A din of whispers: community, state control, and violence in Indonesia

Nicholas Herriman

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Most literature on state-society relations in Indonesia assumes an overbearing and oppressive state. In this thesis, I argue that local communities can exert far more influence over state officials, and can be far more resistant to state control, than has previously been acknowledged. I critically analyse the idea of a state with extensive control by focusing on killings alleged sorcerers in a rural area in which I undertook fieldwork. Killings of 'sorcerers' occur when neighbours, family members, and friends believe that one among them is a sorcerer. They group together and, assisted by other local residents, kill the 'sorcerer'. Such killings have been occurring intermittently for at least the past half-century. These usually sporadic killings turned into an outbreak in 1998. The outbreak was precipitated by three factors, in particular: 1. An attempt by the district government to stop killings, which was seen to confirm the identity of sorcerers; 2. Local residents' understanding of the Indonesian reform movement (Reformasi) to incorporate violent attacks on 'sorcerers'; and, 3. The perceived slowness of the police and army response which was understood as tacitly permitting the killings. Local residents interpreted these factors as providing an 'opportunity' to attack 'sorcerers', accounting for around 100 deaths. Although the outbreak was triggered by national- and district-level events, the killings remained local; neighbours, family, and acquaintances of the victims undertook the killings. At this time, the New Order regime of President Soeharto - which scholars have tended to characterise as a state which exerted far-reaching control over society - had just collapsed. Nevertheless, violent actions against 'sorcerers' had occurred during the New Order period, even though they stood in contrast to the order and rule of law and the controlled use of violence that this regime promoted. In order to explain the persistence of anti-'sorcerer' actions, my original findings identify a significant weakness in central state control. Local state officials cannot, and, in many cases, do not want to, stop killings. These officials are connected by ties of locality and kinship to the overwhelming majority of local people, and believe that the 'sorcerer' is guilty. Instead of following demands of law and order from superiors, they are influenced by local communities. Local communities thus exert control over local state representatives, accounting for a breakdown of state control at the local level. This finding of strong community ties and limited state control calls for a reexamination of violence in Indonesia. Violence is usually portrayed as being perpetrated by an aggressive, culpable state on an innocent and passive society. In Banyuwangi, violence emanated from within communities and local state representatives were either unwilling or unable to control it. Eventually, a crackdown by non-local police and army forces brought the outbreak of killings to a halt. However, after these forces left, actions against 'sorcerers' resumed. By demonstrating that ties of locality and kinship undermine state attempts to control local community, I contribute to a revision of the image of an overbearing and violently repressive state in Indonesia.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2007


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