At a time when there are so many religious and ethnic issues plaguing us worldwide it was heartening to see tolerance and respect for “others” in Belitung on Indonesian Independence Day (celebrating 72 years of independence).
Like much of Indonesia, Belitung is a religiously diverse island, with Sunni Islam the most widely practised religion, and sizeable minorities of Buddhists, Christians, Confucianists and a relatively small number Hindus.
While ethnic Malay people make up the largest percentage with Chinese people a close second, Belitung has significant populations of Bugis, Balinese, Sundanese, and Javanese people who formerly worked for the Dutch, mining tin. There is also a small population of Madurese who were settled there in the Suharto era transmigration. We also spoke to ethnic Bataks (they were Christian but some Bataks follow Islam while others still practise traditional religions). It is thought that their ancestry can be traced back to the eighth or ninth century. Other people we spoke to could trace their roots back to Flores.
At the the Independence Day celebrations each of the religions and ethnicities in all their diversity were not only represented but given the opportunity to offer prayers and later to present entertainmentfor all those who call themselves Indonesian.
It would be naive to suggest that there is an unerring truce between these diverse peoples but on Independence Day in Belitung there was respect and tolerance shown to all.
Even in the entertainment (dragon dances, Balinese gamelan music and dance, Marching band, Islamic singing accompanied by a kind of harmonium), each act was applauded with genuine affection by everyone else.
When it was time for the inevitable group photo Christians stood with arms around their Muslim brothers and sisters; Buddhists stood side by side with Hindus. Ethic Chinese were laughing with their Malay friends- you get the picture.
It was heartwarming to see this level of tolerance even if it was just for one day. For me it was a metaphor for the world – tolerance of “the other” makes for a far better life for all of us.
If only we could all take a leaf out of the Indonesian Independence Day celebrations in Belitung.