Published: Jul 30, 2007

A conference on recent violence in Indonesia

Jemma Purdey

Suharto is gone and the structures that maintained his power are weakened, yet the violence remains. Violent conflict in Indonesia has become more frequent and more varied. It is no longer sufficient to explain it in terms of state terrorism orchestrated by 'third party agents' alone.

From July 3-7, a panel on 'Violent conflict in Asia: Comparative perspectives' was part of the biennial Asian Studies Association of Australia Conference. It was followed by a two-day workshop on 'Violent conflict in Indonesia: Analysis, representation, resolution'. Both were held at the University of Melbourne. Australian and overseas researchers and academics joined a number of Indonesian activists, academics, a lawyer, journalist, and a publisher.

In post New Order Indonesia there is increasing recognition of the plurality of truths about violent conflict. State truths, 'media reality' and the 'factual' and 'moral' truths told by human rights organisations are all in tension. The challenge for researchers is to navigate around the various representations of violence to understand what happened. During the New Order, researchers most often found explanations within the authoritarian system. Today the links between the actors involved in the conflicts in Ambon, West Kalimantan and even Aceh with the state elite in Jakarta cannot be made so easily. Tim Lindsey urged us to turn our focus to new structures that have emerged in the absence of state controls. These have evoked what he terms the 'preman state', driven by corruption and violence. Elsewhere we see local communities bypassing the state system altogether and enacting their own forms of justice and order, also violently. Nick Herriman described lynchings in South Malang, East Java, where weakened local authorities have no power to halt these acts of 'community justice'.

The complexity of unraveling the 'truth' about violent conflict was made very clear by Suraiya from Flower Aceh. In a moving account, 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 (see elsewhere in this issue). The truth about the violence has been monopolised by both the Indonesian military TNI and the armed Free Aceh Movement GAM, leaving no space for the victims to tell their story. Beth Drexler noted in her paper that by negotiating a ceasefire agreement with GAM in May this year, the government and military have accorded this group an international credibility and authentication, albeit false, as representatives of the people of Aceh.

Hilmar Farid of the Volunteer Team for Humanity (TRuK) demanded that the experiences of the victims be given a central place in the search for understanding and resolving violence, because the 'events of violence are not just in particular points of time, they have a great influence on the social structure of the community.' In his paper on the torture of ex 'communist' political prisoners, Budiawan Purwadi demonstrated how the trauma endures for many victims.

Discussion about resolution and justice issues after the violence reflected the difficulties this process will encounter in Indonesia. New Order ways of thinking persist. The South African 'Truth and Reconciliation' model being offered by the government and its elite advisers aims to seek out the 'truth about the past' - to finally be able to tell the whole story and thereby bestow justice. Retribution and revenge would be unachievable and futile. However, many outside those elite circles, the victims of the New Order, fear that once again their voices will not be heard. Mary Zurbuchen of the Ford Foundation contrasted this elite push for 'reconciliation' with work being done by human rights organisations and victim groups to research the violence. The latter emphasise the 'truth' aspect, and not necessarily 'reconciliation'.

The violence in Maluku constitutes perhaps the greatest challenge so far to the ideal and reality of Indonesian nationalism. As government officials continue to declare, this is an internal conflict in which there can be no clear division between those representing 'good' and those representing 'evil', as there was in East Timor and now in Aceh. Richard Chauvel depicted the conflict in Ambon as localised and specific to this place. He argued for local sources of resolution, a method which Gus Dur, for a time, also appeared to support. However, it is increasingly clear that such a process will not work. The conflict in Ambon and the surrounding islands baffles even analysts, politicians and historians with intimate knowledge of the place. It is clear that a new discourse on violence is necessary to understand this next chapter in the country's history.

Jemma Purdey (jepurdey@hotmail.com) and Charles Coppel (c.coppel@history.unimelb.edu.au), both from the University of Melbourne, organised the conference panel and workshop with the help of an advisory committee. For the program and abstracts see www.history.unimelb.edu.au/indonesia. Jemma Purdey is a PhD candidate researching anti-Chinese violence in Indonesia.

Inside Indonesia 64: Oct - Dec 2000