Questioning the legacy of 'keistimewaan' in Yogyakarta today

Yogyakarta’s “special” status has been the topic of serious debate since I settled in the city in late 2010, and the increasingly accelerated development in the urban center of the region is returning once again to the question of what this special status means for the lives of local citizens. Last week I was invited to sit on a panel at Yogya’s Department of Culture to commemorate and discuss the 2012 law that reinstated Yogyakarta’s istimewa status, reiterating the role of the Sultanate through the region’s special autonomy status.

 Keistimewaan refers to the legal and administrative status of the region, the role of the Sultanate, and to the ideology of Yogyakarta’s unique cultural heritage. The legal status of Yogyakarta as a special autonomous region (along with Aceh and Papua) has roots in the colonial period and the formation of an independent Indonesia, beginning with an agreement between Hamengkubuwono IX and Soekarno that integrated the monarchy and its landholdings into the Republic of Indonesia. Ostensibly as a reward for their support of the newly formed Republic, the agreement suggested that the ninth Sultan and Paku Alam VIII would serve as regional representatives reporting directly to President Soekarno. With Yogyakarta’s special regional status legally codified under Law No. 3 1950, the stage was set for the creation of a political tradition  in which the Yogyakarta Sultanate automatically assumes legal stewardship for the city and its surrounds, with the Sultan himself serving as governor of the province for the entirety of his rule (for more information on laws pertaining to the Yogyakarta’s special status between 1950 and 1999, see here and here).   

Honoring those who fought for Yogya's special status at the Aula Dinas Kebudayaan 


However, when Hamengkubuwono X inherited the throne in 1989, the automatic ascendancy of the Sultan to regional political head seemed to need further legitimization from the central government. A law in 1999 on regional governance reiterated the special ruling status of the Yogyakarta Sultanate. Revisions to the law in 2004 related to the national program of decentralization led to the introduction of a bill on Yogyakarta’s special status in 2007, as the tenth Sultan was facing the end of his second period as governor.

This is where things began to get interesting. The bill’s failure to become law exposed the reality of fractions that did not support the continuation of the monarchy’s political hold over the region. For political reasons of his own, President SBY chose to extend the Sultan’s governorship until 2011, backtracking on his statements implying that the monarchy’s position was essentially undemocratic after facing protests from local residents who see the Sultan’s authority as unquestionable, and intimately linked to their sense of identity as a people.

Although some voices were insisting that it was time to dispense with the Sultanate’s political role, vociferous  local protests and SBY’s own political agenda in the end led to the enshrinement of the monarchy as the region’s political and spiritual center with the endorsement of the bill on Yogyakarta’s special autonomous status. The one concession required by the monarchy to solidify its position was that the Sultan and his heirs must renounce any affiliation with national political parties, a move that was interpreted as politically expedient for SBY’s Democratic Party. In the end, Yogyakarta’s often-touted slogan that reminds residents and tourists alike about how “Jogja is Istimewa” remains a political reality. What it means for the inhabitants of this region in their daily lives is another question altogether.

What’s so “special” about Yogyakarta these days?

The panel I was invited to join was part of a multiday event celebrating not only the region’s special autonomy, but aimed at opening public discussion about the implementation of the 2012 law. Special autonomous status comes with a special budget from the central government, and what to do with the influx of cash is a pressing question. By August of 2014, only 52 miliar IDR of the 523 miliar IDR yearly keistimewaan fund had been disbursed to local projects. Administrative failures and slow allocation methods have plagued the distribution of funds to local regencies, districts, and regional government departments. Although the theme of the panel I joined was on the topic of culture (kebudayaan), it seemed much of the discussion circled back to confusion over how funds could be obtained, allocated, and what they could be used for. Although people maintain a belief in the Sultan’s ability to manage the legal trappings of special autonomous status, rumblings of discontent have emerged as the monarchy’s coffers get fuller and far reaching changes are transforming the face of Yogyakarta both socially and culturally.

The event prior to our panel brought protestors out in force as the discussion focused on the region’s land management program, especially the inherited land that belongs to – you guessed it – the sultanate. The use of the two categories of land known as the Sultan’s Ground and the Pakualaman Ground (leftover spoils of the colonial period) has come under increasing scrutiny as rights to the use of these landholdings are given over to private interests, often to the detriment of the the people of Yogyakarta who are technically meant to benefit from the Sultan’s protection and the fruits of his inheritance. This issue is intertwined with the seemingly unending impulse for “development,” where economic expansion and unlimited permission for new construction appears to trump long-term thinking about the future of the region and its limited resources.

My statement for the panel on culture linked these issues of power, governance, and conflict over land and development to the changing socio-cultural landscape of Yogyakarta. Unsurprisingly, most of the discussion from the panel participants described culture as an object or an administrative category. Topics ranged from looking at possibilities for investment in creative economy (read: cultural products that can be sold) to the nitty-gritty of applying for and funding cultural events and sponsorship through the Dinas Kebudayaan. Only my fellow panelist local budayawaan Whani Darmawan questioned not only the one-dimensional definition of culture used by local governmental officials in the application of policy, but he also criticized the Culture Department’s effort to make a “blueprint” of Yogya’s culture without ever problematizing the ideologies that support these definitions. He astutely noted that Yogyakarta these days can be described by the old adage about “a chicken dying of starvation in the middle of the grainary,” as the main focus of the program of keistimewaan seems to be the allocation of money. Yet as he pointed out, not only is the administration of funds disorganized and unequal, little to no thought has been put into the meaning of the keistimewaan itself in this new incarnation. One of his main points was that the local government needs to expand their thinking past the narrow task of administering money to thinking about how the special region will address the problems its people are facing, and that more transparency is needed in the management of these funds (as well as training for those who administer them).

For me, administration issues are tied to the need for a better understanding the ideology of development that seems to have taken the city over in the last five years, and must be accompanied with the application of a more nuanced concept of culture as a whole life system. I see the loss of control over land, increasing elite control over resources, and a rapidly gentrifying urban center in Yogyakarta as linked to the issues of violence, inequality, racism and oppression that led the Wahid Institute to name Yogyakarta the “second most intolerant city” in Indonesia this year.  It also contributes to a shrinking public space for the expression of culture and identity, and people’s alienation from their own histories and traditional practices. In my talk, I highlighted how this context can affect young people who not only lose their links to a sense of self rooted in place, but are often left out of the middle class, consumptive culture that increasingly dominates Yogyakarta’s urban landscape.

Although I’m fairly certain my emotional and personal plea for Yogya’s future probably fell on deaf ears for most of the government types in the audience, a few comments from the audience echoed the grain of truth in my experience of the city as it is today. One gentleman bemoaned how the village leaders from his community in Bantul who were such staunch supporters of the region’s special status, and the Sultan, seem not to be heard or included in the new istimewa-era planning.  Another attendee talked about how living culture – of farmers and craftsmen and artisans – seems to be overlooked in the rush to fund artistic and cultural events and exhibits, ephemeral products that are often more for show than do anything to preserve disappearing traditions.

Most affecting for me, however, was a long conversation I had with Bu Ning, a merchant who lives not far from us in a community near Jalan Kaliurang. She cornered me over lunch to tell me how glad she was that I had spoken about environmental issues, rampant development, and the loss of culture, especially amongst youth. As one of the probably four women at the event other than me, I was glad she wanted to share her story. “Yesterday they told me to sit down and stop orating,” she said with a smile, “and today they wouldn’t give me an opportunity to speak.” This was a shame to hear, as she was bursting interesting ideas drawn from her experience as a community organizer who urges her neighbors and local youth to return to their Javanese traditions of being attentive to their surrounding environment. She was frustrated with all the talk of money, administration, and the male-centric tone of the day's discussion. “I might not be educated,” she said with typical Javanese deference, “but even I know that keistimewaan is not about money, or rules. It’s a spirit (roh) that animates us as Javanese people. It’s tied to our behavior and practices, and our sense of self. Keistimewaan is about people. It’s disappearing as the younger generation has no chance to learn about their history and their identity, and their surroundings and resources are being destroyed.”

I couldn’t agree more. 

My statement for the Diskusi Keistimewaan Dengan Tema Kebudayaan for the Rangkaian Hari Peringatan Keistimewaan,  2 September 2015. 

Many thanks to Maria Ingrid Nabu Bhoga, Naomi Anggiasari Puji Ariyati, Laine Berman and Athonk Sapto Rahajo for their assistance, critique and editing of this statement.