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Roots of Violence in Indonesia, Freek Colombijn & J. Thomas Lindblad (eds)

Leiden: KITLV Press, 2002, vii+348 p.
Glenn Smith
p. 374-376
Référence(s) :

Freek Colombijn & J. Thomas Lindblad (eds.), Roots of Violence in Indonesia, Leiden: KITLV Press, 2002, 348 p.

Texte intégral

1This volume contains papers presented at the Leiden University workshop on “Violence in Indonesia. Its historical roots and its contemporary manifestations” in December 2000. The revised papers take into account developments up to early 2001. This useful anthology of essays is divided into three parts. The first part, “Historical continuity,” paints through case studies a picture of violence as an ever-present part of the Indonesian state. The second part, “Army violence,” specifically looks at the role of the armed forces in organizing mass violence, particularly during the revolution, the New Order government (1965-1998), and in East Timor. The third part, “Communal violence,” considers the phenomena of ethnic conflict and mob justice.

2In the introduction, the editors identify seven points characterizing Indonesian patterns of violence: 1) violence is legitimized by its authors; 2) for violence to be legitimate, it must be aimed at outsiders, so victims must first be constructed as such; 3) when the outsider is dehumanized, the violence is particularly brutal; 4) violence is perpetrated mainly by male youth, who gain a heroic aura by taking on attributes of the pemuda youth fighters during the Indonesian independence struggle; 5) the actual violence is carried out by thugs employed by political and military elites; 6) the state has a history of using army and police violence against its own people; 7) communal violence in its many forms is rife, even among ordinary people, and is largely condoned by the security forces. Although here the editors (and later many of the authors) seek to identify cultural patterns specific to Indonesia, they have probably identified near-universals. This is no doubt due to the uniformity of violent training dispensed through colonization and globalization.

3In “A Genealogy of violence,” Henk Schulte Nordholt traces the roots of Indonesian violence to the Dutch colonial legacy, to the series of wars of pacification and repression that spanned the period from the late seventeenth century to the twentieth century. As Schulte Nordholt notes, “the colonial expansion created a state of violence which is only marginally recognized in Dutch history books” (p. 37). No more telling example than Aceh, where colonial troops killed about 75,000 Achenese (15% of the population), a figure that cannot be compared with the estimated 5,000 killed by the Indonesian army since the mid-1980s. Henk Maier’s piece (“Telling tales, cutting throats: The guts of Putu Wijaya”) on violence in Putu Wijaya’s novel, Nyali, would seem more appropriate in a volume on Indonesian cultural studies than in the present collection, but it has relevancy insofar as it suggests to this reader a central irony of Indonesian discourse on violence. Although so many Indonesian novels and comics are literally packed with graphically violent images, depictions in the country’s television and print media of the true extent of mass violence and incivilities are meticulously excised.

4Elsbeth Locher-Scholten (“State violence and the police in colonial Indonesia circa 1920: Exploration of a theme”) revisits the Cimareme affair, a 1919 police shooting in rural Bandung resulting from the refusal of a religious teacher to make a forced rice delivery. Her careful description and analysis reveal the extent of the colonial government’s fear of the indigenous and the latter’s potential for dissent. Similarly, Erwiza Erman (“Generalized violence: A case study of the Ombilin coal mines, 1892-1996”) explores in detail the institutionalization and socialization of violence through the use of convict and contract laborers in one West Sumatran coal mine. It is, again, ironic that the image of the urang rantai (men in neck and ankle chains, who worked in what can only be described as an underground hell) is today proudly held up by local officials as an emblem for promoting tourism. The institutionalization of violence in Northern Sumatra is also discussed in Budi Agustino’s short article, “Violence in North Sumatra’s plantations.”

5William H. Frederick (“Shadows of an unseen hand: Some patterns of violence in the Indonesian revolution, 1945-1949”) carefully analyzes rogue violence during the Revolutionary period in East Java, beginning with the story of an exceptionally brutal commander, Sabaroeddin, and going on to explore activities of the many rural rampok gangs of violent thieves. The army’s use of these gangs for supply and operations left villagers wondering who exactly were their allies, and who their tormenters. Frederick concludes that the society of this period—more due to the exceptional circumstances that it was traversing than to any sort of amok culture—exhibited strong violent tendencies, which could be manipulated by the shadows of an unseen hand, though oftentimes that hand had an unsure hold on the violence subsequently unleashed.

6The independence struggle had a profound impact on Indonesia’s second president, Suharto. R.E. Elson (“In fear of the people: Suharto and the justification of state-sponsored violence under the New Order”) examines the roots of Suharto’s obsession with controlling popular dissent, in essence, his lack of political sophistication and his fear of popular debate. Liem Soei Liong (“It’s the military, stupid!”) details the role of the military and intelligence community in perpetrating a culture of violent solutions during the New Order, and what perspectives there are for reform following Suharto’s demise.

7The next two articles treat East Timor, occupied by Indonesia from 1975 to 1999. Both are contro-versial in their tentative findings, going against the conventional wisdom that the crimes in East Timor resulted from a malevolent design of Islamization, terror, or even genocide on the part of the Indonesian army. Robert Cribb (“From total people’s defence to massacre: Explaining Indonesian military violence in East Timor”) seeks an explanation other than evil design for why the occupation of East Timor was so violent, particularly in the first five years. Use of obsolete military doctrine from the Revolution, he finds, coupled with newfound arrogance, “a triumphalist culture of impunity,” and contempt for civilians, led to brutalities, and inevitably the alienation of the local people. Geoffrey Robinson (“The fruitless search for a smoking gun: Tracing the origins of violence in East Timor”) critically evaluates the evidence for Indonesian army complicity in the violence that followed the 1999 referendum for independence: torching, looting, and forced displacement carried out by pro-Indonesian militias. Although long-standing formal and informal links existed between the army and militias, Robinson analyzes each piece of evidence separately and finds that the sum falls short of incontrovertible proof of army responsibility. In his view, the violence could owe more to assimilation by militia groups of the institutional character and culture of violence proper to the Indonesian military, which created them. Cribb’s and Robinson’s provocative essays will invite challenge, but scholars still interested in getting straight the full history of East Timor must not disregard them.

8The last two articles, by Kees van Dijk (“The good, the bad and the ugly. Explaining the unexplainable: amuk massa in Indonesia”) and Freek Colombijn (“Maling, maling! The lynching of petty criminals”), try to interpret the seemingly irrational, and often horrific behavior of groups at the grass roots. They attribute similar causes to such violence: societal divisions, ineffective law enforcement and legal system, and the tendency to consider victims as outsiders, even less-than-human.

9Taken as a whole, this volume has wide intellectual implications. The cases reviewed here advance the study of conflict and violence in Indonesia, and no doubt have relevance further afield. By promoting new thinking on one of the more salient aspects of Indonesian society and history—the ever-present potential for violence—this volume merits a place on many Indonesianists’ shelves.

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Glenn Smith, « Roots of Violence in Indonesia, Freek Colombijn & J. Thomas Lindblad (eds) »Moussons, 9-10 | 2006, 374-376.

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Glenn Smith, « Roots of Violence in Indonesia, Freek Colombijn & J. Thomas Lindblad (eds) »Moussons [En ligne], 9-10 | 2006, mis en ligne le 18 janvier 2013, consulté le 28 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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