Indonesia indigenous peoples: We exist!

The government of Indonesia this month responded to UN recommendations to recognize the rights of its indigenous peoples by claiming that none live in the country. In a response to the UN’s Universal Periodic Review, a four–year human rights check-up for all countries, Indonesia said, “The Government of Indonesia supports the promotion and protection of indigenous people worldwide… Indonesia, however, does not recognize the application of the indigenous peoples concept… in the country.”

The UN’s report recommended that Indonesia should consider ratifying International Labor Organization Convention 169, the only international standard for indigenous and tribal peoples. It also recommended that Indonesia should secure the rights of its indigenous peoples, especially to their traditional lands, territories and resources. 

UK-based advocacy group Survival International believes that “Indonesia treats its indigenous and tribal people worse than any other country in the world,” especially citing the case of West Papua, where killings, torture and rape of tribal people have been repeatedly documented. The figure of 100,000 people killed since 1963 is believed to be a “conservative estimate,” according to Survival.

The Indonesian government does recognize exactly 365 distinct ethnic and sub-ethnic groups—but defines them as “komunitas adat terpencil,” or “geographically-isolated customary law communities.” These number approximately 1.1 million, out of a total population of nearly 250 million. Indonesia is a signatory to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but the government’s official position is that concept of indigenous peoples is not applicable to the country, as almost all Indonesians (with the exception of the ethnic Chinese) are indigenous.

The national indigenous peoples’ organization, Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara (AMAN), uses the term masyarakat adat to refer to indigenous peoples (meaning, more or less, “traditional communities”). By AMAN’s estimate, Indonesia is home to approximately 50 million indigenous and tribal people. (Intercontinental Cry, Oct. 3; Survival International, Oct. 1; International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs)