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Geoffrey Robinson Lecture Summary

Geoffrey Robinson (University of California, Los Angeles)
“The Killing Season: A History of the Indonesian Massacres, 1965-66”
October 4, 2018

The Killing Season: A History of the Indonesian Massacres, 1965-66

Language: English

In this lecture, Professor Geoffrey Robinson (UCLA) discusses his newest book, The Killing Season. The Killing Season examines one of the largest and swiftest instances of mass killing and incarceration in the twentieth century—the shocking anti-leftist purge that gripped Indonesia in 1965–66, leaving some five hundred thousand people dead and more than a million others in detention.

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Geoffrey Robinson, Professor of History at University of California, Los Angeles, gave a public lecture about the history of Indonesian mass killings of 1965 and 1966. Professor Robinson’s lecture drew from his recently published book about the topic, entitled The Killing Season: A History of the Indonesian Massacres, 1965-66 (Princeton University Press, 2018). 

Professor Robinson opened his lecture by stating that the Indonesian mass killings of 1965-66 are probably the most ignored event of mass killing of the 20th century. Around 500,000 Indonesians who belonged to the Communist Party were killed in gruesome ways in 1965 and 1966, and another one million were detained. The false allegation that the Communist Party planned to kill six high-ranking army officials in Indonesia allegedly triggered the killings. Even today, more than a half century after these events, there is not only a lack of understanding about the killings in the country, but there are no official demands for their investigation and the persecution of the perpetrators. 

Professor Robinson stated that his book intends to break this silence, and address the following questions: What are the ramifications of the killings? Why they are not addressed? Why was the violence concentrated in certain regions of the country, and why did it start and end at different times in different regions? Why was the civilian militia so pivotal in the killings? Who is responsible and how to punish them? In addition, in the lecture and his book, Professor Robinson approaches the Indonesian mass killings comparatively, situating the event in the broader fields of genocide and human rights studies. In particular, by observing the Indonesian case, he aims to examine the conditions that enable the occurrence of mass killing and the reasons why some mass killings are remembered while others are forgotten. 

Professor Robinson laid out three parts of his main argument in the book. First, he claimed that historical antecedents shaped the characteristics of violence in Indonesia, primarily the colonial history of difference between the Left and the Right, and the conflict between them. Second, he underlined the significance of the state formation for the killings, emphasizing the crucial role played by the powerful and conservative army, which had considerable political and economic power. Thanks to the Army’s role, the state was militarized, and an extremely militant style of politics existed at the time. Third, Professor Robinson stated that the Army adopted the doctrine of “total people’s defense” and developed the institutional culture and repertoire of violence, playing an active role in the mobilization of civilian militia. Taking all of these factors into account, Professor Robinson argued that, contrary to the official Indonesian claims about the killings, the violence was not inevitable. Instead , it was both encouraged and organized by the Army leadership itself. One of the ways the Army created the conditions for the violence was through the discourse of existential threat to the nation by the Communist Party and the propaganda focused on dehumanization and demonization of its members. This propaganda featured staged political trials, public rituals, and films that denounced the Communist Party.

Next, Professor Robinson turned to the discussion of the violence itself. He stated that civilian militias performed most of the killing and incarceration, following the Army’s orders. However, the Army’s uneven power in the country’s regions conditioned the manner and timing of the violence. Most often, the violence occurred almost immediately if regional officials were under the Army’s influence. However, violence was sometimes also delayed, like in Bali, due to the resistance of local officials. In addition to the Army’s role in the violence, the killings were also encouraged by the policy of strategic silence by powerful states, which was due to the broader political context, especially the Cold War. Most states expressed satisfaction about the disappearance of the Communists in Indonesia, and the United States and some of its allies even assisted the Indonesian military and government. In addition, the absence of human rights and transnational justice efforts at the time additionally conditioned the global silence surrounding the killings. 

In the final part of his lecture, Professor Robinson focused on offering the answers to two crucial questions he raised at the beginning: What are the conditions that enable the occurrence of mass killing? And, what are the reasons why some mass killings are remembered, and the others forgotten? When it comes to the conditions for violence, Professor Robinson argued that the case of Indonesia illustrates that mass violence is not a natural result of ancient differences and/or disputes, like many countries, and even scholars, like to claim. On the contrary, the occurrence of mass violence requires the existence of agents and institutions that articulate that such violence is legitimate for the achievement of political ends. The manner they accomplish that, Professor Robinson pointed out, depends on the histories and internal dynamics of such institutions, out of which they develop distinct repertoires of violence. Furthermore, Professor Robinson stressed the significance of regional and local conditions, and especially local agents, for the occurrence of violence. In addition, he argued that the broader international context hugely contributes to and facilitates the occurrence of genocide and mass violence. Finally, he noted that the effects of war on genocide and mass violence are not unique to the wartime context; genocide and mass violence can emerge in non-violent conflicts as well. 

When it comes to the reasons for remembering or forgetting certain episodes of mass violence, Professor Robinson argued that “power matters”: as long as the perpetrators are in power, any process of transitional justice, memorialization, and truth-seeking is not possible. He stressed the weight of dominant official histories on the construction of social memory, and pointed out that the silence about certain episodes of mass killings largely depends on the behavior of the international community. However, he argued that the power of state to control history, memory, and justice is not absolute, even in today’s Indonesia, where there are a number of individuals and groups who are challenging the official version of the past.

Professor Robinson closed his lecture by offering three possible ways forward for enabling the proper treatment of mass violence, especially in Indonesia. First, he argued for the opening of all archives related to this period of Indonesian history. Second, he insisted on the importance of the Indonesian government encouraging the proper judicial proceedings, which it has so far failed to do. Finally, he stressed the significance of scholarship, education, and creative works in addressing the silence around the mass killing. 

The lecture was followed by a long and animated Q&A session, which involved questions about terminology (why does he not call the killings a genocide?); the occurrence of wealth or property confiscations that accompanied the killings; international endeavors to break the silence around the killings; the difference between the Indonesian and Cambodian cases; the international Communist reactions to the killings; the existence of any other targeted groups; reasons for public displays of violence; the relationship between the 1965 killings and East Timor; other factors than institutional influence in the violence; the significance of Dutch colonialism and the Independence War; and the existence of any foreign training of military professionals and the duration of the civilian militia’s militarization. 

Summary by Badema Pitic