The Decolonization of Adat Communities: Notes from PGI’s 2018 Seminar on Religions

The issue of masyarakat adat—indigenous communities in Indonesia who practice ancestral and customary ways of belief and life outside the recognized religions—radically criticizes “our” very existence, if this pronoun can be used, both as a nation-state that is hobbled to build a more democratic and just order of life and as a community of believers trying to understand the meanings of being religious. After a long period of marginalization and and even denial of their existence, indigenous peoples’ demands for recognition now challenges us to rethink and reformulate our Indonesian identity and the prophetic messages of religions.

This awareness was very clear in the 33rd Seminar on Religions (Seminar Agama-Agama/SAA) held by the Council of Churches in Indonesia (Persekutuan Gereja-Gereja di Indonesia/PGI) on March 20-23, 2018, in Parapat, North Sumatera, which was attended by more than 50 delegates from PGI member churches  as well as related people from outside PGI. The SAA forum itself is an annual PGI event. It was initially a forum specifically aimed for students of theology and prospective pastors studying Islam. In its development, however, SAA has begun to engage increasingly wider audiences, not only those studying Islam, and to discuss national issues that are crucial for PGI. The recommendations from SAA will be of important consideration in formulating PGI’s future strategic policies.

It is interesting to note that in this year’s SAA, PGI paid special attention to the struggle of indigenous peoples, a topic that is recognizably complex and multidimensional. In all of these dimensions, one can identify the processes of marginalization and colonization of indigenous communities. The struggle of indigenous communities has in fact been a struggle of “decolonization” or, in the words of Abdon Nababan, deputy chairman of the National Council of the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago (Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara/AMAN), a struggle to seize and restore “indigenous peoples’ autonomy”.

The Marginalization of Indigenous Peoples

In his seminar paper, Abdon showed how the processes of marginalization and colonization took place since the “kompeni” (Dutch East India Company), supported by the Dutch government, arrived in the Archipelago. Through divide et impera tactics, they gradually took control over forest areas and plundered indigenous peoples’ lands on a large scale. The promulgation of the 1870 Agrarian Law became one of the colonization milestones as it enabled the kompeni to dismiss the rights of indigenous peoples through its well-known doctrine of domeinverklaring, the doctrine that all forests and lands of which the ownership is unproved are declared state property.

It was that issue that the Law No. 5 of 1960 on the Basic Regulations of Agrarian Affairs, simply known as Agrarian Law (Undang-Undang Pokok Agraria/UUPA) and passed by President Soekarno on September 24, 1960, was intended to breach. In UUPA, the constitutional rights of indigenous peoples in agriculture are accommodated through what is referred to as “hak ulayat”, although its position is still a subordinate of the state that controls all the natural wealth. In practice, this right to rule from the state “may be transferred to the Swatantra and customary laws of the indigenous communities” (Article 2[4] of UUPA).

Marko Mahin (far left) and Abdon Nababan (second to the far right).

We know, however, UUPA has not been implemented. The year 1965 saw the fall of President Soekarno from power followed by the mass killings. The New Order regime that replaced him did not revoke UUPA, but it did not implement it either. With “developmentism” it championed, the New Order regime instead revived the domainverklaring doctrine of the 1870 Dutch Agrarian Law and published a series of laws and regulations that had no room for indigenous peoples. With the application of such doctrine, as Abdon explained, “the status of about 72% of lands under customary rights or hak ulayat became the State’s. The State’s forest areas were then divided among Soeharto’s cronies, high-rank officials, and certain foreign companies by applying a system of concessions as the regime’s privatization instrument.”

Since then, massive exploitation of natural resources has been taking place throughout the Archipelago in order to build the “modern” world that we enjoy today. Indigenous communities have not only lost the rights over their lands which are the foundation of their existence, but are also increasingly ignored. They have been unilaterally labelled with such adjectives as “primitive”, “isolated”, “nomadic”, “backward,” and so on.

Their right to freely practice their spiritual-cultural beliefs was also ignored as, in order to maintain stability deemed necessary for “developmentism”, the New Order regime heavily promoted the politics of religious harmony. One important aspect of this politics of religious harmony  is the denial of ancestral/indigenous beliefs and religions (kepercayaan dan agama-agama leluhur) as reflected in Law No. 1/PNPS/1965 which inherited, until now, what I call the “politics of distinction” between the six major religions (Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism) and indigenous “beliefs”. While the six major religions receive help and protection from the state—in the words of Jeremy Menchik, they become “the state-sanctioned pathways to God”—the  rights of followers of indigenous religions were largely dismissed.

In the plenary session on November 7, 2017, the Constitutional Court (Mahkamah Konstitusi/MK) issued a historic ruling for followers of indigenous religions. In its Decision (No. 97/PUU-XIV/2016), the Constitutional Court ruled that the Law No. 23 of 2006 jo Law No. 24 of 2013 on Civil Administration, which requires for people whose “religion is not recognized” or followers of indigenous religions leave blank the religion column on identity documents, is contrary to the constitution.

This MK ruling resonates with indigenous peoples. This is seen, for example, in the Kaharingan community in Kalimantan, as noted by Marko Mahin, activist of the Dayak-21 Studies Institute. Practitioners of Kaharingan have long firmly and consistently refused to be categorized as aliran kepercayaan. In his research, Marko told how Kaharingan followers affirmed, “We are not aliran kepercayaan; ours is de facto a religion.”

Therefore, Marko said, Kaharingan followers are actively engaged in various tactical advocacies so as not to be defined as a “not yet religious” group (kelompok belum beragama). In his presentation Marko analyzed the efforts of Kaharingan followers in doing rationalization (systematization, canonization, and codification of Kaharingan teachings and rituals), mimesis process (attempts to adjust themselves with religious characteristics), and refutation of discriminatory categorizations frequently applied to them.

Nevertheless, the MK ruling also leaves a dilemma for the Kaharingan community. Marko argued that the MK ruling has further sharpened the internal divide between those already satisfied with being integrated into Hinduism (referred to as Hindu Kaharingan) and those who are not. Not long after the MK ruling was issued, for example, the Majelis Agama Kaharingan Indonesia (MAKI) sent a letter to the President, Minister of Religious Affairs, Minister of Education, and Chairman of the DPD. In this letter dated January 29, 2018, MAKI expressly declared its secession from the Directorate General for Hinduism. A part of the letter, as cited by Marko, read:

“In connection with the issuance of the Constitutional Court’s Decision No. 97/PUU-XIV/2016 dated November 7, 2017, regarding the recognition of Religion and Belief in accordance with the 1945 Constitution, Article 29, Paragraph (1) and (2), we as followers of the Kaharingan Religion of Central Kalimantan hereby officially secede from the Directorate General for Hinduism of the Republic of Indonesia.”

The letter shows how the MK ruling was understood as a legal basis for the acknowledgment of Kaharingan as religion and therefore can demand state guarantees of protection and assistance as mandated by the constitution. Meanwhile, for other indigenous communities, the MK ruling is still unclear on how it will be really implemented. I suspect that this is a result of the inherited “politics of distinction” that has long shaped our bureaucratic style and the lack of political will that will make the MK ruling a “hot potato” in this political year (see Trisno S. Sutanto, “Ujian Konstitutional“, op-ed column in Kompas, April 17, 2018).

SAA participants visiting the Parmalim community in Samosir.

Repentance by the Church

The series of issues above provoked relatively heated discussion among SAA participants who were mostly pastors serving in member synods. Indeed, for most participants, the issue of indigenous peoples’ struggles was still entirely new. The churches so far, as indicated by the research by PGI’s Research and Communication Bureau (Litkom) on “The Church and the Indigenous Peoples’ Struggle” in five areas (North Sumatra, West Java, Central Kalimantan, Sumba and Maluku) have been neglectful, or at least very weak, in doing advocacy for the rights of indigenous peoples.

There are a number of factors that cause this situation. In some areas, there is a contentious historical issue since some of the customary lands have been donated to the church but have not yet been supported by strong legal documents, thus becoming a point of conflict between the church and indigenous community. In other cases, there is an internal conflict within churches that make it difficult for them to come up with a firmly united response.  Moreover, the still existing theological heritage does not recognize indigenous peoples as equal parties, but rather as “mission objects”.

The series of discussions during SAA seem to have opened the eyes of the churches about the complexity of indigenous peoples’ problems. As noted above, this issue criticizes “our” very existence and identity. SAA participants therefore issued recommendations that are addressed both to the state and to the churches. To the state they demand that the government must consequently implement the MK ruling while urging accelerated finalization of the drafting of the Law on Indigenous Peoples (Rancangan Undang-Undang Masyarakat Hukum Adat), as well as for the government to establish an institution specifically dealing with resolution of agrarian conflicts.

Recommendations to the churches include the urge for the churches to “repent” and develop a theological openness that enables them, together with other religions, to build a dialogue with indigenous peoples. Participants also urge the PGI’s Litkom Bureau to carry out ethnographic training for prospective clerics so that they become more sensitive to the needs of the community, including indigenous peoples, around the church. Churches are also encouraged to hold cross-cultural and inter-religious forums to document their histories with regard to indigenous peoples as part of the process of healing trauma and establishing more open and egalitarian relation.

Hopefully, this SAA will be a new milestone in the history of Indonesian churches!


This piece is originally in Indonesian titled Dekolonisasi Masyarakat Adat: Catatan dari Seminar PGI and translated into English by CRCS staff member Azis Anwar.

Download CRCS recent book on Indonesia’s indigenous religions, originally in Indonesian, the summary of which is also available in English, here.

Header image courtesy: Kampung Halaman.



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