Tag Archives: Benedict Anderson

The Dutch had a system

The Dutch were a small power and in a not very rich country in those days. Unlike the powerful British in Burma, they were afraid of native rebellions if the old society was messed up too much, so they passed agrarian laws which forbade foreigners—including Chinese—from owning agricultural land. There was a lot of rural dispossession and absentee landholders in other colonies, but this was absolutely not the case in Indonesia. You could also say, by the 20th century, that the practices of real colonial state-terrorism had been abandoned: the Dutch had a system where people weren’t tortured and people weren’t publicly executed. There was some kind of press, even if it was periodically repressed—I mean, you went to jail for nine months, but you weren’t put away forever.

The punitive character of the state, by comparison to what came later, was quite mild. I’m going to say: as nobody could stay very long, the curb on instinct to get power and hold it really was quite strong compared to what came after independence. It’s very curious. [The Dutch] made a lot of money out of Indonesia and the toil of the peasants, no doubt about that, and in that sense there was oppression. But the number of people in jail in 1900 to 1940 was very, very small. People can talk differently in retrospect, but during late-colonialism there meant the normality of a stable currency, a normality of a police system—I mean, it had its corrupt side—but basically you knew what the rules were and, on the whole, the judicial system followed those rules. This system completely collapsed in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s, where the law basically could be bought and people with money and power flouted the law absolutely with impunity. So normality was assumed where you minded your own business and got on with your life.

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By the late ’50s, Indonesia was independent:

Japanese occupation during the Second World War ended Dutch rule[35][36] and encouraged the previously suppressed Indonesian independence movement.[37] A later UN report stated that four million people died in Indonesia as a result of the Japanese occupation.[38] Two days after the surrender of Japan in August 1945, Sukarno, an influential nationalist leader, declared independence and was appointed President.[39][40][41][42] The Netherlands tried to reestablish their rule, and the resulting conflict ended in December 1949, when in the face of international pressure, the Dutch formally recognized Indonesian independence[40][43] with the exception of the Dutch territory of West New Guinea, which was incorporated into Indonesia following the 1962 New York Agreement, and the UN-mandated Act of Free Choice of 1969 [44] which was questionable and has resulted in a longtime independence movement.[45]

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Dropping leaves

The first fruits of [Benedict Anderson’s] scholarship on return were mind-blowing not so much, perhaps, for their political arguments as for the cultural depth that underlay them. Mythology and the Tolerance of the Javanese (1965) was the prototype. It argued firstly that Java still had in the wayang tradition what the West had lost, “an almost universally accepted religious mythology which commands deep emotional and intellectual adherence.”10 So he put all those interminable performances in Sukarno’s palace to good use by carefully documenting each of the major figures of the Javanese Mahabharata and explaining what their ambivalent virtues meant for Javanese. His argument then became that the great diversity of role-models the wayang repertoire offered “afford a real legitimation for widely contrasting social and psychological types. In other words, tolerance is taught, and later maintained, by a mythology which informs and suffuses the whole Javanese tradition.”11

This conclusion would seem to have been cruelly disproved by events, since only weeks after its publication the September 30 coup attempt occurred that began Java’s paroxysm of violence, when around half a million Indonesians, overwhelmingly Javanese, perished in fratricidal conflict, the victims demonized by the killers. But of course things were not that simple. The final section of Anderson’s essay had pointed out that “on the tree of Javanese culture the leaves are dropping one by one,” notably through the reduction of the wayang’s subtleties and moral ambiguities to a good-versus-evil dichotomy.12

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