Wednesday, July 02, 2003

The Old and the New Nationalism: Jakarta and Aceh

American Reporter July 2, 2003

by Andreas Harsono
American Reporter Correspondent

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia -- I left Jakarta for Banda Aceh earlier this month with a big question in my mind: When does one expression of nationalism become old, probably senile and irrelevant - and when is a new one strong, vigorous and relevant?

The answer may not come easily, not in Jakarta, where an old tradition of nationalism is slowly burning out even amid a busy campaign to maintain "the unity of Indonesia." But the answer may not be found in Banda Aceh, either. In this languid capital of Aceh, a new flag of nationalism is also being raised.

The older nationalism began in October 1928, when a group of well-educated young men gathered in Batavia - the Dutch colonial name for Jakarta - to formulate a new nationalism on behalf of their different ethic organizations - Javanese, Sundanese, Ambonese, and more.

"We should be united, we should be strong," said one young man.

The Dutch agents who secretly monitored the meeting, indeed, did not call them "nationalists" - instead they used the word "extremists" and considered them a threat to the "motherland" far away in Holland in the much older Europe.

Finally, those young men produced a joint declaration: "We're the youth of Indonesia; we pledge to have a single tanah air, the tanah air of Indonesia, a single bangsa (nation) which is the nation of Indonesia, a single bahasa (language) which is Bahasa Indonesia."

The literal translation of the phrase "tanah air" is "land and water." It was a phrase used for security reason in place of the word "state. Those freedom fighters planned to kick the Dutch out of their "Indonesia." They thought a new state was needed and for it a new nationalism to whip up popular sentiment against the white-skinned, blond-haired and foreign Dutch.

Twenty years later, in August 1945, those men finally managed to declare a new state. One of them, whose name was Sukarno, the eldest son of a Balinese mother and a Javanese father, became the first president of the Republic of Indonesia.

A new state. A new nation. A new language.

But Indonesia, unfortunately, was not a working democracy. Justice was not immediately experienced in the new republic - and is not even today. There is no social welfare. No guarantees of press freedom. No human rights. And no dignity. Indonesia became, to paraphrase U.N. bureaucrats, a "developing country," a part of the "Third World."

People were still poor and frequently harrassed by the Indonesian military. The rich became richer. The gap between the poor and the rich widened. In Aceh, in 1953, a "rebellion" was broken up. The traditionally stubborn people of Aceh demanded that President Sukarno recognize their cultural values. Sukarno relented and ended the dispute in 1961.

But a new movement, a more serious one, broke up again in 1976 when a Hasan di Tiro, a political scientist with a doctorate from Columbia University, declared independence in Aceh. Di Tiro established an effective guerilla network, trained his soldiers in Libya, and maintains his position as walinegara or head of state, from self-exile in Sweden. He wants to see the ancient Aceh sultanate revived.

Hasan di Tiro disliked Sukarno and for him, the phrases "bangsa Jawa" and "bangsa Acheh" are a contradiction. He hated the political construction of "Indonesia" and even used a different spelling ("Acheh" rather "Aceh"). He described Indonesia as "a Javanese republic with a Greek pseudo-name."

But Hasan di Tiro sure does sounds like Sukarno. He has whipped up a nationalist sentiment among the Acehnese. Java and Aceh. Jakarta and Banda Aceh. Us and them.

If only Sukarno and di Tiro were more sincere, they might agree that there is no "bangsa Aceh" nor any "bangsa Indonesia." If they only wanted to deal with practicalities, such as peace, social welfare, and education, the killing of more than 10,000 Acehnese over the last 20 years probably would not have happened. Aceh today is indeed emroiled in the the clash of an old and a new nationalism.

A nation, according to the political scientist Benedict Anderson, is "an imagined community."

A real community by definition is a place where its members are aware of each other. In his classic, "Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism," Anderson argued that inside a nation-state, even over a lifetime, members of this imagined community do not come to know a substantial number of other members. It is only through the media that they acquire a sense of belonging to this larger group. Thus, a nation is an aim rather a product.

Here in Banda Aceh, French-trained social scientist Hakim Nyak Pha at the Syiah Kuala University offered me this question: When does one nationalism become old and irrelevant, and a new one grow strong, vigorous and relevant?

The answer, according to Hakim, is "When the Jakarta government is more troubled about its territorial integrity rather than the people who live there."

Jakarta today is more worried about its borders than winning the hearts and minds of the Acehnese people. Jakarta declared martial law, harrassed many Acehnese, allowed their schools to be burned, and generally made their lives more difficult, all in the name of unity - to be precise, territorial unity.

If a government wins the hearts and minds of a people, Hakim explained, the old nationalism is okay. "Their lands, their properties, their wealth, their wives, their children, their relatives, and their love will go with them. Even if we kick them in the buttock, they won't leave us," Hakim said, with a big laugh.

Now what?

Hakim is afraid that Jakarta will not do that. He's also worried about rising unemployment, discrimination, violence, declining educational quality, business investment, growing poverty and other complicated social problems.

Maybe, he suggests, Jakarta is now acting as the Dutch acted back in 1928. This war is going to create a social and psychological burden for the Acehnese. Journalists and international NGOs are barred from entering Aceh. And the old nationalism is very likely to find itself more and more irrelevant.

AR Indonesia Correspondent Andreas Harsono, a Nieman International Fellow at Harvard University in 1999-2000, has written on Indonesian issues for AR since 1996. Contact him at

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