Violence as Commitment: The Symbolic Significance of Communists Purging and Reproduction of Indonesian Identity

Postcard Photo - Geger Riyanto


*Runner up for ISRSF Social Essay Competition 2015.

The long lasting and deeply pervading violence against communists in Indonesia is one case of violence that is unlikely would ever get a single explanation. Despite its simultaneity and the fact it commonly directed toward people affiliated with an emerging political bloc, its eruptions upon various local contexts were incessantly contingent. The complexity of the case always escapes attempts to elucidate the purging in a grand explanation as it prompts us with particular facts which deny any easy conclusion of the event.

Let us, firstly, address common explanations of the aforementioned violence. Did the violence sprung from the strife of world great powers? Perhaps, in a sense, yes. Yet, such explanation did not explain the actual, brutal reality of the occurring manhunt against communists. As convincing as one could explain it stemmed from the free world interest to keep Indonesia from becoming a lost cause to them, the massive outbreak was only possible because the interest was intermingling with a long-standing rife between actors in the local circumstances. Was it a state sponsored violence? Although the military was playing a great part in both orchestrating the mass purging and, later, systematically constructed communism as a bane for the country, it was obviously not responsible for every non-state actors’ resentment against communists which made the military instigation of the violence itself so successful.

Was it fueled by conflict for resource and access? Though certain faction in military indeed enjoyed the privilege of long lasting rule and landlords’ possession in myriad rural settings secured after a more than successful purge of the biggest communist base outside China and Soviet, any thorough examination, yet again, would find that indiscriminate hatred fostered by religious and ethnocentric sentiment play a considerable part in justifying it. Even when we try to compensate the political-economic explanation by assuming the contestation led into ideological antagonism which bred intergroup hatred, it had to be considered that not everybody participated in the violence voluntarily and some of the other, such as Anwar Kongo made famous by the documentary Act of Killing, were being hired to do it.

As a rapidly spreading phenomenon, the violence against communists perhaps had to be eclectically rooted from every of the variables mentioned above and other factors we have yet to identify. But, what I am exactly trying to argue is that it is likely to be more fruitful for us to put a critical distance from what Mills (1959) famously addressed as grand theory in making sense of the violence. There is a clear tendency among efforts to theorize violence in Indonesia (Bertrand 2004; Klinken 2007; Sopar 2015) to explain the phenomenon stemmed from general structural dynamic. The problem with this line of thinking, at least in our case, is it prone to explicate a certain objective social force as the cause of the event and disregards the intersubjective meaning attributed by the actors to their act which actually driven the violence.

This point is intricately intertwined with the second problem. In line with what Christopher Duncan (2004) has addressed in his analysis of violence in Halmahera, studies of violence in Indonesia hold an inclination of causation thinking. Understanding of violence, it means, predominated by the explanation of what inciting it in the first place. The shift in social structure, significant demographic change, elite’s agendas indeed may serve as the background to the series of events taking place. However, it should be noted that most of the time it is not explaining why one distinct violence developed into a great purge of one particular group. The violence toward communists would never disperse in such haste and institutionalized to become a long standing routine of symbolic violence given the actors’ moral code never gave a way to it.

This essay, therefore, intends not to argue for the causation of the violence toward communists but elucidate a factor which plays a significant role in bolstering its dispersion and it is, I argue, the symbolic meaning of the violent act across certain actual settings as a commitment toward particular identity. It may be our habit to think of violence as one act purposed to eliminate the enemy or purge the antagonistic group considered as a threat to the ego’s own group. However, as an act to negate the different group whether by harming, purging, annihilating them, it also implies an expression of allegiance or loyalty to ego’s own group and, in practice, this semiotic excess of violence is more often being the one that contributes to the vast reproduction of the act among wider actors. By showing signs of violence toward the enemy, therefore, one may enter, being accepted, or secure his or her presence among his or her group, and I think few cases describe this situation so vividly other than the pervasive violence conducted toward communists in Indonesia.

Since PKI was successfully defined as a betrayer following an attempted coup in September 30th, 1965, an unspoken moral code was introduced that one has to be not a communist to be an Indonesian. What contributed to the successful imposing of the label is the circumstance that was hanging in a fragile balance before the coup. On the national level, PKI was involved in a fierce fight for influence with the military, and in daily rural life they often engaged in a confrontation to seize the land with local power holders and to delegitimize their religious or cultural authority. The coup, then, one could say, was a chance being exploited by its many enemy to finally get rid of the incessant threat to their very existence.

When the definition that PKI is an astute traitor being erected, however, it became not only a pervasive norm compelling one to condemn communism as a hazard to the country but also enforcing an accepted definition of the self. Within this semiotic framework, then, the reproduction of Indonesian identity will always went along with the reproduction of negation of communism and vice versa. The admittance of one as an Indonesian requires him or her to participate, in some way, in negating the communists through the means of physical or symbolic violence. The violence therefore, as Eugene Vance make it clear, is “[a] generative force in the production of its own discourse” (Vance 1979, 383).

In further advancing my point, I will resort to ethnographical works which provide us both close witnesses’ account of the communists purging on the mid 1960s. I expect the insights will serve as striking depictions of communism purging symbolic significance across lived contexts of the actors.


To Be Committed to Violence

Depiction of the erupted violence toward communists by civilians usually describe the purge to be acted by group or actors whom involved in a long standing rife with the communist party (Sundharssin 1982). Such depiction may led us to think that the violence was motivated by intergroup antagonism. Although it is far from false to say that the violence prompted by abhorrence, a closer examination will find that one particular excess of the outbreak is it cleaved primary relationships in places. Stories from involved actors (Aleida 2009) testified that manhunts occurred among relatives, whether one being prompted to so or acted according to their own interest.

A glimpse to such accounts should gave us a hint regarding the logic of the violence which is not only concerned with the removal of one’s political enemy but also about exhibiting the sign of loyalty. One had to display himself or herself opposed to the communists in order not to be alleged sympathizing with it, even though it means allowing harm or something even more dreadful to come to one’s own kin. One of the vivid description of this irony, now let me get into my case, come from the oral story of the Dayak Iban collected by Iwan Meulia Pirous (2004) in his fieldwork. The Iban lived on the interior upland of Sarawak and their settlements scattered around Indonesia-Malaysia border. It is, unsurprisingly, not hard to think why they rarely had a contact with the government. Even reports written by Dutch administrator about them is notably scant.

Their first intensive contact with Indonesian government occurred in 1963. Due to the confrontation policy initiated by Sukarno, the Ibanese were forced to assist Indonesian Army Forces (ABRI) as scouts tasked to prevent territorial threat from their fellow Ibanese in Malaysia. Many were hindering to join the cause because it will put them into a direct conflict with their own kin. When mass purging of PKI members and sympathizers erupted two years later, however, they were once again tasked to hunt their own relative and this time any hesitation to give their hand to the military would stake their own safety.

The traumatized Ucing anak Lungan shared his story with Pirous that in the critical period his family longhouse was bombed by the army. All of their livestock died. Lots of Ibanese were tortured. They had to come through such suffering due to providing food for fleeing Paraku (Pasukan Rakyat Kalimantan Utara – guerilla force affiliated with the North Kalimantan Communist Party) whom they had no knowledge was the enemy to the army. “We were stupid… stupid!” Ucing felt could not blame anyone but himself. “The army wasn’t wrong because in fact we had made friends with the enemy.”

Ucing’s family was one of the many Ibanese who were being the victim of the army ruthless punishment. At the time, ABRI commanders were targeting inhabitants indiscriminately because many were suspected hiding and supplying food to the Paraku. Such inclination to protect the Ibanese communists should be understandable because, after all, in a territory where common identity were built through kinship and marriage, they never consider them to be anything other than their own people.

Lingong anak Sandom, an Ibanese paratrooper recruited by the army, confessed that he went through a profound emotional pain when he had to execute Paraku members. There was a time when he had the opportunities to finish a Paraku soldier with lethal shot from his hiding, but in the evening he chose not to kill him. “I decided not to fire since he looked very hungry and helpless,” Lingong said. He, furthermore, seems to be glad knowing that today the man still alive and live in Sarawak. But, on other occasions where he had no other options but kill the Paraku soldier, Lingong often asked his victim more than two times if the man was a member of Paraku. “Are you a Paraku?” It was as if Lingong had to convince himself he got a full sense of his action before being able to execute anyone.

Although political rationale of the punishment for Ibanese who were refusing to participate in the violence to Paraku is something which is not too hard to be thought, in our case attention rather has to be given to the implication of the disciplinary conduct. Disciplinary conduct is something which commonly used to establish a new sense of identity (see Foucault 1977). Through it, the subject of the punishment came into an awareness of who is the enemy but, along with it, also their identification of their selves. It was pretty evident in the case of Ucing who felt the suffering they underwent was his people mistake for cannot identify the enemy.

To come back to my initial argument, the punishment is a powerful reminder that one’s commitment to his or her new primary group has to be done through volunteering oneself in performing violence to the other. The emergence of the new category of the self and the other, however, came with a great moral torment due to the newfound allegiance could only be shown by dismissing their significant old relationship. The pain an Ibanese paratrooper experienced when executing their own kin was, to put it in a way, the pain of “becoming an Indonesian citizen.”

Let me close this elaboration by citing one particularly dramatic case collected by Gede Indra Pramana (2015) study of 1965 massacre survivor. A son from the victim of PKI killing in Dawan Village, Bali, told that his father’s death, in contrast to the general imagery of the victim’s death, was happened with his own permission. A certain people came as if a proper guest to his home and asked his father to be killed. His father, seeing there is no other way for his family to live safely, agreed to the request but asking for a time to prepare. After holding a feast with his relatives, writing letter to his children, making a spiritual peace, he was prepared and calmly went to the agreed execution place accompanied by his family. He was executed in a hole in a graveyard and his waiting family on the other side of the graveyard was told afterward.

This compelling sacrifice indicates that the exhibition of violence could be conducted not only by one person to another but also by one person to himself. It sent an expression of profound submission to the predominated norm which dictates communism has to be purged from Indonesia. Even though it did not save his family from public stigma, by allowing his very existence as communist party member to be purged, the man’s family could continue to life as an Indonesian citizen.


Here to Stay

In the beginning of this essay, I made a quick highlight to the common explanations on the emergence of communists purging in Indonesia. Five decades later after the mass purging started, much of the social situation has already changed. Many of the variables of the social structure which incited the violence has already inexistent. The symbolic significance of the violence toward communist, however, still contributes remarkably to the reproduction of the violence to this day. The act of negating communism still hold as a statement of being a proper Indonesian citizen in contemporary social life.

The practice is seemingly even more apparent in the present than in the past. One of the worst thing that could befall to a public official is being associated with communism. Labelling one’s political rival as communists’ sympathizer is arguably the most effective black campaign strategy in elections. And, recently, after being discussed seriously by the government, the plan of national reconciliation with the family of 1965 killing victim was acquitted by President Joko Widodo. As insensitive as the move may be, the dismissal was a wise political maneuver as the plan already being misunderstood among the public to be a plan to beg for forgiveness from the communists. Moving forward with the plan would provide Joko Widodo’s political enemy with the ammunitions to delegitimize his presidency.

As much as I like to state something needs to be done about this situation, we could see that the complexity of the circumstances is much more than meets the eye. The symbolic violence, in particular, will be continually reproduced as long as people had the interest to distinguish himself or herself as a good Indonesian citizen and also from communism. Our indiscriminate violent inclination toward the imaginary enemy is nothing that would end in the near future.

Perhaps, the bottom line is, we still have not found a way to build our identity without waging unreasonable war to the other. The cruel irony is here to stay.




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