Tue, 04 Jan 2000

Indonesian nationhood revisited

As we venture into the 21st century, demands for justice should not be overlooked amid the obsession to defend the unitary state at all costs, writes political analyst J. Soedjati Djiwandono.

JAKARTA (JP): There is no doubt that Abdurrahman Wahid has been preoccupied, even obsessed, with national unity. In his first speech before the People's Consultative Assembly following his swearing in as the newly elected president, Abdurrahman reaffirmed his devotion to the maintenance of Indonesia as a nation, quoting the late president Sukarno's reference to Ernest Renan's concept of nationhood, which suits Indonesia. Then he designated his Cabinet as one of national unity.

Indeed, what is at stake beyond the social, political and economic challenges faced by the country under his presidency is the very survival of Indonesia as a nation and as a unitary state posed by recurrent conflicts among ethnic and religious groups in various provinces, some of which are demanding sovereign independence from the Indonesian republic.

Unfortunately, in spite of his devotion to the Indonesian nation within the unitary republic, Abdurrahman has not been seen as doing enough to deal effectively with regional problems. He does not seem even to have given the problem high priority, despite his rather appalling remark during his visit to Manila, that he would defend the unitary state "at all costs".

I do hope he did not mean to include the use of force, which, under the circumstances, could easily be counterproductive. Moreover, such a remark seems to have missed the point. I have been arguing that independence or a nation-state, let alone a unitary state, is never an end in itself. The demand for justice is the essence of the demand for broad autonomy, a special status, or more, the independence of different regions.

In his speech on Aug. 17, 1950 broadcast on radio, the precise date the Unitary Republic of Indonesia was reestablished, prime minister Mohammad Hatta said, among other things, that "the unitary state is not a magic key to open the gate to a better welfare. It is merely a means to facilitate combined efforts, to pave the way for improved welfare." He also said he did not "call traitors those who from the outset have striven for Indonesian independence, but have chosen a different path. In their view, that path was the best to attain an independent Indonesia."

As regards to Renan's idea of nationhood, his was simply a speculative, metaphysical construct rather than a theory based on empirical evidence to explain or to understand the phenomenon of nationhood. As far as Indonesia is concerned, it seems arguable if the nation of Indonesia was promoted, in line with Renan's conceptualization, as "a soul, spiritual principle", or "a great solidarity, created by the sentiment of the sacrifices which have been made of those which one is disposed to make in the future. It presupposes a past; but it resumes itself in the present by a tangible fact: the consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue life in common".

The reality was not necessarily like that in preindependent Indonesia. The fact is that for a period of over a century, intermittent but isolated revolts by different regions of the then Netherlands East Indies against Dutch colonial rule were never successful. Perhaps this bitter experience finally made Indonesia leaders of the time realize that only a united and concerted struggle by all the peoples throughout the territory would be able to oust the colonial ruler. Hence the growth of an awareness of the need for a new all-embracing and all-inclusive nation. The Indonesian nation was thus born primarily out of a pragmatic, practical consideration.

Sukarno's recourse to Ernest Renan seems to have been an effort to justify that need and to give it a rational and intellectual foundation. Even so, it is worth noting that Sukarno did not fully subscribe to Renan's concept. He added his own contribution. In his extemporaneous speech before the committee for the preparation for Indonesia's independence on June 1, 1945, later published as The Birth of Pancasila, he pointed out that the concept of Indonesia as a nation would necessarily relate to a territory.

Though a nation, Indonesia had not been a nation-state throughout history, except twice, namely, in the form of the Sriwijaya and the Majapahit kingdoms in centuries past -- a reference that used to scare our neighbors during Sukarno's aggressive policy of confrontation against Malaysia in the early 1960s.

The most serious challenge we face as we are venturing into the 21st century and the third millennium is the very survival and integrity of Indonesia not only as a nation but also as a unitary state. It is at stake because of a serious threat of national disintegration posed by the prevailing conflict situation as the most serious consequence of the social, political and economic crisis that the country has suffered for more than two years.

Indeed, Indonesia as a nation was at the beginning fostered in the face of a common enemy: Dutch colonial rule that had created injustice. It was glued together by a common cause: the demand for justice, and thus the demand for independence as a means to that end.

Other things being equal, injustice under one's own government is worse than under foreign rule, especially now that justice has been truly and miserably lacking. Thus, Abdurrahman's preoccupation or obsession with national unity is justified.

In the very same speech referred to above, Sukarno also said, "It is through Indonesian independence that we (will) liberate our people." As though echoing Sukarno, his hand still clasped in a shake with Megawati Soekarnoputri, Abdurrahman also said right after his election that he "once again proclaimed the independence of Indonesia".

One just hopes that with his Cabinet of national unity, he knows what he is up to and does the right thing about it. The stakes are very high.