On homeland and history

December 23rd, 2010 § 0

East Indies

What is a homeland? How does one define the place where one belongs? Why does one feel to belong there in relation to others who share this homeland?

Existential questions are inevitable when you try to understand a country as geographically, culturally, linguistically and historically diverse as Indonesia. The diversity of the archipelago now commonly known as Indonesia is immense, even beyond belief. In fact, many of those who proudly claim to be Indonesian may not quite understand this diversity.

Right in the heartland of Java, there’s animosity between the Sultan of Yogyakarta, and his supporters, and the central government, stemming from a government-initiated bill that the Sultan’s side accuses would take away the ‘specialness’ of the Special Province of Yogyakarta that has been recognized since Indonesian independence.

The major media seem to have been firmly behind the Sultan in this case as headline stories appear daily to offer the comments of experts who accuse the government of forgetting history, by which they mean how Yogyakarta came to be special in the country’s formation.

Selective memory is nothing rare, really, and those who accuse others of this error may not even realize that they are guilty of the same.

When the experts tell the government to learn their history, for example, are they telling them to learn about how Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX declared his domain part of the Republic of Indonesia when the nationalists proclaimed independence, or how his predecessor Hamengkubuwono I sided with Dutch colonialist powers to double cross his rebellious fellow Mataram royalty Mangkunegara, more commonly known as Prince Sambernyawa, to claim the region today known as Yogyakarta as his own?

People have been conducting mass rallies recently in Yogyakarta to show their support for the infallibility of the Sultan the recognition of the special status of the region. Some have even suggested the idea of an independent Yogyakarta state.

There is irony in this, as in other regions of the country different groups of people have been struggling for the same idea of independence for a long time and have been forced to endure war and oppression because of this. In fact, in these regions simply uttering the idea of independence or exhibiting any separatist symbol has got people in jail and torture chambers.

So they are telling people to learn their history. How about the history of South Maluku, where Dutch-trained Moluccan soldiers consistently defied the ragtag Indonesian troops who tried to force the entire archipelago to conform to the idea of a unitary state, and in fact managed to proclaim an independent South Moluccas Republic in 1951?

Also, let’s learn about the history of the western part of Papua or Irian island in which preparations for an independent state had to give way to annexation/incorporation into another state because of Cold War politics?

To many people from core Indonesian regions such as Java, Sumatra and Kalimantan, the idea of Indonesia as an expansionist project may sound silly if not outrageous. They really can’t be blamed, though, since history is taught in schools strictly in keeping with the state-sanctioned narrative. The history of Indonesia, in the state’s narrative, is of separate peoples on separate islands in the archipelago that are bound and united by the shared history of rising up from being under the oppression of Dutch colonialism.

Prince Diponegoro, for example, is always an Indonesian nationalist hero against Dutch colonialism, despite the legitimate question on whether or not he would rise up to lead the mass revolt against the Dutch if he, instead of his younger brother who was favored by the Dutch, was allowed to succeed his father’s throne, or on whether or not the Javanese nobility would support his cause if the Dutch had allowed them to extract rent on their land. Another question worth reflecting is whether Diponegoro’s defeat was caused by Dutch military supremacy, or simply by the fact that the Javanese nobility and peasants that had supported Diponegoro were given a better offer by the Dutch?

“History is a pack of lies we play on the dead,” according to Voltaire. Little wonder then that historical events are omitted from history books if they do not conform with the official narrative.

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