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‘We have to be in it together’: Remembering indigenous rights heroine Den Upa Rombelayuk (commentary)

Den Upa Rombelayuk, Image courtesy of Rukka Sombolinggi/AMAN.

  • This summer, Den Upa Rombelayuk, a Torajan woman who helped found AMAN, Indonesia’s main advocacy group for indigenous rights, passed away.
  • To honor her legacy, I would like to share her thoughts from our conversation back in 2012.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

It was a sunny afternoon in Tobelo, a town on the eastern Indonesian island of Halmahera, when I met the late Den Upa Rombelayuk, a Torajan woman from the neighboring island of Sulawesi. Along with thousands of other indigenous people from across the country, she had traveled here to take part in the national congress of AMAN, Indonesia’s main advocacy group for indigenous rights. When I introduced myself and expressed my willingness to interview her, she gave me a cautious look. She probably wondered whether it was worth her time. But then she agreed. I spoke with her as part of a research project for LifeMosaic, a group that provides training and education for indigenous peoples.

My task was to interview key activists and leaders of the indigenous peoples’ movement in Indonesia and the Philippines to learn about their methodologies for organizing as well as leadership tips that the various outstanding leaders might have for the future generations in order to continue the struggle. This summer I learned that Den Upa passed away; to honor her legacy, I would like to share her thoughts from our conversation back in 2012.

In the 1960s, Den Upa studied education at Satya Wacana Christian University in the Javan city of Salatiga. Due the 1965-66 mass killings of suspected communists and the civil unrest that convulsed the nation after an alleged coup attempt against President Sukarno, she couldn’t complete her studies. But after returning to her village, she tried to educate herself, “starting from how to massage, ending with HIV/AIDS awareness,” she told me. “I always tried to follow as many training programs as possible. They have helped me be more confident.”

Den Upa Rombelayuk. Image courtesy of AMAN.

A difficult situation

One of the biggest challenges facing indigenous leaders, Den Upa said, is the generational gap brought on by social change. To overcome this, a leader must build dialogue between old and young. Traditional leaders might be more conservative than their younger counterparts, and these differences must be negotiated. There is a need to create synergy between old and new leaders through an adaptation or a transition strategy between the young and the older generation. She expressed that the new body of women leaders (Perempuan AMAN, which was launched right before the start of the AMAN Congress in Tobelo in 2012) could play a crucial role in creating these new leaders because there is a need to support more indigenous women leaders.

Another challenge an emerging leader can face is acting fair and just. Sometimes it can be difficult to know what is fair and just. In these situations, one must be principled and side with the people. “Sometimes there are situations when it’s very difficult to see the clear line of what is fair and unfair, of what is right and wrong,” Den Upa said. “These types of situations were the most difficult when I was a village head.” The solution lies in solidarity with the people. “If our people laugh, we laugh together with them, if they suffer, we suffer together with them, as leaders … My major principle has always been we have to be in it together. If our people smile, we smile. If they cry, we cry.”

She then relayed a story about her nephew who had beaten a village head of a lower caste than him in 1992. She mentioned this as one of the most difficult times in her leadership because of the family pressure.

“The decision I took influenced my reputation within the community. I decided that my nephew had to respond before the court for what he did. Here, I showed my integrity and fairness. It was a very difficult decision. I showed my attitude and principles … and I gained respect.”

A leader, she stressed, “cannot be involved in something that is not right.”

Den Upa Rombelayuk, right, at a ceremony in Toraja. Today her daughter Rukka Sombolinggi is the secretary general of AMAN. Image courtesy of AMAN.

Opportunities are taken advantage of and are made

Sometimes, opportunities arise by themselves. Other times, they must be made. When Den Upa became the head of her village, it was almost the end of Indonesia’s New Order regime, which lasted from 1966 to 1998. The regime had imposed standardized bureaucratic structures onto villages across the country, in many cases conflicting with traditional forms of political organization. The position of village chief, for example, was elevated above that of tokoh adat, or customary leader, in the eyes of the state.

When Den Upa became chief, however, she sat at a different place in a meeting and asked the adat elder to sit in her spot, which was the highest sitting position in official meetings. This way she contributed to the revitalization of adat in her own community. At the same time, she also pointed out that adat does not only need revitalization, but also renovation: “Adat cannot hold onto to the old systems. Times change and adat needs to adapt to the times changing as well.”

A leader must be able to support positive social change. Thus, she initiated a musyawarah adat (customary council) in her community. There were three villages in her community, and two of them joined this musyawarah adat. They reconsidered their social contract at this council, first, in relation to the social strata and the division of meat according to caste, and, second, the absence of women at these meetings:

Since I was a village head, I went to the traditional leaders of our community, to all the political elites of our community, including two other village heads, camat [subdistrict head] and others, one by one and lobbied them on this [before the council took place]. I said I’d like to consult with them and ask if it makes sense to keep that arrangement if I, as a woman, am a village head who needs to be present at the village meeting [but other women are not allowed]. I had to consult with the local elites first before I could raise the discussion and this arrangement was reconsidered also. Since then, women were invited to participate in the musyawarah adat.

She told them, “I feel like women have a lot of bright thoughts.”

She concluded that leaders need to be able to be creative and see the opportunities present to make positive social change. Apart from seeing opportunities, however, she also created them:

I have come up with the idea of mixed farms/gardens in the empty spaces. I’ve taught how to make use of the space they have around them. They could, eventually, sell these at the local market. I started this in the early 1990s. I have also developed something we called arisan tenaga. This meant that after we sell vegetables in the market, we have to contribute to a common account. With the money we collected, we bought nice clothes for village women. When I told this story to other women at one of the national meetings, the women there asked, “Why clothes?” For us, it was never a question of “why clothes?” Village women never have nice clothes and it’s nice for women to have clothes to wear to go to church. We also used these funds to buy tools for our rituals. Women with this project also started to have their own pocket money, so, automatically, they were not dependent on men anymore and the family was getting income not only from men’s labor but also from women’s. I think this is how gender roles start changing.

Key qualities of indigenous leaders

In relation to the qualities of leaders, Den Upa emphasized adaptability as a key character trait that one needs to develop. “Leaders must be able to adapt, to speak with children but also with elders.” She also stressed the ability to adapt to local contexts. Leaders must also be able to see gender differences. The approaches to empowering men and women should be different. A leader’s responsibility is to see and realize these differences. It is irresponsible to implement a system that works somewhere else because every situation is different. However, a leader also needs to be strict when needed. “Otherwise, people will start playing with us, that’s the risk of being soft. One has to be principled — non-partisan, fair.”

Giving space to others and humility are also important. Opportunities need to be given to other people. “For example, we had a new pastor and he asked me to give a speech but I refused and he was able to speak from heart, beautifully,” she said. It seems that she always practiced this quality even as she interacted with me, a young woman in her late 20s.

Concluding thoughts

Despite the fact that my questions generally related to the indigenous peoples’ movement in Indonesia, Den Upa in her responses did not adopt the stance of an expert who can speak for every person who is part of the movement. She rooted her storytelling in her own individual experience as a woman leader who was privileged within the context of her own community but also realized her own power and made a conscientious choice of humbling herself. The strength of her storytelling is that it is centered on her experience as a woman leader.

Thus, she pointed out the importance of negotiating generational differences between the young and the old, one’s ability to stay true and principled to one’s objective of social justice as a leader and as a movement, and a greater inclusion of women leaders. This type of positive change needs to be created if the opportunities are lacking.

Masha Kardashevskaya is a PhD Candidate in Peace and Conflict Studies at University of Manitoba. She is currently completing her dissertation that is inspired by her passion and curiosity about social movements, nonviolent social change, and the often-neglected roles of women in these.

Banner: Den Upa Rombelayuk, Image courtesy of AMAN.

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