Page 1 of 22
Religious demography and separatism in Indonesia – the making of East Timor - by Radha Rajan
Post independence Indonesia has lessons for India which we may ignore only at our peril. Nebulously referred to as the Indies by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English, this archipelago was invaded and occupied by these three major colonial powers for over five centuries.
The end of colonialism resulted in the independence of the archipelago which now called itself Indonesia; but independence came with a terrible price. Almost every major small and big island was either vivified or left with an acute separatist movement threatening secession. Thus what was Borneo had the head and hump removed to form a part of the new Malaysia with a small independent Sultanate of Brunei sandwiched between them. What remained of Borneo with Indonesia was named Kalimantan.
The northernmost tip of Sumatra, the ancient sultanate of Aceh has been accorded special status within the Indonesian constitution but there is a growing “Free Aceh Movement” seeking secession from Indonesia. There is a growing demand for secession in the Maluku islands too and this Christian majority island declared itself to be the Republic of South Maluku in 1950 but the move was thwarted effectively by Sukarno.
East of Java and to the North of Australia lies the island of Timor. Divided into two by the Dutch and the Portuguese, the western half of the island, under Dutch control became a part of Indonesia while the eastern half, under Portuguese control seceded from Indonesia in 1999 and became an independent state in 2002.
European colonialism created Christian majority (Catholic and Protestant) regions in several islands and provinces of Indonesia, each of which is a potential threat to the country’s territorial integrity. East Timor, Aceh, Maluku, and Irian Jaya are just a few instances of the threat of secession posed by religious demography. Sulawesi and Kalimantan too continue to be plagued by Christian separatism.
It is important to note that the island of Bali is a Hindu majority island and continues to remain an integral part of the Indonesian nation and State. The islands and provinces demanding self-determination and secession are all either Christian or Muslim majority regions. These demands are either backed by the Church or extremist Islam. And this is as true of Indonesia as it is true of the rest of the world wherever there are violent movements for self-determination and secession.
The making of East Timor, the forces and agents of secession arrayed against the Indonesian state and which created this new Christian state from an old nation, is a lesson for India which has similar hotbeds of separatism within its own territory.
This paper traces briefly the advent of the Netherlands, Britain, Portugal and Japan into the Indies and the consequences of the interplay between these colonial powers on the fledgling Republic of Indonesia. It is important to study the role of these colonial powers and the UN because of the seeds of discord sown by them and left to mature within the young nation-state leading to separatism and secession. This paper also deals with the role of the Vatican, the Catholic hierarchy, and the UN in the inventing of the State of East Timor.
The archipelago called ‘Suvarnabhumi’ in Indian classical texts had Hindu kings ruling large parts of ‘dvipantara’ or ‘Jambu dvipa’ as early as 100 AD. Even at this time King Aji Saka introduced the writing system in Java and Sumatra using one of the southern scripts from India. There were Hindu kings in the first century AD even in the Malay province, in Kedah and in Kutai in Kalimantan. Buddhism arrives in Sumatra in the fourth century and according to Chinese records of the times, the region was already renowned for its high culture and civilization. Hindu and Buddhist kings build magnificent temples in central Java at Borobudur and Prambanan in the sixth century. Indonesia was ruled by large Hindu and Buddhist dynasties who establish powerful kingdoms which flourish and expand until the 15th century by which time Hindu and Buddhist rulers convert to Islam and kingdoms are converted to sultanates.
While Islam enters the archipelago, into Java and Sumatra as early as the eighth century, it is the religion of the migrant traders who come to these islands from India. Historical records of the Chinese Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) tell of Arab traders who stopped at Indonesian ports along the way to Guangzhou and other southern Chinese ports. Because commerce was more prevalent along the coasts of Sumatra, Java, and the eastern archipelago than in inland areas of Java, Islamization of the archipelago proceeded more rapidly along the pasisir or the coastal regions of the north and only much later in the heartland of Java.
The advent of Sufi Islam in the thirteenth century facilitated the conversion of the ruling elite in the kingdoms in and around Java and Sumatra. Sufism, like Christian missionary tactics today, borrowed heavily from the cultures that it sought to subvert and eventually exterminate. With its emphasis on mysticism, and self-experience revealing the truth of the ultimate reality of God, Sufi Islam found greater acceptance among the Hindu-Buddhist ruling elite and was thus successful in making sultanates out of their erstwhile Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms. Aceh converts to Islam in 1400 AD and King Parameswara of the port city of Melaka converts to Islam upon marrying the daughter of the Sultan of Pasai. He thereupon called himself Iskandar Syah and the kingdom of Melaka became the sultanate of Melaka. This was the beginning of the Islamisation of the ruling elite of the archipelago of Indonesia.
The greater portion of the archipelago was Islamised by the sixteenth century and it was around this time that the sultanates and islands of the Indonesian archipelago witnessed the unending influx of European colonialists from Portugal, Netherlands and England making a beeline for their islands in search of quick wealth from their abundant and varied natural resources. They also occupied territory, fought wars among themselves and against the sultanates of the Indies, and altered the religious demography of many of the provinces and the islands in the process.