Couchiching Online
nav button nav button nav button nav button nav button nav button
History Table of Contents
1994 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1994
Globalism and Tribalism: The New World Disorder?

Nationalism: Can the Nation-State Cope?

ANDRE SAUMIER, Chairman of Saumier Freres Conseil and Vice-Chairman of Alpha Capital Inc.

You may someday, as I did three weeks ago, travel to a city called Banda Ache, the capital of the Indonesian Province of Ache. It sits at the northern most tip of the island of Sumatra.

You may also have the time to visit the tomb, a very modest one, of Sultan Iskandar Muda, Alexander the Young, who ascended the throne of Ache a couple of years before Samuel de Champlain and his few companions founded Quebec City, and some 300 years after Marco Polo, visited Ache, – already a thriving city of 200,000 people – on his way back to Venice from China.

Iskandar turned Ache into the greatest naval, military and commercial power in that part of the world and insured that the pepper trade of Ache, which was already supplying 50 per cent of Europe's need in that spice, could reach the continent through the Red Sea and Egypt, safe from Portuguese attacks.

Around the same time, and Achenese warrior, by the name of Gunung Yati, conquered Sunda Kilapa, as Jakarta was then know and became ruler of the town of Chiraban on behalf of a Java-based empire, called Demak.

Little is known about the Demak, except that it pushed back a large Chinese invasion force sent by Genghis Kahn to subdue the island, after the Sultan of Demak had cut the ears off his envoy as a way of telling Genghis Khan that he did not think much of his overtures.

This Gungung Yati was the driving force in the Islamization of Central and East Java, previously a Hindu country of which the cultural and religious remains can be seen in today's Bali and became one of the nine so called Wali Sanga, or Javanese Muslim sites, whose tombs are venerated to this day.

After calling on Iskandar's tomb, you could also stop by the house of Tuk Niak Don, who for 10 years led the guerrilla war against the Dutch invaders. That war lasted 30 years, until 1904, and left more than 10,000 Dutch soldiers buried in Ache cemetery.

It became so well known in Holland, that Achenese war was immortalized in a popular Dutch ditty, which began with the following words: "We are tired of life, we going to Ache".

Tuk Niack was a woman, not that unusual a development for an Achense nation, which had had in the 18th century three female Sultans. The first Sultan, Ali Mugiat Sia, drove the Portuguese out of NorthernSumatra 10 years before Jacques Cartier landed in Gaspe Bay.

And to this day Ache sees herself as the proud and pure anthesis to the decadent tolerance and syncrotism of Java, where 120 million Indonesians, as against a mere 3 million in that Atche province.

For the Muslims of Indonesia, who all belong to the Suni tradition, Muslim Ache and its strong strain of Suni mysticism is an object of wary admiration. For the large Hindu and Christian minorities of Indonesia, Ache is an ever present reminder of their stake in the strong central government of far away Jakarta, which keeps Islamic forces in check.

For Java and the government itself, Ache – which remains the fountainhead for Muslim anti-secularistic forces and where liquor, even today, is not generally available – is a strong and permanent reminder of the powerful centrifugal forces.

Indeed, only in Atche has the ruling party of Indonesia, Golkar, ever been defeated in a general election and that happened in 1987.

Yet, contrary to Islamic practice, traditional Muslim Achenese law, or Adat, is quite benevolent towards women, even by very egalitarian Javanese standards, where wives have, and have had historically, exactly the same rights as husbands. A nely- married Achenese couple lives in the wife's house. She is and remains the owner of the house and most often of the rice lands while, inheritance is through both male and female lines.

That departure from the Muslim sharia is even more pronounced among the Minang of central Sumatra, one of the greatest metrolinear cultures still alive and thriving today.

I have by now barley scratched the surface of the social cultural history and fabric of a small part of North Sumatra. That exercise should be continued for the rest of that great island and then extended to Java itself, to Bali, to Lombok, Nusantfara and Sulawesi, to name only a few of the major islands which form Indonesia.

The point that I am trying to make here is to underline the challenge which faces those who wish to build Indonesia, with its 200 million inhabitants, into a country and a nation, with some meaning for all.

The task is daunting. How to bringing and then keep together dozens and dozens of ancient and splendid island cultures; highly literate, which had proudly existed over hundreds of years and created great cities and vast empires.

Many, if not most them, had hardly heard of one another until quite recently.

Indonesia is, indeed, a very recent creation; barely 50 years old. The borders were essentially determined by the vergerays of Dutch colonization and of treaties between England and Holland.

The first Indonesian government, led by Soekarno, once in office identified it major internal enemy to be extricated root and branch as what we would call today, tribal loyalties, or tribalism. The first prescription had to do with language. The Sumatran version of Malay was selected as the official language of the country.

This was helped by the fact that the occupying Japanese during World War II, after a foolish and short lived attempt at imposing their own language as the official one for Indonesia, had themselves settled on that Sumatran Malay, and forced everyone to start learning it.

The various local dialects of which there are more than 100, some of which – such as Javanese – are spoken and read by 100 million people and are still used and taught in schools. The only officially banned language in Indonesia today is Chinese.

A second prescription against the dreaded tribalism, was the wholesale recasting of the Dutch administrative boundaries built around so-called residencies, tailored to mirror the complex ethnic mosaics of each island.

Soekarno's new government regrouped a lot of them into a few much larger provinces, each headed by an appointed governor. These provinces were designed to draw together a variety of ethnic groups, thus, hopefully leading them to see themselves as Indonesians rather than as Achenese, Minang, Sudanese and so forth.

That scheme ran into immediate resistance almost everywhere. The Achenese, for example, strongly objected to be thrown into the same province of Sumatra with the heathen Christian Batak. The later took an equally dim view of being forced to work closely with their ancient Achenes enemies and tormentors. These melting pot provinces were dissolved by Soekarno's successors and replaced by much smaller entities, which surprisingly approximated the old Dutch residencies.

Let me now shift to May, this year, and give you a contemporary example of how Indonesia now deals with its ever present "tribal" problem.

It is the ninth of May, 1994. And we are now seated in the Presidential Palace in Jakarta for the official inauguration by President Soeharto of a three-day meeting – and try to imagine such a meeting taking place in this country – entitled, "The National Discussion Forum on the Enhancement of the Concept of Nationalism".

The event has been organized by the Department of Research and Development of Golungan Karia, the leading political party of Indonesia, of which Soeharto is honourary chairman. Golkar was in turn supported in that endeavour, by four other bodies. With very interesting names,

The Agency for the Fostering of the Spirit and Value of 1945, the year of Indonesia's official declaration of independence from the Dutch after the end of World War II.

The National Executive Council of the 1945 Generation.

The Board for the Implementation of Education in the Comprehension and Practice of Pancasila and the National Defense Institute.

The official program of that three-day meeting on the enhancement of nationalism, noted that Gofkar and the other groups, and I quote, "have detected several centrifugal factors in Indonesia, which appeared to push or draw things away from the centre".

So,there is great concern that these factors unless kept in check could undermine national unity. My very brief expose on the history of part of North Sumatra, which could be repeated for each part of that vast country, should help you understand that such fears may not be entirely groundless.

In his widely reported opening remarks, Soehato indicated that the concept of nationalism had to be understood as standing against social domination, and social discrimination. In particular, he said, nationalism is opposed to all varieties of separatism, on religious or ethnic considerations.

The strength of the concept of nationalism in Indonesia, he concluded, was demonstrated during the 1945 struggle against the Dutch, during which Indonesians of all groups and religions and regions were prepared to accept and did accept extreme shortages of everything.

In so doing Soeharto was clearly referring to nationalism as understood by this 1945 generation, an inexorably shrinking group, for whom nationalism has always been equated with the struggle for independence.

A well know political scientist who teaches at the University of Indonesia, underlined the difference in a recent commentary. He wrote,

"For members of the younger generation, who have never know colonialism, the indicator of nationalism is the drive to develop Indonesia and move it towards greater property, security and democracy."

So for them, a nationalist is someone who is not involved in such acts as corruption or misuse of power. One might note in passing that these two Indonesian definitions of nationalism, the 1945 one and the students' one, would appear to have little relevance for Canada.

For Indonesia, then, nationalism is seen as an essential means for keeping together a new country which, even as it was being created, repeatedly came near falling apart.

Soekarno, the founder of the republic, bombed Padang and then sent a large force to occupy the Miang area of Sumatra after the latter had created an anti-Communist revolutionary government of the Republic of Indonesia in February 1958.

Six years earlier troops from Java, always from Java, had occupied Ache, which had proclaimed itself and autonomous Islamic country, in part because of Soekarno's failure to declare the new republic a Muslim state.

The restoration and reconciliation successfully put in place by the new order government, which is how the current administration of Indonesia styles itself, does not see the strong historical, and regional, or tribal if you like, loyalties as necessarily the enemy of the nation or of the state. Quite to the contrary. It uses them consciously as building blocks for a richer and stronger country, to be held firmly in place, however, by the cement of an articulated centrifugal strategy.

Hence, the constant nationalist symphony which one hears in Indonesia and a whole string of private, semi-private, state institutions all dedicated to the affirmation and defence of Indonesia Nationhood.

That is quite different, I may say, from a policy of multi- culturalism, which would welcome and support incoming non- Indonesian cultures.

In fact, foreign cultures are not at all welcome as the Indonesian Chinese know, whose language to this day can not be taught in schools, who are barred from a number of professions, who until two years ago had to carry an identity card with a green dot on it, identifying them as Chinese, and who are barred also from a number of senior public offices.

There is in Indonesia nothing similar to the Western angst about the superiority of their cultures.

On the other hand, it would seem clearly excessive to classify the Achenese, with their ancient and splendid history of commerce and empires and tribes, and to describe their confidence in themselves and the roles they aspire to play and do play in the broader scheme of Indonesian things, as instances of tribalism.

Tribalism is a palliative label, which can be attached as a stigma to any collective phenomenon one does not approve of, or one feels threatened by. Tribalism also has, in my view, an objective content relative to our present concerns.