AMAN: Indonesia's new indigenous voice

Down to Earth No. 41, May 1999

The first ever Congress of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago has met in Jakarta. A new indigenous peoples' alliance, AMAN, has been launched and the need to address the issue of indigenous peoples has been brought to the attention of the government, the political parties and the public.

The week-long meeting, from March 15th - 22nd, was the result of many months of planning and fund-raising by a group of Indonesian NGOs committed to working for the interests of indigenous peoples. The NGOs' idea was to bring indigenous peoples together, provide a venue, funding for travel and accommodation and so on, then step back to ensure that the agenda was set and the proceedings run by the indigenous people themselves.

The Congress was attended by 231 indigenous representatives from across the archipelago, with around 50 NGO staff accompanying them. The representatives had been selected by regional meetings of indigenous peoples earlier in the year. Several international observers (including Down to Earth) and academics also attended along with the 50-member Indonesian NGO facilitating committee. Although observers and the media were allowed to attend most sessions, only indigenous peoples representatives were allowed to voice their opinions and take decisions in the working groups and full conference sessions.

The first two days were devoted to preliminary discussion sessions on a variety of topics to identify key issues, share experiences and allow representatives to get used to airing their views in public. The Congress proper started on the third day. The working groups covered much of the relevant ground: there were sessions on human rights and the politics of indigenous peoples; the impact on the lives of indigenous peoples of large-scale commercial plantations, mining and fisheries and international campaigning. Representatives from the International Alliance of Indigenous-Tribal Peoples of the Tropical Forests and IWGIA, the International Workgroup on Indigenous Affairs, spoke about international instruments that can be used to promote the interests of indigenous peoples. There were also several sessions on women's issues (see box).

But above all, the congress provided a much-needed opportunity for indigenous peoples to share their experiences of human rights violations, colonisation and oppression at the hands of the government. It was the occasion of a mass outpouring of grievances against the injustices that indigenous peoples have suffered for generations. Delegate after delegate expressed his or her frustration and anger at the way their land had been taken from them without consultation; the way the government treated them as ignorant, unskilled and useful only to attract tourists, showing no respect for their knowledge, culture or beliefs. They also protested strongly against the way the government had imposed a uniform village administration system which had no reference to their own customary laws.

These views were clearly expressed to a panel of government officials including Land Affairs Minister Hasan Basri Durin, and assistant ministers from the forestry ministry and social affairs department who seemed to be completely taken aback by the lack of deference usually shown them at formal meetings.

The result of the days of discussions was the creation of the new organisation, AMAN, or the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago. The use of archipelago instead of 'Indonesia' gets round the problem of current state boundaries which are rejected by a number of West Papuan and Acehnese groups. No East Timorese representatives attended.

The new organisation will consist of indigenous peoples' groups throughout the archipelago. These will be represented by the Alliance National Board of 54 people, comprising two representatives - a man and a woman - from each region. West Papua will have four representatives because of its size. As some of the delegations had no women members the selection of their woman representative was to be their first task on returning to their areas.

The newly formed Board of AMAN decided that - for practical reasons (lobbying parliament, ministers etc.) - there should be a secretariat in Jakarta for the time being and H. Arifin, a representative of the Banten/Baduy communities in West Java was chosen as executive secretary. Three people representing central, eastern and western Indonesia will act as a management committee. The next Congress will take place in three years' time.

The Alliance's declaration, issued at a press conference on the final day stated that:

  • Customary law (adat) forms the basis of indigenous peoples' lives;
  • The diversity of customary law must be acknowledged - there is no place for uniform state policy;
  • The state must recognise sovereignty of indigenous peoples as they have had their own systems of organisation long before the Indonesia state was created;
  • The state must operate in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and stop violating their right to live by customary law;
  • Women are the most oppressed group.

The specific demands included the following:

  • Withdraw all laws and regulations that violate the sovereignty of indigenous peoples before the 1999 elections;
  • Review the existence of Transmigration and Forest Squatters Resettlement Department;
  • Get rid of the dual political role of the Armed Forces;
  • Abolish all land concession schemes (including logging concessions) which disadvantage indigenous peoples.
  • The government must recognise indigenous peoples' rights.

The statement also rejected the use of discriminatory language such as "illegal cultivators" (peladang liar) or "isolated tribes" (suku suku terasing) and the use of the term "state-owned land" for forests and other lands of indigenous peoples. "We are equals, we are human beings; we want to decide our own future."

Last but not least, the Congress was a celebration of ethnicity and regional identity. There were displays in the conference hotel lobby of weaving, artefacts, foods, photos, musical instruments, carving, and traditional clothes. There were dances and songs at closing sessions - not for tourists, not for money, but for pure enjoyment.


Protest at Parliament

The Alliance's first steps were to take their demands to the national parliament and human rights commission. On the last day of the congress, a protest was held outside the parliament building in Jakarta. The group of around 50 people, many in traditional dress, was surrounded by anti-riot troops before nine representatives were allowed into the building. There was anger that it was so hard to get access to the parliamentarians. "We have been colonised for the past 30 years and yet it is so difficult for us to meet the government," shouted one protester. "It is so easy for the government to steal from the provinces, " he said.

The Alliance wants the issue of indigenous rights to figure prominently in this year's general election in June and several political parties were invited to the congress to attend to explain their stand on indigenous issues. Three representatives attended from the opposition parties. They were pressed hard by Congress delegates to explain how each would support the rights of indigenous peoples.


Indigenous women

Women's concerns were clearly voiced at the congress through a group called the Alliance of Indigenous Women of the Archipelago. Their discussions covered the erosion of women's status and participation in traditional life caused by state intervention.

Government programmes and companies that take over indigenous land for plantations, timber estates, mines and other projects marginalise women. Employment opportunities and compensation payments are directed at men, while women's status under adat law is not recognised. This erodes the decision-making and leadership roles of women in their communities.

Another major grievance among indigenous women is the state-sponsored family planning programme under which women are forced to use methods prescribed by the government. One Komoro woman participant from West Papua explained how women were suffering from the side effects of family planning methods forced upon them by the government. Before, she said, women had been able to limit the number of children by using traditional medicines without side-effects. [Indonesia generally has been a major buyer of injectables like Depo Provera and hormone-releasing implants like Norplant. Studies have identified major health problems among women in remote areas who are coerced into using what the government terms "effective" methods, which also include IUDs or coils, as they have little access to the health care and monitoring that these methods require.]

The women were not afraid to direct some criticism at their own communities as well as at the state. A protest against the oppression of women in indigenous communities got the attention of their male colleagues and became a major talking point of the congress. Their point was underlined by the fact that only 20 out of the 231 delegates - less than 10% - were women. The structure of the Alliance (see main text) should ensure that there are equal number of votes for women and men representatives. It remains to be seen how far and how quickly a more balanced representation can be achieved.

Sovereign rights and independence

The West Papuans attending the conference explained very clearly that they were demanding independence from Indonesia in order to protect their rights. They also called upon other indigenous groups to support them. Increasing levels of disaffection with the centralised nature of the Indonesian state are becoming apparent in many other areas too. The indigenous delegates from Kalimantan, for example, identified themselves as coming from Borneo, implying stronger loyalties to the island and their ethnic links with the indigenous peoples on the Malaysian part of the island, than with the rest of Indonesia. A delegate from North Sulawesi stated that if the government ignored their rights they would demand to separate from Indonesia. Similar warnings have been heard in Riau and Maluku.

Others at the Congress were not demanding any separation from Indonesia, but still wanted the restoration of their sovereign rights. They wanted to regain control over their lands and resources and to follow their own customary laws. They demanded the abolition of laws introduced in the 1970s which impose a uniform village administration system. As one speaker suggested, restoration of sovereignty may mean revising the 1945 constitution, on which Indonesia's legal system is based. This entrusts to the state the exploitation of the country's resources for "the maximum benefit of the people". What has always been the problem for indigenous people and the rural poor, is that "the people" has come to mean the president, his friends and relations.


An indigenous milestone

The Congress marks a milestone in the development of indigenous peoples' organisations in Indonesia, as this was the first time that so many representatives of indigenous peoples have come together. Until now indigenous peoples have been unable to speak out as a united voice - to do so would have been considered subversive under the Suharto regime.

For decades indigenous peoples have been fighting to defend their rights in the face of government development programmes like transmigration and the forcible resettlement schemes of the social affairs department. They have been struggling to defend their lands and resources against the onslaught of large-scale commercial development promoted by the government. This has been largely at local or sometimes at regional level. Now, with the founding of the AMAN, indigenous peoples have an opportunity to work at a country-wide level, to push for change in government policies and laws. And to ensure that indigenous people are no longer treated as suku suku terasing who need to be 'developed' by government programmes, but are instead recognised as highly skilled managers of the fragile ecosystems that support the livelihoods of millions of others.

(Sources: Gaung KMAN - the Indonesian language Congress newsletter published by members of the organising committee. This highlights the progress of the Congress, and includes features on different indigenous peoples. Also: personal impressions of DTE staff, AFP 14/3/99, Straits Times 23/3/99)

Note: Down to Earth plans to publish a fuller account of the congress in the near future. Please email or write to us if you would be interested in receiving a copy.