Notes on a missing category of Indonesian political analysis
In a long talk with a friend far more knowledgeable than me about Indonesia the other day, I was asking about connections between the whole history of the East Timor disaster and broader patterns of Indonesian political thinking, especially nationalism. His sharp reply was that there is no connection: i.e. completely dissociated from the rest of the state and the society, because it was an isolated act by a certain military group.
That’s true enough, but I think that the reaction since Habibie moved in January suggests that’s not be quite enough. Of course the intel people and their dark friends have been rigging some of the response, but that’s not all that’s been happening.
The infantile response (I mean that in the psychoanalytic sense) by many politicians (“the East Timorese are ungrateful”, “Let them rot”, “We’ll take everything we gave them”) and the psychological denial of the mass killings even in the face of overwhelming evidence, suggests something complex occurring at a mass level.
Moreover, the sudden expression of racialized opposition to the Australian government and media’s role is extremely interesting, as well as disturbing.
Of course the sense of betrayal by the Australians that the military and the government must feel must be very strong: after all, they were partners in crime for a long time. And of course, people have been starved of real information about how things actually work in Australia, and to a lesser extent, what has been done in the name of the Indonesian people in East Timor. And of course, at least some of the demonstrations have been organized by the dark forces.
But that doesn’t seem to me to adequately explain what’s happening. As an Australian who grew up in the 1950s, I’ve been forced to think hard about the subjectivity of racism, the racialization of thought that comes with a certain location in the world. One of the good things about spending a decade in Japan is that the process has not only continued, but also been sharpened by an awareness of the saturation of Japanese political discourse by racialized categories. And of course, at least racism in Australia is publicly contested, whereas in Japan it is barely noted even at a superficial level – and that despite the deep sense (and fact) of subordination of this society to the United States.
Now what strikes me is that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sustained discussion of racialized categories of thought in Indonesian society. And yet there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of a certain kind of racial discrimination, and plenty of easy talk using ethnic categories to account for personality.
Yes, of course, there has been a lot written and said about the position of the Chinese, and I may well have missed something important that does tackle this issue there. And there’s always a lot of talk about Javanese imperialism, cultural, linguistic, and more materially. But that’s not quite what I’m getting at.
My question is to ask how East Timor fits into this? I don’t claim to be a sufficiently close observer of Indonesian culture to have much of a clue, but I’m sure some people have some answers.
My guess is that the anti-Australian feeling, coming out of immediate felt humiliations (justified or not, engineered in part or not), has a complicated connection to the history of Dutch colonialism in Indonesia, the slights imparted by racially-conscious white Australian politicians, and the more general impact of highly racialized European imperialism. Nothing too hard to work out in general there.
But given that, my guess is that this one aspect of “Indonesian” – East Timorese relations that has been very important on both sides has been the racialization of perceptions in a context of unequal power. Clearer in the case of Irian Jaya (certainly in the remarks of friends from there), but I’ve not heard much systematic even there.
Anyway, thoughts that you might like to respond to.
September 28, 1999