This week, millions of Scots vote on whether to continue being part of the United Kingdom or venture out to become a separate nation-state. The referendum was won by the supporters of the status quo but nevertheless appears to be the culmination of the growth of Scottish nationalism that has re-asserted itself after centuries of being overshadowed by the more dominant English political construct and culture.
As a case study, Scottish separatism can provide Indonesia with a few pointers in dealing with our own separatist movements, notably in Aceh and Papua/West Papua. To do so, we need to understand the reasons behind many Scots’ desire to split up from the rest of Britain in the first place.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, generally speaking, comprises a number of ethnic groups with their own unique histories and traditions: the English, the Welsh, the Scots, the Irish and the Cornish. Both England and Scotland were rival states before the death of English Queen Elizabeth. Unmarried, she had no issue and therefore the line of English succession went to the Scottish House of Stuarts whose members were cousins to the Tudors. So, in 1603 the Scottish King James VI became James I of England.
However, politically the two nations remained separate until 1707 when England and Scotland merged to become the Kingdom of Great Britain during the reign of the last of the Stuart monarchs, Queen Anne. The new British parliament was centered in Westminster, London, the old seat of the English Parliament. Owing to the size and population of Scotland, it soon politically became the junior partner in the new British state.
As all of Queen Anne’s offspring had predeceased her, when she died, the crown went to her German cousins in Hanover, as the remaining Catholic Stuarts were barred from the succession. Thus, the advent of the Hanoverian House marked the end of Scottish royalty on the British throne.
Royal politics aside, the main grievances of today’s Scottish nationalism are not about economic injustice. Nor is it about lack of autonomy. Since the devolved parliament of 1999, Scotland has virtually managed its own internal affairs. But it seems that for many Scottish nationalists, the recent redresses by Westminster have come a little too late. The salve has failed to heal the centuries of being sidelined, and the feeling that Scottish history and culture have been overlooked in favour of its English counterparts.
Interestingly, what happened to Scotland and its people has also happened in the Indonesian provinces where separatist sentiments have gained momentum. In Aceh and Papua, past military actions by Jakarta against the locals are still fresh on our minds. The misguided policy reminds us of the atrocities committed against the Scots at the 18th-century Battle of Culloden, where thousands of highlanders were brutally slaughtered.
As a result of past insults, Jakarta — like London to Scotland and Wales — had to concede to both Aceh and Papua more autonomous powers in a bid to prevent the provinces from seceding altogether. Aceh, these days, is perhaps the most self-governing province in the country.
Yet Jakarta’s grip on Papua/West Papua is still strong. The mere notion of an independent Papua is almost inconceivable for Jakarta. Indeed, the endeavour to keep Papua has been extensive, from military to economic.
The best Indonesian leader to deal with the Papuans was perhaps President Abdurrahman Wahid, who had enough sensitivity to recognize that a change of name was in order for Papua, previously called Irian Jaya. He even allowed the Papuans to fly their “Bintang Kejora” flag, an act that is considered treason nowadays.
The same sensitivity, regrettably, is lacking today in Jakarta, where the conventional wisdom has it that Papuan separatism is rooted in economics. Indeed, there is a widespread belief among our bureaucrats that when these easternmost provinces are brought to the same levels of development, education and prosperity as the rest of the country, the desire for separatism will cease.
Unfortunately, this hypothesis fails to take into account the crucial questions of ethnohistorical identity and culture. The people of Papua, racially as well as culturally, have less in common with the largest ethnic group in the country, the Javanese, than the people of Aceh. Therefore, Jakarta’s attempts to “Indonesianize,” or rather, in most cases, “Javanize” the two provinces, will only store up trouble for the future.
The rigid national school curriculum mandates that Papuan students study the state-approved accounts of how non-Papuan heroes fought against the Dutch colonialists. At school, they are also forced to get to know animals that are non-indigenous to the region. As traveling between cities is still very difficult in the provinces, the possibility for an ordinary Papuan child to see an elephant, for example, is very remote indeed.
As the Scottish case has demonstrated, more than economics is needed to make a political union relevant to minority groups like the Papuans. Greater sensitivity is overdue in the way Jakarta seeks to discourage Papuans from separatism. Perhaps the best way to keep them in our unitary state is to protect their right to be Papuan, unique in their own history and traditions, rather than try to make them more like the rest of the country.