Racism and Systemic Oppression in Indonesia


Oh 2020! When I said 2019 was the worst year, I didn’t mean it as a challenge. From ecological disasters, to a pandemic, economic meltdown and soaring unemployment... But maybe being shaken to the core created a window of opportunity to address the injustices of our society. 

Overt racism and discrimination are only the tip of the iceberg to the whole truth. Systemic oppression is hidden in the everyday - the structural projection of whiteness as superior and blackness as the exact opposite. 

When you’re fighting against bars holding you in place, you can’t do it alone. And when those bars are reinforced with rules and regulations that should be keeping us, as citizens, safe. Then maybe it’s time we spoke about what we should all be doing to change society as we know it.

We are after all, in the pursuit of the ‘new normal’. 

Most jewelry supply chains rely on systemic oppression. The exploitation of resources in developing countries - the looting of metals and precious stones paired with environmental destruction and human rights abuses - has been rooted deeply for many generations. It keeps a privileged few at the top, and a whole lot more at the bottom. It’s an issue that’s close to my heart as we strive to clean up our own supply chains. 

 The Dayak people are indigenous to Kalimantan. They share a long and intertwined history with their land. It’s not just nature at stake, but their history, tradition, and culture. For decades now, the Dayak people have been forced from their lands in the name of profit. Their forests ravaged in the name of economic development.

“Generally there’s a stigma that Dayak people are backwards or primitive. They often associate the Dayaks with a black history of head hunting and that they still live in the forests far away from civilization.” explains Randi Julian, a Dayak social entrepreneur working to bring people’s attention back to the rich craftsmanship of indigenous Dayak people through Handep. This social enterprise collaborates with communities to create sustainable products. 

He points out that stereotypes found in society make it difficult for Dayak people to be involved in decision making processes at a governmental level. “Before the Reformation era, government officials mostly came from Java because of limited local human resources. And despite the increasing number of locals sitting in the office, the myth that we can’t make decisions for ourselves is still prevalent. When interacting with Dayaks in or from the villages, they usually talk about how backward Dayaks are and that’s why they can’t be independent even on their own land.” 

While Handep chooses to tackle negative stereotypes by bringing traditional craftsmanship and forest-based agricultural products  into the public eye, we can also see advocacy done through other means. Ranu Welum is an organization telling the Dayak people’s story through audiovisual means through documentaries, and bringing together the community to discuss and share human rights and environmental issues faced by Dayak people. 

Racism is a complicated issue in Indonesia. There are 633 recognized ethnic groups, each with their own rich history, culture, and tradition. But there are clear examples of systemic racism with a history of violence experienced by certain groups. One that has garnered much media coverage as of late has been violence met by people from Papua. 

“In Papua, the people are usually faced with great changes with little to no preparation. This is similar to what happened to Dayak people since the 1960’s with the forestry rights.” This refers to land use rights held by the government and private institutions for forest development. “There was a lot of development, but people weren’t given enough information about the situation they would be facing. The principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) was not followed.” Explains activist Karlo Lumbanraja, who works with Yayasan Anak Dusun Papua, a foundation that works with the village children of Papua. 

“In 2009, there were a lot of stories from local communities in Lereh-Kaureh, a place close to the border with Papua New Guinea. There was an influx of monetary investments for large scale palm oil plantations. People didn’t understand exactly what the oil palms were, they were only familiar with coconut palms. And even today they are largely uninvolved with these monocultures.” This led to local communities being engaged only as cheap labor, with no profit sharing and little to no understanding of the environmental impact of these plantations. “They also used local terminology to speed up processes, but changing the meaning of said terminologies to suit their needs. For instance ‘sewa tanah’ or ‘renting land’ was changed to ‘kompensasi jual beli atas tanah’ or ‘compensation for the sale and purchase of land’.” 

Karlo explains that these deliberate changes were part of the systemic oppression faced by the people of Papua. And when these efforts did not lead to an agreement that was satisfactory, violence was employed against the Papuans. “Money and technology are just a few things people use as stepping stones for cultural shifts that the people of Papua have no capacity to face.” 

I also spoke with Dr. Sophie Chao, an environmental anthropologist, to better understand how these issues connect to Black Lives Matter. She started by giving me a link to how the Indonesian government shut down internet access to Papua last year amidst protest.  “The shutting down of internet access in the whole region during the anti-racism protests last year is one example and interestingly, now being recognized as such by the Indonesian court.” It was clear that systemic oppression was happening in Indonesia. 

There are huge overlaps in the racism experienced by African-Americans in the US and indigenous Papuans in Indonesia. In fact, the US crisis has been taken up by several groups in West Papua. In both cases, racism is a systemic, structural problem.” she explains. 

“It's a particular grievance among the young, educated Papuan generation, who are trying to move up in the world and yet still face discrimination in their attempts to do so. It’s important to recognize that this racism exists - even if those deploying it are not aware of it. Racism can be denigratory, like the epithet 'monkeys' so often used against West Papua. But racism can also take on less obvious forms - for instance, the promotion of exotic Papuan tribes in ethnotourism.” 

Similar to how Dayak communities are portrayed, this specific type of tourism on a surface level appears to celebrate Papuan culture, but often depends on the representation of Papuans as stone-age, backward, 'traditional' people. “This is obviously is not true - Papuans are just as modern or contemporary as anyone else. So I guess starting with these kinds of conversations, and attending to how Papuans themselves experience racism in everyday life, would be important.” 

Systemic oppression can’t be destroyed without everyone’s voices being heard. Both from those facing discrimination, and from allies who should be standing with their brothers and sisters. 

There’s a time to listen and to learn, and there’s a time for action. I urge you to seek resources to learn, and worthy campaigns to support. To not stay silent in the face of injustice. To lend your voice and call out acts of racism around you, to amplify the voices of those currently fighting. 

I urge you to look around as well. The current climate in the United States may not affect you directly, but racism is universal. There are voices begging to be heard in every corner of the world. Wherever you are, start right there. 

When people speak of the new normal, I hope that this is what we’re talking about. Where voices are heard, and where lives matter.



Please read more on the issues mentioned in this post through these websites: 

Resource for Black Lives Matter 
AMAN Indonesia - a pioneer in women led peacekeeping efforts in grassroot movements. 
 Ranu Welum Foundation - advocacy through media for Dayak issues. 
 PUSAKA - a civil society organization that focuses on researching and advocating for policies, promoting and defending the rights of indigenous peoples and poor communities.


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