The 2018 Indonesia Update. Contentious belonging: the place of minorities in Indonesia

The 36th Indonesia Update Conference was held in Canberra on 14 and 15 September 2018 with the topic Contentious belonging: the place of minorities in Indonesia. About 400 people attended the first day of the Conference, and around 300 people attended the second day. Most participants hailed from academia – lecturers, students and researchers – from Canberra and other cities in Australia. There was also a significant number of government, non-government organisations (NGOs) and private sector staff in attendance. The Conference program can be downloaded from this link.

The Conference was opened by Emeritus Professor Virginia Hooker, the doyenne of Indonesian studies at ANU. Professor Hooker is well respected by Indonesianists not only in Canberra but also in Australia. Professor Hooker thanked the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) for its continuing support for the partnership of Indonesians and Australian in convening the annual Update Conference. She then introduced the topic of this year’s Conference: the place of minorities in Indonesia. Pancasila offers protection for Indonesia’s minorities, stated Professor Hooker, and a nation’s health could be checked through how it treats its minorities. Indonesia’s record would be checked in this Conference – against its Constitution and against the universal ideals of ethics and compassion.

The first two sessions of the first day of the conference were dedicated to the Political and Economic Updates of Indonesia. Julie Heckscher (DFAT) chaired the Political Update with speakers Tom Power (ANU) and Jacqui Baker (Murdoch University). Tom recapped the past 12 months in Indonesian politics, and considered whether Jokowi was overseeing an ‘authoritarian turn’ ahead of the 2019 elections. Ultimately, the 2019 elections would be a test for the resilience of Indonesia’s democractic order. As discussant, Jacqui focused on the instrumentalisation of the Indonesian police force as being necessitated by the ongoing dynamics of political contestation in the country.

Sarah Dong (ANU Indonesia Project) chaired the Economic Update session with speakers Emeritus Professor Ross McLeod (ANU) and Sitta Izza Rosdaniah (Indonesian Ministry of State-owned Enterprises), and discussant Susan Olivia (The University of Waikato). Professor McLeod touched on the concern over the ‘weakening’ of the Rupiah, reminding us that the current depreciation of Rupiah reflects strength of the US dollar and not weakness of the Rupiah; from an Australian perspective, Rupiah is not weak at all. Professor McLeod also pointed out that the simultaneous targeting of stopping the Rupiah from depreciating and reducing the current account deficit are incompatible, and gave his recommendations for a better policy.

The Rupiah is not weak agains AU$

The Economic Update panel – left to right: Ross McLeod, Sarah Dong, Sitta Rosdaniah and Susan Olivia (source)


Sitta followed the presentation with a focus on the Indonesian bureaucracy. Lack of integrity and competence continue to bog down the bureaucracy. The government continues to fail to recruit the best people into the bureaucracy, and a low salary level is one of the culprits. Discussant Susan Olivia agreed with Ross MeLeod and Sitta Rosdaniah in that the big picture of the Indonesian economy is good; Indonesia’s debt level is amongst the lowest in world, and the Rupiah weakening is in line with global trends in emerging market currencies. She agreed that markets should be allowed to run its course.

The thematic session of the Conference commenced after lunch, with Professor Robert Cribb (ANU) giving a keynote address entitled Ambiguous advantage: minority status in Indonesian history with the session chaired by co-convener Ronit Ricci (ANU and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem). Professor Cribb proposed the perspective of ‘minority’ as those not enjoying the full benefits of citizenship. Additionally, the importance of history in understanding minority status in Indonesia today can not be underestimated. For example, while Indonesia failed to incorporate East Timor, and is struggling in Papua, it has been more successful at inclusion than many countries. On another example, the Indonesian Constitution did not accord special status to Islam, even though it was the religion of the majority. However now, the majority seems to find a uniting factor in which to assert power – blasphemy, as seen in the case of  Ahok, Meliana, Shia, and Ahmadiah, amongst others. What are the implications for future citizenship of the country?

The legal and constitutional perspectives on minorities comprise the next session by Professor Tim Lindsey, AO (The University of Melbourne) and Professor Simon Butt (The University of Sydney), chaired by Stephen Fitzpatrick (News Ltd). Professor Lindsey focused on the Indonesian legal framework for the regulation of minorities, touching on issues of religious freedom, adat communities, the disabled, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transexual) issues,  and racial status. Professor Butt focused on the practical aspects of defending the rights of minorities as played out in the Indonesian constitutional court. Both speakers agree that lack of expertise and integrity is an unfortunate situation in the Indonesian judiciary, including the current Constitutional Court, therefore reforms will need to be driven by the civil society.

Cate Rogers (DFAT) chaired the next session on disability. Dina Afrianty (La Trobe University) gave a heartbreaking portrayal of the treatment of the disabled in Indonesia. People with disability are largely invisible in Indonesia and face sometimes insurmountable obstacles to participate in public life. Moreover, good data is very hard to find, making advocacy and decision making hard. Dina explored further the situation at Islamic education sector in Indonesia.

Thushara Dibley (The University of Sydney) and Antoni Tsaputra (The University of New South Wales) discussed the changing laws and attitudes to people with disability in Indonesia. Despite the 2016 Disability Law, the speakers argue that changing the discourse from disability from a welfare issue to a rights issue has still a long way to go. Activists drive the changing discourse, but policymakers lag behind. On a more positive note, the 2018 Asian Para Games is creating conversations on the rights of the disabled.

Speakers on the disability panel

Speakers on the disability panel: left to right Cate Rogers, Antoni Tsaputra, Dina Afrianty, and Thushara Dibley

The last session of Day 1 was on sexual minorities chaired by Professor Sharon Bessell (ANU). Professor Saskia Wierienga (Universiteit van Amsterdam) discussed whether the recent wave of homophobia in Indonesia unexpected. In her presentation, Professor Wieringa asked whether the current rise in homophobia is politics related and describes the current situation of homophobias as one where religion is used as pretext (and more specifically, Islamisation as framework) and militias are mobilised as tool (to do the work the Army unable to do). In the current situation where the Army struggles to keep influence and budget, they may profit by promoting an idea of a nation at war with all that constrain its soul: heteronormative, anti-communist and religious.

Hendri Yulius (University of Sydney) was the last speaker of the day with his presentation on the transition from gay and lesbi to LGBT, to SOGIE in Indonesia. The use of the term ‘LGBT’ in Indonesia exploded in 2016, but Yulius argue that activists are now trying to leave LGBT, which is now in public discourse, for SOGIE (sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression). The strategy is to define SOGIE in the context of diversity, not a unitary identity; in essence, part of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika.

Day 2 of the Conference was opened with a session on religious minorities, chaired by Emeritus Professor George Quinn (ANU). Marcus Mietzner (ANU) and Burhanuddin Muhtadi (ANU and Indikator Politik Indonesia) presented the results of multi-year survey on Muslim intolerance towards religious and ethnic minorities. The survey itself is not restricted to the Muslim view, however for the Conference, Muslim intolerance was specifically dissected. Ihsan Ali-Fauzi (Yayasan Paramadina) continued the portrait of an increasingly intolerant Indonesia by exploring cases of mediating religious conflicts in the country, especially the role of the religious harmony forums (Forum Kerukunan Umat Beragama). Finally, Sandra Hamid (The Asia Foundation) explores the case for more nuanced state and community responses to religious intolerance when now strategies applied by those considered intolerant are now also done by those supporting tolerance. There is currently a tendency towards a narrowing of civil space in the name of tolerance and Sandra warned against the perils of such actions.

The idea of ‘minority’ can take many form, and its manifestations in the issue of ethnicity was explored by an all female panel chaired by award-winning journalist Jewel Topsfield (Fairfax Media). Charlotte Setijadi (Singapore Management University) discussed anti-Chinese sentiments and the ‘return’ of the pribumi discourse post Jakarta elections. Maria Myutel (ANU) discussed the little known and exclusive Indian Sindhi community in Indonesia, descendants of a community of traders who resettled in Indonesia after Partition. Saur Marlina Manurung or more popularly Butet Manurung (Sokola Rimba) discusses the normalisation of the Orang Rimba of Jambi.

All female panel on ethnicity: left to right Charlotte Setijadi, Jewel Topsfield, Maria Myutel and Butet Manurung

All female panel on ethnicity: left to right Charlotte Setijadi, Jewel Topsfield, Maria Myutel and Butet Manurung

Sidney Jones (Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict) ended the Conference with  closing reflections on the political manipulation of minority status. She argued that the two-day presentations have presented the case of majority-minority as a case of insider versus outsider, of indigenous versus migrants. It is also important to remember that the idea of minority is malleable and dynamic, subjected to political manipulation. What then, constitutes majoritarianism in Indonesia? Rejection of non-Muslim leaders, rejection of vaccine, and LGBT being seen as a threat, are some of these manifestations. If democracy is about political equality and justice for all, where then is Indonesia heading when some citizens simply dictate their view on other citizens?

And that concludes the 2018 Indonesia Update Conference. See you at the 2019 Conference, From stagnation to regression? Indonesia’s democracy after 20 years, convened by Eve Warburton and Tom Power.

Videos can be viewed from this link and presentation slides can be downloaded from this link.

Media coverage:

Radio National (ABC) interview with Sidney Jones: Indonesia’s treatment of minorities scrutinised

The Sydney Morning Herald opinion piece by Greg Fealy: Indonesia’s troubled minorities

ANU Media: ANU Indonesia expert explores the contentious belonging of minorities in Indonesia