which do not strive towards democracy but aim at progress.

"The danger of these discussions (to seek a traditional form of governing) is that local traditions were necessarily totalitarian," said Abdullah.

While Pabottingi points out that the state ideology, Pancasila, is the strongest of uniting symbols, he also regrets efforts to irrationalize it.

The ideology reflects "the transcendation of ideas that evolved in the movements" towards the birth of the country, but "there is nothing magic about Pancasila," he said, referring to phrases like Pancasila sakti (magical power).

The only power in its legacy, he argued, "lies in its highly democratic process" as it was discussed by 60 representatives with different ethnic, religious and political leanings.

Compared to other political designs, such as the "Guided Democracy" of the late 1950s, "there was absolutely no imposition," he added.

Pabottingi speculates that among the Japanese were those who really thought it better to deliver a free Indonesia rather than a colonized one to the victorious Allied Forces. "They guarded the place heavily with bayonets but did not interfere" in the meeting of June 22, 1945 on Jl. Pejambon no. 2, Central Jakarta he said.

The result, the Piagam Jakarta (Jakarta Declaration), contained the preamble to the constitution and the ideology later called Pancasila.

Pabottingi pointed out that those who drafted the Declaration had "matured in society," unlike the karbitan (firecracker) or "instant" representatives today's Indonesians complain about.

These brilliant persons, rooted in their societies, such as K.H. Dewantara and H. Agus Salim, "are also our heritage," Pabottingi says, adding others who contributed much thought and sacrifice to early Indonesia.