A ray of hope for Indonesia’s traditional religious beliefs

Last year, a historic Constitutional Court ruling recognized kepercayaan – the centuries-old indigenous belief systems. Whether the Muslim-dominated government fully complies, however, is anyone’s guess.

A ray of hope for Indonesia’s traditional religious beliefs Tribal followers of "Aliran Kepercayaan," play traditional music during a demonstration in Jakarta i

Last November, in what was a watershed moment in Indonesia’s history of religious freedom, the Constitutional Court found the government guilty of discriminatory practices against followers of indigenous traditional beliefs (aliran kepercayaan). Four kepercayaan practitioners had filed a judicial review of the Civil Administration Law, which they claimed infringed on their rights as citizens, chief of which was the government’s refusal to record their faiths on the National Identity Card (KTP).

The court duly ordered the government to accommodate kepercayaan practitioners so they could have their faiths recorded on their ID cards, a right currently only extended to adherents of Indonesia’s six officially recognized religions. In the aftermath of the verdict, the Ministry of Home Affairs announced that it needed at least a month to devise an appropriate system to enable kepercayaan practitioners to have their ID cards amended. After much dithering, the ministry opted to add insult to injury by refusing to dignify kepercayaan as a religion. Its solution was to issue special ID cards for the practitioners, on which the section that says “religion” would be replaced by “faith or belief.” Despite criticism from human rights activists, Home Affairs Minister Tjahjo Kumolo argued that the special ID card was the logical choice since the government could not change all the existing ID cards without incurring prohibitive costs. “The number of kepercayaan followers isn’t large,” he said. “By our data, there are 138,000 throughout Indonesia, comprising 187 distinct belief systems.”

True size

Tjahjo’s claim that there are only 138,000 kepercayaan practitioners across the country is shaky. The data at his ministry no doubt is derived from either national census data, last collected in 2010, or data gathered by the ministry from ID card applications. Both are problematic in terms of accuracy. The 2010 census was marred by many incidents pointing to data fabrication by census officials.

For instance, the government body charged with the collection of data, the Indonesia Statistics Bureau (BPS), had to carry out the census in Batu, East Java Province, twice because it discovered that 20 percent of its field officials, rather than perform house calls on residents, had instead filled out their forms by asking the local neighborhood chief questions. Similarly in Jakarta, the BPS found out that field officials had failed to ask residents the full range of questions.

Testimony heard by the Constitutional Court suggests that data collected by the ministry may be even more faulty. Witnesses said that most kepercayaan followers were coerced in one way or another to choose an “official” religion when applying for an ID card and other administrative documents. Astonishingly, there is no real agreement even within the government on the number
of Indonesians adhering to kepercayaan. The Ministry of Education and Culture, under which traditional belief systems are placed by the government, has a radically different estimate than the Ministry of Home Affairs. “There are approximately 12 million kepercayaan followers,” said Minang Warman,
the section head for traditional religions at the Directorate of Belief in the One Indivisible and Traditions. A recent article in The New York Times puts the number at 20 million, roughly 7 percent of Indonesia’s 260 million inhabitants.

While the number may seem sizeable, it is not implausible. Ira Indrawardana, an anthropologist at Padjadjaran University, in Bandung, West Java Province, said at a seminar: “If truth be told, every ethnic group [in Indonesia] has their own folk religion. There are more than 500 ethnic groups in the country, so realistically there should really be at least 500 folk religions. The [culture and education] ministry has only recorded those who have organizational entities to represent them.”

Quantifying kepercayaan followers is no easy matter. Most would probably be crypto-adherents these days; that is, legally professing a state-recognized religion while practicing a traditional religion in private. They are comparable to the Marranos, 15thcentury Iberian Jews who formally converted to Catholicism when all other faiths were outlawed by Spain, but continued to practice Judaism in secret. A modern-day analogy can be found in the case of Wiccans and neopagans in Western countries, who until recently had to remain “in the broom closet” because of the widespread social stigma of paganism.

When the Constitutional Court summoned witnesses from the Batakanese Parmalin traditional religion, it was told that during registration for the national electronic ID card program (e-KTP), their neighborhood chiefs often forced them to choose from the six state-recognized religions, telling them that otherwise they might not be issued an ID card at all. Given that an ID card is a prerequisite for important activities such as finding employment, opening a bank account and enrolling in school, many Parmalin followers had no choice but to lie about their religion.

Witnesses also testified how being members of an unrecognized faith often led to discrimination in the workplace. Many said they were invited to convert to another faith as a condition of being given employment. A Parmalin schoolteacher in North Sumatra had to resign from his post because the school where he taught rejected his request to take time off work on Saturdays to participate in a Parmalin religious ritual.

Witnesses who practice the Sumbanese Marapu traditional religion in East Nusa

So the question remains: why did Soeharto deal a stunting if not crippling blow to kepercayaan, which constituted his political ally?

Tenggara Province told the court that many Marapu adherents were unable to obtain birth certificates for their children because their marriages, conducted using Marapu rites, were unrecognized by the state and therefore illegal. The current Marriage Law in Indonesia requires that a marriage be sanctified according to one of the six state-recognized religions before it can be recorded in the civil registry.
As a result of such pervasive discrimination, many Marapu followers have chosen to convert to one of the recognized faiths in order to make their lives easier. In 2007, 16 percent of the population of Northeast Sumba identified as Marapu, but five years later the number dropped to around 5 percent.

One of the four citizens who filed the judicial review at the Constitutional Court, Carlim, is a resident of the town of Brebes, in Central Java Province, and a follower of Sapto Darmo, a Javanese spiritual belief system. He told the court that his family was ostracized as a result of their faith and had had their application for burial plots denied at the local public cemetery since they were seen as “without religion.” The testimonies only represent the tip of the iceberg in what has become concerted bureaucratic and societal pressure against kepercayaan faiths. In most cases, it has led to either closeted existence or outright conversion to other religions. Since religious life is often more public than private in Indonesia, such pressure can only be overwhelming.


As the gradual decline of the Marapu faith in Sumba demonstrates, the strength of traditional religions in Indonesia is greatly diminished today. But it was not always so. The defining moment that marked the downward path for kepercayaan was the political decision by President Soeharto’s government in 1978 to categorize it as “non-religion.” “I would like to explain further that the existing various belief systems [kepercayaan] in the One Indivisible God are undeniably part of our culture,” Soeharto said in his state of the nation address to Parliament and the rest of the country on Aug 16, 1978. “These belief systems do not constitute religion, nor are they new religions. As such they should not be compared to or be made contrary to the existing religions.”

The president’s definition of kepercayaan faiths was further formalized by Parliament in a decree (TAP MPR No IV/1978) with a special injunction that kepercayaan faiths “should receive guidance so that they do not become new religions.” Soeharto’s decision to nullify efforts by aliran kepercayaan to attain equality with their mainstream co-religions was, at first glance, puzzling. It was well known that the president himself practiced kejawen, a Javanese traditional spiritual belief, although he was nominally a Muslim.

Soeharto rose to power in 1966, after the fall of his predecessor, President Soekarno. Immediately after his presidency started, the newly formed kepercayaan organization Badan Koordinasi Karyawan Kerohanian, Kebatinan, Kejiwaan Indonesia (BK5I) declared itself part of Golkar, Soeharto’s political vehicle that would eventually become the New Order’s de facto political party. Under Golkar’s guidance, BK5I would proceed to organize its first congress in 1970.

So the question remains: why did Soeharto deal a stunting if not crippling blow to kepercayaan, which constituted his political ally? Soeharto was well known for expecting minority groups to “know their place” and would sometimes sacrifice them if push came to shove. His policy toward the ethnic Chinese over the years exemplifies this perfectly. This may well be what happened to kepercayaan under Soeharto. Further clues can be found in his strategy, at least in the early years of his rule, to keep Islam out of the political sphere. By orchestrating the anticommunist purges and banning the Indonesian Communist Party, Soeharto earned the support of Islamic leadersand figures within the country, including those in Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and the former leaders of Indonesia’s largest Islamic political party, Masyumi, which was disbanded by Soekarno in 1960.

Although Soeharto released the remaining Masyumi leaders jailed by Soekarno, he firmly thwarted their subsequent attempts to revive the party. Masyumi had, after all, been one of the three largest political parties in Soekarno’s era and had boasted leaders with better credentials, such as Mohammad Natsir, Indonesia’s fifth prime minister, and M Roem, who had negotiated the 1949 Roem-Roijen
Agreement with the Dutch.

Instead, Soeharto allowed a newly formed party, Partai Muslimin Indonesia (Parmusi), to represent Islamic political aspirations. Many former Masyumi leaders joined Parmusi but were forbidden to take on leadership roles. The party performed poorly in the 1971 election and was merged into another new entity, Partai Persatuan Pembangunan, known as PPP, two years later when Soeharto sought to “simplify” the many Islamic political parties by fusing all of them into three.

Frozen out of politics but given free rein in the social-religious spheres, former Masyumi leaders formed Dewan Dakwah Islam (DDI) to spread the Islamic message and “purify” Islam throughout the country. DDI operated freely in schools, government offices and universities, laying the first foundation for next generation political Islam as well as Islamic identity politics in Indonesia. The movement coincided with a state-sponsored campaign by Saudi Arabia to spread the Wahhabi brand of Islam, which is fundamentalist in nature, around the world. Through institutions such as the Saudi-funded Islamic and Arabic College of Indonesia, ultraconservative strains of Islam began to take root in Indonesia.

In retrospect, suppressing Islamic political aspirations was a strategic blunder by Soeharto. By the late 1970s he must have realized it, but the horse had already bolted. It was now impossible to underestimate and overlook the potential political strength harnessed by Islamic groups. So he had no choice but to accommodate them. In 1978, Soeharto went on the lesser hajj, known as umroh, in what historians see as a public relations exercise intended for Muslim constituents, and the same year the parliamentary decree limiting the aspiration of kepercayaan to gain full equality with other religions was issued. Kepercayaan may have unwittingly become a potential thorn in Soeharto’s political relations with Islamic groups. Their political clout effectively castrated, Islamic leaders feared further erosion of their power and started to portray non- Muslims and kepercayaan adherents as the main threat to Islam.

The groups were accused of trying to spread secularism in the country to undermine Islam. It was rumored that the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, which formed Soeharto’s think tank until the 1980s, was populated by non-Muslims, kepercayaan figures and fake Muslims bent on eroding Islam’s strength. The paranoia explains why Islamic groups were vehemently opposed to any move by the government to legalize kepercayaan as a religion in its own right. Islamic leaders would have viewed such a move as an attempt to reduce Islam’s numerical superiority, as it would encourage kepercayaan-practicing Muslims to abandon Islam altogether.

Hence Soeharto’s 1978 decision to curtail kepercayaan must be seen as a gesture to mollify Islamic groups, to assure them that the government would not sanction a new faith to rival theirs and to disprove the suspicion that kepercayaan was a threat to Islam. 

Pre-1978 golden age

Given that today’s movement and activism within kepercayaan communities are limited in stature and scope, it is easy to believe that it has always been a downtrodden minority group in the country. However, historical evidence tells another story. Kepercayaan was once a robust movement throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

In post-independence Indonesia, the first national organization representing kepercayaan was Badang Kongres Kepercayaan Indonesia (BKKI), founded in 1955. At its 1956 congress in Solo, BKKI declared that its core principle was based on the first article of Indonesia’s state ideology, Pancasila: Belief in the One and Only God. Its third congress, in Jakarta in 1958, was attended by President Soekarno, who gave the opening speech. Soekarno’s presence and support for kepercayaan were understandable since several prominent politicians at the time openly practiced kepercayaan, the most notable being Wongsonegoro, who served in a number of government cabinets in the 1950s.

Throughout this period, kepercayaan was actively campaigning for recognition as a religion. BKKI seminars often attracted intellectuals and social activists, most of whom voiced their support for the tenet that there was no difference between kepercayaan faiths and mainstream religions. During Indonesia’s anticommunist purge of 1965-66, BKKI was disbanded, to be replaced by BK5I, again headed by Wongsonegoro, who had clearly read the political situation and decided to throw in his lot with Soeharto by backing Golkar. The induction ceremony for the new leadership of BK5I was led by Major General Sukowati, general secretary of the Golkar Secretariat.

Perhaps believing kepercayaan to be at its closest to the ruling regime, Wongsonegoro decided to raise the ante in his efforts to achieve equality for his faith. Facilitated by Golkar, he organized a national symposium to be attended by various strains under kepercayaan. The year 1970 saw two major national events: Symposium Nasional Kepercayaan in Yogyakarta, in Central Java, from Nov 6 to 9, followed by the Musyawarah Nasional Kepercayaan (National Traditional Religions Congress), from December 27 to 30. President Soeharto sent a written speech of congratulations, although he did not attend in person. His speech was instead read out by Lieutenant General Soerono. It is tempting to suggest that Soeharto’s absence may have been deliberate since he would have known in advance what the congress would recommend to the government. It is also possible that, given the hostility from conservative Muslims toward kepercayaan, he would have wanted to avoid being seen as partisan.

In its official memorandum, the 1970 congress announced the formation of a national secretariat for all kepercayaan strains in the country, called Sekretariat Kerjasama Kepercayaan Terhadap Tuhan Yang Maha Esa (SKK). It also voiced concern about discrimination kepercayaan followers faced in the legal standing of their marriages, and asked the government to legalize the Javanese New Year (1 Suro) as the official holiday for kepercayaan followers. The second recommendation amounted to a request for official recognition by the government for kepercayaan as a separate religion, since in Indonesia only officially recognized religions are granted national holidays. The recommendation to the government for a national holiday reserved for kepercayaan went unheeded. Although Wongsonegoro presented the results of the congress to Soeharto, the latter took no action on the matter. But in 1975, kepercayaan was officially put under the Ministry of Religious Affairs, an encouraging sign that it was on its way to being recognized.

So it was surprising when, three years later, Soeharto officially declared that kepercayaan was not a religion. Consequently, kepercayaan affairs were moved under the Ministry of Education and Culture, a significant setback in its struggle for equality.

Eminent champions

One major reason kepercayaan was much more vigorous before 1978 was that it counted eminent Indonesians among its followers. Visibility was a source of empowerment. Dubbed the father of the modern kepercayaan movement, Wongsonegoro remains at the top of the list.

Born to an aristocratic Javanese family in 1897, Wongsonegoro was Dutch-educated and was an activist for Indonesian independence, including sitting as a member on the Investigating Committee of Preparatory Work for Independence. He also held various regional administrative posts, including tenures as the district chief of Sragen, Central Java, and governor of the province. His first foray into national politics took place when he was appointed interior minister in 1949. The following year, he was minister of justice in Mohammad Natsir’s cabinet. He was also a leader of a small nationalist party, Partai Indonesia Raya. In 1951, Wongsonegoro became the minister of education and culture in the Sukiman cabinet, then served as the first deputy prime minister in the Ali Sastroamidjojo cabinet.

Wongsonegoro was a tireless campaigner and activist for kepercayaan, being a founder and the first chairman of Badang Kongres Kepercayaan Indonesia. During Soeharto’s rule, he was active in Golkar and was elected to the House of Representatives in 1971.

During his political career, Wongsonegoro often found himself at loggerheads with the leaders of Islamic parties, particularly Masyumi. When he acted as formateur of the first Ali Sastroamidjojo cabinet, Masyumi distrusted him and accused him of having sympathies for the Indonesian Communist Party and trying to exclude Masyumi’s ally, the Indonesian Socialist Party, from the cabinet. It is possible Wongsonegoro’s reputation as an active kepercayaan adherent may have made him a suspect figure to religion-based parties such as Masyumi and the Christian Party of

However, kepercayaan followers as a rule could be found across the spectrum in those days. Another prominent kepercayaan political figure was Soebadio Sastrosatomo, one of the founders of the Indonesian Socialist Party, a self-confessed protégé of Sutan Sjahrir, Indonesia’s first prime minister, as well as Mohammad Hatta, the country’s first vice president. Soebadio was a devotee of kejawen and his devotion seemingly became more pronounced as he grew older. An Australian diplomat who went to see Soebadio in the 1990s described him as much immersed in mysticism. In 1997, he gave an interview to FORUM magazine in which he referred to the Sabdo Palon prophecy, in which Java would revert back to its Hindu-Buddhist roots, abandoning Islam.

His remark, in retrospect, was ironic since the 1990s saw Soeharto lean toward Islamic groups for political support. Losing his grip on the military, the autocrat looked to Islam as his new ally. In 1991, in a much-publicized trip, he and his family finally performed the hajj. He also relaxed his previous restrictions on the hijab in schools and public offices, as well as supporting the formation of the Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals, which acted as the president’s new think tank. Although Soebadio was never a kepercayaan activist demanding equal rights as Wongsonegoro did, his belief in the Sabdo Palon prophecy is illustrative of the historic tension between kepercayaan faiths and Islam. The latter tends to view the former as remnants of the old religions of Hinduism and Buddhism, which makes full acceptance problematic.

Another kepercayaan, in this case kejawen, practitioner of some renown was Police Commissary General Raden Said Soekanto Tjokrodiatmodjo, who was Indonesia’s first police chief (1945-59). During the Japanese occupation of Indonesia during World War II, he had been an instructor at the Japanese Police Academy (Koto Keisatsu Gakko). He later defected to Soekarno-Hatta’s new republic and was duly appointed police chief.

A well-known devotee of kejawen, he was also a Freemason. According to Maconniek Tijdschrift Spoor Indonesie, the official Masonic magazine for Indonesia, Soekanto joined the Purwa-Daksina Lodge in 1954, although his involvement with Freemasonry dated back to the Dutch colonial days. His nephew Raden Soelaiman Soepardi Tjokrodisaputro revealed that Soekanto had also been a member of the Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis, or the Rosicrucian Order.

He was effectively Indonesia’s last Freemason grandmaster, because in 1962 President Soekarno banned Freemasonry altogether. When Soeharto replaced Soekarno as president, the former police chief tried to persuade the new president to revoke the ban on Freemasonry but was rebuffed. Instead, Soeharto encouraged Soekanto to form a new society devoted to an alternative health regimen, which he did when he founded Olahraga Hidup Baru.

Soekanto was an open activist for kepercayaan. During the 1970 congress, he served as president of the council. The fact that there were quite a few kepercayaan adherents who became prominent throughout the 1950s and up to the 1970s is a clue to just how different society was back then. Indonesians were apparently more accepting of religious differences and religious unorthodoxy was
no big deal. Comparatively, there is almost no prominent Indonesian today who openly professes to be a kepercayaan follower. It is doubtful that, even if there are kepercayaan followers of eminence, they would openly proclaim their religious affinities. The four people who filed the judicial review at the Constitutional Court, for example, were average citizens.

In today’s climate of intense identity politics, even the status of Indonesia’s current president as a Muslim has come under scrutiny and is seen as a political issue with electoral consequences. The controversial 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election saw a swell of religious sentiment affecting candidates’ electability, for good or for bad. As such, it is reasonable to assume that kepercayaan practitioners occupying public office are more likely to remain “in the closet.”


As previously discussed, Soeharto’s decision in 1978 not to allow kepercayaan to be recognized as a religion dealt a crippling blow to attempts by traditional religionists to attain equality with their counterparts in mainstream religions. That year also saw kepercayaan lose its most prominent champion, Wongsonegoro, who died.

In the first SKK congress after his death, in 1979, the Golkar chairman initiated a name change from SKK to Himpunan Kepercayaan Terhadap Tuhan Yang Maha Esa (HPK). Ten years later, at its congress in Kaliurang, Central Java (to which Soeharto also only sent a written speech), HPK failed to form a leadership committee due to internal conflicts, which led to a vacuum in the kepercayaan organization until 2001. Soeharto was no longer president by then, having stepped down in 1998.

The fact that there were quite a few kepercayaan adherents who became prominent throughout the 1950s and up to the 1970s is a clue to just how different society was back then.

The 2001 leadership under Koesoemo Hartami tried to make representations to the government with regard to the rights of kepercayaan followers but most went unheeded. Kepercayaan remains under the Ministry of Education and Culture, its affairs regulated by the Directorate of Guidance for Kepercayaan Terhadap Tuhan YME dan Tradisi. The new leadership was also plagued with problems, as regional functionaries proved to lack commitment and organizational skills, resulting in the failure to hold a planned 2006 congress. When the congress was finally convened in 2008, it was done so in very reduced circumstances as members had reportedly become disillusioned with the lack of progress on issues of religious equality. HPK in the end fell into another vacuum until a new organization was formed in 2014 under the auspices of the Ministry of Education and Culture. The new body was named Majelis Luhur Kepercayaan Terhadap Tuhan YME Indonesia (MLKI). In 2016, MLKI provided testimony and an expert opinion during the judicial review at the Constitutional Court.

Future advocacy

There is no denying that the 2017 verdict by the Constitutional Court affirming the right of kepercayaan adherents to have their faith recorded on their state ID card was a much-needed victory for the minority group in its fight for equality and religious freedom. But there are significant hurdles and challenges for the next steps of advocacy.

First, the government’s insistence that kepercayaan adherents be issued special ID cards with the word “faith/belief ” instead of “religion” points to the government’s reluctance to interpret the ruling by the Constitutional Court that kepercayaan and mainstream religion are essentially equal under the Indonesian Constitution. Second, the government is sure to face pressure from Islamic groups if it intends to extend further rights to kepercayaan. In the aftermath of the verdict, Zainut Tauhid Saadi, deputy chairman of the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), said: “The MUI regrets the [Constitutional Court’s] ruling as we deem it remiss and hurtful to religion followers in the country, especially Muslims, as the ruling seeks to equalize religion and kepercayaan.”

Given the government’s subsequent decision to issue special ID cards for kepercayaan followers, Islamic pressure groups representing the majority religion, such as the MUI, evidently carry more weight than those representing minority groups. The resistance from Islamic groups to kepercayaan is quite strong. In a public discussion on the issue, Yunahar Ilyas, chairman of the Muhammadiyah youth wing, said the state needed to define what religion was. “First, any belief claiming to be religion must undergo tests,” he said. “Who is their God and how He relates to human beings. Everything must be clear, so not just any belief can be said to be religion.” Yunahar’s comments contradict the opinion of the Constitutional Court, which said that it was not the domain of the government to define religion, and that a citizen’s right to religious freedom was a “natural birthright” – not one that was granted by the state.

Nevertheless, the methodology described by Ilyas has astonishingly been accepted practice in Indonesia. When Confucianism was in the process of being revived as a recognized religion in the 2000s, it was required by officials at the Ministry of Education to “prove” that it was indeed a religion, the definition of which, among other things, was that it must believe in “One Indivisible God” and that it must have a prophet. It is unthinkable if these requirements were to be presented to Confucians elsewhere in the world. Intellectualized Confucianism deals more with interhuman relations and their philosophy, while traditional Confucianism focuses on familial piety and ancestor worship.

Left with no choice but to comply, Indonesian Confucians worked out an internal compromise by installing the Chinese King of the Gods, the Jade Emperor, as Thien, the designated One Indivisible God – in complete disregard of the Jade Emperor’s polytheistic context. For their prophet, Indonesian Confucians added the title of

Islamic pressure groups representing the majority religion evidently carry more weight than those representing minority groups.

prophet to Confucius, something that would in all likelihood have surprised even Confucius himself. While there is no constitutional basis for prerequisites such as monotheism and prophethood in Indonesia – almost exclusive to Abrahamic religions – the practice appears to pervade the mentality of the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

Next, Indonesia’s civil law judiciary will also mean a long, arduous road for kepercayaan to achieve legal equality with its mainstream counterparts. In a common law judicial system, the Constitutional Court’s ruling could be used as a legal precedent to have other discriminatory laws and regulations against kepercayaan repealed. However, under Indonesia’s civil law system, legal precedent is immaterial and a judge or panel of judges are within their right to adjudicate a matter without referring to previous rulings in similar cases. In order to quash all laws and regulations that are discriminatory against them, kepercayaan followers, in the absence of political will by the government, will have to mount multiple judicial reviews, a costly and mammoth undertaking.

An Indonesian judge is also bound by convention to consider the impact of his or her ruling on society, even above justice for the individual, and thereby may be under pressure to take public mood into consideration. Incredibly, even the Constitutional Court is not immune to such pressure. In 2010, it rejected a judicial review appeal against a controversial anti-blasphemy law. While clearly infringing upon the freedom of expression guaranteed by Indonesia’s Constitution, the impression was that the judges were concerned that striking the law down would cause too much upheaval within society.

A ray of hope

Indonesia’s kepercayaan adherents have had checkered fortunes in attempting to achieve full equality with their counterparts in mainstream religions. The 1950s, 1960s and 1970s saw vigorous activism, conducted at the highest levels of government by prominent public figures, to induce the state to recognize their faith, but with only marginal results. Their struggle ended in the disastrous government policy of 1978 that effectively dashed their hopes for equality.

Just when things were looking grim, with the number of kepercayaan adherents dwindling as a result of ongoing discrimination and ostracism, 2017 brought a ray of hope when the Constitutional Court ruled to affirm their basic right to have their faith recorded by the state. This success was brought about by a marked departure from the past strategy of trying to effect change from within the system by accommodating the powers that be. Kepercayaan activists such as Wongsonegoro lived in an era when power was very much centralized in the hands of both Soekarno and Soeharto.

However, that strategy only worked within its limitations. By contrast, the 2016 judicial review registered by four kepercayaan followers at the Constitutional Court was based on a strategy of openly challenging state policy. The strategy was only made possible by changes to the nature of state power in Indonesia after the democratic era began in 1999.

The decentralized power in today’s Indonesia may make the country’s governance more complex, and its democracy more expensive and noisy, but it also provides civil liberty avenues and last-resort measures against onslaught. Ultimately, it is within Indonesia’s decentralized power structure that kepercayaan may find its last refuge. But, embattled on all fronts as the number of the faithful dwindles, time may be running out for indigenous traditional faiths. The road ahead needs dogged consistency, brilliant strategy and exceptional leadership. The question remains if today’s kepercayaan communities can rise to the challenge.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer and political commentator based in East Java Province.

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