Originally published at: https://newbooks.asia/review/killing-season
The Killing Season: A History of the Indonesian Massacres, 1965-66
Princeton: Princeton University Press
Geoffrey Robinson’s The Killing Season is one of the most-awaited books by the Southeast Asian studies community in 2018. The 456-page monograph explores in great detail the anti-communist massacres of Indonesia in 1965-66 and the long-term repercussions in the following decades. As one of the worst human atrocities in the 20th century, the mass killing led to the death of some half a million real and alleged communist members and sympathizers. After more than 50 years, however, reflections on this tragic event are far from sufficient. Although academic work in recent years spurred growing discussions within small circles, the mass violence has not received adequate attention from the international audience. Worse still, a troubling silence permeates Indonesia even today, as many of those who committed the atrocities have stayed in power. While victims struggled to find viable ways to pursue justice, numerous murderers managed to get away with impunity.
In The Killing Season, Robinson asks three simple yet fundamental questions: Why did this happen? What are the consequences? Why has so little been said? Based on his meticulous study of primary and secondary sources, Robinson puts forward three main arguments. First, the Indonesian army played a pivotal role in deliberately provoking, directing, and organizing the mass murder and incarceration of 1965–66. Second, powerful foreign states such as the United States and Britain – together with the particular international context of the Cold War – were instrumental in facilitating and encouraging the army’s campaign of mass violence. Finally, the existing cultural, religious, and socio-economic tensions in Indonesia served as essential historical conditions for the tragedy.
The book is neatly structured, and the chapters largely follow a chronological order. Chapters 1–4 set out the important historical contexts in which the massacres took place. While pointing out the mutual influence between domestic and international politics, the author has carefully investigated the competing narratives surrounding the highly controversial 30 September Movement – an allegedly communist-plotted coup – which served as the pretext for the mass violence. Chapters 5–9 are the bulk of the book, which explores the army’s vital role in leading the mass violence. Additionally, Western powers not only turned a blind eye to the crimes but also actively facilitated the Indonesian army to carry out continuous anti-communist campaigns. The protracted mass violence has left a long-term effect on the Indonesian society, leading to discussions of Chapters 10–11, in which Robinson reflects on the legacies and a series of unresolved issues following the 1965–66 Massacres.
In my opinion, The Killing Season made four major contributions to the study of Indonesia’s 1965-66 Massacres. Firstly, the monograph is by far the most comprehensive study on the subject. While many scholars have approached the subject from different angles, including Robinson’s own on Bali, the panoramic view presented in The Killing Season is unmatched by others. The geographical focus is the whole of Indonesia rather than one or a few selected regions; the work has carefully examined the interplay of both domestic and international influences; the project is ambitious in discussing not only details concerning the massacres themselves but also the long-term impact on Indonesia in following decades.
Secondly, Robinson has thoroughly reviewed the existing literature, by which he points out the limits and shortcomings of some common interpretations. In particular, the book problematizes scholarships that attribute the cause of the massacres to personal motives, social psychology, or cultural and religious tensions. Although these factors are crucial historical conditions, they are insufficient to explain the distinctive geographic and temporal patterns and variations in the violence. Neither were the massacres entirely a result of the foreign conspiracy, as evidence does not support such a claim. Instead, Robinson is careful in articulating his main point. While emphasizing the critical role of the army leadership, he does not suggest that the mass violence was preordained or planned from start to finish.
Thirdly, instead of studying it as a unique Indonesian phenomenon, the book has adopted a comparative perspective by juxtaposing the 1965–66 Massacres with other genocides of the 20th century. Robinson points out that genocide and mass killing are inherently political acts, and thus carried out intentionally by institutions such as the army. The author suggests that the Indonesian army’s culture served as a ‘repertoire of violence’, through which ‘routines of violence learned and employed by all of those associated with the institution’ (p. 16). Moreover, the army possessed ‘an ideology of strident, even hysterical anti-communism and militarism, informed by a narrative that portrayed the Left as an existential threat to the state and nation’, which further exacerbated the mass violence (p. 17).
Finally, through the careful study of primary and secondary sources, the book is effective in illustrating the jarring contrast between the mass violence and troubling silence. Besides the detailed account of the massacres, Robinson has also brought in compelling discussions of the Suharto regime’s systematic violations of human rights over the course of more than three decades. Previously working as a researcher for the Amnesty International, Robinson gained first-hand experience with victims who suffered from the atrocities committed by the brutal state. What is particularly disturbing, as he observes, is not that these victims’ experience was exceptional, but because it was so common (p. ix). Unfortunately, the silence is still haunting Indonesia today despite the collapse of the authoritarian regime in 1998. The current government still refuses to take substantial steps to ‘countenance any meaningful initiatives in the area of policy change, truth gathering, or justice’ (p. 265). Therefore, besides upholding a high standard of academic rigor, The Killing Season has wonderfully served the purpose of ‘disrupt[ing] the terrible silence and ignorance that has allowed these crimes and similar ones to go unnoticed and unpunished for more than half a century’ (p. 313).
The past few years saw a growing number of excellent work on the mass killing, including Jess Melvin’s study of the Indonesian army, Siddharth Chandra’s analysis on demographic change, Bradley Simpson’s research on the US involvement, as well as Joshua Oppenheimer’s two award-winning documentaries. Together with The Killing Season, such scholarship makes the 1965-66 Massacre one of the most well-studied topics in modern Indonesian history, which would undoubtedly play a critical role in ‘disrupting the silence’ as Robinson advocates. Despite the wide variety of options, I see The Killing Season as a must-read for anyone interested in Indonesia and broadly defined human rights issues of Southeast Asia for its unparalleled comprehensiveness, solid archival research, and elegant writing style.
Robinson, Geoffrey B. (1998) Dark Side of Paradise: Political Violence in Bali. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Melvin, Jess (2018) The Army and the Indonesian Genocide: Mechanics of Mass Murder. Abingdon and New York: Taylor and Francis.
Chandra, Siddharth (2017) New findings on the Indonesian killings of 1965–66. The Journal of Asian Studies 76(4): 1059–86.
Simpson, Bradley R. (2010) Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and US-Indonesian Relations, 1960-1968. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
The Act of Killing (2013) Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. Drafthouse Films, DVD.
The Look of Silence (2016) Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. Drafthouse Films, DVD.