Mon, 07 Feb 2000

Is nationhood the foundation of a stage?

By Mochtar Buchori

MONTREAL, Canada (JP): Why do Indonesians seem so reluctant to accept the idea that a country can consist of more than one nation?

This was one of the questions posed in my lecture here in early December.

In other words, why do we insist on having one nationhood while the country is teetering on the brink of disintegration? The question propped up after my lengthy talks on nationhood here.

In the talks I said that in Indonesia's case preserving the country's sense of nationhood is a must for maintaining the integrity of the country, taking Aceh as a case in point.

Whatever formula is used to solve the problem, it should in no way destroy the sense of Indonesian nationhood among the Acehnese.

Why? Because the Acehnese were always at the forefront in the struggle to gain and defend Indonesia's independence. During the Dutch colonial period, and also during the period of physical revolution from 1945 to 1949, the Acehnese fought heroically in resisting the return of Dutch colonial rule and in buttressing the vigor and vitality of the young republic. Against this historical background, it is very hard for most Indonesians to imagine an Indonesia without Aceh.

If the Acehnese no longer feel that they are part of the Indonesians nation, it will become impossible to maintain the country as one integrated whole. Even if the status of the country were changed, namely a change from a unitary to a federal state, it would still be impossible to restore the integrity of the country. An Acehnese who does not feel himself or herself to be an Indonesian would not join any kind of Indonesian state. And if this happened, what would be left will be an Indonesia minus Aceh. This is not Indonesia.

And if the Ambonese, the Papuans, the Riau-Malays and East Kalimantan Malays followed suit, then Republic of Indonesia as a nation-state would cease to exist. What we would have instead would be a number of island states or regional states which are not interrelated politically to one another.

The political map of Southeast Asia would change drastically, and I think that the global political equation will also change dramatically. Such is thus the importance of Aceh to Indonesia, and it is the reason we reject any solution using violence.

My personal hypothesis is that the majority of the Acehnese have become supporters of the Free Aceh Movement because they feel hurt by the various forms of maltreatment they have received from the central government in Jakarta, both from civilian and military institutions.

Who would not feel hurt if they had to witness their women raped, their men kidnapped and tortured, while they were helpless to defend themselves? Maltreatment like this lasted for more than 10 years, inflicting deep wounds in the hearts of the Acehnese.

And until the central government does something to heal these wounds or appease the anger of the Acehnese, the people would not give up the idea of a "free Aceh".

This is why I think that violence will not solve the problem, especially if the use of violence is not preceded or accompanied by genuine efforts to placate the bitterness of the Acehnese.

One participant disagreed, and said that a country can very well consist of more than one nation. As an example he cited his own country. Canada is a country comprising many nationalities, that is migrants from many different countries and cultures.

But when these migrants are naturalized, they become Canadians without forgetting their original national identities.

In passing, a participant said that he was originally from South Asia, and after becoming a Canadian he did neither forget nor abandon his old national identity. Having double nationalistic feelings does not in the least disturb him. It also does not disturb the environment.

To support to his argument, he mentioned India, a country that encompasses many population groups with many nationalistic sentiments. "So, why can't you accept the idea that it is possible for a country, especially a sprawling country like yours, to have many nationalities, many forms of nationhood, as you prefer to call it?"

I was taken aback by the comment. Apparently this gentleman did not understand or chose to ignore my purpose, which was not to give a general formula concerning how to deal with separatist movements or tendencies.

Throughout my presentation, I concentrated entirely on the Indonesian case. Only on one occasion did I dwell on a general academic matter that can have application in many countries besides Indonesia. That was when I borrowed the theory of U.S. politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan about the difference between "nation" and "state".

I replied that I was merely stating a fact, which many Indonesians feel and think about the present situation in the country.

I was not advocating a general formula. I was not trying to tell him how to deal with separatist movements in general. I was merely stating the fact that at this juncture in our history this is the way we think and feel about tendencies toward separatism.

I was not in the slightest suggesting that he should feel the same way about the Quebec movement for independence, for instance. It is quite possible that in the future younger generations of Indonesians will think differently about the same issue.

Maybe in the future Indonesians will be more receptive to the idea of a federal state. But even in that case we still need this feeling of belonging to one nation. Indonesian nationhood is the force that cements us together.

I said in matters like this, I think, every nation, every country has its own cultural idiosyncrasies. In matters like this, every nation is unique. It is great that in Canada one can have double nationalistic sentiments without creating or experiencing trouble.

But that is just not the case in Indonesia. At this moment, if an Indonesian is known to have another nationality beside Indonesian -- Canadian, German, Arab or Chinese -- I am quite sure that such a person will be subject to discrimination in his or her environment.

I added a little piece of history to generate greater appreciation among the audience for the way we feel and act in this regard. The Indonesian nation was born in 1928, whereas the Indonesian state was born 17 years later, in 1945. Thus, the sense of nationhood constitutes the foundation of the Indonesian state.

It is this historical fact that makes Indonesians feel that if they cannot maintain or preserve their sense of nationhood, it will be virtually impossible for them to maintain or defend the Indonesian state. The decay of the feeling of nationhood is like an erosion process that affects the foundation of a building. If you cannot prevent or stop the deterioration, the building will eventually collapse.

In conclusion, I said that nation-formation is a process that differs from the process of state-formation. Nation-formation is usually a long process that cannot be easily dated. According to Eugene Weber, it took the French peasants 44 years (1870 - 1914) to become Frenchmen. And it is difficult to say when precisely during this time interval the feeling of being French was shared by the majority of the French people.

For Indonesians, the process of nation-formation lasted about 20 years (1908 - 1928), a fairly short process compared to that of the French. Again, it is difficult to say exactly when the feeling of being an Indonesian was shared among the Javanese, for instance. State-formation, on the other hand, is always an event that can be easily dated or chronicled.

Thus, the idea of replacing Indonesian nationhood with several new senses of nationhood appears to run counter to the tenets of Indonesian's history.

According to Moynihan, nationhood is the sharing of collective memory of the past. This means that replacing the sense of Indonesian nationhood with a number of new regional nationhoods must start with erasing the existing national collective memories of the past, and a new collective memory of regional pasts will have to be built. This amounts to manipulation of private memories, something that I cannot possibly share.

The writer is an observer of social and cultural affairs.