Violent Forms In Sociopolitical Spheres Understanding State

Violent Forms In Sociopolitical Spheres: Understanding State Mass Killings In Indonesia 1965-66 Essay, Research Paper Violent Forms in Sociopolitical Spheres: Understanding State Mass Killings in Indonesia 1965-66

Violent Forms In Sociopolitical Spheres: Understanding State Mass Killings In Indonesia 1965-66 Essay, Research Paper

Violent Forms in Sociopolitical Spheres: Understanding State Mass Killings in Indonesia 1965-66

Amanda Maull


H.Schulte Nordholt

Political Violence in Asia

In order to develop a general framework with which to understand collective political violence, I examine state mass killings in Indonesia 1965-66. While acknowledging the importance of historical/cultural factors, I identify elements within the sociopolitical sphere that influence actors of collective political violence at national, local, and event- specific levels. Elements discussed are elite interests, justification for violence, formal organizations, and mobilization factors. Finally, I suggest future preventative policy measures.


Violence marks much of human history. Within the sociopolitical sphere, violence has continually served as a tool used by various actors to influence and/or to control territory, people, institutions and other resources of society. The twentieth century witnessed an evolution of political violence in form and in scope. Continuing into the twenty-first, advances in technology and social organization dramatically increase the potential destructiveness of violent tools. Western colonialism left a world filled with many heterogeneous nation-states. In virtually all these countries nationalist ideologies have combined with ethnic, religious, and/or class conflicts resulting in secessionist movements or other kinds of demands. Such conflicts present opportunities for various actors in struggles for wealth, power, and prestige on both national and local levels. This is particularly evident in Indonesia, a region of the world that has experienced many forms of political violence. The state mass killings of 1965-66 mark the most dramatic of such events within this region. My goal is to understand the killings within a framework of collective political violence. I consider actors and agencies at national, local and event-specific levels in order to understand the mobilization of actors. Within this framework, I determine the relative importance of historical/cultural factors, elite interests, justifications for violence, organization and individual perceptions. Finally, I present questions for future research and preventative policy options.

Common explanations of political violence in Indonesia focus on local culture, the legacies of colonialism, and the social conflicts through which violence manifests. Often, observers describe such events as spontaneous and uncontrollable. One obtains the impression that riots are explosions of latent tensions and mass killings, unstoppable runaway trains. However such explanations are at best incomplete and significantly obscure important variables. Mass collective violence is rarely spontaneous. Elite interests, formal organizations and actors at various levels interact to create violent


outcomes. I consider such interactions surrounding the state mass killings in Indonesia 1965-66.

The Frames of Violent Forms

Defined generally as “the use of physical force or coercion, used with the intention of bringing harm to others (and their material goods), which is linked to a struggle for power”, political violence make take on numerous forms. Such forms are characterized by varying elements of intensity, destructiveness, and duration. It is not my intention to provide a general descriptive theory of political violence. Given the varied nature of political violence and the compounding complexities of unique circumstance, an attempt at such a mega-theory would over-generalize in the search for ideal types and remain inapplicable to real situations. However, some forms of collective political violence possess common elements. This suggests the possibility of a general framework for understanding collective political violence. Understanding the similarities and differences between forms of collective violence would aid efforts at preventive policies. To begin creating a general frame, I analyze state mass killings in Indonesia 1965-66.

Specific forms of collective political violence present many superficial differences and few similarities. State mass killings are methodical, wider in scope and more violent. Contained to specific regions, endemic communal violence, in the form of riots, pogroms, and massacres seem sporadic and spontaneous. However, both types of collective violence require some level of organization. Though not perfectly continuous, both are maintained over periods of time. Similarly, they must be analyzed combining different interactive levels: national, local, and event-specific. I begin with one form and consider the interaction of the following elements across levels: elite interests, justifications for violence, organization, and mobilization of individual actors. This is done within a conceptual framework, which also recognizes the historical circumstances of location.


Indonesia’s cultural and colonial histories have uniquely affected its modern sociopolitical spheres. An immense archipelago, few unifying “Indonesian” characteristics exists as there are many cultural differences among the islands. However, a common pre-colonial history marked for all the uncertainties of disease, failed harvests, natural disasters, and shifting power relations within ruling dynasties. Though competitive and conflictive, the pre-colonial royalty “was based on the notion that the control of violence was more important than the actual implementation of it, because there was a strong belief that violence could easily result in total destruction”. Dutch colonial rule differed greatly. Distrustful of its subjects, the colonial government ruled by violence and fear. Post-colonial Indonesia has inherited this ‘state of violence’. Colonial authorities relied on criminal gangs to maintain order. In more destructive forms, crime remains as part of the state. Concentrated in the center, power remains corrupt and self-serving.

Today, Indonesia contains many different ethnic groups and is a highly stratified and internally conflicted society. Colonialism produced export-oriented economies, organized by business class minorities. Independence created a ‘nation’ not on the basis of a society unified culturally but on one unified by colonial rule. The resulting, social conflicts feed contests for political power. In fact for many postcolonial countries, the western concept of a territorially defined nation-state has lead to “struggles among competing elites and counterelites for control over the state apparatus … as well as to local struggles for power, wealth, and safety”. Violence is an integral part of such struggles.

The pragmatic objective of political violence is power. Subsequently, many different types of elites may use, condone, or tolerate violence when it serves their interests. National and local interests intentionally use collective political violence in struggles for wealth, power, and prestige. Further, powerful extra-national parties may quietly sanction or actively support such violence. While the nature and interests of supra-national, national, and local elites may vary, I show that their involvement whether


direct or indirect is instrumental for at least one form of collective political violence.

Violent action requires justification. Elites and organized leaders must gain some measure of support for their decisions; individuals must rationalize violent deviations from social obligation not only to their communities but also to themselves. Often, the ideology of the nation-state provides “sufficient justification for both state-directed and state-supported violence as well as organized and preplanned intercommunal and interethnic violence”. Perceived threats to the integrity of the nation serve to consolidate imagined internal unity, while justifying state-directed and communal collective violence against targeted populations. These populations become scapegoats for all kinds of social ills. Displacing blame on to the victim, state and local elites along with individual actors attempt to escape legal and moral responsibility for their actions. Further, elites and individuals use methods of moral exclusion to justify violent actions. Using religious doctrines and other ideologies, the targeted population is removed from the perpetrator’s world of social obligations. In this way, otherwise unthinkable actions are accepted by society. I examine the types of justifications used by various actors within the state mass killings of Indonesia.

Another important aspect of collective political violence is the involvement of formal organizations. Organizations are necessary for almost all types of enduring collective activity. Often portrayed as spontaneous, collective political violence is most often instigated by various organizations. Whether based on religious doctrine or other ideologies, organizations of some type play a crucial role in the mobilization of actors and the coordination of collective political violence. They provide essential weapons, which national and local elites utilize in power struggles. Youth organizations are particularly common actors in collective violence. . When discussing mobilization, I will expand on the dynamics of youthful peer groups.


The level of organization and the nature of formal groups may vary across types of collective violence. State-mass killings require the direct involvement of the military. The military may completely control the violence or it may enlist the participation of other organizations at the local level. Communal violence predominantly involves local organizations. In some cases, the military may indirectly support violence, through inaction or the provision of arms. However, their direct involvement is usually limited to controlling communal violence, though their efforts may be weak or purposely ineffectual. Analyzing state mass killings, I examine the varied types of formal organizations and their roles in the coordination and mobilization.

Finally, the mobilization of individual actors incorporates some aspects previously discussed. As well, many other processes relate to the participation of individual actors in collective political violence. Some of these processes are explained by theories of relative deprivation, resource mobilization, and social networks. Yet, factors vary by location, event, and the individuals involved. It is impossible to explain all the intricacies surrounding the mobilization of actors for collective political violence. However, I will identify some of the factors affecting the participation of individuals in state-mass killings.

Theories of relative deprivation often site inequalities as an important foundation for collective violence. Certainly, national and local elites often manipulate religious, ethnic, and class conflicts in their struggles for power. Yet while social inequalities provide many opportunities to mobilize individuals against perceived threats, the interaction of other situational and social processes is also necessary. Historically, the factors that make “a collectivity mobilizable for political purposes are overwhelmingly communal, however much this basis of common identity may be overlaid with ethnicity, religion, class consciousness, or some other loyalty”. By creating a sense of solidarity


on regional and national levels, religious and nationalist ideologies may be used in order to mobilize the support and participation of larger collectivities.

At event-specific levels, episodes of collective political violence create environments where solidarity is formed and reinforced. The common involvement of youth organizations highlights the importance of event-level in-group processes such as solidarity and group status formation. When understanding communal violence especially, “interactions that take place within the group of perpetrators may be more relevant” than those at the national or local political level. In environments stressing masculinity and physical strength, conflicts present opportunities for young males to establish themselves within social hierarchies. In such instances, group processes interact creating violence with imploding rather than exploding forces. While these processes are present in episodes of state-mass killings, such events must be understood separately. Participants in state organized mass violence are mobilized to varying degrees by terror. In-group processes are certainly important. Yet, the lack of information and the impossibility of observation create problems for analysis.

In-group processes occur within and are affected by local and national contexts. Resource mobilization theories suggest that perceived opportunity also influence the mobilization of actors. While perceived threats may unite actors, perceived opportunities to reduce threats will motivate action. Based on theories of rational-choice, this concept suggests that actors calculate the cost and incentives of action. Participants in mass-killings and communal violence may not consciously think in terms of cost-benefit analysis. Most likely perceptions of risks interact with other in-group and out-group processes. However, rational assessments of future costs and benefits directly affect the decisions of most national and local leaders. Mobilization factors are extremely complex and vary by actor, level of analysis, and situation. I attempt to identify some of the


variables affecting the mobilization of various actors within state-mass killings.

State Mass Killings: Java and Bali

On September 30, 1965, six Indonesian generals were killed in an attempted military coup. The result of intra-military conflict during a time of national financial and political crisis, the coup is generally blamed on the PKI (Partai Komunis Indonesia). The mass killings in Indonesia 1965-66 were the direct result of a right-wing counter-coup, which centralized military control of the country under General Suharto. Within the national context, the killings served to repress opposition to General Suharto’s New Order by reconstructing society to correspond with a new basis of solidarity based on the military’s regime. In this sense, the killings can be understood as an ideological genocide due to the use of a “communist threat to justify a new design of state and society”. However, regional variations in the nature and extent of the killings complicate a typology, which emphasizes such a unifying ideology. This is partially resolved if variations are understood within a context of interacting national and local powershifts.

Realignments of local military power occurred as Suharto solidified his position as leader of the new government in Java. Some regional commanders hesitated implementing the purge of local PKI members until Suharto’s victory was clear. In such cases, military units were sent to supervise and participate directly in the killings. However, the army relied on civilian vigilante gangs, whom they supplied with weapons and training to carry out the bulk of the killings. While affected by events from the center, local powershifts occurred within embedded regional conflicts. The military’s use of local cleavages to consolidate their power introduced an element of unpredictability. While this has motivated some to categorize the events as spontaneous, the majority of killings were premeditated and organized at national and local levels.


The role of elite interests in the 1965-66 killings must be analyzed on three levels:

international, national, and local. Set during the Cold War, the United States. had significant interests in removing communist influence from Indonesia and was publicly supportive of the military counter-coup. While the United States may not have directly instigated the massacres, it supported them indirectly by providing communication equipment and as well as a list of PKI members. Nationally, the killings served the interests of General Suharto and the military by ensuring their power over the state apparatus and the wealth and prestige, which accompanies it.

Specific local elite interests varied by region. In scope, the provinces of Central Java, East Java, and Bali suffered the worst of the killing. While the internal dynamics of local powershifts differed between the regions, there are general similarities. The PKI gathered its base mainly from rural areas and campaigned for land reform and against corruption. For local elites, the suppression of the PKI removed political opposition and protected financial interests.

Nationalist ideology provided Suharto a basis for justification of the mass killings. Portraying the attempted coup as a communist plot against the nation, Suharto forces “founded and justified the subsequent campaign to destroy the Communist Party”. Nation-wide propaganda campaigns depicting PKI members as traitors, morally depraved, and anti-religious also provided justification for military actions. Propaganda served dual functions, displacing blame and removing moral obligations. By holding all PKI members collectively guilty for the national crisis and attempted coup, the military also provided individuals with justification for their actions. Depicting PKI members as depraved removed the victims from the perpetrators’ world of social obligation. Local organizations enforced such justification for violence. In Java and in Bali, local organizations such as the Muslim group, Nahdatul Ulama and the nationalist party PNI represented the purge as a “holy war”. This not only removed the targets from the


perpetrators’ moral obligation but also created religious obligations to participate in the killings.

Organizations not only played a role in justifying but also coordinating the killings. The direct involvement of the military and local organizations was necessary to maintain the intensity and scope of the murders throughout the islands of Java and Bali. On Java as the armed forces began internal purges of leftist officers, Muslim youth groups and NU leaders initiated attacks on PKI members. In Bali, PNI-backed vigilante gangs and NU-affiliated Ansor youth gangs were armed and directed by the military to participate in arrest and execution operations. By allowing regional power conflicts and individual rivalries to affect the nature of the killing, the use of civilian groups disguises the importance of state objectives on the killings of 1965-66. It has leaded some to label them as spontaneous. Yet, the military’s role as instigator and its movements to direct the purges reveal the states importance. Together the participation of the military and local political and religious groups highlights the essential role of organizations in the mass killings.

Organizations played a crucial role in mobilizing participants. The military, political party, and religious authorities played an active role in shaping and encouraging violent anti-communism based on existing religious ideas and cultural analogies. Further, violence became an acceptable solution for pre-existing conflicts, which were based on perceptions of relative deprivation and religious differences. The military provided the opportunity for the perpetrators to take revenge on and to profit from victims. Similarly, opportunity and risk assessment played a role in the military’s actions. Support from the United States removed the possibility for sanctions so that genocide became cost-free.

The use of youth organizations highlights the importance of social networks and event-level in-group processes. The violence provided opportunities to establish oneself in a social hierarchy based on notions of power and masculinity. “The vigilantes of


1965-1966 were primarily young men, eager to demonstrate their ‘courage’ and their sense of ‘revolutionary’ commitment”. The manipulation of such youthful enthusiasm provided a deadly force for the military’s project. The exploited by leaders of traditional institutions of communal responsibility and labor to motivate collective killing of the PKI presents further evidence of the importance of local ties.

In addition to the many willing participants, the military and local organizations mobilized the involvement of many others through terror. The government’s campaign made it impossible to remain politically neutral. Participation in the killings provided direct evidence of support for Suharto’s New Order. Anyone refusing to comply with the murders was labeled guilty by association and suffered the same fate as PKI members.

I have depicted how elite interests, methods of justification, organizations, and methods of mobilization worked within an interactive frame resulting in the state mass killings of Indonesia 1965-66. Yet, this framework cannot completely explain the events. For instance, why did so many people need to be killed? A full-scale genocide went beyond ensuring new national and local power positions or resolving individual personal or ideological conflicts. Understanding the killings as part of larger process of social reconstruction may help explain the mass violence. Within a context of national crisis, the PKI became the scapegoat for Indonesia’s political and financial ills. The military’s manipulation of cultural stories depicting threats of total destruction lead to a ‘purifying violence’, necessary for a new cycle of growth, peace, and prosperity. The killings represent a social purge in preparation for a reconstruction of society. Though the actual transformation may have been more superficial, the process highlights the ability of the state manipulate aspects of culture in struggles for power.

Constructing a framework with which to understand collective political violence, I have examined state mass killings in Indonesia 1965-66. Further studies applying such a frame to other incidents of collective political violence will determine its general applicability. To truly comprehend collective violence, one must understand such


interactions within comparative framework analyzing specific situations.

Can a framework be applied cross-nationally and to other forms of collective political violence? Certainly, situations and events are unique. However, understanding the

necessary conditions for collective political violence could aid future preventive policies.

The analysis of state mass killings in Indonesia shows the importance of opportunity. National and local leaders may use political violence when it is seen as cost-free. The international community has a role in creating costs to deter leaders form using violence in struggles for power, wealth, and prestige. People deserve an arena in which they can hold national leaders responsible for crimes against humanity. Currently, the skeletons for such organizations exist. Without the support of the most powerful nations, these organizations will remain ineffectual. To prevent tragic abuses of power, the people of the world must stand together and demand accountability for their leaders.


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