Interview Ben Anderson: Hereditary Politics Are a Reflection of Feudalism

He has been absent from the world of research on Indonesia, but Benedict Anderson’s reputation among academics remains intact.  Anderson received a warm welcome when he entered the Jakarta National Library last Tuesday to attend the launch and a review of a book by Tan Swie Ling.

Ben Anderson

Anderson, the famed Indonesia expert from Cornell University in the United States did not mince words when he gave his views, all in a colloquial Bahasa Indonesia.

Anderson, 74, is certainly no stranger to Indonesia and vice versa. He first came to the country in 1961 to do his Cornell University doctoral research. Following the G30S incident, Anderson and his colleague Ruth McVey produced the Cornell Papers, a controversial report describing the 1965 upheaval as a result of an internal conflict within the Indonesian military. Because of that paper, Anderson was banned from entering Indonesia from 1973 and until Suharto stepped down in 1998.

In the week that he was in Indonesia, Anderson was invited to speak at many seminars. He took the opportunity to collect information on the biography of the author of Tjamboek Berdoeri, Kwee Thiam Tjing. In the midst of his busy schedule, he still had the time to do something unique. “I am documenting the development of ‘campy’ subjects in Jakarta,” said Anderson, laughingly.

He spoke with Tempo reporters Nugroho Dewanto, Yandi M. Rofiyandi, Yophiandi Kurniawan and photographer Dwianto Wibowo at the home of a colleague in the Cipinang area of East Jakarta. He dissected the politics during the revolutionary period and neo-feudalism, which in his opinion seems to be still rooted in Indonesian society today. Excerpts of the interview:

What makes you consistently link the 1965 incident with the leftist movement in Indonesia?

I have been attracted to the G30S events until the 1973-1974 period. I felt that after reforms were launched, almost all documentation coming out of the Extraordinary Military Tribunal was full of contradictions. We don’t know which testimonies were forced out by the police or the army. We will have to wait for the secret files of the UK and US governments to become available. Perhaps they will contain new information and material from those events which happened 30 years ago.

What about the claims of former political prisoners, many of whom are now writing books?

I had hoped there would be memoirs from those political prisoners, but most of their products are about their suffering during their imprisonment and so forth. Yet the available analysis of what happened at the time is full of contradictions.  One person says this occurred, others say that happened. I am hoping there will be a smart PKI member who can produce a logical analysis, but so far it hasn’t happened. I also read the book Dalih Pembunuhan Massal (Pretext for Mass Murder) by John Roosa, which contains quite a bit of interesting information taken from the Supardjo documents. But Roosa was too enthralled by this document, neglecting to look at other documents. So, in my view, his analysis was too simplistic.

What is the relevance of the G30S events and the left-wing movement with developments in Indonesia today?

The killing of millions of people happened because of a media and television campaign on the murders of the generals. My research indicates that the killing of the generals did not involve mutilation of their genitals, their eyeballs and other grisly description. So actually, people should be questioning why there were so many lies right from the first day. This was a campaign planned with cold calculation, not something that came out irresponsibly or as a result of panic. Clearly, there was a certain group that was ready to carry it out.

Your writings about the killing of those generals have had quite an impact.

What I have written can be said to have had almost zero effect.  Readers of the document should have realized the event was a big lie. The anti-Gerwani campaign was based on nothing more than rumors, but no one seemed to care. I don’t know what will happen if someone can prove that Suharto and his group were behind the G30S incident. I think people don’t want to believe in the truth, because if they did, that means someone is guilty of killing so many innocent people in such a sadistic way. They are like the Germans who don’t want to remember about Hitler because it’s considered to be something from the past.

Sarwo Edhie Wibowo

Wasn’t there an admission by the late General Sarwo Edhie on these killings?

How would he know about the massacre of 3 million people? Many issues about this period remain unclear, like the fate of Sjam Kamaruzaman. Some people still suspect that Sjam is being detained overseas. Who he is and what his relation is to Suharto is still a big mystery. There is a unique story from the family of General Achmad Wiranatakusumah. He recalled being puzzled during a meeting with Suharto on October 1, the day after the G30S incident, who kept asking about Sjam. Everyone at the meeting was confused and no one seemed to know about Sjam’s fate. In fact, there is some information indicating that Suharto had known Sjam since the revolutionary days.

So the relevance today is to show the whole thing was a big lie and a crime against humanity had been carried out.

That Njoto, Aidit and the others were responsible for everything about the G30S incident doesn’t make sense. Which means Suharto intentionally crushed this movement to become a hero. If this was merely a drama by Suharto, certainly Indonesian history would have turned out quite different.

Do you mean that the PKI could have taken over power?

I’m not sure. Look at the results of the elections. No parties were able to win over 23 percent. The limitations of the PKI were clear: they were unable to penetrate Islamic-controlled areas. After the 1955 national elections, the PKI came second at the DPRD level but only in Java, and any increase in the voters came from the PNI not the Islamic parties. In fact, after Njoto was sidelined and replaced by Oloan Hutapea, I wasn’t convinced the PKI could control Indonesia.

Why is the absence of a leftist movement in Indonesian politics so important?

Very important. Forming a leftist political party like in the old days is not as easy as one thinks. It needs years of struggle, particularly if it wants to attract poor workers, farmers and fishermen which have for long been hit by bureaucracy and so forth. I think such an effort needs a principled leader, who clearly has a strategy and tactics. How do you explain the efficiency with which the past elections proceeded, yet the quality of elected legislators is something to be desired.

Is leftist ideology still attractive given that in the last elections many poor people voted on the basis of money?

Well, that’s because there is no alternative. This also happened in an area in Thailand where communism was once very strong. During the 1970s, the communists in that area were destroyed. They could not be accommodated because there were only two political players, one backed either by the local mafia and the other by the army. In such a situation, people will vote for the party which can give the biggest bribe, not because they like the party, but because they think, “I wouldn’t be getting anything if I didn’t play the game.” Recently, people became aware that casting their ballots should be based on policies offered, not about money. This group threatened Bangkok and the Thai monarchy. Political awareness had changed much over the years. If you go out into the provinces, you would see insulting words describing the king, using very coarse language. The propaganda from the palace keeps saying that the king is respected and so forth, just like the way Yogyakarta cannot bring itself to release the sultanate.

Anti-capitalism sentiments usually open up opportunities for the leftist movement. But that’s not happening in Indonesia. In fact, here people who are anti-capitalist can also be anti-communist. Why is that?

In many cases, Indonesian conglomerates are far from the range of vision of fishermen, farmers, maids and common people. Their daily enemy is not foreigners, but locals like the police and the mafia. The elites blame problems on the Jews and America, to ensure they are not detested. So this is the politics of transferring people’s anger at external targets to cover up for the failed economy inside the country.

How do you see the role of the younger generation in changing politics in Indonesia?

When I see a naughty child, I always say, jokingly, “this is the hope of animals” (a play on the use of the word bangsat or animal, as opposed to the oft-mentioned phrase bangsa or nation–Ed.). But there is hope for the young and they can do something meaningful. Young people usually have the courage but not the resistance so many of them end up joining groups or mafia gangs. The movement can be active if there is a good leader.

Do you see political culture today the same as it was during the New Order?

What will help is the generation of young people who never experienced and cannot remember well the Suharto era. Of course there is a shortcoming, but they will not be Indonesians with formative years experiencing the Suharto era, with its neo-feudalism, corruption and cruelty. Such a change needs time.  The current legislators at the House of Representatives (DPR) are basically the result of the New Order. Their political mentality is exactly the same.

What similarities are there in today’s political culture with those of the New Order?

The system is ruled by a dictator with an oligarchic system, sharing the spoils, no opposition. They know that as long as the spoils are divided and everyone is asked to participate, the oligarchy is safe. No member of the oligarchy has had the courage to break away and do something different. Perhaps this will change when there is another economic crisis.

Indonesian politicians today also are grooming their family members and their children to continue their leadership role and status.

They have nothing except their parents’ or their husbands’ names. These political crown princes and princesses is a
reflection of feudalism and the maniacal ambition of leaders like the one in North Korea.
That country is communist, but its leaders have been hereditary for three generations. Rather than share power with others, better give it to the heirs, even though he or she has the brains of a chicken.

How much has feudalism changed since the colonial days?

From the time of the revolution to the 1950s, the nobility or small kings felt threatened because of pressure from below–the people. People saw them as cronies of the oppressors, bad rulers. Political parties like the PNI, PKI and Masyumi were seen to be strong-principled so they had bigger appeal than the nobility and the elites. The small kings then tried to come back by entering the bureaucracy without the electoral process.

What about during the New Order era?

Suharto castrated all political parties so that the nobles or the upper class could not make a comeback. Suharto supported the small kings at the local level, who were insignificant at the national level. Their biggest foes were the parties which appealed to people all over Indonesia. If their influence only extended within local boundaries, there was no problem. These small kings were groomed and given money so they could rule like in the old days. They were rendered zombie-like.

The Yogyakarta sultanate believes it has different historical roots than other monarchies.

I don’t believe that. Supporting the sultan would give hope to small kings in the other regions. My impression from observing monarchies in a number of countries is that when the monarch is eliminated, people will forget them in three weeks’ time. So, when the reign is ended, they will not come back.

Can a monarchy be eliminated just like in this era of reforms?

Conditions today actually mirror the failure of political parties in attracting the masses. So, in this case, the ace is among the cards which are still weak and the king has already gathered his forces since the time of Suharto.

Benedict Richard O’Gorman Anderson

Ben Anderson

Place & Date of Birth: Kunming, China, 26 August 1936
BA, Cambridge University, UK
Professor Emeritus in International Studies, Cornell University,

USA Career:
Lecturer and Researcher, Cornell University
Author of Java in a Time of Revolution: Occupation and Resistance 1944-1946 (1972);
Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983) (tempo magazine/IM)

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *