Indonesian culture is heavily influenced by the many traditional rituals, traditions, and beliefs that originate from the archipelago. Despite this, many forms of spirituality have come under heavy pressure after Indonesia became independent. How is it possible that Indonesia is suppressing its homegrown beliefs?

Koen de Hek, Contributor

Ceremony of a once popular local belief on Java, Sapto Darmo. As a result of almost continuous repression over the years, the number of ‘official’ adherents has declined significantly.

A quick recap
The Indonesian government officially recognizes 6 religions (of which one, Confucianism, was only recognized in 2006). However,  Indonesia is home to countless other indigenous beliefs and religions as well, which are not recognized yet. In fact, no one even really seems to know how many people adhere to traditional beliefs in Indonesia.
    According to the ministry of education and culture, there are 187 different penghayat kepercayaan (adherents to traditional beliefs) that have organizations representing them at the national level. Up to 20 million people in Indonesia are estimated to adhere to a traditional belief. Besides that, many Indonesians combine an ‘official’ religion with local cultural or religious practices. However, these people are not seen as penghayat kepercayaan.

    It is a chilling fact that, because they are not officially recognized, many penghayat kepercayaan are often discriminated against (by both the government and society at large), and sometimes even become the victims of physical abuse. They are often seen as shamans who perform witchcraft or other dark rituals.
    For example, every Indonesian citizen is obliged to state his religion on his identity card. But, because their beliefs are not recognized, penghayat kepercayaan were (until last year) not able to fill in a religion on their identity card. As a result of this, they are sometimes seen as adherents to Atheism and as supporters of the defunct Indonesian Communist Party (both of which are forbidden in Indonesia). This might seem like a small matter, but it has big consequences. Penghayat kepercayaan are sometimes not able to find a job because employers reject them based on their faith (or perceived lack thereof). Moreover, penghayat kepercayaan are often not able to obtain certain legal documents because of their religious background. These are just two examples of the problems penghayat kepercayaan face in their daily lives. Many penghayat kepercayaan struggle both at the local and national level for recognition, representation, and fair treatment.
    Last year, a very positive development took place, when Indonesia’s constitutional court stated that penghayat kepercayaan have the right to being equally served by the government as any other religious community . Penghayat Kepercayaan are now also allowed to write ‘kepercayaan’ (a generic term for ‘belief’) on their ID and finally able to demand equal treatment. However, the Indonesian government still needs to implement the court’s decision at the moment, and remove all the discriminatory laws that are currently in place.
    Penghayat Kepercayaan continue to face many challenges, even though their beliefs originate from Indonesia. So, why does the Indonesian government seem to reject parts of Indonesia’s heritage?

How did it get to this point?
There are three historical events that had a huge impact on the position of penghayat kepercayaan that continue to shape their lives. These events are: the formulation of the Pancasila, the extermination of the PKI in the 1960s,  and Suharto’s redefinition of the position of religion in Indonesia. These three major events have shaped, and continue to shape, the debate around the position of traditional beliefs in Indonesia.
    The Pancasila has been Indonesia’s state ideology since independence. It consists of 5 principles. The first principle clearly states that every Indonesian citizen has to believe in one God (Ketuhanan Yang Maha Esa). This does, in theory, grant religious freedom to Indonesia’s ‘official’ religious minorities (Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists, Hindus, and Confucianists).
Considering that there were influential leaders that called for the establishment of an Islamic state, the Pancasila was not the worst alternative for penghayat kepercayaan.
    However, it has had a double effect on the position of traditional beliefs in the country. On the one hand, it grants them some protection if they explicitly state that they also believe in one God. But here lies the problem, because some traditional beliefs have multiple Gods. Many can be considered as animist as well, where the worship of spirits plays a much bigger role than an almighty God. In contemporary times, many traditional beliefs have had to adjust their beliefs to meet the demand of believing in one God.
    Whereas the Pancasila still gave penghayat kepercayaan a way to practice their faith, even if they had to adjust it to the official state philosophy, the destruction of the PKI proved to be disastrous for them. As mentioned, the PKI was completely eliminated in 1965. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in the biggest massacre of Indonesia’s history. These horrible killings also have had a lasting impact on the position of penghayat kepercayaan in Indonesia. One of the main reasons for this is that supporters of the PKI are all branded as atheists who defame every religion. At the same time, adherents of traditional beliefs were (and still are) often not seen as adherents to any religion.
    This is reinforced by the fact that, for a long time, they were not allowed to write ‘kepercayaan’ on their KTP (the Indonesian identity card), which led some to just leave the religious column on their identity card blank. Nowadays, many penghayat kepercayaan simply write one of the official religions on their identity card in order to avoid any problems. Because the issue of communism in Indonesia is still incredibly sensitive, many penghayat kepercayaan continue to face discrimination as they are seen as supporters of the outlawed PKI. This has put additional pressure on them to convert to a recognized religion or, at least, to formally register themselves as adherents of an official religion.
    Interestingly, Indonesia did not always oblige its citizens to register their religion. So, since when is there a “religion” column on the ID of all Indonesian citizens? The answer to this question lays in the third historical event that had an enormous impact on the position of penghayat kepercayaan. When Suharto took power after exterminating the PKI, he codified the position of religion in Indonesia. In 1967, Suharto issued a decree that obliged all Indonesian citizens to register their religion. So, it was essentially made mandatory to adhere to one of the official religions. This immediately created problems for penghayat kepercayaan, because some religions could be registered.
    Then, in 1978, the Suharto government issued Decree II/1978, which comprised a ‘guideline’ of how the Pancasila should be applied ‘correctly’. In this decree, it was explicitly stated that religion and traditional beliefs were two different things. This, combined with the aforementioned decree of 1967, essentially forced pen ghayat kepercayaan to ‘convert’ (at least on paper). Furthermore, it was not possible for many of them to practice their faith openly.
    Even though the 1978 decree was later revoked, it had already done a lot of damage, as many penghayat kepercayaan were still afraid to change their religion again or to openly practice their faith. Moreover, until the verdict of the constitutional court last year that stated that penghayat kepercayaan should be served equally, they were not able to register their faith on their ID. This is a direct legacy of Suharto’s regime that is still complicating the position of traditional beliefs in contemporary  Indonesia.
    Lastly, in 1965, a blasphemy law was enacted, under which anyone who criticized or deviated from one of the six official religions could be prosecuted and given a jail sentence of up to five years. The law was,most likely, mainly drafted in order to curb the influence of the PKI (as the PKI was, and still is, seen as atheist and anti-religious). However, the law has been used  to persecute penghayat kepercayaan as well because their teachings are seen as deviant, misleading, and as a threat to ‘national harmony’. Moreover, it makes the other two laws even more oppressive, since it is not possible for penghayat kepercayaan to openly criticize them without risking a jail sentence.

Contemporary dynamics between religion and kepercayaan
As mentioned before, penghayat kepercayaan face many challenges in their daily lives. They are often discriminated against, their economic opportunities are sometimes limited as a result of their religious background, and they often do not have the same access to public services as other religious groups in Indonesia. I want to stress here that these are not isolated incidents. Throughout Indonesia penghayat kepercayaan face surprisingly similar issues and discriminatory practices. Interestingly, it does not vary much per type of traditional belief. Different traditional beliefs are discriminated against in the same ways. However the position of these traditional beliefs does vary per region and even per district. It often depends on the village head (kepala desa) or district leader (bupati) whether they are free to practice their faith or not. Unfortunately, this means that their position can deteriorate quickly when newly elected government officials do not accept these traditional beliefs and seek to limit their activities.
    One of the main discussions in contemporary Indonesia is whether traditional beliefs should be considered religions or not, and whether they should be seen as equal to religion in Indonesian law and society. According to many Islamic scholars, traditional beliefs are part of Indonesian culture, but cannot be termed ‘religions’. Because of that, in their opinion, traditional beliefs should not have the same status as the official religions.  
    Moreover, traditional beliefs are seen by the government as part of Indonesian culture, not as religions. This is illustrated by the fact that traditional beliefs fall under the Ministry of Culture and Education and not under the Ministry of Religion. This means that even though many traditional beliefs are accepted as cultural practices, they are not fully recognized.
    Additionally, although traditional beliefs are collectively represented by a dedicated council (MLKI), there are many beliefs that are not affiliated with it. Besides that, the number of adherents to traditional beliefs is very unclear, as many are still afraid to show their true identity because they fear the possible repercussions.
    The aforementioned issues of how to represent, register, and record adherents to traditional beliefs are mainly issues that need to be resolved on a national level. However, on a local level, penghayat kepercayaan also encounter many problems. Although the government plays a role here, it is often local communities that socially exclude penghayat kepercayaan as well. For example in Brebes, central Java, there have been cases where the bodies of penghayat kepercayaan, that passed away, could not be buried in the public cemetery because the local community rejected their faith. In Rembang, also on central Java, a place of worship of a traditional belief was destroyed by members of the local community. In 2009, a group of penghayat kepercayaan was attacked by a local chapter of the Islamist group Front Pembela Islam (FPI) after a heated discussion about the nature of God.
    These are just some examples of the ways in which penghayat kepercayaan are discriminated against and sometimes even physically attacked because of their beliefs. I want to stress here that these local incidents are not always stimulated by the government, even though they might be caused indirectly by the government’s view on the nature of religion. They are mainly the result of the resentment of local communities against certain traditional beliefs and practices.

Moving forward
Since penghayat kepercayaan face challenges at both a national and a local level, there is not one clear-cut solution that will solve all of their problems immediately. However, there are a few ways in which their position can be easily improved.
    First of all, the Indonesian government should fully implement the constitutional court’s verdict that stated that penghayat kepercayaan should be served and treated equally as the official religions immediately. This verdict is already a robust legal basis for the granting of equal rights to penghayat kepercayaan. In fact, it makes it a legal obligation for the Indonesian government to do so. Unfortunately, the verdict has only been implemented partially so far. One reason behind this might be the ongoing conservative turn in Indonesian Islam. This, combined with upcoming elections, might lead the Indonesian government to postpone possible reforms in order to not attract criticism from their support base. However, this verdict is one of the most powerful defensive weapons that penghayat kepercayaan currently possess and should be implemented as soon as possible.
    Whereas the verdict should, in principle, lead to more social inclusion at a national level, additional programmes are needed to increase the social inclusion of penghayat kepercayaan at a local level. One good initiative in this regard is the ‘Care Programme’ (Programme Peduli) that is supported (albeit not openly) by the Indonesian government and funded by the Australian government. This programme is designed to “improve social inclusion for six of Indonesia’s most marginalized groups who are underserved by government services and social protection programs”.
    Penghayat kepercayaan are one of the six target groups so they directly benefit from this government initiative. The strength of this programme is that it works on both a local and a national level. On the local level, NGOs work together with communities that adhere to traditional beliefs. They try to stimulate social interaction between penghayat kepercayaan and the broader community, and in general work together with penghayat kepercayaan to improve their position. On the national level, so-called ‘umbrella organizations’ monitor and coordinate the local programmes, provide funding to local partners, and conduct research on a national scale to inform Indonesian policy makers. In this way, discrimination is concurrently combatted at both the national and the local level.

The ‘local wisdom festival’ was held last July (2018) to celebrate Indonesia’s countless local beliefs. It is one example of the ways in which NGOs and local communities try to foster social inclusion.
Source:  (courtesy of Satunama)

The ‘Care Programme’ is a hopeful sign that the position of penghayat kepercayaan can be improved. Unfortunately, the fact that Joko Widodo’s government is not willing to openly support this programme, because of a fear that it will negatively impact its standing in the upcoming elections, illustrates how sensitive the position of traditional beliefs still is in Indonesia. Nevertheless, programmes like this should be continued because they are already contributing to the integration of many marginalized communities in Indonesia’s society.
    In that context, I desperately hope that foreign donors will not abandon the programme as that will have disastrous consequences for local communities throughout Indonesia. The short term goal is mainly to ensure that the government provides equal services to everyone, regardless of their faith. However, in the long term, social acceptance of indigenous beliefs will have to increase for local beliefs to survive. I believe that this is something that can be achieved and that Indonesians will, in the end, be able to come to terms with Indonesia’s original religions.