Is Anyone Really 'Pribumi'?

A chance conversation leads our reporter on a search for the roots of what it means to be Indonesian.
August 18, 2017, 12:07pm
Source photo via Flickr. Illustration by Iyas Lawrence

My ethnic heritage is pretty straight-forward. I was born in Bandung, West Java, to two Sundanese parents. Growing up Sundanese—the indigenous people of West Java—in the city of Bandung meant I never had to feel like I was of somewhere else. I never had to question my "Indonesia-ness." I mean West Java covers a huge chunk of the island, and Bandung is only a few hours from the capital. What could be more Indonesian than that?


Then, one day, I was walking down the street in Yogyakarta when a bunch of becak drivers shouted "Konnichiwa!" at me. I smiled and shrugged it off. Maybe they couldn't see all that well. There are a lot of Japanese tourists in Jogja after all. But then a few blocks later, another group of people greeted me with "Konnichiwa! Japan? Japan?"

I kept walking and eventually sat down to drink some es campur. That's when the person sitting next to me turned and tried to strike up a conversation, asking "Where do you come from? Thailand?"

That's when I started to question my looks. Do I not look "pribumi" enough? Hell, am I even "pribumi" at all? Is anyone? The term means indigenous, as in of the nation of Indonesia. It's a signifier that means your heritage is from the soil of this nation, and there alone.

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To be pribumi is to have your Indonesia-ness unchallenged. It's an ethnic signifier that has, throughout history, been subject to orientalist myths, vilification, and politicization. To the Dutch, pribumi were backwards natives who couldn't be trusted with anything more than labor and servitude. To Indonesia's nationalists, pribumi was a mark of pride, a sign that you were one of the "real" Indonesians.

This last idea still hold significant sway today. The contentious Jakarta election brought up a lot of the old ideas about pribumi vs non-pribumi in terms of economics, religion, and ethnicity. Indigenous Indonesians started to worry that non-pribumi were stealing all the high-paying jobs. Then Vice President Jusuf Kalla said there was a significant gap between the wealth of different religious groups—a not-so coded statement that accused the country's non-pribumi (i.e. Chinese) minorities of consolidating all the money.


But what does pribumi mean anyway?

Ariel Heryanto, a researcher from Monash University, in Australia, argued that the term "pribumi" was little more than a cultural invention in his book Pergulatan Intelektual dalam Era Kegelisahan. Before the arrival of the Dutch, the indigenous peoples of Indonesia saw themselves as members of distinct ethnic groups with their own histories of rulers and warring kingdoms.

But the Dutch East India Company (VOC) paved over all of these distinctions, lumping people into a three-tiered system. At the top were white Europeans. Beneath them were the ethnic Chinese, Arab, and Indian traders, as well as those of half-European descent. At the bottom were the "inlanders"—or "pribumi"—a term that basically grouped together all the indigenous people who were already here when the VOC boats arrived.

The VOC didn't care about indigenous groups or historical differences. They cared about ethnic restrictions instead. The pribumi class were governed by rules that unfairly limited their professions, political participation, culture, and even haircuts. When we look back on the VOC years, the pribumi class were seen as a vulnerable and oppressed people, according to an opinion piece Ariel wrote for CNN Indonesia.

Fast-forward to the Suharto regime and the power imbalances were flipped. Under the New Order regime, it was the Chinese ethnic minority who suffered racial discrimination and government restrictions that limited their roles politically, as well as outlawed their culture, language, and even last names. As VICE wrote about before, the New Order required Chinese Indonesians to change their last names to something more "Indonesian" sounding.

"Now, the existence of the term is preserved with a little change, which is the swapping of the position of the glorified and the vulnerable," Ariel wrote.


Since the New Order, it became impossible to fully separate ideas of nationalism and ethnicity from internationalism and otherness. Pribumi, once a term used to discriminate against indigenous peoples, now means pureness and authenticity. But how, in a country that's only 72 years old, can one group be more "authentic" than another when both have been here for hundreds of years?

Maybe Herawati Supolo-Sudoyo knows the answer. I met her at her office in Lembaga Eijkman, a a bio-molecular research institute in Central Jakarta where she has spent the last 21 years studying the genetic heritage of Indonesia for a project titled "The Peopling of Indonesia Archipelago."

Herawati told me that her team has been working to reconstruct the country's history of housing, migration, and genetic mixing by traveling across the nation and gathering genetic material to test and analyze.

"Indonesia is a bridge between Asia and the Pacific," Herawati told VICE. "But there's a missing link between mainland Asia and Europe with the Pacific. There's complete information about the people of the Pacific and Polynesia. The same goes for Europeans. But we don't have genetic data for Indonesians because nobody studies it."

Here's what Herawati and her team discovered: The first waves of migration to Indonesia occurred 50 to 60 thousand years ago when early humans left Sub-Saharan Africa and headed east toward Asia. They passed through the archipelago, some settling in along the way, as others continued onward to Australia and the Pacific. The genetic markers of this group are more heavily represented in eastern Indonesia, Herawati said.


Then, 30,000 years ago, a second wave of migration arrived from Taiwan and Mainland China into the country's west, mixing into the existing population and influencing what would later become the Indonesian people. This is why, even today, there is a different in appearance and genetic origin of people from Indonesia's east and west, Herawati said.

"We take two poles of ancestors, which are the Han Chinese from Mainland China and [the Melanesian people] of PNG," she told me. "So which one is native? The fact is, everyone is a mix. Anyone can determine who is the native. If a person says 'you're pure Indonesian' the next question is 'what is Indonesia?' Indonesia is geopolitics, it's one nation with various people."

So am I pribumi or not, I asked.

"It's evident that in the west part of Indonesia there were many Austroasiatic and Austronesian people from South China, Yunan," she said, explaining that the roots of the indigenous people of Java and Sumatra were found not in Indonesia, but 4,000 kilometers north in China.

It's an interesting bit of information. The pribumi/ non-pribumi split often rears its head in Indonesia with regards to the country's ethnic Chinese community. But here we all have the same heritage, if you go back far enough. It sort of feels a bit self-hating to me. The Chinese blood in me might be from 30,000 years ago, but it's there regardless, buried deep in my genetic roots.

Shouldn't that alone mean that we should spend more time focusing on our similarities instead of our differences? Maybe, but saying we're all, on some level, the same misses some of the complexities of what pribumi really means.

The concept of pribumi is more than mere genetics, said Thung Ju Lan, an ethnicity at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI). The term, instead, lives in the minds and the social constructions of the people who continue to use it. Today, pribumi is seen as something valuable, something that's a vital part of one's self.


"At first 'pribumi' referred to 'bumiputera,' which was used in the fight against the colonizers," Ju Lan told VICE. "But now there's a different association to the term. Now it's associated with power. When they say 'pribumi,' they're trying to say 'I'm the one who deserves the power,' 'I'm the rightful leader,' 'I'm the leader of the majority.' One thing is for sure, it's not associated with humanity."

Ju Lan herself is Chinese Indonesia, so she's well-aware of the kinds of discrimination non-pribumi can face in Indonesia. To be non-pribumi is to be seen as a non-native, a foreigner, and often the victim of some kind of built-in prejudice about what, exactly, that means, she told me.

"In the case of Chinese and pribumi, the majority still uses this historical construction of pribumi during the Dutch colonial era," Ju Lan said. "Back in those days, the Dutch gave those of Chinese descent certain privileges. But how long ago was that? We've been independent for more than 70 years."

So then why has the term stuck around so long? Because it still means something to a lot of people, Ju Lan said.

"From a biological or historical perspective there's no such thing as native, but I still say there is such thing as native, because 'pribumi' is in everyone's minds, in our construction [of our identity]," Ju Lan said.

The issue gets even more complex when it starts to shift from a search for authenticity into something that more resembles nativism. Similar shifts are currently underway in the United States, where anti-immigrant sentiment is fast becoming the norm in US President Donald Trump's White House and an increasingly bold fringe of white supremacists are rising to prominence.


The Jakarta election exposed some of this nativism. Racist anti-Chinese sentiment boiled to the surface during the contentious campaign season, while issues of religion painted the vote in stark sectarian tones. "The race to 'authenticity' is also fatalistic," argued Lailatul Fitriyah, a PhD candidate at the University of Norte Dame, in an op-ed for the Jakarta Post.

She continued:

"It leaves no room for any pluralistic claim due to its binary-based ideology. Within this perspective, there cannot be two groups of pribumi. One is either pribumi or non-prubumi, and if one is the latter then the other is targeted for extinguishment from the system, hence the inhumane rejection of the bodies of those who allegedly supported the non-pribumi candidate."

I reached out to Lailatul and asked her what she thought of the increasing use of the word pribumi in politics. The whole thing, she said, is alarming.

"The popular nativism right now is alarming because there's a mix of nativism coming from ethnicity, facial features, physical features, and religious elements," she told VICE. "This kind of nativism is more dangerous than nativism that's based on tribalism, because these current cases are a form of theological justification… of absolute truth."

And, today, as religion enters the mix of what it means to be an authentic Indonesian, the term pribumi itself has become more flexible. Under the original Dutch constructs of identity, those of Arab descent were considered non-pribumi, alongside the Chinese and Indian Indonesians.


But definitions shift, and now Islam is seen as a central tenant of what it means to be Indonesian by some of the country's more hardline nativists. So just like that Indonesians with Arab blood went from being an other, a non-pribumi, to being the ideal of what it means to be Indonesian.

"Now there's this tendency to make religion something that can be sold as a political commodity," said Lailatul. "That's why those of Arab descent who used to be alienated just like those of Chinese descent are now not only considered pribumi, but also the ideal prototype. It's like if you have Arab blood, you're more Islamic than others. You're more pribumi."

Indonesians of Arab descent share a religion with much of Indonesia's indigenous population. Those of Chinese and Indian descent don't—a fact that makes them outsiders while pulling those with Arab blood closer to the center.

Ben Sohib, a writer and an Indonesian of Arab descent, told VICE that he thinks the terms pribumi and non-pribumi are no longer relevant in modern Indonesia. The term rose to popularity when it was re-appropriated from colonial rulers to describe something that was proudly Indonesian. But then it became politicized and wrapped up in layers of religion, ethnicity, and power.

"Right now I see that term used as a political issue, especially in identity politics," Ben told me. "It's weird the term is making a comeback. In other words, we're going backwards as a nation."

I started this journey wondering what it mean to be pribumi. Now I'm unsure if it means anything concrete at all. The term is something that's malleable, something based on both our colonial history, our rise as a nation, and the racism that continues to persist today. So what did I learn? Am I pribumi or not? I can only answer that with another question: Is anyone?