Ambalat, Nationalism and Popular Interest

The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Thu, 03/17/2005 5:18 PM | Opinion

Israr Iskandar, Padang

The fact that people’s nationalism is still quite strong is quite admirable, given the host of problems the country is at present facing. The Ambalat case has at least demonstrated how the spirit of nationalism has “”pushed back”” waves of protests against the increase in fuel prices. Learning from the case of Sipadan-Ligitan, two islands that Indonesia has had to give up, the Indonesian government does not want to lose any more of its territory to Malaysia.

However the rising sense of nationalism must continue to be actualized not only in the context of protecting the state’s territory from external threats but also in the context of maintaining national sovereignty as a whole. In this case, national sovereignty also means the sovereignty and honor of the entire nation. Therefore, the spirit of nationalism must also be aimed at strengthening citizens’ sovereignty and honor in the economic, political, social, cultural and educational fields.

The problem is that until now the expression of nationalism in Indonesia has been limited to security matters, more particularly threats to the integrity of the state’s territory, both internally (separatism) or externally. In fact, nationalism and national interests can also be interpreted as the spirit to prioritize popular interests.

In this respect, there are several examples of how nationalism and national interests have served as a mere slogan in the interests of the political elite. Take, for example, the recent increase in fuel prices, which the government claims it has introduced in the interests of the poor. The disadvantaged people are supposed to benefit from the funds generated by the fuel subsidy cut through health care, education and improved infrastructure. Based on past experience, however, compensation funds for the poor have never reached the intended target.

It is quite reasonable, therefore, to doubt these claims. Ironically, when the people, including the poor who have been promised the compensation funds, are protesting against the increase in fuel prices because it will make their lives more difficult, members of the House of Representatives have, instead, asked for a pay increase.

Besides the political leaders, the economic leaders have also rushed to the government to ask for “”compensation”” in the form of tax concessions.

Nationalism is also a paradox when it come to how national and local leaders respond to the issue of privatization, a program that has been accelerated in the present era of reform. The supporters of this program claim that the privatization of state-owned enterprises is in the interest of the nation. Meanwhile, those objecting to this program claim that their actions are in the people’s interests and they have even put forward issues related to economic nationalism.

After the program of privatization has been implemented, the poor remain poor: The poverty level and the rate of unemployment remain high. On the other hand, the argument put forward by those who are against privatization that the government should own the majority shares in state-owned enterprises should also raise doubts. Until now, most state-owned enterprises have shown poor performance and corrupt practices.

The local leaders have also frequently claimed that they act in the interests of the public while in fact they are protecting their own interests. This was true, for example, in the case of members of West Sumatra Legislative Assembly involved in corruption practices regarding the regional budget funds. They insinuated that non-governmental organizations, which had brought up cases against them, were funded by foreign parties.

They said there was a conspiracy by foreign quarters to corner Muslims because many of these corrupt councillors were top-ranking members of Muslim parties and some were even noted religious elders. Obviously, they turned the facts upside down. While facing the law, these councillors still had the gall to claim that they acted in the interests of the public (the Muslims).

Paradoxes are also seen when national interests are touted to justify oppression of the people. Defending the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia (NKRI) has even been used as a means to justify human rights violations by state apparatuses against civilians.

The military is indeed obligated to defend the national integrity of the state from the threat of separatism as has happened in Aceh and Papua but crimes against humanity by the military must be dealt with according to the law and should never be hidden behind the slogan of defending the territorial integrity of the country.

During Soeharto’s tenure, territorial integrity was used to legitimize efforts to maintain a centralized system. In fact, it is this centralized system that had brought corruption into the government. Centralized administration even led to a wider gap in development between Java and areas outside Java and the divide between the rich and the poor.

In this context, we have our worries that the territorial integrity, which is often heard amid the issues of decentralization and special autonomy (as in the cases of Papua and Aceh) in the last few years, is perhaps intended to protect the interests and the privileges of certain elite groups in Jakarta. They realize that their interests will be threatened once the policy of regional autonomy and special autonomy is properly implemented.

Nationalism is not just for the sake of nationalism itself. Neither should nationalism be used in the interests of a few people in an elite group. In reality, nationalism should be implemented in the interests of all citizens. The people themselves have kept a strong sense of nationalism, as reflected in their response to the Ambalat case. But in the case of Indonesian migrant workers (for example) the people never feel that they are citizens.

It is our job in future to make sure that the actualization of nationalism may link people’s basic needs in the economic, social, political and other fields.

The writer is a lecturer of political science at Andalas University, Padang.

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