An interview with Ghazali Ohorella a Human Rights lawyer from Maluku

In the build up to the Week of Peace we sat down with Human Rights Lawyer Ghazali Ohorella to talk about the impact of militarism in his homeland of Maluku, a group of islands in the Pacific.

Ghazali Ohorella

Could you tell about yourself?

Well, to know me, is to know my heritage. I’m a proud descendant of the Alifuru people, the Indigenous Peoples of the South-Maluku islands, home town of my dad is Tulehu and of my mom is Aboru/Hulaliu.

I can’t blame you if you don’t know where it is. We’re an archipelago comprising of 999 islands in an area of almost 75000 sq kilometers located between the Philippines and Australia, with around 2 million souls living under military Indonesian occupation as they took over our islands right after we became independent in 1950. Since the 16th century Maluku was known as the “Spice Islands” as cloves and nutmeg grew only in our area, which is also the biggest reason why Europeans came to our neck of the woods. The spice trade created enormous wealth for the Arab world, and the colonial powers from Portugal and the Netherlands, last mentioned colonized us for more than 300 years until 1950.
A bit about us. The Alifuru are originally Melanesian in origin like our relatives in for example West-Papua, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji, and Norfolk Islands, and we have over 100 indigenous languages on the islands, mostly Polynesian related, just to give you an example here’s how I count from 1 to 10. “Sane, Rua, Toru, Ha’a, Rima, No’o, Hitu, Waru, Siwa, Husae”.

Whereas our lands and waters are the core of our Peoples, our language our strength, our ancestors our guides, the promotion and protection of the Alifuru heritage for future generations is my goal. That is why I have been advocating for Alifuru rights and rights of Indigenous Peoples across the world in international fora since 2003, with some interesting roles like co-chair of a round table of the UN General Assembly on the occasion of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples held in September 2014, legal expert to Indigenous organizations, board member to Drumbeat Media and the International Organisation for Self-Determination and Equality.

Can you tell us about how militarism has impacted your people?

Colonialism and militarism go hand in hand in a Maluku context, like I said before the Maluku islands has been colonized by the Dutch for more than 300 year, first by the Dutch East-Indies Company (VOC), which was often described as the first multinational corporation in the world. Mind you, this was no ordinary “company”, better said it was everything but a company, it behaved like a State.

The traders were politicians, bureaucrats avant-la-lettre, surrounded and supported by a strong military apparatus to implement the decisions they made. This Dutch trading company controlled a large area of the world, politically, militarily and economically it made its mark on the world.

The main purpose of the VOC was to colonize, obtain and retain control over the trade in spices from primarily South-East Asia, amongst others the Maluku islands. To date the world knows the VOC by its core business, however as a so-called trading company it excelled at the political and military level, with penetrating implications for millions of Indigenous Peoples, including the Alifuru.

The VOC was very aggressive, it used its vast navy and army to establish a powerful trading network by destroying not only competitors, for the Alifuru peoples, if one did not cooperate or if people simply got in the way, the VOC did not hesitate to exterminate entire communities, their lands, territories, livelihoods, the use of violence was their “ordinary business”. That regime lasted until the 1800 when we became a Dutch colony.

Now, fast forward to the early 1900s, just like I said we were a Dutch colony called the “Dutch East-Indies”, and over the years a lot of men joined the colonial army to be able to sustain their families as decent paying jobs were artificially scarce. The impact of militarism became even greater when the Dutch East-Indies decolonized in 1950. On that occasion we proclaimed our independence of the Republic of the South-Moluccas.

We didn’t do that just for the fun of it, our council was very concerned with the future of the State of East-Indonesia which we were still a part of, mind you Sukarno was mobilizing to invade all the other States and declare a Republic. Not wanting the roughly 4000 Maluku soldiers to be around to defend their newborn Republic, Sukarno asked the Dutch to ship all the soldiers and their families to The Netherlands. The Dutch promised to Maluku natives to be returned to their Republic after 6 months. Once they arrived in Holland the soldiers were demobilized and the 13,500 souls were left hung out to dry in former Nazi camps. The promise was never kept, 6 months turned into 60 years, and meanwhile we have grown to around 50,000.

Can you tell us about the relationship between militarism and colonisation?

So, as you can see militarism and colonialism are inseparable forces which have shaped Maluku, whilst currently that military-dominated regime rules Indonesia came to power with Sukarno and since then has been ruthless in repressing opposition. That the military mainly serves to maintain internal control, and to run the government proves that Indonesia is built upon militarism and cannot survive without. Militarism of Indonesia fosters also an aggressive nationalism, which in practice means state domination, colonialism and repression of Indigenous peoples which try to regain their independence.

Mind you, throughout Indonesian history, the military has recruited, trained and supported militia and quasi-military groups to do its dirty work. I think Von Clausewitz said “To achieve peace, one must prepare for war”, a creed that Indonesia is about to follow aided by these quasi-military groups. Last year Indonesia launched a program compulsory for all Indonesians under 50 years old called Bela Negara, it is a program which is more about politics and maintaining the colonial areas rather than any effort to establish a national defence system. Bela Negara aims to recruit over the next 10 years over 100 million militant cadres across its archipelago. Consisting of two components: a general program for citizens who have not had prior training, and a special refresher or advanced program for people who have already been trained, to allow them to reach national defence standard.

There is a significant risk and fear that the program will increase the frequency of human rights violations that are already occurring. However, it is hoped that this militarism feeds the desire for fundamental freedoms of Indigenous peoples, that they become more determined than ever before to continue their struggle for freedom, dignity and the right to self-determination.

How important is solidarity between Indigenous Peoples in the Pacific?

Look, if you consider that our region comprises ⅓ of the planet, most island States are established by Indigenous peoples, and be proud of the fact that there are many language cognates and we share common history, you can see that there’s much that binds us and can take us forward.

I’ve seen the insides of the UN for some years now, shown support for Pacific Indigenous Peoples inside and outside the security zone, have roamed the halls with many of our island delegations, and often together burned the midnight oil writing collective statements. 

But there is an undercurrent, most times I see that the Pacific indigenous meetings are attended by no more than a handful of people (mostly because of lack of funding), solidarity often disappears more quickly than it appears, there’s a bottleneck on some urgent processes but little to no advocacy on all the important ones.

More than often we are proud of the pre-existing solidarity, the whakapapa or genealogy that we all share, yet we should be conscious that pride can be a pitfall for solidarity. More than often we face challenges into finding that solidarity again, we are already a force to be reckoned, imagine what we can achieve when our solidarity is robust.

There is so much we can achieve as a region, Indigenous peoples worldwide are fighting for their rights, at every process imaginable, with solidarity amongst Indigenous Peoples in the Pacific, as a region, we can lighten the load of the entire movement, be more spread across the board, and make the Indigenous movement more stronger than ever.

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