- Writer Andreas Harsono spent 15 years and carried out 2,000 interviews for his book ‘Race, Islam and Power: Ethnic and Religious Violence in Post-Suharto Indonesia’
- In it, he traces a common thread from pro-Prabowo protests after the 2019 election to the mass murders of communists in the 1960s
|Author and researcher with the Human Rights Watch, Andreas Harsono,
reads his latest book Race, Islam, and Power.
South China Morning Post
In Indonesia, violence and democracy go hand in hand. Anyone doubting that should reflect on the viral images on social media last month that allegedly showed police officers mercilessly beating Andri Bibir.
The 30-year-old had been caught up in the violent clashes that resulted from what were initially peaceful protests by thousands of supporters of losing presidential challenger Prabowo Subianto.
To long-term observers of Indonesia, a country of 256 million people of many ethnicities, the scenes were all too familiar.
After all, Indonesia’s democracy was borne from the political instability that caused the downfall of dictator Suharto in 1998, when riots in several cities left an estimated 1,000 people dead. The violence targeted ethnic Chinese and many women from the community were raped.
Since then, images of violence have often defined the evolution of Indonesia’s democracy, as it grows to take in competing voices and ideas, among them intolerance for ethnic and sexual minorities.
So what is the Indonesian idea of violence? Is it the image of a homosexual man being caned in Aceh, a special province on Sumatra? Burned temples in North Sumatra?
Each of the book’s seven chapters bears the name of one Indonesian island, from Sumatra to West Papua. Each island has its own violent story, from the struggles of independence and military occupations in the now-sovereign East Timor and West Papua to the ethnic Chinese massacre of 1967. And then there’s the story of Novi Alfiona, whom Andreas met as a toddler, a mixed Madurese-Malay – both ethnic groups in the Sambas regency on Kalimantan – whose father was murdered in the massacre of ethnic Madurese by Malay militias and native Dayaks that left more than 6,500 dead and many others displaced between 1997 and 2001.
“I felt incredibly sad after reporting on her story,” Andreas says.
Novi was far from the sole character in Andreas’ book: 10 years and 2,000 interview subjects later, he stopped counting. Due to budget constraints, Andreas – who also works as a researcher at Human Rights Watch – took 15 years to finish the book. He was first sent to Aceh by Kuala Lumpur-based The Star newspaper, where he worked as a journalist, to cover the guerilla war zone.
The book is an exhilarating look into the Indonesian idea of violence, combining history – on sharia law, on the contentious proposal of the Jakarta Charter, one of Indonesia’s most prized foundational documents – and personal vignettes.
Andreas was gentle in his lines of questioning towards the subjects – victims opened up to him, a murderer proudly showed him the sword he would wield. They might as well have talked to an old friend.
But the underlying current coursing through the book is one of poignancies: Many of the pogroms, murders, and displacements remain unresolved to this day. Andreas says that the Indonesian idea of violence comes down to one thing: the pursuit of power.
“Take last month’s riots, for example,” he says. “President Joko Widodo’s opponents stirred this kind of violence to secure power, like natural resources or in this case, positions.”
He says the “mother of all Indonesian violence” – the mass murders of more than 1 million communists and suspected communists in 1965 – is another example of that pursuit of power: Suharto and the Indonesian army were allegedly helped by the United States and other parties to demonise communists and assume power through a coup. Many believe those events have been whitewashed in the history books of today.
“I don’t know if it strictly makes this idea of violence really Indonesian,” says Eka Kurniawan, an award-winning novelist whose book, Beauty Is a Wound, touched on the topic of violence. “But in my observation, violence in Indonesia can historically take form in two ways: state violence like the 1965 massacres or the 1998 riots, or horizontal cases like the Dayak-Madurese conflicts that involved identity frictions and other interests.”
Another feature of Indonesian violence, says Andreas, is the centrism on Indonesia’s most populous island: Java.
“Violence in post-Suharto Indonesia, from Aceh to West Papua, from Kalimantan to the Malukus, is evidence that Java-centric nationalism is unable to distribute power fairly in an imagined Indonesia,” Andreas writes in the book.
The dominance of Java – the island that contributes to 59 per cent of Indonesia’s economy – can also be attributed to the violence: thousands of Javanese transmigrants were displaced in Aceh after conflicts that stemmed from economic and social inequity.
“Both Javanese dominance and Islam are two forces that need to be maintained,” Andreas says.
“Indonesia has mostly failed to protect the country’s religious minorities from religious intolerance and violence. Many Indonesian administrations, ranging from president Sukarno to President Jokowi but not president [Abdurrahman] Wahid, mostly failed to confront militant groups whose thuggish harassment and assaults on houses of worship and members of religious minorities have become increasingly aggressive especially in post-Suharto Indonesia. Those targeted include Ahmadiyahs, Christians, and Shia Muslims.”
The dominance also makes it harder for the history to be reproduced – in teachings, books – factually. “There’s no attention to this violence. People only look to Jakarta. Our press is centred in Jakarta, the portion of regional stories are so little. That’s why violence in regional areas doesn’t really show up,” says Made Supriatma, a researcher and a visiting fellow at the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, who is working on a dissertation about violence.
Indonesian violence traffics in impunity. Take the massacre of communists: many of the surviving victims, who were unlawfully imprisoned, now live under meagre means and are mostly stigmatised. Take also the ethnic Chinese – “The oldest minority group in Indonesia to be scapegoated,” Andreas says – who still fear intimidation when the going gets rough.
After 15 years, to feel relief is an understatement, Andreas says. But he is wary of the very Indonesian idea of violence, wary of the impunity of it all.
“Indonesian violence is well described with the Malay word “running amok,” he says. “Impunity is widespread and this running amok keeps repeating itself.”