(2010) JLP 62: 1-42






Birgit Bräuchler




On the fall of Suharto, the long-surviving authoritarian president of Indonesia, in 1998, the ‘reform era’ began. Quite revolutionary laws on decentralisation sought to meet international notions of democracy and human rights, and local claims to greater self-determination. The decentralisation process in Indonesia was thus accompanied by a nationwide trend to revive local traditions, political units and institutions, and traditional leaders. This paper focuses on the Moluccan islands in Eastern Indonesia, where, in addition to a revival of adat (tradition and customary law), there was a strategic move by local people to foster reconciliation after conflicts in the early post-Suharto period, mainly between Christians and Muslims.


At the international level Indonesia took account of the recently developed notions of collective human rights, including indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination and autonomy, and their rights to preserve and practice their own culture. This entailed the revival and re-recognition of traditional villages (negeri) and the reinstallation of traditional village heads (raja). New decentralisation laws enabled village people as cultural collectivities to return to their village adat, but tended towards the exclusion, or non-equal treatment, of cultural outsiders.


At the national level decentralisation provisions, constitutional amendments, and a Human Rights Law were enacted. These were to be implemented at the local level. However, progress was impeded by the outbreak of bloody and lengthy Christian-Muslim conflict. After a peace meeting in 2002 put an official end to the conflict, local actors hoped to build sustainable peace through the revival or strengthening of traditions, traditional leaders, structures and customary law. The raja as traditional leaders and potential mediators, but also part of the national government system, were to play a central role. The new national autonomy law gave such local tendencies legal support, and stated that diversity was to be acknowledged. The laws raised many issues. There were various difficulties in determining who should be raja in many districts, and in settling their powers. There were further questions as to whether the observance of cultural rights could be premised on fixed and static notions of culture, as to which persons should make the decisive choices, and whether adat could be reduced to writing without losing its necessary flexibility. The paper uses a study of the Honitetu district to explore these issues.


It is suggested in conclusion that an unconditional revival of adat would be counterproductive. It is argued that it is crucial to preserve the flexibility of adat in order to adapt it to changing political, social and economic circumstances and to accommodate all people living in the territories, both cultural insiders and outsiders.