Political Violence in Southeast Asia since 1945
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Political Violence in Southeast Asia since 1945

Case Studies from Six Countries

Eve Monique Zucker, Ben Kiernan, Eve Monique Zucker, Ben Kiernan

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eBook - ePub

Political Violence in Southeast Asia since 1945

Case Studies from Six Countries

Eve Monique Zucker, Ben Kiernan, Eve Monique Zucker, Ben Kiernan

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About This Book

This book examines postwar waves of political violence that affected six Southeast Asian countries – Indonesia, Burma/Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam – from the wars of independence in the mid-twentieth century to the recent Rohingya genocide.

Featuring cases not previously explored, and offering fresh insights into more familiar cases, the chapters cover a range of topics including the technologies of violence, the politics of fear, inclusion and exclusion, justice and ethics, repetitions of mass violence events, impunity, law, ethnic and racial killings, crimes against humanity, and genocide. The book delves into the violence that has reverberated across the region spurred by local and global politics and ideologies, through the examination of such themes as identity ascription and formation, existential and ontological questions, collective memories of violence, and social and political transformation. In our current era of global social and political transition, the volume's case studies provide an opportunity to consider potential repercussions and outcomes of various political and ideological positionings and policies.

Enhancing our understanding of the technologies, techniques, motives, causes, consequences, and connections between violent episodes in the Southeast Asian cases, the book raises key questions for the study of mass violence worldwide.

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Dimensions of Mass Violence


The anti-communist violence in Indonesia, 1965–661

Geoffrey Robinson
In a little over six months, from late 1965 to early 1966, roughly half a million members of the PKI (Partai Komunis Indonesia, Indonesian Communist Party) and other leftists were killed. Another million or so were detained without charge, and many were subjected to torture, including rape. The targets of this violence were ordinary people – farmers, teachers, day laborers, artists, writers, civil servants – and they were killed in gruesome ways: decapitated, castrated, their dismembered bodies left in public places. An eyewitness described the scene close to his home in East Java:
Usually the corpses were no longer recognizable as human. Headless. Stomachs torn open. The smell was unbelievable. To make sure they didn’t sink, the carcasses were deliberately tied to, or impaled on, bamboo stakes. And the departure of corpses from the Kediri region down the Brantas achieved its golden age when bodies were stacked together on rafts over which the PKI banner proudly flew.2
This was not a civil war. Those killed and detained were not armed – and all belonged to what were at the time lawful political and social organizations. In fact, at the moment of its annihilation, the PKI was the largest non-governing communist party in the world but had no armed wing.
The violence against party members and other leftists stemmed from official allegations that the PKI leadership – under the name of “The September 30th Movement” – had conspired to kill six senior army generals in a failed coup attempt on October 1, 1965. Based on that unproven claim, the army and its allies began a campaign to destroy the PKI – and to overthrow the popular left-nationalist President Sukarno. The campaign was led by Major-General Suharto, who soon became president and remained in power for more than three decades before being forced to step down in 1998.
Figure 1.1 PKI members and sympathizers detained by the army in Bali, ca. December 1965.
(National Library of Indonesia)
The consequences of the violence were far reaching. In less than a year, the PKI had been crushed and President Sukarno had been swept aside. In their place, a virulently anti-communist army leadership seized power, signaling the start of more than three decades of military-backed authoritarian rule. The state that emerged from the carnage, known as the New Order, became notorious for its systematic violation of human rights, especially in areas outside the heartland, including East Timor (Timor Leste), Aceh, and West Papua, where hundreds of thousands of people died or were killed by government forces over the next few decades. The violence also altered the country’s political and social landscape in fundamental ways, leaving a legacy of hyper-militarism along with an extreme intolerance of dissent that stymied critical thought and opposition, especially on the Left. Perhaps most important, the events of 1965–66 destroyed the lives of many millions of people who suffered egregious restrictions on their most basic rights, and an enduring social stigma because of their presumed association with leftist organizations and ideas. Even now, half a century later – and more than two decades after the country began its transition to democracy – Indonesian society bears deep scars from those events.
In its scale and significance, the violence of 1965–66 was comparable to some of the most notorious campaigns of mass killing of the postwar period, including those in Bosnia, Cambodia, and Rwanda – and it surpassed the iconic cases of authoritarian violence in Latin America, such as those in Argentina and Chile. And yet, this violence remains virtually unknown – and largely unacknowledged – outside Indonesia. Thus, the World History Project’s entry for the year 1965 includes the fact that “Kellogg’s Apple Jacks Cereal First Appears” but fails to mention the killing of half a million people in Indonesia.3 Moreover, in contrast to most of the great mass killings of the twentieth century, these crimes have never been punished or even properly investigated, and there have been no serious calls for any such action by international bodies or states.4 In this extraordinary record of impunity, Indonesia is arguably closer to China, Russia, and the United States than to any other country.
Even inside the country, the events of 1965–66 are still poorly understood. The massive production of memoir, truth telling, and forensic investigation that have followed virtually every other genocide in the past century, including those in Southeast Asia, have scarcely begun. More than 50 years after the fact, no national truth commission has been established; no comprehensive effort to exhume the hundreds of mass graves dotted across the country has been made; no official memorials have been constructed to honor the dead; no apologies or reparations have been offered by the state; no proper judicial investigations have been undertaken; and no criminal charges have been brought.
The book on which this chapter is based, The Killing Season, aims to interrupt that disturbing pattern of silence and impunity.5 It examines the events of 1965–66 in an effort to understand how and why they happened, why so little has been said or done about them, and what the long-term ramifications have been. This chapter also seeks answers to a number of analytical puzzles about the violence that have remained elusive. What accounts for its distinctive geographical and temporal patterns and variations? That is, why was the violence concentrated in certain regions – Central Java, East Java, and Bali – and why did it begin and end at markedly different times in different parts of the country? Why, despite those variations, did the violence take broadly similar forms across the country? Why, for example, did civilian militia groups everywhere play such a central role; and why were methods like disappearance, mutilation, corpse display, sexual violence, and mass execution, so common? And finally, who was ultimately responsible for the violence, how did they get away with it, and what can be done today to bring them to account?
While the answers to these questions lie, in part, in Indonesia’s distinctive history and culture, I have found it fruitful to think about them comparatively, by contemplating the events of 1965–66 in light of the wider literatures on genocide, mass violence, and human rights. And so, while focusing substantively on the case of Indonesia, I also ask more broadly: Under what conditions are mass killing and genocide most likely to occur? And why are some such crimes remembered and punished, while others are forgotten and left unpunished? I will return to these wider questions at the end of this chapter. But first I want to set out an account of the Indonesian violence that I think explains its distinctive patterns and variations while also making possible its comparison to other cases.
Figure 1.2 Map of Indonesia and East Timor.

Explaining Indonesia’s violence

Indonesian authorities, and many other commentators, have insisted that the violence of 1965–66 was the inevitable result of popular anger against the PKI, a kind of spontaneous frenzy – a collective “running amok” – fueled by deeply rooted cultural and religious tensions.6 In that account, General Suharto and the army appear not as the perpetrators, and not even as bystanders, but as national saviors, and the six deceased generals are national heroes worthy of endless memorialization. By contrast, the half million leftists who died and the million or more who were detained exist only as unremembered phantoms who, by virtue of their assumed treachery, are deemed responsible for their own annihilation. Powerful foreign states and former officials, where they have said anything at all, have tended to echo official accounts, blaming the PKI for its own demise, praising the army for restoring order, and vehemently denying their own involvement in the violence.
My own view, and the view of a growing number of scholars, is that these claims are patently false, and that they deliberately obscure the crucial question of responsibility. Just as important, they do not offer plausible answers to the central analytical questions posed above. The explanation I advance highlights two factors that I believe form the basis for a more satisfactory account of the violence – the role of the Indonesian Army leadership, and the impact of powerful foreign states.
This approach takes as its starting point the observation that genocides do not simply happen – they are not the “natural” by-product of socioeconomic or cultural conflicts – but are instead the result of deliberate and conscious acts by political and military leaders. That insight, compellingly argued by Valentino, Straus, Fein, and others, usefully shifts the focus away from purely psychological, cultural, and social dynamics that explain popular participation and acquiescence in mass killing, to the intentional political acts of those in positions of authority who set mass killings in motion, and provide the encouragement and means through which they can be carried out.7 That shift helps to train our attention on the structural conditions that permit mass killings to happen, and the vital question of legal and political responsibility for such acts.

The army’s role

My first claim is that the violence of 1965–66 cannot be properly understood without recognizing the role of the army leadership in fomenting and organizing it.8 I do not mean that the army singlehandedly carried out all the killings and detentions, or that it acted alone. That was not the case. It clearly had a good deal of support from political parties like the PNI (Partai Nasional Indonesia, Indonesian Nationalist Party) and the NU (Nahdlatul Ulama, Council of Islamic Scholars), and it faced pressure from religious groups of all stripes (Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, and Hindu) for “firm action” against the Left. What I am arguing rather is that, contrary to the official Indonesian narrative, the resort to mass killing and detention was not the inevitable result of popular anger against the PKI, nor a spontaneous expression of deep-seated religious and cultural tensions, but was instead encouraged and organized by the army leadership itself, and in particular by Major General Suharto.
More specifically, I am arguing that a focus on the role of the army leadership helps to explain the geographical and temporal variations in the violence; the fact that it encompassed not only killing but also systematic incarceration; and the long period of silence and inaction that followed. It also explains better than the alternatives certain distinctive features of the violence, notably, the practices of disappearance, mutilation, corpse display, sexual violence, and mass execution, all of which were elements of what I call the army’s “institutional culture” and its “repertoire of violence.” In short, I am arguing that without the army’s leadership, the campaign of mass killing and incarceration would never have reached the extraordinary levels or intensity that it did, and probably would not have happened at all.
The army leadership’s decisive role had several dimensions. First, it developed and disseminated a discourse of existential threat to the nation that provoked and valorized acts of violence against real and alleged leftists. Through a carefully crafted propaganda campaign, it demonized and dehumanized the PKI and its affiliates and called for them to be “destroyed down to the very roots,” “annihilated,” and “crushed to bits.” In a radio address on the evening after the alleged coup, for example, General Suharto told the country:

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