Nia Sjarifudin: Defending local cultures and beliefs

A. Junaidi, The Jakarta Post, Yogyakarta

“Sampur asun. Being Sundanese, I will use a Sundanese greeting,” Nia Sjarifudin said, in greeting participants at a recent workshop on tribal communities.

Nia, coordinator of the National Alliance of Unity in Diversity (ANBTI), said many Sundanese — the largest ethnic group in West Java — have begun replacing the Islamic greeting of Assalaimualaikum with their own local greeting, to fight against the rising tides of fundamentalism and puritanism. So have members of other ethnic groups, she added.

In the workshop, organized by the ANBTI, Nia urged participants to express their cultures through such greetings and traditional attire.

Working with tribal communities is Nia’s main activity. Along with other activists, she played a key role in the movement that led to former president Soeharto’s forced resignation.

“It’s now my focus. Without them, there is no Indonesia, as the country is known for its diversity,” she said in an interview with The Jakarta Post.

After graduating from an economics institute in Bandung, Nia became involved in various NGOs including Solidaritas Perempuan (Women’s Solidarity), the Independent Committee for Election Monitoring and Empowering Movement for Women’s Voices.

“Before coming to the ANBTI, I took a two-year break from activism. I had to take care of my children,” said the mother of two.

The ANBTI was established on June 25, 2006, at the end of a four-day meeting in Surabaya. Nia and hundreds of other activists and tribal leaders formed the alliance through the “Surabaya Declaration”.

Workshop participants recently called on Indonesia to protect its cultural diversity, based on the state ideology of Pancasila and the country’s foundational motto, “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” (Unity in Diversity).

In Jakarta, local leaders met members of the Regional Representatives Council and expressed concerns over the current Anti-Pornography Bill, which is viewed as a threat to traditional forms of cultural expression, such as local dance and rituals.

The recent enactment of sharia-based bylaws also threatened the existence of minority communities, workshop leaders said.

In addition to expressing concerns over the Anti-Pornography Bill and sharia bylaws, participants also urged the government to take firm action to end the religious conflict in Poso, Central Sulawesi.

Thousands of people have been killed in the region as a result of more than a decade of religious violence between Muslims and Christians.

Although the conflict has subsided, violence could reoccur, if the government and nation did not acknowledge and respect cultural and religious diversity, Nia said.

“I now believe the future of Indonesia depends on how we maintain our nation’s diversity. If we fail, ‘Indonesia’ as we know it may no longer exist,” Nia said on the sidelines of the workshop in Yogyakarta.

As many as 60 leaders, from 19 ethnic communities across the country, attended workshops held in Jakarta and Yogyakarta from June 30 to July 7.

The communities included the Sawang from Belitung, Sumatra; the Cigugur of Kuningan, West Java; the Cirendeu of Cimahi, West Java; the Kejawen faith of Yogyakarta; the Anak Dalam, from Jambi; the Dayak Siang and Dayak Mak’anyam, from Central Kalimantan; the Sangihe, from North Sulawesi; the Seram of Maluku; the Boti of East Nusa Tenggara; and a tribe from Papua.

In Yogyakarta, ethnic group leaders joined a workshop on journalism and filmmaking.

“We hope they can write about and film their own cultures,” Nia said.

The ANBTI is planning an International Cultural Film Festival for 2010, involving films from Indonesia’s tribal communities, as well as films from ethnic communities around the world.

The growing trend of fundamentalism — particularly, Islamic fundamentalism — is feared by many groups in the country, including tribal community leaders who often call on the government to protect their cultures and beliefs against “imported faiths”.

Before former president Soeharto’s downfall in 1998, the Indonesian government recognized only five religions: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism and Buddhism. Followers of local beliefs were forced to choose one of the five to avoid administrative difficulties, such as in obtaining identity cards or marriage certificates.

“To be honest, they (the tribal communities) have more right to live in the country, as they have been living here long before imported religions arrived,” Nia said.

The leaders of some ethnic groups — particularly those from eastern Indonesia — have threatened to separate from the country, if the current trend of religious fundamentalism persists, she added.

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