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Jemma Purdey // Describing kekerasan; Some observations on writing about violence in Indonesia after the New Order

The authoritarian regime and its leader are gone and the structures that main tained his power are weakened, but in post-New Order Indonesia violent conflict has become more frequent and more varied. It is no longer sufficient to explain the violence in the terms used by the regime and others during its rule. Scholars, human rights workers, and victims increasingly recognize the plurality of truths about violent conflict (Stoler 2002). State truths, reality’, and the ‘factual’ and ‘moral’ truths told by human rights organizations are all in tension (Sai Siew Min forthcoming; Ignatieff 1996). The continuing and escalating violence after the end of the New Order indicates that the ‘roots’ of the violence also lie outside the New Order (Schulte Nordholt 2002). During the New Order, explanations could be located within an authoritarian system that sponsored violence as a problem-solving method. Today, links between the actors involved in the conflicts in Ambon, West Kalimantan, and even Aceh, and the state elite in Jakarta cannot be made so easily. In a moving account presented to an audience in Melbourne in July 2000, Suraiya Kamaruzzaman  from  Flower  Aceh  expressed  the  complexity  of  unravelling the ‘truth’  about violent conflict. She spoke  of the terror gripping the people of Aceh every day as they struggle to make sense  of a conflict in which they have become pawns. The truth about the violence, she told the audience, has been  monopolized  by  both  the  Tentara  Nasional Indonesia  (TNI,  National Army  of Indonesia) and the armed Gerakan Aceh Merdeka  (GAM, Free Aceh Movement), leaving no space for victims to teil their story. In the same  forum, Hilmar  Farid  of  the  Tim  Relawan  untuk  Kemanusiaan  (TRuK,  Volunteer Team  for  Humanity)  demanded  that  victims be  given  a  central  place in  the search  for  understanding  and  resolving  violence,  because,  he  emphasized, the  ‘events  of  violence  are  not just  in particular  points  of  time, they  have  a great influence  on the social structure  of the community’  (Farid 2000).

This  analysis  is  not  concerned  with  locating  the  origins  of  violence  in Indonesia,  its motives, its actors and  victims. Nor  is it concerned  with  com paring  violence  in  Indonesia  with  violence  elsewhere  to  identify  what  is ‘unique’  and  what  can  be  described  as  ‘universal’.  My  concern  here  is  to reflect on the approaches to studies  of violence taken by publications  which themselves  seek to  achieve  all  or  some  of  these  things. What  techniques  or theories  are they  engaging  and  from  what  sources  do  they  draw  evidence? How conscious are these scholars of reflecting on their methods and their roles as authors  of these histories?  We need  to ask what  ‘violence’  in Indonesia  is being written about in these publications. Can we identify  particular  emphasis on more gruesome, spectacular, or internationally  significant  examples of violence over other forms that are less overt? Or does scholarship also examine violence that takes place in a more daily and private  context? The writing to date on violence in Indonesia comprises a vast and rich collection of narratives  of that violence and critiques of the way it has been represented. A great variety  of incidents  from  across the archipelago, in particular of  mass  or  collective  violence, has been  documented  and  analysed.

A new wave  of  academie interest has emerged  in the study  of violence in Indonesia in recent years, particularly since the end  of the New Order, reflecting not only a rise in the frequency  of violence in Indonesia, but also a new way  of looking at  it. Recent  scholarship  about  violence and what  is increasingly  intra-community  (often  called ‘horizontal’) violence has asked some different  questions from studies in the past. Instead of asking simply ‘What happened?’ and ‘Why?’, researchere of violence are asking, as Paul Brass advocates, ‘Who is writing this “history”?’, ‘What does it teil us about this society?’; also ‘How do we deal with the suffering?’ and even ‘Can we ever find the truth about an event of mass violence?’ These questions, and others like them, form a highly challenging investigation that goes to the heart of some fundamental issues in history writing, truth telling, and fact-finding.

The range of approaches to this subject reveals the plurality of perspectives in studying violence in a society like Indonesia, as in other modern nation-states. Publications from 1999 until today, including those edited by Wessel and Wimhöfer (2000), Anderson (2001), Colombijn and Lindblad (2002), Hüsken and De Jonge (2002), and Coppel (forthcoming), offer critiques of the generalities commonly stated about this ‘violence’. They come from the Netherlands, the United States, Germany, and Australia, with contributions from scholars of many nationalities, but mostly from these four countries. With the exception of a few entries, particularly in Coppel, there is little writing by Indonesian scholars. These are all collections of new research, with the exception of Anderson’s book, which is a collection of reprinted articles from the journal Indonesia. Wimhöfer and Wessel’s was the first of these books to be published and, like Anderson’s and Hüsken’s publications, is concerned with the violence of the New Order and during the time of its leadership. The Coppel book brings a perspective from the victims of violence and their supporters, which is different from the others, while Colombijn and Lindblad make clear their editorial intention in the title of their book, The roots of violence.

The articles within these volumes cover a great range of incidents in various locations, thereby making clear the variety and also sophistication of violent methods used in Indonesia by the state, its agents, and the public.


Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 160 (2004), no: 2/3, Leiden, 189-225

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