By Anton Johanis Bala

The action of mothers from Rendu, Nagekeo, East Nusa Tenggara, who went shirtless in front of armed officers, has received serious attention from various parties, especially those who were against the stance and struggles of the Indigenous Peoples there.

Efforts to demoralize also surfaced simultaneously. The mothers were bullied and accused of social deviance. They were also said to be immoral and unethical. In fact, there are comments regarding women's existence and Nagekeo culture in general. The aim seems to be mobilizing public opinion to delegitimize the struggle of these mothers.

The accusers forgot to ask: why should these women go shirtless? They never knew what these people had experienced since the beginning of the plan to construct Lambo Reservoir in 2015/2016. From the stories of these mothers, I tried to make a short note that might be understood as the reason why they went shirtless.

First, the neglect of their constitutional rights as Indigenous Peoples. The 1945 State Constitution Article 18B paragraph 2 and Article 28I Paragraph I state that the country acknowledges and respects customary law as well as the identity of Indigenous Peoples. However, the government doesn’t make the Indigenous Peoples as decision makers over their customary territories.

The refusal of the location for the reservoir in Lowo Se and the offer of alternative locations in Lowo Pebhu or Malawaka have been submitted from the start by the Indigenous Peoples but ignored. The survey is still conducted in a non-transparent manner and without involving the Indigenous Peoples.

Second, the whole process is not democratic. Several meetings held by the government related to the construction of the reservoir seemed to be just a formality to fulfill procedural demands. It is only information dissemination without deliberation and consensus.

There is no egalitarian or equal dialogue but information about the positive impact of the project. If the Indigenous Peoples give suggestions or voice their objections, there would be no follow-up.

Third, injustice. The justice that the government understands is to provide compensation and relocation of affected people. In fact, what is meant by Indigenous Peoples by justice is to find a place that is safer, doesn’t affect too many people and minimizes the loss of property, public facilities, a sense of security, and culture. Justice is also about how to save state money by not spending it for impacts that could have been prevented.

Fourth, discriminatory. So far, the narrative developed by the government and groups that support the reservoir construction is that there are only a few Indigenous Peoples who are rejecting the reservoir’s location, only one or two people who disagree or have different opinions. They are considered a backward, anti-development and anti-government group.

They are a minority who can be ignored and as if it is becoming more important to focus on the larger public interest. In fact, discrimination is one of the prohibited principles in the protection, fulfilment and respect of human rights based on international law as well as the prevailing laws and regulations in Indonesia.

Fifth, the presence of armed forces. Since the beginning, the government has always brought armed forces to carry out repression and criminalization of Indigenous Peoples. The largest mobilization of the armed forces ever occurred was during the initial survey and its escalation has been increasing since the end of September until today. We know exactly that their resistance is not without reason but because – both the procedure and the substance of the whole process – have been proven to ignore the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Sixth, being deceived in the regional elections. In the recent regional elections, the Indigenous People there did not support the incumbent candidate because, according to them, the candidate was the one who proposed the location of the Lambo Reservoir in Lowo Se when he was still the Regent of Nagekeo. Therefore, they put their hope in the new candidate to help them. A verbal agreement was made, and most people voted for this candidate. This candidate won and celebrated the victory together with the people. However, the Indigenous Peoples continue to struggle and have to face a person they previously hoped for.

From these six facts, I can imagine how painful the feelings of these warrior mothers were. Moreover, all the dignified ways favored by the government and the moralists have been done. They have gone to Jakarta to meet the Minister of Public Works and Public Housing, held demonstrations, did some lobbying, and negotiated with the regional government. However, armed forces with long barrels are still present to carry out repression and force the Indigenous Peoples to withdraw from their ancestral lands.

Therefore, I suspect that the choice to go shirtless is a kind of ultimum remedium (last resort) in defending the rights of Indigenous Peoples. Exploiting oneself psychologically is the most rational choice when all democratic paths have been blocked by authoritarian power. Even so, they have to face the risk of being bullied by their own people.

Maybe these mothers in Rendu want to explain to the world that land – in our cultural philosophy – is seen as the "mother" who always provides prosperity and sustainable life. Because of that, the customary territories for their lives and their children and grandchildren are very important. The Indigenous women may also want to send a message to the government that we all come from the mother's womb. From the breast, we get a life. From that breast, you can also enjoy your current power.

So, don't abuse and waste your “mother”!


The writer is an Indigenous activist and legal practitioner.

Tag : Waduk Lambo Anton Johanis Bala Perempuan Adat