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Articulating Indigenous Identity in Indonesia: Resource Politics and the Tribal Slot

  • Tania Murray Li (a1)
    • Published online: 01 January 2000

It was the official line of Suharto's regime that Indonesia is a nation which has no indigenous people, or that all Indonesians are equally indigenous.Sarwono Kusumaatmadja (1993), Minister of State for the Environment, addressing an NGO forum. The internationally recognized category “indigenous and tribal peoples” (as defined in International Labour Organization convention 169) has no direct equivalent in Indonesia's legal system, nor are there reservations or officially recognized tribal territories. Under Suharto the national motto “unity in diversity” and the displays of Jakarta's theme park, Taman Mini, presented the acceptable limits of Indonesia's cultural difference, while development efforts were directed at improving the lot of “vulnerable population groups,” including those deemed remote or especially backwards. The desire for development was expressed by rural citizens through the approved channels of bottom-up planning processes and supplications to visiting officials. National activists and international donors who argued for the rights of indigenous people were dismissed as romantics imposing their primitivist fantasies upon poor folk who wanted, or should have wanted, to progress like “ordinary” Indonesians. Nevertheless, a discourse on indigenous people took hold in activist circles in the final years of Suharto's rule, and its currency in the Indonesian countryside is still increasing. With the new political possibilities opened up in the post-Suharto era, now seems an appropriate time to reflect on how Indonesia's indigenous or tribal slot is being envisioned, who might occupy it, and with what effects.This paper was first submitted to CSSH in November 1997. It was revised and resubmitted in November 1998, after the fall of Suharto, during a period when hopes for progressive change and skepticism about reformasi were present in equal measure. The situation in November 1999, as I make final revisions before the journal goes to press, has changed again in ways that I cannot fully explore. Most notably, the indigenous peoples' platform was highlighted by a national congress held in Jakarta in March 1999, and the founding of an indigenous peoples' organization, AMAN (Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara). See the special issue of Down to Earth, October 1999. Improved prospects for some kinds of legal recognition under the new government make reflection on the issues I raise in this article even more important.

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Comparative Studies in Society and History
  • ISSN: 0010-4175
  • EISSN: 1475-2999
  • URL: /core/journals/comparative-studies-in-society-and-history
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