Wed, 15 Jan 2003

Indonesia could learn from Martin Luther King, Jr.

Samsudin Berlian, Graduate Student, Princeton Theological Seminary, New Jersey

Martin Luther King Jr. was born on Jan. 15, 1929. He is best known for his struggle to end racial segregation in America and for his vision of an integrated society where blacks and whites would live together in harmony and equality. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, when he was only 35, the youngest ever recipient. He was heartlessly killed in his prime in 1968, but his legacy continues to live to this day. To honor his dedication and vision, Americans celebrate his birthday every third Monday of January.

Most Indonesians, however, have only a vague idea about this great man. His name is rarely mentioned and then only in relation to the civil rights movement in the U.S., which seemingly had little to do with the situation in Indonesia.

It is true that King's concern was primarily about racial issues in America, as well as, in his later years, the problems of poverty in general and U.S. militarism. But his message of nonviolence and social integration is universal and enduring. His core message is as relevant today in Indonesia as it was in America 40 years ago.

The nature of the racial composition of the two countries is different but the problems are, to a certain extent, similar. In America racial problems exist between whites and blacks, American-Indians, and other minority groups. There are also racial problems with regard to minority groups such as blacks, Jews and Koreans.

The problem of discrimination against blacks was rooted in two-and-a-half centuries of slavery and almost a century of state-enforced segregation. Although today both slavery and segregation have officially and legally ended, the bitterness and resentment toward each other are still very much alive.

In Indonesia, the problems are not as clearly defined. There has been no significant record of persistent slavery or ethnic cleansing, although racist laws and policies have existed. The perpetrators of racial misdeeds are more diverse, if less systemic.

The history of modern racism in Indonesia began when the Dutch created three tiers of citizenship in the East Indies: the first citizens were the Europeans, the lowest class consisted of the so-termed natives, and in between was everybody else. However, the racially charged violence that recently erupted and persisted in many regions could not be blamed on the Dutch.

Such problems could often be traced back to the failure of the government to provide justice, equality and security. For example, many Dayak people committed a brutal racist act when they used their collective force to expel more than 100,000 Madurese from Central Kalimantan. Then they pursued a follow-up racist policy by using their political muscle to prevent most of the Madurese from returning.

They defended themselves by claiming that the Madurese were a security hazard because they committed crimes with impunity. The Dayak argued that getting rid of the Madurese made the province more peaceful. But they committed an inexcusable racial crime when they lumped together all Madurese, associating the peaceful with troublemakers among them, and punished them all, not because of what they did but because of what they are.

Yet the Dayak were not accustomed to acting in a racist way. They generally do not have a "holier than thou" attitude. They lived, and are still living, in peace with most other ethnic groups. In fact, they lived in peace with the Madurese for generations. During the pogrom in 2001, many Dayak people helped Madurese who were fleeing from Dayak warriors.

The truth is that the Dayaks themselves had suffered from racist conduct by the authorities. They claimed that they had long endured the wrongs done to them in silence because the police mostly ignored their plight and would let criminals of Madurese origin roam free. Because the authorities failed to provide the Dayaks with justice and security, they exacted revenge instead.

The police's attitude might be based on fear of major disruption rather than racial bias, but still their inaction was racist.

Thus racism begets racism. And racist conduct by the authorities and powerful people is the most potent to perpetuate racism. Racism is most destructive when the government or a major group or powerful individuals adhere to it. Unfortunately, Indonesians may not see racist policies as such because they are so used to it.

The policy of the Soeharto regime, for instance, to appoint mostly people of Javanese origin as governors, regents, and district heads outside Java, and not the other way round, was racist.

The government was guilty of racism when certain laws were made exclusively applicable or inapplicable to a certain group. I have a friend from North Sumatra whose official documents do not state his surname. This was because when his parents were applying for his birth certificate, the government official told them that their son could not have more than one name. This was a blatant act of racism, forcing a group of people who were used to having a surname to follow the tradition of a major group who were not.

Government failure to recognize and respect the rights of indigenous people is also an act of racism. When a group of Papuans were chased away from their habitat because they happened to sit on a mountain of copper and gold that the government coveted, the reason might have been primarily economic. But it was an inherent part of state-sanctioned discrimination that has made the people of the richest island becomes the poorest of all major ethnic groups in the country. Racism is indeed often associated with unfair economic policy.

The impact of racism goes beyond the suffering of its victims. One of the major issues faced by the country at this moment is the internal displacement of more than a million of its people. In many areas it has been caused by racially related violence. The displacement of the Madurese from Kalimantan, of the Butonese from Maluku, of the Javanese from Aceh, have respectively created immense hardship, not only for the displaced, but also for the local people and the administrations of Madura, Buton and North Sumatra.