Bapak Raja Rahail, The Wise King of "Kei Besar" Island
- By Tan Jo Hann
In the long meeting hall of Bapak Raja's palace, 2 kerosene lamps hang in strategic places revealing a congregation of his subjects. They sit around him with illuminated faces and in deep thoughts as the King from Kei Besar Island carefully read the old legal documents.
Bapak Raja had called for the gathering of 30 headmen and representatives from different villages in his constituency to discuss their right to the land.Quoting from these manuscripts, the 67-year old King and customary leader of the "Maur Ohoi-Wut" area was reinforcing to his people their right to the land as guaranteed by these historical evidence.
His majesty JP Rahail or "Bapak Raja" as he is fondly referred to by all his subjects, oversees 46 villages on the eastern coast of Kei Besar Island, in the Southeastern Moluccas province of Eastern Indonesia. Being the leader of about 14,500 people, Bapak Raja has been honoured the title "Bohirir Borvav" as one who has defended and upheld the integrity and cultural identity of the Eva people of Kei.
Today, after having served as the King for 31 years, the elderly ruler continues to visits his constituency to dialogue with the people and hear their problems. Sometimes, he would travel for days by foot to villages to be in touch with his subjects.
Watler, the name given to the capital of his kingdom, in the local lingo means `a burning rock. "The burning rock if undisturbed remains calm, but when it is agitated, it would start a fire," Bapak Raja explained. He added that this name describes the character of the people very aptly.
The Kei Besar people are steeped in tradition and culture, the basic elements which has helped the people maintain their sense of dignity and identity. This inherent quality of the people has also helped protect the island's rich resources, most of which come from the sea, and its bountiful forests.
Kei Besar is one of the 3 main islands of the Moluccas region. It is long, thin and mountainous and motorised longboats are the chief means of transportation. Land transportation is almost non-existent.
Water is collected from the hills and mountain streams by a simple water piping stytem. Electricity is mostly unavailable on most parts of the island. But in some villages, Bapak Raja was able to negotiate for a grant from a foreign country which helped established Watlar's own generator system to provide power supply to the villages but mostly for the nights.
Because of his outspoken stance against the Jakarta government's initiatives to exploit the island's resources, Watlar region has been somewhat neglected by the authorities for the past several decades.
Today, he continues to be hailed and admired by many local leaders and even those from other islands, for his wisdom as a ruler and a strong advocate for his people and the environment.
A ruler in Kei Island is not defined by his wealth or strength or other usual characterisics of a King but only by his personality and lifestyle, setting an example to the others," Bapak Raja said.
"The importance of his people are always above his own. He is a king to the people and also in their hearts," he added. Being the most respected and progressive ruler among the 6 kings of the entire Kei Besar Island, Bapak Raja is influential and credible with his subjects. He is looked upon as a caring father rather than an autocratic monarch.
The modern day king and his council of rulers are sensitive to the environment and their people. Over the years, the island's traditional `Sasi' conservation laws have helped protect and manage its resources based on the natural cycle of the environment.
Every year, the headmen of all the 46 villages gather to meet with the king in the traditional rulers council meeting in Watlar. This annual meeting is an important enevt as it is like the parliament of the island where certain laws and policies are made to help govern the affairs of the island.
Late last year, a new community hall was especially built to hold the traditional rulers' council meeting. The unique feature of this building project was that it was completed with volunteer labour force and building materials mostly paid by the villagers.
Today this monument of the people's intergrity and self-reliance is situated right next to the King's "palace". Bapak raja is also an ardent documentor of his people's history, and has already published 2 books about his people's cultural traditions and laws. The second book when compared to the first one is said to have a sharper analysis "very clearly pointing out the problems of indigenous peoples in their struggle against the modern system of knowledge and formal laws."
Bapak Raja explained that his awareness about his own indigenous peoples' problems has been enhanced by his 'cultural journey' when he encountered many similar problems and struggles of many indigenous peoples in Malaysia, the Philippines and other countries, in the last 3 years. Recently he has just inaugurated one of his son to take over his office as the head of the village. Meanwhile he continues to hold the throne and the traditional leadership over the Watlar kingdom. "As a King, when I only hear about certain matters, I usually have to assess it carefully before acting," Bapak raja said in describing his style of rulership. "But when I witness a certain incident with my own eyes, then I must respond to it immediately," he added.
According to the King from Kei island, "a serious problem or obstacle can be minimised and ultimately resolved. But the important point is to ensure that it does not happen again."
Note: Bapak Raja, the beloved King of Maur Ohoi Wut kingdom died of illness in 2001 but his legacy lives on forever especially in the hearts of the people.
Writer: Tan Jo Hann is a writer and community organiser trainer who has been working with the Maluku people for the past 12 years.
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