Taking the message to the top

Down to Earth Special Issue, October 1999

Through the Congress and subsequent events, indigenous peoples have presented their demands to government officials, political parties and the National Human Rights Commission. They have done this directly and through demonstrations, press statements and delegations. Such action was impossible in the Suharto years when open discussion of land rights was branded communist or subversive. Though indigenous peoples can now speak out, this does not mean the Indonesian authorities will listen, let alone take action. Events at the Congress clearly showed there is a long way to go towards achieving AMAN's aims.



Demonstrations in Jakarta are commonplace these days. Even so, the demonstration which marked the start of the Indigenous Peoples' Congress stood out. Instead of student protestors or pro-goverrnment 'rent-a mobs', these were people of all ages and different ethnic backgrounds, mostly in traditional costume.

The traffic stopped as indigenous demonstrators marched around a roundabout in one of Jakarta's main thoroughfares carrying banners and shouting "Try Suharto", "Arrest Bob Hasan", "Free us from colonialism", "Repeal the Village Governance Laws" and "Indigenous Women unite"! Outside the Hotel Indonesia, two giant carnival-style figures accompanied by local Betawi musicians drew attention to the Congress and the protesters' demands. A similar demonstration a few days later by indigenous women was also well supported. This was led by women delegates of North Sumatra protesting about the notorious Indorayon pulp plant in their homeland.

The whole Congress received good coverage on TV and in the national and international press. Yet it was noticeable that journalists tended to focus on the plight of the Orang Rimba ('Kubu'), forest peoples from central Sumatra, who - barefoot and clad in loin cloths – fit the popular stereotype of indigenous communities rather than the political message of the event and the Indigenous Alliance, AMAN.


Delegates confront officials

The sessions when government officials addressed delegates produced the most extraordinary scenes of the Congress. This was what the indigenous representatives had been waiting for. For four days they had poured out their experiences of conflicts over land and natural resources. Time and again, the State, government officials, the Armed Forces and big business had been identified as the instigators of these injustices. Now their representatives sat before them.

In the morning, Soegito SH, Director for 'Tribal Development' (standing in for the Minister for Social Affairs on a panel discussion) took the brunt of delegates' anger. They were unimpressed by his account of how the Social Affairs Department's work aimed at improving their lives and its 'successes'. They they were so infuriated by his use of terms like 'alienated tribes' or 'isolated peoples' that they threatened a mass walk out. The closest comparision might be for a New York mayor to speak at a public meeting of civilising 'niggers, spicks and polacks'!

Indigenous representatives leapt to the microphone and challenged Soegito in no uncertain terms saying "Never again call us 'alienated tribes!'". The much respected traditional ruler of the Kei islands spoke for many when he said "Who are these alienated peoples you talk of? They might be people from other islands; they are not the indigenous inhabitants. We are not isolated. It is quite easy for a logging concessionaire, an oil palm plantation or a mining company to reach us and strip our resources. Even foreigners can get there. It is only the government's Social Affairs Department that cannot."


"It is the government which is isolated from us, not we who are isolated."

That afternoon, Minister for Land Affairs, Hasan Basri Durin, and two officials from the Departments of Mining and Forestry had an equally rough ride. The session started in the usual way of Indonesian 'panel discussions': an introduction from the chairperson followed by a long address from each official in turn about current developments and future plans. The first two speakers vied with each other for who could be the most 'reformist'.

Basri Durin spoke with pride of how district authorities would be allowed to release land for development. Dr Ombo Satyapradja explained how the proposed Forestry Act was based on a new paradigm of forest development which took social and ecological factors into account and how new regulations on co-operatives permitted indigenous peoples to use their own forests for government-style community forestry. Only Dr Wijaya Sulistiyo uncompromisingly repeated that the Constitution allowed the State to control all mining rights and that indigenous communities could have their land back only after company mining rights expired.

Once again, the response from Congress was not the polite question and answer session which government officials expect. The Minister for Land Affairs was clearly shaken by the barrage of accusations of corruption, violations of land rights and human rights and demands for justice. Delegates jostled at the microphone in their eagerness to express their outrage, forming a long queue of one spokesperson per province. Some speakers were hoarse with emotion and almost incoherent. The officials' weak defence was that these inequities were the result of the corruption, collusion and nepotism which characterised the old regime and that things would be different in future.

Apart from venting emotions, it is not clear how much these sessions achieved. More often than not, indigenous speakers focussed on offensive terms used by bureaucrats towards indigenous peoples, pleaded at length for fair compensation in cases affecting their own communities, or addressed their demands to inappropriate government representatives. They did not make full use of the oportunity to demand political reforms, make policy recommendations or call for greater consultation. The indigenous delegates' lack of experience in confronting officialdom may have confirmed the Jakarta elite's prejudices that these were indeed 'primitive peoples'. In any event, for all their reformist talk, these representatives of the old regime could do little. They were likely to lose whatever power they had by the end of the year as a result of the elections.


Party politics

Congress delegates also had the opportunity to question political parties contesting the June election. This was a novel experience as few indigenous participants had ever met anyone from a party other than GOLKAR – the political vehicle of the Suharto regime. Eight leading parties were invited to address the Congress and answer questions, but only three sent representatives: Gus Dur's PKB, Amien Rais' PAN and the formerly banned democratic party PRD. GOLKAR and Megawati's PDI-Struggle party were conspicuous by their absence. This in itself indicated that few political parties had given serious consideration to indigenous issues. Uniquely, PAN has a 'environment and development' desk and produced a paper on reforming land rights. This party also has close links with Jakarta-based NGOs (but eventually polled under 10% of the votes in the election.)

All three candidates started by recognising the indigenous peoples' struggle and expressing their commitment to giving representatives of indigenous communities a greater say in a democratic society. Nevertheless, they then went on to present what were largely standard speeches about the forthcoming election, the crimes of Suharto's 'New Order' and vague promises for the future. No specific proposals on indigenous peoples' rights, transmigration or forestry were mentioned other than wiping out the corruption of the Suharto years and renegotiating major foreign mining contracts such as Freeport's West Papua concession. The speakers were also remarkably coy about Congress' demands for changes to Indonesia's Constitution and the role of the Armed Forces. The language and content of their addresses were more suitable for an urban middle-class audience, despite the chairperson's specific invitation to the speakers to outline what their parties would do for indigenous peoples if elected.

Not surprisingly, this session did not engage the attention of many Congress delegates. Questions from the floor were mainly about technical issues on voter registration or possible political coalitions, while delegates drifted in and out or sat at the back holding their own discussions.


Parliamentary representatives 'not available'

The demonstration to the Indonesian Parliament (DPR) on the final day of the Congress was a frustrating experience for the hundred or so indigenous delegates who participated. Since all most people had seen of parliament was TV coverage of the riots and shootings preceding the downfall of Suharto in May 1998, it was a considerable act of courage on their part to take their demands directly to the politicians. Unfortunately, buses carrying demonstrators and their NGO supporters were directed to the back of the parliament building where protestors were quickly contained by anti-riot police.

Nine indigenous representatives were allowed to present a written statement, but politicians said they were unable to meet them as the 'correct procedure had not been followed'. During the long wait for this unsatisfactory response, Congress delegates sang and shouted demands, but were anxious and uncertain what else to do. There was a general feeling of disillusionment and betrayal that their official representatives were so remote and disinterested. For many, this was the final straw and they returned to the Congress threatening to boycott the elections. This disappointment, plus problems in arranging a meeting with the National Human Rights Commission merely strengthened most participants' determination to make their voice heard more effectively through the new Alliance.