Indigeneity in Indonesia

There is an interesting special issue on the subject of land rights, indigenous peoples and development in Indonesia published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology. The issue addresses, amongst others, that the manifestation of indigenous ‘adat’ politics is no longer confined to the national struggle for the recognition of land rights, but instead, has proliferated into many localized short term ‘adat projects’.

Some of the articles are:

Ethnicity and Indigenous Rights

I would like to share another publication which is written in the context of my research project the negotiation of the right to food. The article is titled “The Limit of Narratives: Ethnicity and Indigenous Rights in Papua, Indonesia” published in the journal International Journal on Minority and Group Rights.

Here is the abstract:

As in many countries in Asia, the concept “indigenous” is a highly contested term in Indonesia. The government is of the opinion that Indonesia is a nation that has no indigenous peoples, or that all Indonesians are equally indigenous. The article aims to analyse the role and the paradox of using ethnic narratives, i.e. distinct social, economic or political systems, as well as language, culture and beliefs as their material and political basis, in the articulation of indigenous rights. Upon discussing a case study from Papua, Indonesia, it is observed that the use of ethnic narratives does create opportunity structures necessary for the struggles of indigenous rights. However, the salience of these endeavours is shaped by how these groups, their autonomy and marginalisation are positioned in the wider context of development, sovereignty and territoriality, which make them also dependent on the design and orientation of the state.

Four Possible Tests for Studying Minority Rights

In Southeast Asia, the debate on the rights of ethnocultural groups within multicultural societies has changed dramatically, both in its scope and its basic terminology. Before mid-1990s there were very few researchers working on the subject and the issue of minority has been seen as marginal. Following the monetary crisis of 1997, after years of relative neglect, the question of minority rights has moved to the forefront of political debates.

One of the most obvious reasons is the political restructuration occurred after the monetary crisis has changed the power landscape in Southeast Asian countries and affected their democratisation processes. Optimistic assumptions that transitions to democracy would emerge smoothly from the ashes of authoritarianism in some countries were derailed by the politics of ethnicity or indigeneity. The nativists backlash against majority concerning the distribution of benefits, the resurgence and political mobilisation of indigenous peoples to secure access to natural resources, and the ongoing, even growing, threat of secession within several Southeast Asian countries, for instances Indonesia (West Papua), Myanmar (Rohingya), Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak), and the Philippines (Moro), demonstrate the salience of minority issues.

At the same time, these movements have also gained their momentum and significance in international and regional politics. In 2007, resulting from relentless and organised global activisms, the United Nations adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the United Nations. Recently the question of Rohingya refugees is shaking the politics in Southeast Asian countries, especially Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, as well in ASEAN.

Two things are made clear here. First is that the transitional process to democracy needs not only to concern with liberal questions such as individual freedom, autonomy as well as socio-economic equality, but also to overcome the tensions raised by ethnocultural diversity and collective interests. Second is that there are powerful contesting external and internal forces resulting from globalised networks, free movements of actors and norms, which tend to blur and merge universal liberal principles with particularistic sentiments, identities and aspirations.

Inquiries on minority rights that relate them to the underlying principles of liberal democracy, such as individual freedom, autonomy and socio-economic equality, are thus needed. Such research might aim at investigating how minority rights are imagined and represented in normative considerations and political strategies. In the context of Southeast Asia, these studies could possibly examine and test the following hypothesis:

  1. Minority rights exist because individuals find it worthwhile to maintain existing cultural practices in life.
  2. Minority rights would support, rather than undermine, individual autonomy.
  3. To protect minority rights, states should be neutral with respect to ethno-cultural identities of their citizens.
  4. Recognising minority rights promotes solidarity and secures political stability.

Scholarly reportings on minority groups in Southeast Asia often focus on the raise of ethnic/indigenous politics and the political economy of ethnicity/indigeneity. Studies that specifically scrutinise minority rights within the interfaces of universal liberal principles and particular collective interests are scanty. Furthermore, studying minority rights in Southeast Asia this way would shed a new light on contemporary interfaces of contesting normative and political forces, which occupy the area between individualism and collectivism as well as universalism and particularism. A region that is experiencing a transitional process towards democracy might present wider socio-political spaces that could create opportunities for fresh dialectical dynamics. Compared to established democracies, where norms pertaining to freedoms and entitlements are already delineated and institutionalised, case studies from Southeast Asia would offer valuable comprehensions with regard to norms interpretations and their practices.

A Critical Look on the Negotiation of the Right to Food

An article written based on my most recent research project has finally been published in Human Rights Review.  The article examines how non-governmental actors invoke human rights and what are the impacts thereof. It is published as open access online, the printed version will appear in June 2015.

Abstract

The norms and ideals of human rights are increasingly invoked by civil society organisations to construct claims related to land tenure and access to food, particularly to challenge a massive expansion of agricultural investment in a developing country. While this has facilitated negotiations on rights and the formulation of claims, studies that investigate to what extent such endeavours achieve the transformational goals advocated by human rights proponents or in particular whether they have been successful in instigating any institutional reform in the governance of massive agricultural modernisation projects are scanty. After discussing a national agricultural modernisation project, the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE), set up in Merauke, Papua, the article concludes that the analysis of the transformative role of human rights requires a prudent examination of the role of the State in the negotiation process, the patterns of socio-cultural interactions signifying the political setting and the pressure experienced and perceived by actors that affect the issues selected and omitted.

Should indigenous peoples apply human rights to secure their access to livelihoods?

Increasingly in Southeast Asia, the issue of indigenous peoples gains considerable attention. Studies on the revival of indigenous politics emerge along with the implementation on decentralization. Additionally, indigenous politics also surface in the context of development; particularly when one connect the entitlements regarding indigenous tenureship on resources, usually land or forest with the access they have and require to securing their livelihoods. In this regard, many struggles as well as academic reporting usually refer to human rights.

There is something paradoxical about indigenous peoples invoking their entitlement to control their native resources with universal human rights. In a legal perspective, the term peoples constitutes a collective entity and social identity of a specific community, with special needs to ensure their historical continuity to include occupation of ancestral land, language, religion and tradition as well as culture of living under tribal system. In the context of international law, the idea of establishing indigenous peoples as a specific legal subject with specific legal rights, still faces some unresolved issues, although it is a generally accepted that a distinctive treatment is required given to their identity, collectively and more importantly their survival.  Read More …