Independence means fighting oppression every day: Some decolonial reflections
Interview by Mahardhika (M) Sjamsoeoed Sadjad
for Bahasa Indonesia version, read here.
I sat down with Tamara (T) Soukotta, a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies and lecturer at Bachelor International Studies Program, Leiden University. Her research centers around decolonial options/ thinking/ doing that is grounded in experiences of conflict in Maluku (1999-2004), as well as experiences of living and working in The Netherlands as a woman of color. As we approached 17 August 2020, we discussed what Indonesia’s Independence Day means when seen through a decolonial lens.
M: How would you explain decoloniality to someone who isn’t very familiar with the term?
T: I think it is important to start from differentiating three terms that are often conflated with one another: decolonization, post-colonialism, and decoloniality.
Decolonization is the process of European colonisers leaving the colonies, that resulted in former colonized nations declaring their independence and becoming recognized as sovereign states. In Indonesia, this process is commemorated on 17 August 1945, when our founding fathers unilaterally declared Indonesia’s independence. This was followed by a four-year war against the Dutch, which finally agreed to transfer the sovereignty of most of its territory in the East Indies in 1949 and its part of New Guinea (now Papua) in 1963 to the Indonesian government.
Post-colonial theory argues that after decolonization, colonial structures of power were reproduced by new elite groups that took up positions of power after the formation of new nation-states. As such, colonial structures of power continue to exist until now. In development studies, this logic is often used to understand existing systematic inequalities around the world.
Decoloniality brings this logic of oppression further in connection to modernity, specifically a singular narrative of being ‘modern’ that is defined by Western ideals. Walter Mignolo proposes decoloniality as a logic that delinks from coloniality by putting ourselves as separate subjects from this singular narrative. This is not necessarily to say that all Western ways of thinking or epistemologies are wrong and should be dismissed, but it should be “reduced to size”. Rather than taking Western knowledge as the way of knowing, decoloniality argues there are other ways of knowing that are equally valid. In this sense, Western traditions should be “put to size”, as equal to others and not a universal truth.
For me as a researcher, engaging with decolonial options/ thinking/ doing, starts from recognizing that I am a colonial subject. I was educated and trained in a Western tradition. So, for me to arrive at decolonial options, I had to first unlearn what I was taught to believe was “proper scientific methods” and the limitations of what can be considered knowledge. I did it out of necessity as someone originating from Maluku, personally experiencing a decade of conflict from the late 90s to the early 2000s, and having to face explanations of the conflict that didn’t make sense according to my experiences. So decolonial options gave the methodological tools and ontological-epistemological spaces I needed to pursue my research.
M: What does the 17th of August mean to you, looking from decolonial perspectives?
T: Decoloniality would start from questioning independence and what it actually means. When I did my dissertation draft seminar, my external examiner, Robbie Shilliam, said in response to my presentation: “Independence is a triumph of colonialism”. It took me some time to reflect on this statement. I think there are two ways to see this.
First, the formation of nation-state is a colonial product. The whole structure of nation-states originated in The West. So even though Western colonizers left through processes of decolonization, the ideas that validated various forms of oppressions continue to exist. The logic of coloniality, through relations of power, structures of knowledge, gender, etc. – these are different types of colonialism that did not leave when the colonizers physically left. They are embedded in the structures of governance that were taken over by the elite groups that form the nation-state.
Our founding fathers, for example, those who were part of Kongres Pemuda (Youth Congress) in 1928, they were all young (mostly) men and women educated by the Dutch. Yes, they were all resisting colonial power, but their idea of independence was limited to getting rid of Dutch colonizers and not necessarily to get rid of ideas of coloniality and existing logics of oppressions. The uniting of Indonesia under a singular motherland, nation, and language planted the seed to fight the Dutch colonizers but simultaneously erased from the state’s narrative the different experiences of colonization that existed across the archipelago.
Second, the independence of new nation-states exists within colonial discourse. Decolonization provided western colonizers with the historical milestone to wash their hands off from long term consequences of imperialism, shifting the responsibility to the newly independent nation-states. So, if the Indonesian government is guilty of committing acts of oppression and violence after independence, the ‘bad’ people are the Indonesian people not the colonizers. They [former colonizers] are able to say, “It’s ‘your’ problem, not ‘our’ problem”. The colonizers are not responsible for whatever happens after independence even though most of these conflicts are rooted in historical processes that started long ago, sentiments that were cultivated between these different groups through strategies of divide and conquer. So colonial logic and oppression continues, but this time it’s on “you”.
M: What are examples of other experiences that we need to acknowledge as part and parcel to the independence and formation of our nation?
T: We need to remember that we have different experiences of colonization in different parts of Indonesia. Some parts of Indonesia might have only been colonized under Dutch authority for about fifty years. Maluku, however, experienced one of the longest histories of colonization in Indonesia. The idea of “spice islands” that started the whole mission of Columbus discovering America were the Moluccas or the Maluku Islands. From the 16th century, these spice islands attracted different European nations, from the Spaniards, the Portuguese, to the British and Dutch colonizers. So, Maluku has experienced four hundred years of imperialism and, some might argue, continues to experience it.
Under colonization and strategies of divide and conquer, one of the ways to ensure obedience of Maluku was through religious conversion. For the Dutch, people who are converted became the most trustworthy among the locals. As such, Christians had a privileged position within the Dutch colonial system. The Dutch used Moluccan soldiers to conquer other parts of Indonesia, which led Malukans to be stigmatized as “black Dutchmen” or even worse, “Dutch watch dogs”. This created a stereotype that is rooted in racism. The racist stereotype of being black, with curly hair, from the East means you are backward and less was perpetuated by the fact that Malukans were seen as Dutch sympathizers and supporters. So, there is a double form of discrimination after independence. Then in the 1950s with the rebellion of trying to form the Republic of Southern Maluku, these stigmas became even stronger.
As a minority, coming from the Eastern part of Indonesia, as Christian as well – all of these stereotypes create a kind of cage. You are almost criminalized in a way, your existence pre-defined by this box. I remember my own experience of moving out from Maluku, where my education and socio-economic background allowed me some privileges, to Jakarta where all these privileges were lost and I had to face the different preconceived ideas people in Java often have of us coming from the East.
The narrative of Indonesian independence cannot continue to exclude these other experiences. When you talk about Maluku, you are talking of a people who have lived through the traumatic experience of oppression for hundreds of years. Under the Dutch the only way to survive after your whole land and all your assets were burned was to work as a Dutch soldier. Then after independence, under the Indonesian system, especially after RMS was crushed, then as a minority the only option to survive is to become very supportive to the NKRI because the moment you become critical of it you are at risk of being crushed again.
When you, as a group of people, is seen as a traitor, you have the burden to constantly prove and perform loyalty. For example, if you look at social movements in Maluku, it is very difficult to hold a protest because of all this trauma, these hundreds of years of oppression. Understanding this history and context, you will understand why Maluku people are very patriotic in celebrating the 17th of August. So, Indonesia’s independence a complex story of both victory and losses. It needs to be understood and commemorated as such.
M: There are critics who might say that a decoloniality challenges the NKRI (the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia). How would you respond to that?
T: Decolonial options is critical to any single narrative, including a single narrative on the idea of nation-state. In this sense, we can say that decoloniality is critical of NKRI because it is based on the notion of “negara kesatuan” (unitary state) that celebrates unity in diversity. It seems like an optimistic idea: although we are different, we are one. The reality is that diversity is only tolerated so long as you are putting yourself within one singular frame of NKRI. You cannot exist outside of this common frame, because if you do or even suggest it you will be seen as a traitor, forced to face the phrase “NKRI harga mati” – in other words NKRI or death. In that sense NKRI enforces uniformity.
Decolonial options calls for the opposite: to acknowledge different perspectives and allow the option to delink from this singular frame. After independence, the national project of solidifying NKRI stopped us from seeing different forms and structures of governance that existed across the archipelago. Supposedly, being truly independent – being free – we should have had options in front of us on what we wanted to do as we move forward. Instead, we just duplicated the same approaches that the colonizers used in forming their nation-states, their parliamentary and legal systems – thus continuing this idea that there is only one way of governing, one way to civilization, one way to modernization.
For example, the narrative often used to justify oppression in West Papua, is that we have to save them from destroying themselves. This was the same rationale the Dutch used to colonize us. We don’t think they are capable of self-governance and therefore we have to jump in to help them govern themselves, to help them civilize themselves. Because we see ourselves as somehow better than them. After independence, there was transformation to Javanize the whole nation. For example, through the establishment of ‘pemerintahan desa’ (village governance) everywhere. We never had the structures of desa (village) in Maluku. Instead we had independent negeri (independent states) with their own raja (kings). In the formation of the nation-state, you establish a uniformed structure from Sabang to Merauke. Everything follows the structure of desa (village), kecamatan (sub-district), kabupaten (regency), all these things – none of which are indigenous to Maluku.
Pointing out the exclusion of these “ways of being” often trigger emotional controversy. People presume that to do so means we support breaking up the NKRI. Debates about independence movements within Indonesia is important, but we need to remember that decolonization—referring to the colonizers leaving the colonies—on its own never undid the oppressive structures of colonialism. We need to imagine a more nuanced, plural response to these very difficult conversations. There isn’t one answer that will fit all. Perhaps the answers lie outside of NKRI, but also equally possible that the answers lie within it. This depends on whose voices get heard and given credence within the Republic. Decoloniality in a way is also about amplifying the voices that are most often ignored, dismissed, oppressed even, just because they do not fit neatly into a singular frame.
I am not suggesting to somehow undo history. I am arguing for the need to recognize that NKRI doesn’t have to be the only way to exist. And maybe by recognizing this, we can find different ways to exist and co-exist that are just as valid. This is not the only way nor the best way to exist. Indonesia is a nation-state formed out of unification. It didn’t exist before colonization. So, all these different smaller states that had existed prior to colonization, why can’t we even allow them the options to imagine themselves as they once were, or even beyond? Nowadays it’s near impossible to even think that that or other kind of existence is possible.
M: So how should we commemorate the sacrifices and struggles that our “founding fathers” put into our independence?
T: I’m not negating the fact that independence was a hard-fought victory for Indonesia. When you are conquered, you want to free yourself. When we were under colonial rule, freeing yourself means getting rid of the Dutch because you want to get rid of people who oppress you. What I want to emphasize is: what happens after independence matters.
In commemorating ‘Independence Day’, we mustn’t see it as ‘the end’- as if the 17th of August brought the end of colonization and all was done, all was well. Fighting for independence means fighting for it every day. It should be noted that, from a decolonial perspective, this does is not the same as the New Order’s call to fill independence with ‘development’. The top-down call for development is based on a singular idea of development as modernization and industrialization. Instead, fighting for independence from a decolonial perspective needs to be a non-prescriptive, plural, locally grounded process. Observe our society every day and see what forms of oppression still exists, learn to understand their roots, see what we can do to undo the logic that perpetuates the marginalization and subjugation of different groups.
After we got rid of the Dutch, we just continued to colonize ourselves in different ways. Our constitution declares that “penjajahan di atas dunia harus dihapuskan” (occupation should thus be erased from the earth), butthe elite took power and reproduced it. We didn’t question anything and we accepted this new form of governance. Our ‘founding fathers’ fought and died for independence, but we should remember that this is a struggle that still happens every day. Fighting for independence is not limited to the struggles to peoples and provinces who demand it. Look also at other marginalized groups in our society: labor, indigenous people, women – any kind of oppression we see on a daily basis. We should commemorate those who have sacrificed by remembering that independence should mean something bigger than just getting rid of the Dutch. People are still fighting and even dying for other forms of independence and autonomy every day.
 Walter Mignolo is a professor at Duke University. To read more on his work on decoloniality, see Walter D. Mignolo (2007) DELINKING, Cultural Studies, 21:2-3, 449-514 and Walter D Mignolo (2011) Geopolitics of sensing and knowing: on (de)coloniality, border thinking and epistemic disobedience, Postcolonial Studies, 14:3, 273-283
 Robbie Shilliam is a professor at John Hopkins University, whose research focuses on political and intellectual complicities of colonialism and race in the global order
 See Soukotta (2019) article entitled “An Uprising in West Papua” https://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/09/protests-west-papua-indonesia-surabaya-attack