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Divisions, the Starting Point of the Fall – Kompas

Divisions, the Starting Point of the Fall

Kompas/ Membaca IndonesiaDecember, 14, 2016, By: Antony Lee & Agnes Theodora

“The Republic of Indonesia is not owned by a group, does not belong to a certain religion, does not belong to a certain ethnicity and is not owned by a group of mores, but belongs to all of us from Sabang to Merauke!” – First President of the Republic of Indonesia, Ir. Soekarno

The smile on the face of Poengky Van den Broeke, 60, faded straight away. His memory took him back to a night when five members of his family were killed in a tragic conflict. Nearly a century has passed since the image of Indonesia as a nation was created. However, the divisions that facilitated colonists to control Nusantara (the archipelago), often still have a place.

The chirps of egret birds in the Great Walling nutmeg plantation on Banda Besar Island, Central Maluku regency, in late November, was in contrast to the choking voice of Poengky. In the plantation, about 16 years ago, the Dutch-Javanese-Maluku offspring was hiding from the mass attacks during the bloody riots that spread from Ambon to Banda Naira.

The riots that started in Ambon in 1999 not only burned down houses and parts of the nutmeg plantation belonging to Poengky, but also claimed the lives of his wife, two children, mother and an aunt of his. Poengky’s two other children were seriously injured as a result of the blows of sharp weapons.

Most people involved in the riots know Poengky. Several of them are his neighbors and employees. They were agitated by provocations of race, religion, ethnicity and inter-group issues. “I do not want to hold a feeling of resentment. Revenge will only hurt ourselves. I threw away all my grudges after that night,” said Poengky.

There are many opinions about the causes of the riots in Ambon that spread to the surrounding areas. However, whatever the cause, the impact of any incidents, such as riots, everywhere is always the same: casualties, material losses, profound grief and losses of social cohesion in the community.

Kingdoms in Nusantara

Centuries ago, divisions and conflicts in the community up to the ruling elite contributed to the collapse of Nusantara kingdoms, especially since the arrival of European imperialist powers – the Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch – in the 16th century.

Bernard HM Vlekke in his book Nusantara Sejarah Indonesia (Nusantara the History of Indonesia) noted, after the fall of the grandeur of the Majapahit Kingdom in 1389, there was political turmoil. The kingdoms in Nusantara began to disintegrate. The unity aspired by Gajah Mada slowly disappeared.

Parakitri Simbolon in Menjadi Indonesia (Becoming Indonesia) wrote that the divisions among elites of the kingdoms and the fragility of national structures in the order of society in the 16th century facilitated the colonialists to control Nusantara lands for centuries.

“It was not the colonialists who divided us. Before they arrived, we had been fighting with each other. The weakness was exploited. It was easy to conquer a territory when communities and their leaders were weakened by continued conflicts,” said professor of history at the University of Pattimura Ambon, John Pattikayhatu.

Maluku, which is located in the eastern part of Indonesia, became an entrance for the European people who were in pursuit of wealth through spices, especially cloves and nutmeg. In Jazirah al-Mulk, or the ‘land of kings’, conflicts occurred among groups of people, elites in the kingdom, as well as among kingdoms in one area.

In Banda Naira, North Maluku, which at that time constituted a famous nutmeg producer, a war between the villages already occurred before the invaders came. An archaeologist from the University of Washington, Peter V Lape, in Political Dynamics and Religious Change in the Late Pre-colonial Banda Islands, Eastern Indonesia, said a major battle occurred in 1599 between an alliance of villages in Labbatekka and Naira. The causes were tree felling by residents of one village in another village. The chronic conflicts weakened the villages in Banda Naira, the political structure of which was flat and without any king.

As a result, when Governor-General of the East Indies Trade Union (VOC) JP Coen invaded Banda Naira to sweep away local residents for the sake of the nutmeg monopoly, the Labbatekka village was powerless. “When the Dutch arrived and other villages fiercely opposed, there was no significant resistance from Labbatekka, as its population was only limited,” Lape wrote.

In Ternate and Tidore, two great kingdoms in the North Maluku area, internal power struggles in the kingdoms and between the two sultanates facilitated the early episodes of the European military and economic imperialism in Nusantara.

Georg E Rumphius (1627-1702), a botanist who became an employee of the VOC in his record De Ambonsche Historie, which had already been translated, said when Portuguese ships led by Francesco Serrao ran aground near the island of Ambon, Ternate and Tidore Sultans, who were competing for territory, rushed to send envoys to invite Serrao. The Ternate Sultan envoy met Serrao earlier and made a cooperation agreement to fight against Tidore. The agreement initiated the trade monopoly and Portuguese interference for many years in the Sultanate of Ternate.

Effect of Ternate and Tidore conflicts at that time affected the small islands around the Maluku region, such as Banda Naira. Lonthor Island was under the influence of Tidore, while Naira Island was affiliated with Ternate. The conflicts between the two kingdoms, according to Deputy Rector of Hatta-Sjahrir University in Banda Naira, Muhammad Farid, triggered disputes among communities in Lonthor and Naira.

“There was the ulisiwa group (the alliance of nine) representing Tidore and ulilima (the alliance of five) representing Ternate. The disputes in the ‘center’ had impacts up to the community in Banda,” said Farid.

The enmity also occurred between elites in the same internal sultanate. The internal political intrigue in the Sultanate of Ternate in 1528-1529 showed how easy it was for the Portuguese to divide the royal elite. Adnan Amal in Kepulauan Rempah-rempah (Islands of Spices) said the third Sultan of Ternate Deyalo was in conflict with Taruwese, the powerful man of the kingdom that was close to the Portuguese Governor De Menezes.

Taruwese eyed the throne of Deyalo, who was still young. Only a year in power, Deyalo was ousted in a coup by Taruwese and the Portuguese. Deyalo was expelled and Taruwese was crowned as a sultan. The people opposed Taruwese. When the relation between Taruwese and Menezes was broken, the Portuguese authorities helped people topple Taruwese. The man who got the high position through the coup was killed by his own people. Since the death of Taruwese, the Portuguese strengthened its influence through interference in the change of the throne in the Sultanate of Ternate.

A little bit to the west, the Sultanate of Gowa, Makassar, South Sulawesi, also dealt with conflicts no less intense. An internal conflict intensified between Gowa and the Bugis Bone tribe led by Arung Palakka. M.C. Ricklefs in A History of Modern Indonesia Since C.1300 described the alliance between Arung Palakka and the VOC in a war against the Sultanate of Gowa that led to the fall of the Sultanate of Gowa and the strengthened base of the VOC in Sulawesi.

Pattimura University historian Usman Talib argued that the domino effect that led to the fall of Nusantara, which started from the east, was not only caused by the divided elites. According to him, the advancement of European weaponry more so than the local kingdoms in the 16th century was the determining factor. However, he did not deny that the elite divisions became one of the many variables for the downfall of Nusantara.


A great nation is the one that is willing to continue to learn from history. Lecturer of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Pattimura Josep Antonius Ufi said the story about divisions in the order of society and the elite in the era of colonialism was still very relevant for learning. What developed during the colonial period has the potential to continue to recur, because the legacy of the past about the fragility of the national spirit and unity is still filling the nation’s collective memory.

“Whenever there is the slightest trigger, conflicts will easily arise. If we are busy with conflicts, the country will become weaker in facing the challenges of the times. Instead of moving forward, we go backward,” said Josep.

During the seven decades since Indonesia’s independence, conflicts with the backdrop of ethnicity, religion, race and groups repeatedly occurred in Nusantara. Instead of becoming increasingly intertwined, social cohesion, which became the basis of the image of Indonesia as a diverse nation, was seen to be tested even more in a number of places. Meanwhile, the political elites are relatively preoccupied with the struggle for seats of power in order to facilitate the way to the 2019 General Election.

If the government and the public are not careful, the turmoil that emerged in recent weeks could threaten the nation. “Do not forget, Indonesia had once practiced unity amid diversity. Squabbling kingdoms and villages were finally united to expel the same enemy, namely the invaders. Now, more enemies appear in other forms and we should face [them] with compactness,” said Farid.

Conflicts also always bring bitterness. As someone who has felt the pain of conflict, Poengky Van Den Broeke gave a short message, “Do not be easily provoked. This nation is our future.”