Home / Topik / Wawancara / Transitions of Indonesian Provincial Towns’ Democracy, Governance & its Citizenship. Interview with Gerry van Klinken

Transitions of Indonesian Provincial Towns’ Democracy, Governance & its Citizenship. Interview with Gerry van Klinken


In a very rare occasion, Hatib on behalf of CRCS interviewed Gerry van Klinken, a scholar expert on Indonesian history. Now he is a permanent researcher of KITLV (Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies) in Leiden. Gerry was very well known for his two books, Minorities, Modernities and the Emerging Nations: Christians in Indonesia (2003) and Communal Violence and Democratization in Indonesia: Small Town Wars (2007).

Gerry van Klinken [©Gerry van Klinken]
Gerry van Klinken [©Gerry van Klinken]

 1. What drives you to change your subject of interest from physics to social sciences?

Actually I have long been interested in the humanity, so when I finished my education in Physics. Then I got a job in Penang in the 1979 to 1982, and then I came back for my bachelor of art in history studies and religion. Then I went to Indonesia to teach in Salatiga, because I only got Bachelor of Arts, not enough to teach history, but I have my physics qualifications, I also teaching history of physics and physics and society, those kinds of things. Actually it is a longstanding interest. But Salatiga in the late 1980’s was also pretty exciting place for student activism, concerning with Kedung Ombo case and there were other investigating issue for protesting against Soeharto era and also East Timor case. There were a lot East Timor there, also student from Papua and became involved within as well. So for me it was a kind beautiful contestation in Satya Wacana. There were also Arief Budiman there, George Junus Aditjondro, Ariel Heryanto. George actually had come back latter from United States. Then at the end of my period in Satya Wacana in 1991, Professor Herbert Feith who have used to common to visit Indonesia would say at his home, he ask me “so what you gonna do after this? And he said why don’t I study Indonesian and politics? I will write a letter for you to get a scholarship” And he gave, and I got one. I was very lucky. And two years later after Soeharto resigned then I would be Excited to be interested in Indonesian politics and I have never regret.

2. So what are you doing currently?

We finished our edited volume in 2009 on the state and society in Indonesia, which has changed a lot since 1998. The state has been more imbedded in the society. It was a collaborative project with scholar from Indonesia, United State, and from Australia. Those countries, I think about 8 people. We worked on the relationship between state and society, which has changed a lot. The state has more embedded into society. After that we continued with the program called “in search of middle Indonesia” which is about middle-classes in province towns. The coordination of this program, there were four of Ph. D. students, three long term post doctoral researchers and a number of short times fellowship also came from Gadjah Mada University. We studying four-five provincial towns in Indonesia, because we think that in the era of decentralization that democratization has driving Indonesian politics and we don’t know very much about them.

3. What failure have you seen from the last fourteenth years on democracy in Indonesia?

Well, there were a lot of people sceptical at first about Indonesian changes, but the argument that I made is that Indonesia has really changed and possibly the New Order might became historical aberration in Indonesian history. What we see now much is more open society and state, and of course the New Order elites managed to reproduce themselves and also have learned on democracy and learned how to manipulate. But in terms of judicial systems almost unreformed, but in terms of freedom of expression and electoral freedom are very real changes. People used to say that election was un-Indonesian, that used to be repeated regularly by New Order regime.

4. But how about cronyism, corruption and election fraud?

It is very widespread, It definitely worse in the New Order. In the SBY, they campaigned of the promises but changed very little bit not very much, and the KPK (Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi, Ed.) is already domesticated now. So, you might even say, politically at the level of provincial towns, corruption has become was much more widespread because of the political processes that have begun to play in provincial areas that used to be on there.

5. I read several of your works, and much of them are telling about the dying of middle-class and the abundance of state bureaucracy apparatus, do you think it is a bad augurs or on the other way round, tell me little bit about it?

My work in the last ten years has been mostly outside Java, where I study much more on important factors in urban life than in Java. So my experience was shaped more on outside Java. But certainly it’s true that the middle-class everywhere, but particularly outside Java was very closely related with the state. But it not merely so monolithic as we used to think. State is not one organization, but many different organizations. So the competition within the state is actually one of the causes that drive democratization. Democracy is a way of resulting conflicting interest within the state. So it is not the state against society, but very often the middle-classes within the state. So the state is very fragmented even in one institution that we always used to say, that brings all Indonesian together unified, that is military, now military is not unified as a strong institution. Everybody knows that it is now factionalized and very polarized on politics between personality and between different military units, from different levels. Military command that each drives their own local politics depending on the district situation. So even the military is not against the democracy, but also do well on democracy.

6. Some scholars argue that the current Indonesian society is stepping back to their past history just like in fifteenth century decentralization on trade and society or like in Indonesian in the 1950’s something. How about your comment?

Go back to 1950’s especially; in the 1950’s have become very interesting. But once more, after too long period of chaos today we regard them as period of creative, democratic optimism and pluralism. I think at least my admiration for Indonesian in 1950’s; it looks highly contested much more than in the New Order Era. And there were always regional rebellion and later on there were martial law and disbanded on the parliament because of the instruction of guide democracy. But let say from 1950 until 1966 period, there were extraordinarily optimistic and open society. We can also use the 1955 election result began an idea of how Indonesia thought. It will never used during the New Order election’s result as a reflection of what people really thought. So I think we can learn a lot of some experiences, and I am excited to see historical research being done in this historical period. Now I am working on history of Kupang, which focus on the 1950’s and 1960’s. Not a town that everybody heard on. When you get to know Kupang, and I am sure like any other towns, it was also very cloudy in Kupang in 1950’s. The anti feudal got rid of the Radja and have a democratic civil society in Kupang. That was a big issue in 1950’s.

7. So do you think that “indirect rule” as a part of colonial legacy remains in place in Indonesia?

Yes the whole of Radja (king) in Eastern Indonesian was an indirect rule. And Radja maintain their power after 1945. There was no revolution in Eastern Indonesia even after 1950’s all of those Radja remained in place. It was only in 1962 the Radja lost their power because their funding cut off. But throughout in the 1950’s this was a big political struggle. It was like a French Revolution happening in Kupang in the 1950’s. It was so an exciting for nationalist people.

8. What do you think about these Radja or any other traditional elites currently who also really want to be a leader in the new democratic circumstances just now compared to the political situation in the 1950’s?

It is the opposite or turning back the clock on what happening in the 1950’s. Astonishingly, these new kinds of conservatism also in Yogyakarta actually, opposed the direct election, and it would be like returning Indonesian to feudalism. But I think also in the same thing also in West Kalimantan or in South Kalimantan, where also Sultanate actually already disbanded after the revolution because people in Kalimantan also want to be republican or want to be free. But today in the context of local election, you can see the resurgence of Sultan being reinstalled with a lot of ceremony, a lot of money spent.

9. Why do they gradually turning the resurgence of “feudalism”?

I think one reason is that actually when you look at the boundaries of the kabupaten today, like go back to the colonial period, the Dutch established those boundaries based on preserved kingdom, Sultanate and so on, like Yogyakarta is the boundaries of the Mataram Kingdom. These are the convenient local political symbols. For Pontianak for example, the Sultan is very proud to local symbols, because they actually have the agenda toward areas like Sambas, Kutai, and others. It happens like in Sumbawa, Dompu, Sulawesi and also Southeast Moluccas.

10. How far do you believe that as a post-colonial society, Indonesian now is fully determined by colonial legacies?

It is an enormous legacy, which people don’t generally realize it because we don’t do enough history in the provinces. People don’t realize that actually the symbols of Radjas or Sultan were a late adaptation in the late colonial period. They imagine that these are original or asli or authentic son of that area (putra daerah). But really very often those Radjas were created or at least their positions were redefined by the Dutch in the nineteenth century. In Jogja had happened much earlier, but outside of Java, particularly the Dutch actually created the Radja in 1919 like the Radja of Kupang, so it was very late in the colonial period. In Sumba for example, so many Radja got the symbol of sovereignty such as the tongkat, the umbrella from the Dutch. So, it is something ironic that today they regard as the authentic symbols, this is called as Post-colonialism. People re-imagine reinventing tradition which is not that old and authentic actually.

11. If the growth of specialty given toward son of soil (putra daerah), then do you see any contrary with our founding fathers notion on citizenship in the early twentieth century?

When we look back over the history of Indonesian nationalism, it arouse in the 1920’s as a reaction against the colonial emphasize on local tradition. So the first nationalist like Soekarno or Hatta or Sjarifuddin or all of these people deliberatively wanted to create like a cosmopolitan of national identity with non ethnic, non primordial, non religious, inspired from the model of French Revolution. Forward looking, optimistic, and concern with citizenship; it because they oppose the traditionalism promoted by the Dutch. On the other side, the Dutch Colonial deliberatively promoted a kind of traditional and local identity because they saw that this would be a good antidote against what I call “extremism or republicanism”. Today it is look like the optimism of, let say Amir Syarifuddin who has local conservatism of a reinvented local tradition.

And one of the reasons is that the New Order abused Pancasila and of course they emasculated the leftism, which actually Indonesian nationalism was very leftist in the 1930’s.

12. It seems to me that the future of Indonesian ideology is worrying?

Yes, but there are also liberal ways in interpreting local culture. I think the example of Sultan in Yogyakarta is a good example of somebody who reinterpreted Javanese culture in much less hierarchical ways, much more open. In some other places, including Moluccas, the Radjas interpreted local culture that something quite inclusive and taking away those elements that anti outsiders. There are some other very nice examples as well. So that will be one way to go. A kind of progressive communitarians and of course because of globalization we know have a lot of hybrid influences. People read internet and see so many films, and so we don’t become so exclusive.

13. Then how should the role of middle-class to be?

The trend with State around the world is that they do less their role that they did in the past, Neo-liberalism is less government and more market, and Indonesia are also neoliberal. So this is not necessarily good, but it will mean that state dependent into class will probably shrink. People will become more market oriented, especially in the big cities. What I think is more important, culturally and politically if the vanguard intellectual of middle-class will build coalition with less privilege people. There is a real class dividing in Indonesia, and in the past, the middle- class has been for itself and this is damaging. The Middle-Class during the New Order was fully pressed by the State. During the reformation period, the Middle-Class enjoys, the gap with the poor has not decreased. I would like see a kind of reaching out from Middle-Class to less privilege people in the town and also in the countryside to build a form movement for ecological justice, gender justice and the cosmopolitanism.

14. It seems to me that your current works much inspired from Heather Sutherland & Burhan Magenda on post-colonial state bureaucracy in Indonesia, what is stunning things that you got from them?

I admire them both. I was observing for something that important at that time. Particularly for Burhan Magenda’s work on the decline of aristocracy in East Kalimantan which also covered Sumba, where he comes from, and also Southeast Sulawesi. But I think Burhan Magenda was also did not realize the decline of aristocracy could be reversed. In a way, it kind of ironic as we discussed before, while Sutherland sees back further than that, about the priyayi and the pamong praja, she captured very nicely how the civil servant throughout independence has been characterized by the time out of progressive manner priyayi which probably remains exist up to now, such as in APDN (Akademi Pemerintahan Dalam Negeri) it is a kind of priyayi ethic of a self dedication and bureaucratic superiority. It is a kind of new priyayi. [HAK, 2010]



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