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The re-emergence of pribumi-ism in Indonesia

The issue of Indonesian pribumi (indigenous people) is re-emerging. This time, it was brought up in a speech by General Gatot Nurmantyo, the Commander of the Indonesian Armed Forces, given at the National Leadership Conference of the Golkar Party on May 22 held in Balikpapan, East Kalimantan.

Indonesia's hardline military chief Gatot Nurmantyo. Photo: AFP

Indonesia's hardline military chief Gatot Nurmantyo. Photo: AFP

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The issue of Indonesian pribumi (indigenous people) is re-emerging. This time, it was brought up in a speech by General Gatot Nurmantyo, the Commander of the Indonesian Armed Forces, given at the National Leadership Conference of the Golkar Party on May 22 held in Balikpapan, East Kalimantan.

When General Gatot was asked to talk about the unity of Indonesia and its challenges and dangers, he took the opportunity to discuss mass immigration from less developed and poorer countries to developed and richer states and how these nations attempt to stop this flow of migrants.

He argued that Indonesia would also become the target for such migration, and used the cases of Native Americans and Australian Aborigines being overwhelmed by immigrants.

Finally he recited a poem by Denny J A, entitled “But They Are Not Ours”, using its first 32 lines.

It depicts the large socio-economic gap as seen through the eyes of a poor young Indonesian named Jaka.

Below are some of the lines translated to English:

“Please look, the paddy is ripe, the surrounding is nice, this village is super rich. But they are not ours. Please look, many types of merchandise people sell and buy, how prosperous this place is.

“But they are not ours, Jaka has been stunned, he does not know why his tears are dropping. Those tears are his.”

Gen Nurmantyo was later asked why he read the poem and what he wanted to achieve.

He answered that he wanted to show that in certain areas, there is tremendous social injustice and that “we need to be vigilant”. If not, his children and other Indonesian children would be like Jaka.

The video of Gen Nurmantyo quoting the poem went viral on social media, drawing various reactions.

Chairman of the ruling PDI-P party’s Central Board Andreas Parera noted that as the commander of the Indonesian military, Gen Nurmantyo should not have read a poem with multiple interpretations, and should instead have stuck to his job and talked about the role of the military.

The deputy chairman of opposition party Gerindra, Dr Sufmi Dasco Ahmad, on the other hand claimed Gen Nurmantyo was concerned with the current situation and wanted to tell the political elite about the problem.

A politician of the opposition Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), Mr Mahfudz Siddiq, said Gen Nurmantyo was commenting on the “core issue of the Indonesian nation”.

Two Indonesian political scientists presented some interesting interpretations during interviews for Metro TV.

Dr Sjamsuddin Haris of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) argued that both the Golkar Party and Gen Nurmantyo may have common objectives at the moment.

Golkar requires a prominent figure for the 2019 presidential election, while Gen Nurmantyo will retire next year and need a political vehicle to participate in the election.

In turn, Dr Djayadi Hanan of Paramadina University maintained that it is possible that Gen Nurmantyo is preparing for his post-retirement job, as there is still no prominent figure who can represent the Golkar Party as vice-presidential candidate.

The Metro TV commentator noted that there is a rumour going around that Gen Nurmantyo may want to be a vice-presidential candidate (running alongside President Joko Widodo), although he denied it.




Gen Nurmantyo has generally been giving the impression of being politically active.

For instance, on June 4, soon after the poetry reading, he made another political speech at the Mosque of Islamic Centre of the Ahmad Dahlan University, Yogyakarta, in which he argued that democracy as practised in Indonesia today is “no longer suitable for Pancasila” (the foundational philosophical theory of the Indonesian state) because the decision was made through “voting,” not “deliberation and consensus (musyawarah-mufakat)”.

Furthermore, it did not result in “social justice for all the people of Indonesia”, which is the fifth principle of Pancasila.

His comments on democracy and Pancasila did not go unnoticed.

Dr Haris of LIPI said that the general had misunderstood democracy, and more importantly, a military leader would be better off confining himself to military and security affairs rather than politics.

Otherwise, it may be misunderstood that the military would like to re-enter politics.

An MP from the PDI-P, Mr Charles Honoris, also noted that Gen Nurmantyo had recently been involving himself in politics: “As he is still an active general, it would be more appropriate if he confined himself to military and security affairs.”

Gen Nurmantyo’s political interests can also be seen in a lecture in December where he commented on the blasphemy case against then-Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, saying that the movement demanding the latter be jailed was genuine and came from the “hearts of the Islamic community” (nurani umat Islam).

In the same lecture, Gen Nurmantyo mentioned a conversation he had with Mr Habib Rezieq Shihab, the leader of the radical Front Pembela Islam (FPI, the Islamic Defenders’ Front), who telephoned him out of the blue to report that the story going around that the military had arrested and tortured him was a hoax.

The general has since asked his intelligence officers to identify the source of the fake news and to stop it. The episode suggests warming relations between the two individuals.

Gen Nurmantyo’s association with the FPI is being looked into by several analysts. A link back to the Dec 2 demonstration against Mr Purnama has been pointed out.

Mr Widodo and his team went to meet the demonstrators at the National Monument.

Unlike Mr Widodo and others who wore the pici (Indonesian black hat), Gen Nurmantyo wore the white Muslim hat generally worn by hard-line Muslims. The general was criticised for showing solidarity with the demonstrators but he defended this by saying that this was meant to prevent Mr Widodo from being attacked by the demonstrators.




In the poem recited by Gen Nurmantyo, there was no mention of non-pribumi or foreigners. However, in the present context, most Indonesians would associate the poem with the non-pribumi’s domination of the Indonesian economy at the expense of the pribumi population.

Indonesian pribumi-ism originated after Indonesia’s independence, with the governing elite dividing the population into asli and non-asli (ie pribumi and non-pribumi). Ethnic Chinese belonged to the non-pribumi group, as did people of Arab origin.

Since the Suharto era, however, the latter were in practice considered pribumi due to their sharing the same religion with the majority of the pribumi.

Pribumi-ism had already emerged during the Jakarta gubernatorial and presidential elections, and racial and religious issues were used twice in attempts to discredit Mr Widodo.

The first time was during the 2012 Jakarta gubernatorial election when Mr Widodo was paired with Mr Purnama to be the governor and deputy governor of Jakarta. Mr Widodo was criticised for choosing a Chinese Christian as a running mate.

The second time was during the 2014 presidential election, when the Prabowo camp launched a smear campaign falsely accusing Mr Widodo of being ethnic Chinese and a Christian.

In August 2015, a group including retired army General Djoko Santoso, who was linked to the Gerindra party, established the Partai Priboemi (Pribumi Party). The new party declared ambitions of restricting the political and economic rights of non-indigenous Indonesians.




Mr Purnama was defeated in this year’s gubernatorial election on religious and racial grounds.

This was despite the fact that the probability of him being elected, before the blasphemy case was started against him, was very high. Rumours had it then that once elected, Mr Purnama might become Mr Widodo’s vice-presidential candidate in 2019.

There were apparently calls for the Indonesian Constitution to be amended in order to prevent Mr Purnama from eventually running for vice-president.

On Oct 3, during the National Working Conference of the United Development Party (PPP), an Islamic party, its chairman Romahurmuziy proposed to restore the clause “the president of Indonesia must be an ‘indigenous Indonesian’ (orang Indonesia asli)” back into the Constitution.

He also asked that this criterion be applied to both presidential and vice-presidential candidates.

It was after the fall of president Suharto that the Constitution was amended to be more relevant for modern and democratic Indonesia.

Article 6 Clause 1 now reads: “The presidential and vice-presidential candidates must be an Indonesian citizen by birth and never voluntarily obtain the citizenship of another country.”

Any Indonesian citizen who meets this criterion can be the presidential or vice-presidential candidate.

This amendment was also in accord with the Indonesian anti-racial discrimination law promulgated after the Suharto era.

Despite the PPP’s proposal to re-amend the Constitution, its leadership has not given details about what is meant by “Orang Indonesia asli”.

The chairman of PDI-P Central Executive Council, Dr Hendrawan Supratikno, when asked for his comments on this issue, noted that the return to the old clause would mean a setback for Indonesian democracy and would split national unity.

Another PDIP leader, Mr Ahmad Basarah, noted that the proposal was racially discriminatory.

The original 1945 Constitution was not a racially informed one, except for the clause on the president of Indonesia.

It was a potent move therefore that the post-1998 Reform Movement chose to remove that one clause that had “racial” component from the Constitution. The calls to reverse the process does not bode well for Indonesian democracy.

It was Mr B J Habibie, Suharto’s successor and the third president of Indonesia, who abolished the distinction between pribumi and non-pribumi.

The Indonesian Parliament had since then attempted to act in accordance with the non-racial nature of the 1945 Constitution.

Nevertheless, the concept of pribumi remains salient, especially whenever the income gap widens.

Religion is also being used to mobilise the masses and some retired generals are associating themselves with political Islam to gain political influence.

Gen Nurmantyo’s recent speeches on social inequality, his association with Islamic groups and his apparent ambition to become a politician, have encouraged pribumi-ism, which the Widodo government wanted to play down.

If this is unchecked, it may give rise to anti-Chinese riots and affect the economy and political stability. Mr Widodo appears to have tolerated Gen Nurmantyo so as not to push the general into the opposition camp, especially when the general’s actions suggest that he is preparing for a post-retirement political career.



Leo Suryadinata is Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute. This is adapted from a piece which first appeared in ISEAS Perspective.

Related topics

Indonesia Politics Suharto B J Habibie

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