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Published: Jul 30, 2007

Activists in South Sulawesi find democracy in old manuscripts

Elizabeth Morrell

Since the 1970s, the South Sulawesi city of Makassar has been known as Ujung Pandang. But in the last days of his presidency, Habibie gave it back its historically resonant name. The change followed popular demand. It indicates how important history is to people in South Sulawesi.

Forum Informatika Komunikasi (FIK) is a non-government organisation based in Makassar. For the past few years, FIK has used history and culture as a vehicle to educate the public about democracy, gender, human rights, and the environment.

They have sponsored community theatre based on a satirical form of people's theatre known as Kondobuleng. This was formerly often used during resistance against Dutch colonial authority. Petta Puang is a Makassar-based group that uses this popular political satire to question many contemporary social issues. The name Petta Puang refers to titles accorded to highest leaders.

FIK also initiated an international arts festival in Makassar in September 1999. Their intention was to revitalise the cultural expression stifled during the New Order period.


Members of the group have also tried another experiment to raise awareness of political and development issues. In order to increase grass-roots participation in decision-making they have adopted the historical and mythical texts found in South Sulawesi and known as lontara'. These old manuscripts were once written on leaves taken from the lontar palm.

Ordinary people have long been depoliticised under the New Order concept of the 'floating mass'. Many of them are concerned that democracy represents the breakdown of social order, and a Western threat to customary values. If unaddressed, such anxiety about change could result in a superficial 'reformasi' which does not significantly alter patterns of thought.

FIK members therefore embarked on a public information campaign drawing on the widely respected lontara'. They use these manuscripts to demonstrate that, prior to Dutch colonial influence, South Sulawesi had democratic systems of government. Rather than threatening customary values, egalitarianism is part of those values.

The lontara' manuscripts were produced only in the lowlands kingdoms, but FIK activists have also included examples of egalitarianism followed by highland communities in their campaign. In the mountains of Toraja, for example, where writing did not develop until the twentieth century, examples are taken from oral traditions and ritual practice.

They then use this traditional framework to discuss the rights and responsibilities of leaders and citizens. Among the issues they raise in their seminars and essays are these: civil contracts between leaders and citizens; systems of government including federalism; the right to constructive and open debate and the freedom to criticise leaders; the appointment of political officials; abuses of power; and ethical issues surrounding the accumulation of wealth by rulers. Democracy is shown to be an indigenous principle, rather than a concept alien to local communities.

Over many centuries in South Sulawesi, written script has produced thousands of manuscripts. These reveal a detailed historiography, and are a source of great local pride. The lontara' documents have now been catalogued under the title Naskah Lontara' Sulawesi Selatan. The catalogue was compiled at Hasanuddin University and the office of the National Archives in Makassar, with assistance from The Ford Foundation. It lists almost 4,000 texts written in the principal regional languages and Arabic.

The documents take many different forms, and cover a wide variety of topics. Among them are aspects of traditional law and punishment, discussions between rulers, government treaties, and inter-island trade. Not all manuscripts have yet been translated into the Indonesian language, but most have been microfilmed for future research, and some have been published.

Limited power

Many manuscripts describe the relations of power which existed in the small kingdoms of the South Sulawesi peninsula. They indicate systems of government in which citizens appeared to enjoy considerable levels of participation. According to the documents, organised kingdoms developed during the thirteenth century. But despite a mythology of divine descent, rulers did not hold absolute power. Within most kingdoms, local chiefs retained leadership over their respective communities.

Many confederations existed within the kingdom system, in which political units at different levels agreed to share power. This provides the basis for today's discussions of federalism and increased regional autonomy. Not all kingdoms were governed by hereditary rulers claiming divine descent. Some kingdom histories refer to governing councils, and to social contracts specifying the freedom of the people. According to several translated manuscripts, most kings and queens held positions of shared authority with other community leaders. Strong obligations and responsibilities for the welfare of their subjects limited their power. Royal power was modified by the council of customary (adat) leaders. Sovereignty rested with adat rather than with the rulers as such.

Democracy in the modern sense did not exist. Yet the lontara' record many examples of egalitarianism, including agreements for the protection of human rights. Rulers could lose office if they did not carry out their obligations, or if they abused their power. History records that some were removed in a constitutional manner, while others were deposed or killed for crimes against the people.

The responsibilities of power are prescribed in manuscripts which instructed the rulers in the importance of honesty, the necessity of justice, accessibility to their subjects, and sensitivity to their needs. In the northern kingdom of Luwu', aspiring rulers were required to live for a short period in small, basic and uncomfortable housing conditions, in order to teach them empathy with their subjects. During that time they were supplied with a minimal amount of food. The candidate then had to satisfy the community that he or she was familiar with adat law, especially as it related to leadership and ethics.

The manuscripts also discussed the misappropriation of public assets. Prosperity was important, and wealth was listed as a desirable characteristic of leadership. But this wealth was to be used for the overall good of the kingdom. Examples show rulers demonstrating concern for subjects living in poverty. Furthermore, a prosperous kingdom was a stable kingdom. The wealth of the state offered security for the populace, while misconduct by the ruler resulted in general misfortune.

This ethical concept of wealth allows FIK activists to draw parallels with Suharto's rule, in which prosperity was limited and selective, and which eventually resulted in economic crisis and social disorder. They interpret the manuscripts to say that this disorder was the fault of the ruler, not of the people.


How reliable are the lontara' as historical documents by which to shape the future? Local scholars rarely question the veracity of the information contained in them. One reason for this is the manuscripts' open, uncomplicated writing style that suggests honesty. The literature emanated from the courts, yet modern interpretations stress that the manuscripts communicate clearly and without apparent deceit or obscurity. The texts do not hide the unacceptable behaviour of some rulers. At times rulers are criticised, and their faults recorded. This point enables discussion of modern restrictions on freedom of speech.

The manuscripts reveal a simple, concise, practical literature that is firmly based in reason. It pursues the functional aims of recording history, listing genealogies, maintaining order and stability, ensuring agricultural and economic success, and understanding religious law. Even cosmology was discussed in a functional style, and for practical purposes. The literary aesthetic was one in which rationality, the application of knowledge, and the clear understanding of historical events took precedence over romance, drama, and esoteric knowledge.

When FIK activists re-present the lontara' texts they are not rejecting modernity. They are simply recognising the power of history in the cultural identity of all ethnic groups in the peninsula. That is another reason why FIK does not contest the historical record contained in the lontara'. They use the popular acceptance of historicity to demonstrate that precedents for democracy do exist.

Following the texts, they point out that it is not the people who cause destabilisation, but inappropriate government practices neglecting the rights of the people. They point out that throughout local history, society has had the right to reform injustice.

It was not always so. During the Suharto period, some local scholars did use the lontara' to draw attention to customary values as an ordering rather than a liberating principle. But this newest generation of lontara' scholars recalls history with a different purpose, namely to give society the confidence to deal with a changing order.

Elizabeth Morrell (emorrell@metz.une.edu.au) teaches Indonesian language and culture at the University of New England, Armidale, Australia. Contact FIK at tel +62-411-86857.

Inside Indonesia 61: Jan - Mar 2000

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