How do the islanders of Miangas view nationalism in the Indonesia-Philippines border island?
If you want to find an island in this globally-wired world where there is no telephone line nor cell phone signal, where you can isolate yourself, sometimes for three consecutive months, with electricity between 6pm and 2am only, yet with a clean neighborhood, zero crime rate, running water, fresh air and indeed, gorgeous beaches, I advise you to visit Miangas Island, a small Indonesian isle, near Cape San Agustin in the southern Philippines.
One week prior to Indonesia’s first direct presidential election in September 2004, I took a two-night trip to Miangas from Manado in northern Sulawesi, on board the KM Ratu Maria motorboat. A government office chartered her to deliver election ballot papers to Miangas. I paid my ticket and boarded the boat. Usually passengers have to jump from island to island for about one week, to travel from Manado to Miangas, or else to wait for the KM Daraki Nusa, a state-subsidized ship, which heads for Miangas every 10 days from Bitung, a harbor near Manado. My trip was pleasant, with good seafood and calm seas, though I had to kill dozens of little cockroaches that inhabited my cabin. We also stopped in five harbors, which include Lirung, Melonguane, Beo, Essang and Karatung, which are parts of the Talaud-language area.
Only when I reached Miangas, my gaze was rewarded with deep blue sea, white sand, tiny boats, a white church and a mountainous area. It also has a small kampung, on whose roads the islanders dry their fishnets, paddles and wooden boats, locally called prau.
Miangas has no hotel. Donald Rumokoy, the head of the election committee in Manado, who chartered the boat, introduced me to the Miangas opo laut or village head, Djonyor Namare, a dark-skinned, middle-aged fisherman, who invited me to use his bedroom while he and his spouse, Lukring Binulang, resorted to a wooden bed on their outdoor terrace. The islanders commonly have these wooden beds to avail of the wind in an island whose temperature is usually between 24 to 30 degrees Celsius.
Binulang is a big-boned cheerful woman. She served my dinner with fried tuna flavored with the super hot rica-rica chili. I loved it and sweated like hell. “How many chilis did you use?” I once asked her. She responded by showing me a basketful. I guessed it had more than 20!
Indeed, my purpose to be in Miangas was not to swim nor to test my tastebuds. I went there especially to observe how the islanders view nationalism in this Indonesia-Philippines border island. How do they view their relations with both the Philippines and Indonesia? How do they deal with their legal status, as either a Netherlands Indies or an Indonesian subject, while toying with their physical and psychological proximity to the Philippines? What kind of counter strategies do they use toward the bigger interests in Manado and Jakarta? How do they use the issues of nationalism to advocate their own interest?
Namare briefed me on basic facts. Miangas is Indonesia’s northernmost island. It has a population of only 673. They are almost all Miangas-born but a few settlers that included five Muslims: a Javanese couple, whose husband is a navy official, their son and two other officials, dispatched by Jakarta to work in Miangas. The others are all Protestants. “You could walk the whole island in two hours,” said Namare.
Miangas stretches 2.5 kilometers long and to nearly 1.6 kilometers wide. Geographical location: north latitude 5 degrees, 33.2 minutes; east longitude 126 degree, 35.2 minutes. “When I was younger, I spent like four or five hours by a prau to reach the Philippines,” said village elder Petrus Essing, whose house is a stone’s throw away from the Namares. It took a motorboat like KM Ratu Maria or KM Daraki Nusa between seven and eight hours to reach Karatung, the nearest Talaud island to Miangas.
The Talaud name of the island (Miangas or Meangas) means, “exposed to piracy,” referring to past attacks in Miangas from Sulu slave traders and buccaneers in Mindanao. The Spaniards, presumably the first Europeans to encounter this island, called it “Isla de las Palmas,” the island of the palm trees.
Does it really have palm trees? Well, on my first day in Miangas, Lukas Bawala, a novice Protestant priest and a distant relative to Namare, took me on a jungle tour around Mt. Batu. He brought along a peda, a short curved sword, to cut tall, coarse grass. We visited the old fortress at the top of Mt. Batu and saw only two palm trees left on the island. “It was a long time ago when palm trees were gradually replaced by coconut trees. Copra is our main agricultural product,” said Bawala.
The jungle tour reminded me of Herman Johannes Lam, a botanist at the Herbarium and Museum for Systematical Botany at Buitenzorg, then a Dutch colonial institution in Java, who visited Miangas in June 1926. Dr. Lam and his team surveyed plants and animals for two days, writing that the original Miangas flora had completely vanished. He also wrote that 1895 was a very important year for Miangas because it marked the arrival of the then-Dutch resident of Manado, E.J. Jellesma.
Jellesma visited Miangas because he had been informed the then-Miangas opo laut had refused to accept a flag from a Spanish vessel, arguing that he was convinced to be subject to the Netherlands Indies government “from generation to generation.” Jellesma was accompanied by a Dutch clergyman, who baptized 254 Miangas people to the Protestant religion. Those visits, which obviously satisfied Jellesma, prompted his Manado administration to pour more help into the tiny island.
Three years’ after Jellesma’s visit, in December 1898, however, a treaty was signed in Paris between the United States and Spain that had an effect on the legal status of Miangas. The Americans emerged from the war with new international power. The treaty, however, erroneously included the “Isla de la Palmas” into the territory of the Philippines, which was a part of the Spanish colonies taken over by the Americans. But who cared about the tiny dot? The Americans did not notice the error and the Netherlands Indies kept their works in Miangas as if nothing happened. Only in 1906, or eight years after the treaty, an American general, Leonard Wood, visited Miangas and discovered that the Netherlands Indies also claimed sovereignty over the island.
Both the US and the Netherlands agreed to enter into arbitration before the Court of International Justice at The Hague in 1925. The Swiss jurist, Hans Max Huber, was selected as an arbitrator. After almost three years of work, Huber finally declared in April 1928 that the island was legally a Dutch territory.
That new legal status, however, did not change the fact that the Miangas islanders still communicated extensively with people from their neighboring islands: Mindanao and the Talaud islands or further south in the Sangihe islands. Namare’s father went to school in Davao, a major city in Mindanao, but also has brothers living in Sulawesi. Petrus Essing has two sisters who are married to Filipinos. Many Miangas islanders speak both Visayas and Tagalog, two languages that are widely used in the southern Philippines, but many also converse in Malay with the Manado dialect. “Those who are over 60 years old speak the Filipino languages,” said Namare.
Miangas’ legal status changed again 21 years later, at the end of World War II, when two new republics emerged from both colonies: Republic of Indonesia (1949) and Republic of the Philippines (1946). The new republics signed four border agreements between 1956 and 1974. They opted to issue locals “border-crossing passes,” less complicated than passports, and to set up border-crossing offices in three islands: Miangas and Marore on the Indonesia side, as well as Saranggani on the Filipino side. The Philippines, however, claims the seas surrounding Miangas to be its territory.
Jakarta tried ceaselessly to mark its sovereignty in Miangas. “Once my boss saw the name plate ‘Palmas’ printed in our office and asked me to immediately remove the Spanish word,” said Lt. Hengky Vantriardo, a young Indonesian Army officer who was stationed in Miangas for four months in early 2004. I also saw a small monument signed by General L.B. Moerdani, the then-Indonesian Armed Forces commander, who visited the island in August 1986. “One month prior to his arrival, 12 intelligence officers arrived here. Another group came to build a helipad,” said Namare. The Indonesian Navy also keeps a presence in Miangas. They set up a monitoring post near Miangas’ elementary school building. It also deploys 160 navy personnel to patrol the border near Miangas and Marore with three cruisers and two planes.
More importantly, the Jakarta and Manado government pour money into Miangas, such as subsidizing rice and funding boats like the KM Daraki Nusa to extend their route in order to reach Miangas. However, Davao always provides cheaper Pop Cola or San Miguel beer. Manado sponsored scores of Miangas families to migrate to Bolaang Mongondow or Minahasa in northern Sulawesi, in the 1960s and 1970s, in a bid to reduce the Miangas population density, but many Miangas women and men choose to naturally settle in Mindanao areas.
Just listen to Ennos Nangori, a Miangas sailor: “I began to work in the Philippines in 1992 on a fishing ship named Dolly 15. It was a Filipino ship, fishing mostly in Indonesian waters. I got the job because I speak Cebuano.” Nangori regularly traveled to General Santos, Davao, Zamboanga and other Philippines cities. “Once I lived for a month in Cebu,” he said, referring to the Philippines’ second largest city after Manila.
I also happened to meet some Filipinos who were visiting the office of Carlito Niebres, the Philippines border-crossing officer, who works alone in his Miangas office. His “small Philippines embassy” is a two-story wooden house located inside the kampung. When I came into the house, Niebres was chatting with his guests on his terrace clad in shorts and a sleeveless shirt that failed to hide his armpit hair!
That morning his guests included Alfredo Papea Pagtun, a 38-year-old pastor in Saranggani, who visited Miangas to meet his relatives. “My late mother is a Miangas [woman] but father is a Filipino of Belaan tribe,” Pagtun said. He first visited Miangas in 1978 when he was only 11 years old. “Then houses were very small, no roads, no electricity. Now it has improved a lot,” said Pagtun.
The younger Pagtun, Adelito, cannot hide his delight in Miangas. I often saw Adelito walking along the streets or drinking Pop Cola with his three distant sisters and four cousins. “I’m so happy here,” he said. According to Namare and Niebres, there is always a group like the Pagtuns visiting Miangas every week. The next morning, while swimming, I saw the Pagtuns prepared to return to Saranggani in a small wooden motorboat that takes about eight hours to reach Saranggani Island. I loved to see their relatives give them hugs and help them to board the boat, anchored some 200 meters off the beach.
Indonesia spends so much money on Miangas but the fact is it is geographically, and partly culturally, closer to the Philippines. Donald Rumokoy told me he spent Rp25 million (around US$2,300) just to charter the KM Ratu Maria to deliver the ballot papers to Miangas when it only has 450 voters. “It is expensive, isn’t it? I sometimes jokingly tell my colleagues that it might be better if Indonesia sells Miangas to the Philippines.”
Expensive or not, cultural or geographical, I felt like in paradise staying in Miangas, spending my time with swimming between interviews, and throughout my stay the islanders took great pride in entertaining me—always grilled fish and the rica-rica eaten with laluga, a sort of big aracea planted in the freshwater swamps (a spineless form of Cyrtosperma Merkusii). The lunch or dinner conversations always started with stories about their relatives, both in Indonesia or the Philippines, who moved their “loyalty” toward Indonesia, and concluded with asking me to help them with my stories.
Elementary school teacher Agus Tege said his school needs a computer, a printer and new batteries for their single sideband radio (donated by an army officer in Manado). Djonyor Namare said his village needs cold storage, “We could keep our fish fresh while awaiting the Filipino ships to come and buy the fish.” Some young mothers complained about the quality of their high school whose teachers are regularly absent from teaching. Lukas Bawala complained about “drunken teachers” in the elementary school. The islanders also love to pepper their conversations with reminders that Miangas is a border island, stating the importance of their geographic location for the “national unity of Indonesia.”
I tried to check their complaints. Royke Rarumangkay, a Manado correspondent of the Jakarta-based Trans TV, who visited Miangas for a few hours in mid-June 2002, told me that Miangas relatively has good infrastructure. “We initially thought that it must be underdeveloped but it turned out to be quite urban. The concrete road, the church and the pier, show that they are pretty OK, but not the transportation and communication problem.”
Hengky Vantriardo, the Indonesian Army lieutenant, told me that he believes the Miangas people use the border issue as bait to receive more subsidies from Manado and Jakarta. “It is a mentality,” Hengky said, adding that those demands are akin to those made by the East Timorese during the Indonesian occupation period. “The East Timorese asked a lot, but when it comes to loyalty, they prefer to break away from Indonesia,” he said.
Will Miangas do the same?
A good explanation came from Joppy Luppa, the harbormaster of Miangas, a quiet and muscled man in his 50s, who first invited me to come to his house for dinner (I declined unless I wanted to have three dinners in a single evening). “If the Republic of Indonesia is peaceful, we are loyal to Indonesia. But if Indonesia is not at peace, well, we’re closer to the Philippines, you know, we could head for the Philippines in the morning and back in the evening, just three or four hours sailing with prau,” said Luppa.
“What does peaceful mean?” I asked him.
“Well, you see so many riots, in the Moluccas, in Aceh and many other places. People kill one another, in the name of Islam or Christianity, in the name of ethnicity or in other names.”
“But Miangas is an Indonesian territory?”
“It’s true and I don’t mean that Miangas belongs to another country. Before 1965, the Indonesian language was not widely used here. We used Visayas, many Miangas people also married Filipinos, but after 1972, contact with the Philippines grew less and less. By 1975, there was already a kapal perintis (subsidized ship) to connect Miangas and Manado, and relations with the Philippines were reduced. There was also the Moro war in Mindanao. We do not want to go there. We’re scared.”
I left Luppa’s house that evening, walking in the dark night, with many thoughts. A struggling state like Indonesia, or to be fair, also the Philippines, both of whose weaknesses allowed terrorism, corruption and civil conflict to take roots in alarming ways, would encourage people from small and isolated islands like Miangas to switch side periodically. It does not mean that they are not trustworthy, but their existence is heavily dependant on subsidies from the big brothers. Miangas is a nation but a small one.
They switched side when they felt that the Spaniards, who used to be the world’s largest empire in the 18th century, were losing ground against the US in the late 1890s. They thought that the Netherlands Indies was a stronger brother. Consequently, they welcomed Jellesma in Miangas. But they developed closer relations with the Philippines after WW II because it provided cheaper goods, better education and friendly environment than the fledgling Republic of Indonesia, which was involved in several civil wars: Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi, Kalimantan, Papua etc. During the rule of Indonesian dictator Suharto, which produced relative stability and prosperity in Indonesia, the Miangas people also showed more affection toward Jakarta. They praised Benny Moerdani when he arrived in the island. They worried again when ethnic and religious riots broke out in many places after the fall of Suharto in May 1998. Maybe that is the fate of a small nation. They have pride but not enough political and military muscles.
The KM Daraki Nusa arrived in Miangas on September 18 at 10am, stopping for about three hours to let the Miangas islanders unload iron rods, cement, rice, flour, nails and suchlike as well as to sell their copra.
Almost all of the islanders flocked to the pier, picking up their deliveries, meeting incoming relatives or just looking around inside the ship. Children toured the KM Daraki Nusa, buying candies or just looking around the cabins.
I said goodbye to the Namares, navy officer Lt. Riko Hartono and others when some of the boys asked me to dive into the crystal-clear blue sea. “I am already wearing my trousers, glasses, and look at my wallet,” I answered.
“Come on Oom, come on Oom,” they said, somersaulting in the air. “Oom” is the Dutch word for “uncle.”
Uh oh, this uncle could not stand the urge to make his final dive. I took off my shirt and dived in, swimming until the ship’s engineer, Dwi Setyono, gave me a sign to board the KM Daraki Nusa.
Andreas Harsono, a Jakarta-based journalist and head of the Pantau group, a community of freelance writers and photographers
Tempo, No. 13/V/November 30 - December 06, 2004
AsiaViews, Edition: 47/I/December/2004