Old and new nationalism


A QUESTION was playing in my mind when I left Jakarta for Banda Aceh last month: When does nationalism become old, probably senile and irrelevant, while a new one is growing strong, vigorous and relevant? 

I struggled with that question, knowing that Jakarta is now awash with the politics of nationalism. It ranges from the question of letting East Timor go to the sale of various state-owned companies to international investors. 

The answer might not come up easily, not in Jakarta, where an old nationalism is burning in the midst of a campaign to maintain “the unity of Indonesia,” but I am afraid, the answer might also not be found in Banda Aceh, this languid capital of Aceh where a new flag of nationalism is also being raised. 

The older nationalism began in October 1928, when a bunch of educated young men gathered in Batavia, the Dutch colonial name of Jakarta, to formulate a new nationalism. Those young men represented different ethic organisations, including Javanese, Sundanese and Ambonese. 

“We should be united, we should be strong,” said one young man. 

The Dutch secret agents who monitored the meeting did not call them “nationalists” – instead they used the word “extremists” and considered them a threat to the “motherland” far away in Holland. 

Finally, those young men produced a joint declaration: “We are the youth of Indonesia; we pledge to have a single tanah air and bangsa which is the nation of Indonesia, a single bahasa (language) which is Bahasa Indonesia.” 

The phrase “tanah air” literally means “land and water.” It was a phrase used in exchange for the word “state” for security reasons. Those freedom fighters planned to kick out the Dutch from their “Indonesia.” They thought a new state was needed and they needed a new nationalism to whip the popular sentiment against the white foreigners. 

Twenty years later, in August 1945, those educated men declared a new state. One of them was Sukarno, the eldest son of a Balinese mother and a Javanese father, who became the first President of the Republic of Indonesia. 

A new state. A new nation. A new language. 

But, unfortunately, not a working democracy. Justice was not immediately experienced in the new republic. No social welfare. No press freedom. No human rights. And no dignity. 

Indonesia became, to paraphrase UN bureaucrats, a “developing country” or Third World. 

People were still poor and often harassed by the Indonesian military. In Aceh in 1953, a “rebellion” broke up. The traditionally stubborn people of Aceh demanded that President Sukarno recognise their cultural values. Sukarno relented and the dispute ended in 1961. 

But a new movement, a more serious one, broke out again in 1976 when a Columbia University PhD declared independence in Aceh. Hasan di Tiro established an effective guerilla network, trained his soldiers in Libya, and maintained his position as walinegara (head of state) from self-exile in Sweden. 

Hasan di Tiro disliked Sukarno and he used the phrases of “bangsa Jawa” and “bangsa Acheh” as a contradiction. He hated the political construction of “Indonesia” and even used a different spelling (“Acheh” rather “Aceh”). He described Indonesia as “a Javanese republic with a Greek pseudo-name.” 

But Hasan di Tiro sure sounded like Sukarno. He whipped up nationalist sentiment among the Acehnese. 

Both Sukarno and di Tiro skipped an important point. If they had wanted to be straightforward, which unfortunately they preferred not to be, there is no such “bangsa Aceh” or “bangsa Indonesia.” A nation, according to political scientist Benedict Anderson, is an imagined community. 

A real community by definition is a place where its members are aware of each other. In his classic, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Anderson argued that inside a nation-state, even for a lifetime, members of this imagined community do not come to know a substantial number of the others. 

Yet it is only through the media that they acquire a sense of belonging to this larger group. A nation is an objective rather than a product. 

In Banda Aceh, a French-trained social scientist at the Syiah Kuala University gave me a good explanation: When does a nationalism become old and irrelevant, while a new one is growing strong, vigorous and relevant? 

Hakim Nyak Pha answered: “When the Jakarta government is more troubled about their territorial integrity rather than the people who live there.” Jakarta is more worried about its borders rather than to win the hearts and minds of the Acehnese people. Jakarta declared martial law, harassed many Acehnese, allowed their schools to be burned, made their life difficult, in the name of unity – to be precise, territorial unity. 

If a government wins the hearts and minds of a people, Hakim explained, the old nationalism is all right. “Their lands, their properties, their wealth, wives, children, relatives, and their love will go with them. Even if we kick them in the buttocks, they won't leave us,” Hakim said with a big laugh. 

Now what? 

Hakim is afraid that Jakarta does not do that. He himself is also worried about rising unemployment, discrimination, violence, declining educational quality, business investment, growing poverty and other complicated social problems. 

Maybe Jakarta is now acting like the Dutch back in 1928. This war is going to create a social and psychological burden for the Acehnese. And the old nationalism is very likely to find itself more and more irrelevant. 


  • Andreas Harsono is The Star correspondent in Jakarta  

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