Thursday, August 23, 2012

Whoa whoa waitaminute... who's the decolonizer here?

So I was at the UNHQ last month as part of the representative delegation of NZ women's NGOs at CEDAW, and had a chance to catch up with a friend who works at the UN. We were catching up on lots of things an hour lunch can afford; so obviously, we went straight to the political situation in NZ including the emergent wave of radical activisms gaining momentum with Occupy, Blockade the Budget, student protests and the like. I was also earnestly sharing about my POC feminist punk band and my embrace of veganism, and started talking about this thing called decolonization, its relevance in facilitating a fair dialogue between indigineous and tau iwi people of colour in Aotearoa.... and then I wondered if such a thing can be contextually applied  in a country like Singapore (where I was born), and even perhaps a revivalism of Nusantara (Malay archipelago) indigeneity.

How would that work? he asks.

"Well, you know," I started. "Singapura as it has been since Independence is a mess. We (the Malays) are constitutionally recognised as the native people of the land but politically, socio-economically, we're disenfranchised, marginalised, still trailing decades behind.. " I meant this according to the steers of the global capitalist machinery of course. "The idea of utilising indigenous rights as a tool to ignite decolonisation in Singapura excites me...and why not? I mean, my granduncles were communists and they tried; some got detained, some got disappeared in the 70s, then my parents' generation probably traumatised by previous generation and the increasingly regimented government rule took the safe way but here we are, and our generation.. we have the tools at our fingertips.. "

He goes: Okay.. so in Singapore, the natives are Malay... and who would be the colonizers?

The majority.. the Chinese...

But if you talk about Nusantara,  the colonizers in Malaysia and Indonesia.. not similar is it?

He continued. "With the situation in West Papua and Indonesia at the moment.. and the political history between Bumiputra Malays, and indigenous tribes of West Malaysia.. I think it's an entirely different playing field very unlike the west.. there would surely be complexities in who can claim indigeneity..."

By this point, I listened intently to what my friend was saying. He was describing to me the Indonesia situation, since invasion of East Timor and more recently Papua, and relating how Indonesia is, in this light of day, a colonizer. How do we talk about decolonization now? Colonization which has perhaps since the late 80s/90s been interchangeably referred to as Orientalism and academically situated within a "Post(colonial)" context, has always historically been written by the west, and critiqued by the east as a legacy of white supremacy. We imagine Colonizers or those "superpower" white nations like the British, Dutch, Americans, Russians, Germans, Portugese. Yet in the history of the East, invasion from Sino/East Asian nations such as Japanese and Chinese throughout Southeast Asia is so brutally visible today not just in terms of population demographics, but the wider scale of the who's who (in economic power) in Asia...

Well, that's why I think whiteness is a privilege of colonizers, and not necessarily owned by white people in the west, I responded. In the context of Southeast Asia, I think that is still historically apt. My friend didn't look too convinced. To be honest, I wasn't too convinced of my own answer either!

Who are the colonizers today? That question took me a while to munch at. It made me tense and uncomfortable because here I was excited by the possibility of reviving indigenous dialogue with Malay communities in Singapore, thinking I could utilise international human rights language such as UN DRIP, and leverage off strategies tried and tested in the context of tangata whenua in Aotearoa for one, and then suddenly I get this reality-check smack on my head: there's still so much dialogue that NEEDS to happen and HASN'T yet happened in Asia. I bounced this question amongst other Asian migrant/descent activists as well as with an Indonesian guest speaker whom I met at a Communist League forum when I returned to NZ. Somehow, (and for me, disturbingly) consensus is the acceptance of nations such as Indonesia today as colonizers.

But shouldn't the question be why has this "colonization" taken place? Who (which nations//read: USA, Australia, NEW ZEALAND!?) are pulling the strings to make it happen? To whose interests is it to attribute a country such as Indonesia considerably renowned (for better or worse) as the largest Muslim country in the world, to gain such a reputation?

Let's begin with this. Firstly, how can we simply label Indonesia a colonizer without critically looking at the roots of white colonization. Dutch colonialism. Japanese occupation. Dutch re-colonisation attempt post 1945... Hello?!

Secondly, when we talk of colonizer-colonized characteristics, we observe colonizers generally being that of a majority in rule/ power and often an occupier ie. not the native of the land. Indonesia is ethnically diverse, not just by tribes, but also sub-sects of Hindu, Muslim, Christian all over. However Javanese are probably the largest ethnic group whose Suharto-led policies motivated inter-province migrations across various cities to an extent that they are considered the "majority" of Indonesia. But the Javanese, bio-anthropologically, a Malay race, are a people of the land, the natively Indonesian because Java is not a colony island of Indonesia. So in my view, we cannot simply compare them in the same way we do as the Chinese in Singapore.

I think that for people of colour with an indigenous affiliation in a different country such as myself, the way we frame our politics must continue to be challenged and would be required to constantly shift if we want to truly relate to the process of decolonisation. It's literally about multiplicity. Thus far, it feels like I have been doing decolonisation as an Asian migrant in New Zealand, as a member of the wider tau iwi community with respect to Maori. But I have yet to access, connect and participate as an under-recognised and under-rights protected member of the global community of indigenous people. Because somehow when we try, then something like Indonesia pops up and makes us doubt what we already know was true and real in the first place: colonization is a process historically white, historically west and still presently, true. And we really need to trust our instincts when it comes to how we communicate through this politics, this language, because at the end of the day, dude we're all trying to describe, narrate, relate in English. And we all know that there is inherent politics in itself. That must always be the first sign in where, when, how ever the conversation is happening before we, people of colour activists, come to any consensus on what decolonization means for us looking from the outside, but with roots so deep in Asia.

nasi goreng vegan - a vegan version of indonesian fried rice - heres hoping food comforts thy raging souls.