Learning about Indonesian language, history, society and culture

Category: Indonesian Politics

Tan Malaka – Read All About Him!

Tan Malaka BooksThe Tan Malaka publishing industry seems undeterred by a flare up in anticommunist rhetoric

It is now just over a month since this year’s anniversary of the 30th September Affair, an abortive coup attempt carried out in 1965, it seems, by a group of military officers working with the leader of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) via trusted intermediaries. (Precise responsibility for the event is still hotly contested, but the above summary very crudely reflects the important analysis carried out by John Roosa; the Indonesian version of his book on the Affair can be downloaded for free at his blog).

As often happens around this time of year, the anniversary has seen an uptick in anti-communist rhetoric, this time compounded by political manoeuvring. It peaked with an ugly scene that saw a violent crowd gather and surround the building of the Legal Aid Foundation, where an event was being held that was supposedly about the PKI. Tear gas and a water cannon were needed to clear the protesters.

Yet whilst the anti-communist posturing has been ramped up, one can still find books relating to communism in some book stores. In particular, the image taken here is a recent photo from  a popular book shop and shows a series of books by or about the revolutionary (and at one time leader of the PKI, although he later fell out with the party) Tan Malaka.

The presence of these books points to the complex position of Tan Malaka in Indonesian history. His early break with the PKI, and his premature death in 1949 meant that he was distanced from the most controversial events that have become totemic in Indonesian political discourse about Indonesian communism’s alleged treachery: the Madiun Affair of 1948 and the September 30th Affair mentioned above. Indeed Tan Malaka was made an official National Hero in 1963.

Yet even the factors mentioned above could not free him from the taint of communism under the ferociously anti-communist New Order military regime that emerged in the wake of the 30th September Affair, and he was effectively un-made a National Hero, being removed from the National Heroes Biography Book used in schools (this point is made by Asvi Warman Adam in his essay ‘History, Nationalism and Power’ in Vedi R. Hadiz & Daniel Dhakidae)(ed.), Social Science and Power in Indonesia).

Since the fall of the New Order, the situation has become more complex. Tan Malaka now has his place on the official website of the Heroes Centre (under the auspices of the wonderfully named Directorate of Heroism, Pathbreaking, Comradeship and Social Restoration).

This is not to say that Tan Malaka’s status is uncontroversial: there has been continued debate about how he should be viewed and whether he should be a National Hero. Indeed, in 2016 an show about Tan Malaka was cancelled following pressure from the easily angered Islamic Defenders Front. Yet, as my recent book shop visit shows, Tan Malaka’s voice cannot be silenced that easily.


An Authoritarian Chill

Just read a good piece from New Mandala about the authoritarian implications of a recent legal instrument issued requiring mass organisations to be in accordance with Pancasila, Indonesia’s vague state philosophy. So thought I would share the link.

Coup d’État – A Practical Handbook

Reading about the political turmoil of mid twentieth century Indonesia I have been thinking about broader theoretical issues in relation to revolutions and military governments. In my reading I happened across Edward Luttwak’s Coup d’État – A Practical Handbook.

The preface makes quite a change from the average book on the military in politics:

This is a handbook… It can be compared to a cookery book in the sense that it aims at enabling any layman equipped with enthusiasm – and the right ingredients – to carry out his own coup; only a knowledge of the rules is required. Two words of caution: in the first place in order to carry out a successful coup certain pre-conditions must be present, just as in cooking bouillabaisse one needs the right sort of fish to start with. Secondly, readers should be aware that the penalty of failure is far greater than having to eat out of a tin. (The rewards, too, are greater.)


*That* Ahok Campaign Video – A Translation

Indonotes provides a translation of a recent viral video from Ahok’s campaign for Jakarta Governor

Its been all over social media, its been a source of controversy. Most of the controversy has been about the imagery employed.

Yet the words overlaying the video, from a speech by Djarot, Ahok’s running mate, bear repeating. There is little to be argued over here. Yet often the divisive election campaign has shown the importance, and the fragility of the sentiment they express:

My brothers and sisters
all the citizens of Jakarta.
The time is coming
to be part of history
and we will show that
the country of pancasila
is truly present in Jakarta.
We will also show
that ‘Though Many, We Are One’
is not just an empty phrase, but is grounded here in Jakarta.
Whoever you are
whatever your religion
whatever your ethnicity
wherever you come from
you are all
our brothers and sisters, of one people and one one homeland
and have the same rights and responsibilities.
Don’t ask where you come from.
Don’t ask what’s your religion.
But ask what have you done for Jakarta.

seluruh warga Jakarta.
Waktu sudah mulai mendekat.
Jadilah bagian
dari pelaku sejarah ini
dan akan kita tunjukkan bahwa
negara Pancasila benar-benar hadir di Jakarta.
Kita juga akan tunjukkan
bahwah Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, benar-benar
bukan hanya jargon, tapi sudah membumi di Jakarta.
Siapapun kalian
apa agama kalian
apa suku kalian
dari mana asal usul kalian
saudara saudara semua adalah
saudara kita sebangsa dan setanah air
dan mempunyai hak dan kewajiban yang sama.
Jangan tanyakan dari mana kau barasal.
Jangan tanyakan apa agamamu
tapi tanyakan apa yang telah kau perbuat untuk Jakarta.



Stop Throwing Around the Label ‘the Donald Trump of…’


Calling other politicians ‘the Donald Trump of…’ obscures more than it clarifies

Since the election of Donald Trump, there has been a tendency in certain parts of the media to label anyone with the most superficial similarity with the US President as ‘the Donald Trump of…’. It has been used in the context of Europe, the Philippines, and Guatamala, to name but a few cases. Yesterday the BBC ran with a story Meet the Donald Trump of Indonesia about Indonesian businessman and politician Hary Tanoesoedibjo (often known in Indonesia as Hary Tanoe). This kind of analysis is really not helpful.

The point I am trying to make is not that Hary Tanoe has no connection to Trump. The BBC story details Hary Tanoe’s dealings with Trump, as a business partner and guest at Trump’s inauguration. A more nuanced story for the Financial Times points out certain parallels between the two men:

Both are aggressive dealmakers who express admiration for Russia’s Vladimir Putin; have run beauty pageants alongside their glamorous wives; and seek to marry business acumen with political power.

Yet this by no means makes Hary Tanoe ‘the Donald Trump of Indonesia’. An obvious difference is that Hary Tanoe is from an ethnic and religious minority, being Chinese-Indonesian and a Christian. There is a certain irony in likening him to Donald Trump given this given Trump’s history of discrimination against minority groups.

This points to another flaw in the BBC analysis, which describes Hary Tanoe as ‘known for his forthright and straightforward views’. Although outspoken in some regards, being a public figure from a minority background involves a challenging balancing act. Hary Tanoe’s visits to Islamic religious sites and establishments are well publicised, as are his links to the family of the late Abdurrahman Wahid, former President and leader of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation. He has also backed Anies Baswedan in the race for Jakarta governor. Anies Baswedan, formerly seen as a proponent of religious tolerance, has cosied up to the hardline Islamic group that has been at the forefront of an attempt to press blasphemy charges against the current governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (often known as Ahok), who is Chinese-Indonesian and Christian. Earlier Hari Tanoe had expressed support for the police announcing Ahok was a suspect in the blasphemy case.

The above goes to show that Hary Tanoe must be understood on his own terms, in a particular context. It is over 60 years since the historian (and former colonial official) DGE Hall argued for seeing Southeast Asia as ‘worthy of consideration in its own right’ (though as has been argued, Hall did not necessarily follow his own advice). It is a shame that the argument still needs to be made.

All this is not to say that the comparative study of populism is not valuable, if one fully engages with the methodological and conceptual challenges such an enquiry poses. But to just call someone else ‘the Donald Trump of…’ is lazy and unhelpful.



The 1%

It is not exactly a cheery note to end the year with, but during my holiday I was listening to some back episodes of the podcast Talking Indonesia and was particularly struck by a statistic quoted by Dr Matthew Wai-Poi from the World Bank, in an episode about inequality in Indonesia. Based on a 2014 study it was estimated that the richest 1% of households owned 50% of wealth in Indonesia, one of the highest rates for any country where data was available. The report is available here and the relevant chart is on page 18 (using the report’s pagination).

Peaceful Indonesia?

A divisive campaign against the Jakarta Governor misappropriates the language of peace and unity

The ongoing efforts to have Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (also known as Ahok), the Christian Governor of Jakarta, prosecuted under Indonesia’s blasphemy law have a noticeable element of doublespeak to them.

Without going into the ins and outs of the case and the social and political dynamics behind it (these have been explored in a series of articles on New Mandala, for example), in this post I want to zoom in on one aspect, the inherent contradictions of mobilising the language of peace and unity whilst using divisive and inflammatory rhetoric. To take a specific instance, I have in mind the sermon of Muhammad Rizieq Shihab (also known as Habib Rizieq) at the mass rally held on 2nd December in Jakarta in support of the prosecution of Ahok.

It is a remarkable speech, both for the contradictions raised above and the fiery manner of delivery. It is available on Youtube (the below section starts at 31 minutes 45 seconds into the clip, and it is well worth hearing that section of the clip to get a sense of the tone). In it he calls for the whole country to submit to the Quran, and calls for the upholding of Surah Al-Maidah 51. It was Ahok’s statement about the alleged misuse of this Surah (he complained that some people were misleadingly saying that it meant that Muslims should not vote for him as a Christian) that is at the centre of the controversy. What’s more, whilst calling for peace and unity Habib Rizieq inveighs against liberals, sinners, ‘deviant sects’ (aliran sesat) and the LGBT community. So much for peace and unity.

‘…our struggle is not only to have Ahok detained or imprisoned, but must be more than that. Surah al-Maidah must be upheld in Indonesia, must be enacted in Indonesia. A country where the majority are Muslims, must submit to the noble Quran. There must not obstruction to the application of Surah Al-Maidah 51, brothers and sisters. We ask Allah that our steps in the future will be more steadfast, our unity will be stronger in upholding Allah’s law in Indonesia, this mother land of ours that we love. So let us defend religion, let us defend the country, let us protect Islam, let us protect the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia. Let us, brothers and sisters, let us respect all religious groups, it can’t be allowed that there is mutual insulting or abuse. Brothers and sisters, Indonesia is peaceful without the insulting of religion, Indonesia is peaceful without deviant sects, Indonesia is peaceful without liberalism, Indonesia is peaceful, brothers and sisters, without LGBT, Indonesia is peaceful without disobedience to God and sin.’

A transcription of the relevant section in Indonesian can be found below:

‘…perjuangan kita tidak hanya sampai kepada Ahok ditahan atau dipenjara tetapi harus lebih dari itu. Surat al-Maidah 51 harus diteggakan di bumi Indonesia, harus diperlakukan di bumi Indonesia. Bumi yang berpenduduk mayoritas Muslim harus tunduk kepada al-Quran al-Karim. Nggak boleh ada lagi yang halangi untuk menerapkan surat al-Maida 51, saudara. Kita mohon kepada Allah semoga ke depan langkah kita makin mantap, persatuan kita makin kuat untuk menegakkan hukum Allah di bumi Indonesia, bumi pertiwi yang kita cinta ini. Mari kita bela agama, mari kita bela negara, mari kita jaga Islam, mari kita jaga NKRI. Mari, saudara, kita hormati semua umat beragama. Tidak boleh kita saling mencaci atau mencerca. Saudara, Indonesia damai tanpa penistaan agama, Indonesia damai tanpa liberalism, Indonesia damai tanpa aliran sesat, Indonesia damai saudara, tanpa LGBT, Indonesia damai tanpa kemungkaran dan kemaksiatan…’


Taking a Wider View on Corruption in Indonesia

Given the seemingly unending series of corruption scandals covered by the Indonesian press, it is easy to lose site of the bigger picture of corruption in Indonesia. That is why I was particularly interested to read the following articles by Jeremy Mulholland that look at the history of the KPK (Corruption Eradication Commission):

Particularly striking is the account of the constraints placed on the organisation by those at the centre of power, anxious to avoid family and allies being implicated by the KPK.

One section that sticks in the mind is the argument that:

‘the best analogy for KPK’s evolution and its relationship with successive presidents is Megawati as a mother who never wanted the ‘child’ (read- KPK), SBY as an abusive stepfather who lived through his child’s achievements, and Jokowi as the estranged and feeble uncle.’

Somber reading for those concerned with clean govenment in Indonesia (and judging by the polls that includes the vast majority of Indonesians).

The Ambivalence of an Executioner

With global attention directed at Indonesia’s use of the death penalty, the Guardian carries a revealing piece about the ambivalence felt by a member of official firing squads:

“I don’t make conversation with the prisoners. I treat them like they are a member of my own family,” he explains, “I say only, ‘I’m sorry, I am just doing the job…’”

“I am bound by my oath as a soldier,” he said. “The prisoner violated the law and we are carrying out a command. We are just the executors. The question of whether it is sin or not is up to God…”

“I hope that I won’t have to keep doing this indefinitely. There are some 50 people on death row so it could be my turn to execute again,” he says. “I’m not that happy doing it … If there are other soldiers, let them do it.”

Cash Flows: Money Politics in Indonesia

I have previously discussed dynastic politics in post Suharto Indonesia and the interlinking of national and local politics. A recent issue of Critical Asian Studies has brought me back to thinking about this. In particular Edward Aspinall’s article ‘When Brokers Betray: Clientelism, Social Networks, and Electoral Politics in Indonesia’ (the article is available open access). Two key themes come out of this (beyond the pervasiveness of money politics) as far as I can see. One is the personalisation of Indonesian politics and the other is the instability of the networks involved.

In explaining the personalisation of these networks he highlights several factors:

Introduction of direct elections for local government heads in 2005

Introduction of open list proportional representation in legislative elections from 2009 (voters generally vote for either a party or candidate. Seats are allocated to parties on the basis of their share of vote summed from votes from the part and individuals from their party. Then seats are allocated to individuals based on their individual share of the vote vs other candidates within their party. So candidates are incentivised to campaign for themselves more than their party).

Importance of clan, family and patronage networks held by influential local notables especially in poorer and more isolated

Whilst this all resonates very much with what else I have read on political networks in Indonesia, in the other theme of the article, that is the instability of these networks, I can see a tension with the cartelisation thesis of Dan Slater. I think I am still a long way off understanding the balance of stability and fluidity in the Indonesian political system, but at least these approaches provide tools to start getting to grips with it.