The fraught election of a new leader for Jakarta has triggered reactions from regions across Indonesia and influenced the dynamics of local identity politics. As will be discussed in this essay, adat organizations promoting local identity as grounded in ethnic customs, in Minahasa, a Christian majority region of North Sulawesi, have gained momentum from controversies in Jakarta to reassert their existence by protesting against organizations they identify as intolerant towards Indonesian pluralism. Specifically, they have turned their attention to those groups pushing the position that, as a Christian, former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaha Purnama (known as Ahok), was not permitted (according to one reading of the Quran) to serve as the governor of a majority Muslim province.
However, we shouldn’t rush to characterize the reactions of these organizations based in adat and (Christian) religion as primordial or sectarian. There is a wider context that must be understood in the examination of these symptoms. The presence of these adat organizations and their self-declarations in the process of rejecting intolerance and political turmoil must also be read as an expression of politicized identities in the context of the dynamics of local politics.
Minahasan Identity in the Era of National Political Transition from the New Order to Reformasi and Democracy
Studies of the local politics in Indonesia which unfolded in a relatively new context during the transitional period from 1998 through the early 2000s have shown that local conflicts over religion and adat were not divorced from turbulent national politics. The conflicts in Ambon and Poso starting in 1998 through the early 2000s, and the efforts of “Islamic politics” groups in Jakarta lobbying for their political agenda in the national parliament provided the context through which regional/local communities understood their position within the so-called Unified State of the Republic of Indonesia (NKRI).
In Minahasa, various responses emerged to the threat of Islamicized politics. For example, a discourse of “Independent Minahasa” was heard at the first two Great Minahasa Congresses (Kongres Minahasa Raya). The implications of these statements should not be exaggerated as they were seen as reactionary and failed to find a wide reception with the Minahasan public. Instead, a discussion of federalism emerged, in connection with its well known supporter, Dr. Bert Supit, drawing on the ideas of national hero of the movement for independence from the Dutch Dr. G.S.S.J Sam Ratulangi. The idea of Minahasa as a unified political entity taking the form of a special autonomous province was also part of the conversation. These discourses originally only circulated amongst intellectual and political elites, and even they did not agree among themselves.
The early emergence of this discourse in the early 2000s therefore cannot be said to have had any significant impact. The point, however, is that the disconnected symbols of adat and culture used to represent Minahasan identity were drawn into political contestation for the first time since the Permesta conflict (1957-1962), when several generals from Minahasa sought to consolidate the regional public to challenge the central government in Jakarta.
Adat Organizations and Local Politics in Minahasa
The first adat organization to play a role in post-New Order local politics in Minahasa or North Sulawesi was the Manguni Brigade (Brigade Manguni or BM), formed in the year 2000 as response to violent conflicts in two regions not far from North Sulawesi: Ambon and Poso. The organization’s founders declared that it was created to protect the adat lands of Minahasa from the threat of conflict. Throughout its growth, BM consistently claimed to be organization dedicated to protecting the stability of Minahasa within the framework of “Indonesian-ness“. Yet the Manguni Brigade also reminded the Minahasan public of the period of Permesta, as its name and symbol (an indigenous owl (Otus manadensis) that is sacred in local tradition) were taken from one of Permesta’s military units.
Another notable organization is the Waraney (Warrior) Militia (Milisi Waraney or MW), a group with a more robust Christian identity. The orientation of the Waraney Militia is clearly portrayed in its logo depicting a yellow manguni owl with a blue Star of David in the background and a red cross above its head. The phrase “I Yayat U Santi” (loosely meaning “lift up and point your sword“) is written in color at its feet. This logo signals that, for the Waraney Militia, Minahasan identity references relations of (ethnic) descent and (Christian) religion. The Manguni Brigade uses the same image of the manguni owl and the slogan “I Yayat U Santi“.
In Minahasan tradition, the manguni is a sacred bird and “I Yayat U Santi” is commonly understood as the battle cry of the waraney (warrior).
Other civil society organizations that emerged in the early post-New Order years are the Christi Militia (unofficially affiliated with the Evangelical Church of Minahasa or GMIM), and the Legium Christum, associated with the Roman Catholic Church in the region. A number of other organizations with relatively similar aims were also formed in the late 2000s, well after violence in Ambon and Poso had ended. Their logos do not differ much from the one used by the Manguni Brigade, a blend of symbols for Minahasan local culture and Christianity.
In connecting these phenomena, it is increasingly clear that these organizations have responded on the basis of (Christian) religion. Since Christianity is perceived of as inseparable from local culture, the two identities are fused.
In 2014, these organizations found their platform when they united in response to the proposed renovation of the Al Khairiyah Mosque, one of the larger mosques located in the former Texas Village in the center of Manado, the capital city of the province. The organizations consolidated in an alliance they called the Alliance of the Kawanua Community for Tolerance (Makapetor). With this development, it was clear that the polarization of Christianity and Islam that began in the early post-New Order years had become the main context motivating the political actions of these organizations.
There are, in fact, many local Minahasan organizations based on adat and religion and many of these adat organizations have a different stance. the Mawale Cultural Center (MCC) is a network of cultural groups and Minahasan intellectuals that takes a critical position towards state intervention in cultural revival efforts in Minahasa. They express the same view towards adat activism by churches and towards the Christian identity that serves as a dominant force in local politics.
Leaders of such groups in the MCC network as the arts and culture organizations Waraney Wuaya and Pinaesaan Tontemboan (PITON) took a different perspective on the mosque renovation in Texas Village from those organizations based in a Christian identity. Although these two organizations were repeatedly invited to join the Makapetor Alliance, they remained loyal to MCC’s idealism that all people whatever their background have a right to live in Minahasa, as long as they honor the obligation to protect Minahasa as safe place to live together.
After the Jakarta Election, What Then?
The actions of Islamic groups to influence the Jakarta election, particularly the 411 and 212 “demonstrations to defend Islam,” infuriated many Christians in Minahasa. This gave Minahasan adat organizations the momentum to express their views.
In November 2016, several adat organizations in Minahasa organized an event calling for the disbanding of the Islamic Defender’s Front (FPI) regional branch in North Sulawesi’s provincial capital city of Manado. The main reason given for their demand was that FPI is a radical organization that threatens Indonesia’s diversity. They also emphasized that the national ideology of Pancasila, the founding laws of 1945, the national motto of Unity in Diversity and the concept of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia (NKRI) are incontestable principles. The support of North Sulawesi’s Regional Leadership Coordination Forum (Forkopidma) for the participation of the adat organizations in the Unified Nusantara Parade scheduled for December 1st, 2016, gave the impression of the state’s recognition of the existence of these groups. On the other hand, perhaps they were not aware that recognition is also part of the state’s effort to maintain control.
Going along with the state’s doctrine and methods of ensuring stability through supporting the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia campaign appears to be a way for these Christian-adat organizations to negotiate the politics of Minahasan-ness and religiousness (identity politics) through the politics of the state in the local sphere. The actions of Islamic groups in Jakarta served as real and factual proof for their belief that “Islamic politics” poses a serious threat to the existence of Minahasan identity and Christianity.
Previous events, such as the appearance of local shariah-based policies in several other regions including in South Sulawesi, as well as the forced closure of a number of churches in Java, have successfully been reconstructed by elite members of these organizations to assure their members (primarily young people) that their participation is part of a noble struggle for the continued existence of Minahasa and freedom of religion as Christians.
In my view, it is this vision of “noble struggle” that will ensure the continued existence of these organizations in local politics in Minahasa. Yet I predict that these organizations will never become a unified group. The case of the Manguni Brigade can serve as a precedent. Around ten years after its creation, the group split, with an offshoot organization arising called Laskar Manguni Indonesia. Shortly afterward another offshoot emerged called Laskar Adat Manguni Indonesia (LAMI). Other organizations are experiencing the same fate, not primarily due to matters of leadership, but because the basis of their struggle is repeatedly reassessed as generations, political contexts, and interests change. Even the Makapetor Alliance is prone to division as it basically a short-term partnership between independent groups.
Focusing more on study, revitalization and discussion, MCC and its network have to some degree served as a stabilizing force in the discourse of local politics in Minahasa. During the response to the Jakarta election in the region, MCC intellectuals and activists, along with their wide networks across Minahasa, were more involved in peace activism with interfaith groups and other civil communities and were always cautious not to get cornered into campaigns for nationalism.
These events display the active dynamics of local politics in Minahasa. The adat organizations themselves are prone to dissolution because there is no single unifying ideology among them, and there is always space for differing opinions. This means that these groups inhabit a dialectical position in Minahasan local politics. Although they often give the impression of being ‘frightening’ or ‘extreme’ due to their militia or paramilitary character, these political dynamics will continue to prevent them from becoming more involved in physical violence towards the groups they identify as their enemies. In fact, these groups are still open to discussions about diversity with Muslim organizations like the Nahdlatul Ulama Paramilitary (Banser NU).
In addition to local dynamics, national political unrest also influences the movements undertaken by these adat organizations. The response towards the events surrounding the Jakarta election that spurred the consolidation the Christian adat organizations is one effect of these politics of the center that have spread to the outer regions.
This article is a translation by Kelli Swazey from its original version in Indonesian:Pilkada Jakarta dan Ormas Adat dalam Politik Lokal Minahasa.