Kar Yen Leong
PhD Candidate, Department of Southeast Asian Studies,
National University of Singapore
II. Body of My Own
III. The Integral State
V. Body of the State
VI. State of Paranoia
VII. My Friend, My Ally, Mr. Cricket and Mr. Toad
VIII. Exposing the Scars
This paper looks at the way in which the state employs technologies and methods in the control of the human body. It uses a body of literature centred on and from Southeast Asia in order to investigate the instances of ‘biopower’ as states attempt to integrate individuals into its structures to create a more cohesive nation. With that, I will also show how these individuals resist the power of state through acts of resistance. Ultimately the essay will show that despite the overwhelming capacity of state not just to ‘control’ its citizens but also in forming national narratives, the emergence of such scar literature in Southeast Asia will serve to present a differing view, filling the gaps which national history created.
Keywords: political detention, human rights, Southeast Asia, Scar Literature, the state biopower, exile
This paper is an investigation into how the state enforces its will upon the human body. It is an attempt at understanding the hegemonic power of the state, through its various institutions and laws in ‘moulding’, ‘shaping’ and ‘reforming’ the human body. Therefore my research revolves around the question of, “how does the state shape the human body?” My study will be situated in Southeast Asia through literary works. The study takes its inspiration primarily through the works of social theorist Michel Foucault and sociologist Erving Goffman both of which have written extensively on the topic of total institutions and their role in the shaping of society. My research aims to take their writings further by stating that, such total institutions are but reflections of their native societies. By looking at places of detention, we would therefore be able to discern the nature of these countries and the way in which they exert ‘control’ or ‘biopower’ over both the lives and bodies of its citizens. Through this research, we can then understand the underlying structures which support these societies. Specifically I will be looking at how, through a literary review, detention of ‘political deviants’ indicates the form of a particular nation-state. In the imprisonment of these ‘thought criminals’ we are then able to discern the imagined borders of nation-states in Southeast Asia. However, I will also be showcasing the various forms of resistance undertaken by detainees as they seek to cope and survive in these places. I believe that my inter-disciplinary study will be able to contribute to a deeper understanding of Southeast Asia and its human rights situation. I also intend to highlight the presence of ‘scar literature’ in the region and the richness of sources for further research. Ultimately, I intend to investigate why is it that Southeast Asian nation-states are so intent on ‘incorporating’ their citizens into its ‘geo-body’.
II. Body of My Own
I grew terribly anxious every time my phone rang. After an initial telephone call from the police, I started experiencing feelings of dread, thinking that the voice at the end of the line would be that of the intelligence branch ‘requesting’ me to make my way to the nearest police station. It began with a presentation I had given in a conference where I spoke on the increased racialisation of politics in Malaysia. Several months later I received a phone call from a particular police personnel asking me to provide details of my presentation as well as to provide ‘clarification’ over some of points I had made during my lecture. The trip to the police station however did not materialize. Brushing the call off as being a ‘occupational hazard’ I gave no further thought to the incident. However it happened after I discovered that the police had been making enquiries about my personal details. That had a chilling effect on me. For several months I suffered from insomnia and became depressed at the thought that perhaps my family too would be harassed or threatened due to my actions at ‘speaking out’. I became guarded in what I said or being involved in activities where I would be visible. In essence I began to censor myself and becoming imprisoned in my own panoptic, observing my every thought and word. Soon I realized that my body was also reacting to my own self-inflicted sense of paranoia I was overcome with a sense of deep fear and foreboding as my body trembled and shuddered.
III. The Integral State
Wracked with paranoia and uncertainty, I began reflecting on the state’s hold over a person’s mind and body. Even I when travelled abroad, the state’s hold on my body extended far beyond its borders. Why was this? Why is the state able to project its presence despite the individual being far from it? How was it able to have its influence seep so deeply into the core of a person? Agents of socialization such as the media and the education system may play a large role in this. However the reach of these two factors maybe be decidedly weak given that in my case, the fear of the state’s might had so powerfully affected me that I ‘embodied’ its power and reach. In the study of Southeast Asia, it is difficult to avoid references to its nation-states as having an integralistic structure. Similar to the western theoretical notion of an ‘organic state’, the Southeast Asian integralist state presupposes a socio-political order which places emphasis on ‘family values’ and ‘harmony’. The individual lives, not for him or herself but is rather an inseparable part of the state. As such the paranoia and fear which manifests itself within an individual is directly linked to the state. The individual becomes a direct reflection of the state.
In her fascinating study of Singapore oral history, Adeline Low (2001) found that the personal memories of its individual citizens melded with what she referred to as the state narrative. The Singapore Story as told in the memoirs of its former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew presents a static linear narrative with Singapore rising above chaos, war, colonialism and violent race riots to become the successful modern state that it is now. However, given its image as a global city-state, the Singaporean government continues to maintain colonial-era laws such as the detention-withouttrial Internal Security Act (ISA). This, the government states, is to ensure the social and internal cohesion of what is otherwise a plural and diverse society given to destructive primordial sentiments. Singapore, as in Malaysia, had experienced race riots in the past and as the newly independent states in the early 1960’s used such laws as the ISA to curtail violence and maintain internal cohesion. Free speech is thus curtailed, as unrestricted discussion of ‘sensitive’ issues might threaten harmony within these ‘fragile states’. Therefore, given its utility, objections and protests against the use of the ISA has often been limited to human rights activists and civil liberties advocates. For the most part Singaporeans are supportive of the ISA as it was used to detain suspected Islamic radicals. This support Singaporean citizens give to its government in the use of such laws, implies a ‘convergence’ between the state and its citizens.
This convergence is facilitated by the fear-stained memories of racial unrest which continue to haunt the Singaporean imaginary. Low states that while a younger generation of Singaporeans see civil unrest rather as a ‘textbook’ event, older generation Singaporeans still believe that the threat of racially motivated violence is very real. This, Low states, is as an example of the past living in the present. Therefore, socialization alone is an insufficient factor in creating an integralist society. Rather a state in which its ‘memories’ are vividly synchronized with its citizens would have a stronger capacity to absorb its citizens.
Given Southeast Asia’s chaotic history, it is not unusual to find that most of its governments have adopted this ‘integrated’ model of governance. Most nations within the Southeast Asian region have undergone periods of severe unrest, war and chaos with native nationalist movements, often winning independence through violent force. Therefore the Southeast Asian state is often seen as the final arbiter between order and chaos, a force providing stability and peace. With the premium placed on harmony in many Southeast Asian nations, many laws have been created to restrict or control human expression whether through speech or the written word. The diverse and heterogeneous nature of Southeast Asia countries, as some governments stress, is in itself a source of major instability. Therefore, enacting laws to limit speech is important as a form of ‘biopower’ to suppress the expression of any issues which may effect ‘harmony’. In the case of many Southeast Asian nations and especially in Indonesia the façade of unity based on ‘consultation’ was placed above that of direct contest.
In his writings on power and the human body, social theorist Michel Foucault (2003) stated that as western society entered the 18th century, the power of the sovereign or the ruler in meting out death began to recede. What replaced it, Foucault stated, was the power to control life or the lives of the multitude. In the mid 20th century, independence movements in Southeast Asia were heavily influenced by western political thought. After independence, in an attempt to play catch up, many of the young regional governments embraced ‘developmentalism’ and enforced healthcare, monetary and security policies upon its populace in order to achieve western notions of modernity. To achieve this many Southeast Asian governments guided its citizens through ‘biopower’ or what Foucault defines as a:
technology which brings together the mass effects characteristics of
a population, which tries to control the series of random events that can
occur in a living mass, a technology which tries to predict the probability
of those events (by modifying if necessary), or at least to compensate for
their effects. (Foucault, 2003: 249)
Biopower therefore is an attempt by moulding behaviour to such an extent that the human experience becomes manageable through its predictability. The ultimate goal of is therefore, “…to establish a sort of homeostasis, not by training individuals, but by achieving an overall equilibrium that protects the security of the whole from internal dangers.” (Foucault, 2003: 253) An example of this form of technology are laws, regulations and the police which are empowered to maintain equilibrium or harmony so that the state can then sculpt the nation into whatever shape is needed. This form of biopower was employed throughout Southeast Asia with differing and varying consequences. But was this form of power all encompassing? Was it able to infuse itself throughout the society it aimed to dominate? If not then what strategies were used to ensure a compliant population? How then is resistance embodied?
During the early 1970’s, under the instruction of President Suharto, the Indonesian government built the Taman Mini Indonesia Indah or the Beautiful Indonesia Mini Garden as a tribute to the grandeur of the archipelagic nation. Constructed with the Disneyland theme park in mind, the Mini Garden was meant to showcase the unity of Indonesia despite its diversity. The garden featured a diorama of Indonesia with all its islands spread throughout the archipelago centred on the island of Java. That was to represent the idea of Indonesia, with all its multitudes orbiting around a Javanese core. Many scholars of Indonesia, including its most prominent, Benedict Anderson have often observed how richly political messages are communicated through Indonesian or even Javanese culture. Even then the president Suharto has often been referred to as a dalang or a puppeteer manipulating the fate of Indonesia as if it were a part of a greater wayang kulit or shadow play. Throughout Suharto’s presidential career, his administration had been touted by critical scholars as being one of the most authoritarian in Indonesia and despite stepping down in 1998 amidst economic and political crises, his legacy remains an intensely studied topic. It would seem that his 30-over years in power had created a disreality where many, especially local scholars, are still continuing to unravel. Ariel Heryanto (2006), in his study of Suharto’s New Order regime, borrowed Jean Baudrillard’s term ‘hyperreality’ to understand how the Suharto regimes repressive measures created a fiction where dissent was viciously crushed. In the name of the Indonesian state ideology of Pancasila, roughly translated as the ‘Five Cardinal Rules’, books written by left-wing authors were banned and even certain kinds of academic discourses were discouraged. As such, force and violence was heavily used by the state to create the impression that Indonesia was indeed peaceful and in harmony. Ironically the basis of this supposed harmony was typified by the close relationship between the government and the armed forces, which was able to extend its influence to the village level.
After 1998, with the downfall of the New Order, Indonesia, ‘fell apart’ and an entirely new corpus of scholarship emerged focusing on the fractious nature of Indonesian society, away from the harmonious ‘hyperreality’ nurtured by the Suharto regime. Nonetheless, even at the height of New Order repression, writers in Indonesia were able to bypass government censors. While some prominent authors had their works banned others created a separate reality distinct from that of the New Order’s. Indonesia’s official narrative has always maintained a stony silence on several aspects of its history. One such episode is the pogroms of 1965 where according to certain estimates cost 500,000 to 1 million lives. An abortive coup during September of that year was intended to topple the administration of Indonesia’s first president Sukarno but due to the actions of the then General Suharto, the former was saved. In the aftermath, the Communist Party of Indonesia was blamed, leading to the killings of many party members as well as the detention of numerous individuals related to the party. The entire event was seen as an attempt by the Communist Party to destroy the Indonesian nation. The army later emerged as the savior with Suharto next in line in becoming president of Indonesia. Since then, the national narrative has been constructed to vilify the Communist party and to reify the army and the state. The army/state’s rendition of their role in the abortive September 1965 coup has been so heavily promoted through education and the media, that most Indonesians have grown up with the state’s master narrative fused into their psyche. In a recent oral history project aimed at investigating the events of 1965, many of the younger researchers revealed that throughout the New Order years they had never heard of the 1965 massacres. Some religious groups also continue to believe the deaths were justified given that the Communists were non-believers and therefore deserving of their fates.
But as the New Order fell, reformists and human rights activists mooted the idea of a truth commission to deal with the many instances of human rights violations in Indonesia’s past. The truth commission then became one of the most contentious issues to arise during the post-Suharto era. Many groups continued to believe that communism remained a threat and that the truth commission was a tool to revive and redeem the Communist party. These instances showed how deeply the New Order belief system was ingrained into the lives of the Indonesian people. While in Singapore, nightmares of chaos and riots continue to inhabit the landscape of their memories, fear of communism continues to be the phantasm in Indonesia. At the same time history has been emptied, or silenced in terms of the 1965 massacres. However Indonesia’s rich literary history has often provided that needed space for presenting different sets of ‘truth’, or alternatives to the national narrative. As such when one reads Indonesian literature, one cannot but feel that it suffers from a schizophrenic nature, perhaps indicative of the archipelagic nation’s soul. For instance, when East Timor was ‘incorporated’ into Indonesia at the end of 1975, the many human rights violations perpetrated by the Angkatan Bersenjata Republik Indonesia or the Armed Forces of the Republic of Indonesia were kept from public view in Indonesia’s ‘hyperreality’. East Timor was touted as languishing under Portuguese colonial rule and therefore given Indonesia’s past also as a colony, was duty bound to ‘free’ it from its Iberian master. The New Order regime further added that East Timor was originally part of its greater Majapahit maritime empire. Despite the alleged ‘brotherly’ ties between the two entities, human rights violations was a widespread phenomena from the periods of 1975 till 1999 when Timor overwhelmingly voted for independence in a United Nations referendum. Nonetheless in the near quarter-of-a-century of East Timor’s existence as an Indonesian province, all news were virtually blacked out. East Timor became a virtual nonentity, which the rest of Indonesia, as Benedict Anderson states, just could not imagine. (Anderson, 1993) It was not until the late 1980’s, more than a decade after its incorporation, were its people allowed to leave East Timor. For the rest of Indonesia, East Timor was often depicted as another far flung province rife with grup pengacau keamanan or security disturbance groups.
Nonetheless the silence on East Timor was broken when Indonesian journalist and author Seno Gumira Ajidarma wrote Jazz, Parfum dan Insiden or Jazz, Perfume and the Incident. (Ajidarma, 2000) In this work of ‘magical realism’, Ajidarma surreptitiously inserted news reports about the shooting of East Timorese student protestors into his fictional writings which included discussions on jazz and perfume. This was perhaps one way in which he could escape the censors, revealing to an otherwise ignorant audience the presence of deeply troubling ‘incidents’ in Indonesia. In dealing with Indonesia’s ‘warped’ reality, Ajidarma’s works,”… often masked sharp social criticism in narrative structures that explored to varying degree dream logic and the irrational in human existence, or which questioned the nature of perception or reality.” (Bodden, 1999) Writers such as Ajidarma masked a resistance towards the regime’s narrative and yet at the same time lived in fear of the authorities. Suharto’s New Order regime forced many of its artists to resort to such methods of circumventing its reality. The state in itself, through wide-ranging social control mechanisms, the army and the suppression of expression created what Foucault refers to as panopticism.
Expanding a concept first discussed by Jeremy Bentham, Foucault states that in 18th and 19th century Europe methods of social control were developed where the larger section of a group or society would be able to keep tabs or surveillance on one individual. This was to maintain control over the individual, thus ensuring conformity to the needs of the larger group. Therefore in order for the group to maintain its function and structure, the body of the individual itself becomes a battleground of sorts. Foucault states that the body was, “…something to be molded, reformed, corrected, something that must acquire aptitudes, receive a certain number of qualities become qualified as a body capable of working.” (Foucault, 2000: 82) Thus Suharto’s panopticon state sought to mould individuals not only in how they thought but also to take possession of their bodies.
V. Body of the State
One of the most well known authors to have emerged from Indonesian literature is Pramoedya Ananta Toer. According to historian Adrian Vickers, Pramoedya is, “… one of the few Indonesians with a coherent and developed vision of the nation’s history.” (Vickers, 2006: 3) Pramoedya promotes a more complex and nuanced version of Indonesian history in opposition to the official narrative in Indonesia which usually,“ …play up nationalism and unity in ways which paper over the cracks in the national edifice. These are usually histories of state heroes and big events, and do not say much about the experience of ordinary Indonesians” (Ibid) As such Pramoedya’s works and his life represents the course of his nation’s history as it confronts the brutal realities of independence and its struggles with modernity. In understanding Indonesia, it would be impossible to ignore his works. Perhaps sensing the challenge that the national narrative would face from the works of this prolific writer, the Indonesian government proceeded to ban all his books. It was only in the late 1990s when Suharto was forced from his position as president were Pramoedya’s books allowed to be sold. For the most part his works were only enjoyed by foreign audience.
Thus four of his most well-known books were ironically conceived and passed on orally as he was deprived of pen and paper during his detention in the penal colony of Buru, an island in the eastern Indonesian province of Maluku. Reminiscing on his time there, Pramoedya paints his detention in painstaking detail. He states, “… shortly after we had laid down in an attempt to regain some of the strength we had lost during our long and difficult journey, the signal gong, a large drum made from a hollowed trunk, sounded, calling us to our feet. Shit! We could do nothing but. Over the course of the past four years the signal gong had come to exercise such power over us that we little more than Pavlovian dogs.” (Toer, 1999: 25)
Spending nearly fourteen years as a ‘guest’ of the New Order regime, Pramoedya’s body and those of his fellow detainees had grown accustomed, programmed even to respond quickly to these sounds, failing which would incur severe physical punishment from his captors. The memoir which describes his experiences first in Nusakembangan, a penal colony just off the coast of Java and then in Buru is written in a non-linear narrative as it is mostly a collection of letters and personal essays written during his incarceration. Pramoedya was arrested following the abortive September 1965 coup for allegedly having links with the Communist party through his links with a left-leaning artists’ group Lekra. However his detention probably had more to do with his opposition to the government rather than supposed ties to the organization. For his belief in a vision separate and distinct from that of the regime’s, Pramoedya was to sequestered from the rest of Indonesia, sentenced to a island where he would not have an opportunity to share his visions with others.
Foucault explains that within any given society, the bodies of its citizens were either incorporated into perpetuating the existence of the group or for those whom were ‘stigmatised’ to be sequestered so that they would not endanger the rest of society. It is in that sequestering, that Pramoedya experiences the greatest amount of pain. The letters and essays which he penned then and later compiled into a collection entitled aptly A Mute’s Soliloquy shows that despite the voluminous amount of work Pramoedya produced, he was made mute.
Denied an opportunity to speak to his beloved Indonesia, the New Order government exiled him. Edward Said once stated that scholars, artists and writers have often found exile to be a major source of creative material. (Said, 2001) Said asks that,“…if true exile is a condition of terminal loss why has it been transformed so easily into a potent, even enriching motif of modern culture?” (Ibid: 173)
Nonetheless it was during his period of detention in the penal colonies in which Pramoedya was given the opportunity to produce the books which would define his literary career. But was Pramoedya truly exiled? Was he not merely imprisoned within his own nation and instead of being sent to some place far from Indonesia? In the life of post-colonial nations or even amongst diasporic groups such as the Palestinians and the Jews, the sense of displacement often gave rise to strong forms of nationalism. It is because of their loss, that their energy was diverted into a sense of attachment to an imaginary homeland. Said then asserts that, “…indeed, the interplay between nationalism and exile is like Hegel’s dialectic of servant and master, opposites informing and constituting each other. All nationalisms in their early stages develop from a condition of estrangement.” (Ibid: 177)
In Indonesia, the Dutch colonial administration which lasted for hundreds of years, had in a sense ‘exiled’ most of the indigenous elites relegating them into the margins in what they believe to be their own ‘country’ or ‘nation.’ Despite the suppression of the indigenes, the local elites nonetheless began to absorb notions of nationalism and independence ironically from learning Dutch history. In that sense, learning that they had been ‘exiled’ from their own homeland, the Javanese elites then sought to ‘return’ home. Many of scholars studying the works of Pramoedya had given him the label of nationalist as well. He had a deep and abiding love for Indonesian history. But it was this which made him so dangerous to the Indonesian state. This was because, “…during the Suharto era the discipline of history was heavily repressed and starved of its basic resources—access to archives and active debate.” (Vickers, 2005: 6)
Pramoedya’s work broke through the veil of ignorance surrounding the study of Indonesian history in that his, “…works have been immensely influential in the writings of foreign histories of Indonesia because they provided an Indonesian perception of historical experience that is an alternative to the official view.” (Ibid) Pramoedya became a direct contender in the interpretation of Indonesian history, contesting the form and shape of Indonesia’s past created by the state. But given that the state did not represent his idyll of an inclusive and egalitarian Indonesia, Pramoedya’s path lay only in being ‘othered’, in exile. This is, Said states, when, “…nationalisms consign truth exclusively to themselves and relegate falsehood and inferiority to outsiders (as in the rhetoric of capitalist versus communist, or the European versus the Asiatic).” (Said, 2001: 140) Like the ethnic Indonesian Chinese he had written about, the New Order government’s perverse policies considered him an affliction to the body of the nation, which needed to be dealt with. The enforced ‘abandonment’ of his beloved homeland was tellingly described in the boat ride to the penal colony of Buru. He states that, “…I will not close my eye, neither those in my head nor those in my soul, as the ship carries me away, along with my future, my dreams and my beliefs…” (Toer, 1999: 13) But as soon as he enters the ship’s prison compartment with the rest of the hundreds of political prisoners placed on board, he realizes that their existence was of little concern to the state. He ruminates that, “… suppose the ship sinks, we prisoners would go down with it, all eight hundred of us. The doors to our cells are locked. But so what? What would be wrong with our dying…how many kinds of insects are now extinct because of insecticide? Why then should anyone make fuss about us?” (Ibid: 15)
Upon reaching his destination, a prison camp on the island of Buru, Pramoedya and his fellow tahanan politik or political prisoners were summarily marched out like worker ants to spend the rest of their time there as slaves. Buru, at the time of his arrival in the 1960’s, was an underdeveloped island home to a population of under 15000 spread out across the island. The islanders, whom practiced a nomadic lifestyle, lived in isolation with no contact with the outside world. Development was limited to the military’s presence with nothing else except for some rudimentary infrastructural projects. Pramoedya would later learn that his time at the penal colony was not only to undergo punishment for his views on Indonesian history but also to aid the state’s efforts in developing the island of Buru. While his vision of the Indonesian nation was vastly different from that of the New Order government, his body still remained the property of the Indonesia state as it meted out not only beatings but made Pramoedya and his fellow prisoners builders of roads and buildings and infrastructure. His exile and physical privation was but a microcosm of the grander forces at work in Indonesia at the time.
As Sukarno stepped down as president with Suharto inheriting the mantle nine months later after the events of the September 1965 coup, the latter shifted Indonesia’s policies towards massive development. While retaining its internal core as an integralist state, outwardly Indonesian was metamorphosing into a ‘developmentalist’ nation where its raison d’être was to ‘modernise’ along western models. Even its choice of using the self-referential term New Order reflected this fact. The greater body of Indonesia had to be changed and this coincided with the Cold War. Indonesia’s New Order regime choose to side with Western countries, providing a model for Indonesia. And in order for Indonesia to develop, all of its citizens and even those it exiled, had to made use of. It was with that Pramoedya then spent 14 years of his life under inhumane conditions as he cleared away thorns and wild grass on the island, building roads whilst also suffering from beatings and malnutrition. That he survived was in itself a miracle.
Though Pramoedya had earned himself the adoration of millions of readers worldwide and was touted as Indonesia’s mostly candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature, even owning a copy of his books in Indonesia would land its owner in jail. But perhaps the banning of his books was the greatest accolade the Indonesia state could have bestowed upon him. It is this act of ‘silencing’ which finally reveals to us the depths of Indonesia’s history. This silencing also shows to us the contradictory nature of Southeast Asian nations in that alternative views of history are suppressed in the name of development and unity.
VI. State of Paranoia
According to Thai historian Thongchai Winichakul maps, notions of belonging to soil and land all converged to create this seemingly bounded and natural entity knows as the nation in Southeast Asia. (Winichakul, 1997) In Indonesia, the Sukarno administration and the subsequent governments which followed, believed that the 14th century Javanese epic Nagarakertagama provided the necessarily ‘imaginings’ of a nation. Thus all Indonesian governments since then have followed the Majapahit ‘model’, claiming the ‘primordial’ nature of the modern Indonesia nation. This allowed its leaders to ‘inherit’ the mantle of the 300-year old Majapahit Empire which flourished and ruled over most of maritime Southeast Asia from the 13th till the 16th century. If one were to investigate the nature of modern Southeast Asia history, it can be shown that most of the national narratives follow a form of teleological historicism which begins with a glorious past, a fall from grace (caused by colonialism), national redemption through unity and finally a bright prosperous future brought about by development. It is no different for my next case study which is Cambodia. Home to the magnificent ruins of the 900-year old Angkor Wat temple complex, Cambodia was once home to a succession of Khmer kings. But after several hundred years of internecine wars and invasions by neighbouring empires, the Khmer, an ethnic group indigenous to now modern day Cambodia, fell into decline.
During the mid 1950’s and at the height Cold War in mainland Southeast Asia, Cambodia essentially became an ideological battleground, torn asunder by different warring nations. Gaining independence from the French in 1953, it later became a proxy theatre of war between the Communist north Vietnamese regime and American forces stationed in south Vietnam and Thailand. To the main belligerents of what is now known at the Vietnam War, Cambodia with its position in the middle, became a strategic centre point. After its pro-American Prime Minister General Lon Nol, was ousted from power in 1975, the Khmer Rouge or the Red Khmers entered the streets of its capital Phnom Penh and christened the country the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea. In the next four years, the Khmer Rouge, inspired by a convoluted form of Communism, envisioned the country as a peasant paradise but only succeeded in creating a genocidal dystopia. Through the Angkar or ‘the organisation’, a code name for the Khmer Rouge leadership, the Cambodian people were forced into collective farms and all other forms of work were suspended. Millions died from starvation as a result and many more were tortured and later to be disappeared into its many ‘killing fields’. According to one western observer, Cambodia had returned to ‘year zero’. But in the greater spectrum of Southeast Asian states, Cambodia, during the time of the Khmer Rouge, was unique in that its rule was based on paranoia. At the core of this ‘state of paranoia’ was S-21, an institution within the Khmer Rouge designed specifically to root out and destroy ‘the enemy’. But who exactly this shapeless, formless enemy was or where it hid, remained unknown to everyone, including the Khmer Rouge leadership. The enemy it seems was everywhere and nowhere.
According to Cambodian historian David Chandler, the regime thrived on invisible fictional enemies. (Chandler, 2001) He adds that in order to understand the Khmer Rouge it is important to remember the historical tensions between the powers in that geographical area. Cambodia to a certain extent had always been at the mercy of foreign powers and the Cold War heightened this feeling of victimisation. Their sense of vulnerability extended itself into the psyche of the Khmer Rouge leadership and manifested in the creation of S-21. In a study of the torture centre’s archives, Chandler states that the purported enemies of the state unfortunate enough to be sent to S-21 were often asked if they were ‘CIA’ or ‘USA’ agents. These ‘agents’, in the minds of the Khmer Rouge leadership were intent on destroying it and by extension Kampuchea.
Whilst there has been a vast body of literature which has emerged out of the Khmer Rouge years, not many are actually first hand accounts. This is where a fascinating memoir written by Francois Bizot, detailing his time as a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge fills in the gap. (Bizot, 2004) In his mid 20’s in 1971, Bizot was a researcher working on ancient Buddhist scripts. In one of his research jaunts in an area west of Phnom Penh, Bizot and his two Cambodian assistants came across a Khmer Rouge patrol and were promptly hauled off to a prison camp known as Anlong Veng (M-13) on suspicion of being American spies. Later Bizot would learn that the camp commandant was none other than Kaing Guek Eav or Duch (his nom de guerre) who would go on to become chief of S-21. Ironically more than 30 years later Bizot would meet Duch again but with the latter as prisoner in a United Nations’ crimes tribunal. In Bizot’s (2004) memoir entitled The Gate the two developed a strange relationship which in the end saved Bizot. Whilst initially treated as an enemy spy whom was to be executed, it was through Duch’s many ‘interrogation sessions’ which convinced the Khmer Rouge leader of Bizot’s innocence (being a bona fide researcher), that he avoided summary execution. The Frenchman would later become a witness in Duch’s trial.
During his three months at M-13, Bizot and his two colleagues were completely at the mercy of a master interrogator. Almost as if being inducted into a bizarre and perverse religious cult, Bizot, like everyone else was forced to write out a confession as a way to prove his innocence. Bizot writes of Duch that he was, “…sceptical and fastidious. Duch listened and contradicted me. He wanted to test me. In order to explain my presence in Cambodia, I had to justify my groundwork. Moreover, I had to define the objectives of my research, perhaps more fully than I had ever done before. It appeared the only way to convince him of my innocence.” (Ibid: 59) In fact everyone within M-13, regardless of whether one was captor or captive was made to confess their shortcomings whether real or otherwise. These ‘confessional’ sessions or, “…instruction sessions (the word they used was the Buddhist term rien sot, meaning ‘religious education’) created an atmosphere of suspicion amongst the guards…denunciation is the first duty of the revolutionary…they quoted the example of some young men who so loved their revolution that they were unafraid to denounce their fathers or brothers.” (Ibid: 54) But even as the belief in the cause, the revolution and the Angkar was unfailing, this did not mean that they would be safe from the vicious nature of the Khmer Rouge’s paranoid state. Some higher ranking officials within the Angkar were themselves sent to M-13 and as Bizot notes towards the end of his book, even Duch’s superior officer fell victim to S-21. The Khmer Rouge, evolved into a blind beast that not only took the lives of those sacrificed to it but also the ‘priests’ whom gave it life. The nature of the ‘paranoid state’ spared no one.
Towards the end of his detention, the night before his scheduled release, Bizot engaged in what was to be his last conversation with Duch before meeting again 30 years later. In the course of their conversation, Bizot, turning the tables on his inquisitor, asking if the worship of Khmer Rouge had replaced veneration for Buddhism in a deeply religious country. Bizot accuses the Khmer Rouge of being akin to a cold rational machine where even the peasants under their control are, “…subjected to a sort of a purification rite: new ‘teaching’, new mythology and an amended vocabulary that no one initially understands. The Angkar (the Khmer Rouge leadership) is adopted as family, while true kin are rejected.” (Ibid: 110) Similar to the grandiose schemes of the Chinese Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, the new Kampuchean republic had no place for what Duch denounces as the, “…vermin that infect people’s mind”. (Ibid: 112) The Angkar then constructed places such as S-21 and M-13 to weed out ‘spies’, ‘others’ and also to dispel from the peasants the ‘vermin’ which inhabits their mind. Should that fail, it would be up to the functionaries within S-21 to finish the process.
In David Chandler’s study of the Khmer Rouge regime and its structures of torture, he utilised the term ‘total institution’. Borrowed from a Erving Goffman’s sociological study of asylums, a ‘total institution’ is to mean a place, “…symbolised by the barrier to social intercourse with the outside and to departure that is often built right into the physical plant, such as locked doors, high walls, barbed wire, cliffs, water, forests or moors.” (Goffman, 2007: 6) In fact, Chandler notes, under the Khmer Rouge all of Cambodia had become a total institution in that no one could come in and no one could leave. The regime had become so fearful of its own shadow that even their one-time ally, the Vietnamese were not to be trusted. The regime had cut off diplomatic ties with many countries with the exception of China, which was providing both logistical and financial aid. With her borders closed, nearly all of the Cambodian population were out in the rural areas working the land as part of the Khmer Rouge’s warped interpretation of agrarian socialism. To strengthen cohesion within, the Khmer Rouge also saw fit to send many souls into S-21. None entered the school-turned-torture chamber was ever to return except two survivors. Therefore the Khmer Rouge’s control of the population was complete. The bodies of those the Khmer Rouge deemed worthy were to be put to work in the fields while those whom were considered ‘spies’ were to be ‘cleansed’ at S-21.
Towards the end of Bizot’s memoir, he pointed out the many contradictions with the Khmer Rouge itself. The ‘totalitarian’ nature of the Khmer Rouge was first and foremost to ‘spiritually’ cleanse the entire nation and to place the Cambodia nation’s future on the backs of its peasants. At the same time Bizot notes, most of the Khmer Rouge cadres were not from peasant backgrounds but rather had romantic notions of what ideally peasants should be like. What these Khmer Rouge leadership did have, as Bizot saw in Duch was conviction in a cause. But as the Khmer Rouge became increasingly paranoid their convictions turned into a murderous rage. Towards the end of Bizot’s memoir he raises several questions as he tries to understand Duch Manichean nature, both idealistic and inhuman all at once. He states, “… I could not bring myself to identify the man I had known, who so loved justice, with the principal torturer of this vile goal. What monstrous metamorphosis had he undergone?”
VII. My Friend, My Ally, Mr. Cricket and Mr. Toad
In recent years Singapore has been made to grapple with its history. Given its unique position in Southeast Asia, it has been a receptacle of both Western and Eastern influences. Home to several different ethnic groups, Singapore is a nation in which its history is tied to the Malaysian peninsular and yet its claim to modernity was colonial invention. This is why, the writing of Singapore’s history has often been a long drawn out and complex affair. Since its independence from Malaysia in 1965, the city-state has had to re-invent itself given its vulnerability, its size and limitations. Despite the odds Singapore has grown into a major world player. Its success is largely credited to its first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who led Singapore into modernity. Therefore Singapore’s modern history has largely been written and shaped by the will of one single man. Up until 1990, Lee’s policies allowed Singapore to flourish as an economic success but at the same time continued with punitive measures. During his tenure, the Singapore government also saw fit to use repressive colonial era laws to arrest and detain individuals in the name of internal security. Nonetheless, many books of ‘revisionist’ histories have been written which attempt to wrest the interpretation of history from Lee’s so-called Singapore story. While several books have attempted to dissect the way in which its history is written, a few more have spoken on the period of political spring during its early years as a post-colonial entity. More interestingly however have been memoirs written by Singapore’s former political prisoners. One such tome is that of lawyer Teo Soh Lung. At the launch of Teo’s Beyond the Blue Gate (2010) Singapore playwright Alfian Sa’at described her incarceration under the detention-without-trial Internal Security Act in the late 1980’s as an ‘open wound’ and a ‘little black hole in history’. Teo was arrested first in May 1987, released 4 months later and then rearrested in April 1988 under a dragnet which saw the incarceration of several figures accused of involvement in a Marxist conspiracy. However, the former detainees denied these allegations stating that they were arrested primarily for their work as advocates and church activist. According to Teo whom was only released June 1990, rather than being a Marxist, she was arrested for getting ‘involved’. She had been active in the Singapore Bar’s effort at law reform and was also a volunteer in a centre catering to Singapore’s working classes. Because of her involvement, Teo, claims, she too, had to be ‘exiled’, much like Pramoedya’s in Buru. According to Teo, “…the word ‘involved’ had a sinister connotation for the Internal Security Department. To be involved is not to be involved in criminal activities or subversive activities but simple activities which may embarrass the government.” (Teo, 2010: 270) According to Teo, she was made to undergo solitary confinement, mental torture, physical abuse and denial of family visits in order to reduce her back into the state of a ‘normal’ person or rather a person whom would learn not to get involve. Not allowed to be ‘involved’, and as an individual whom in the past engaged with people on a daily basis, Teo was slowly made to turn ‘inward’. Describing her life as the sole female inmate in the women’s wing, Teo states that, “…it was during detention that I became acutely aware of the lives of little insects and living things.” (Teo, 2010: 282) She then recounts an episode where she attempted to revive a dying cricket which had been bitten to death by a swarm of angry ants. “When my cricket finally expired, I sobbed my heart out…for me, the death of any insect with which a kind of friendship had been established was a big matter.” Given that Teo had been ‘contained’ and kept from the rest of society, her universe had been miniaturized, as she searched for contact and comfort from the living things which she shared her cell with. She had also taken to keeping a toad which had accidentally leapt into her cell, as a pet. Teo states that, “…it was my habit to walk round and round my cell after my lunch or dinner. I would look for my little toad which I called Toddy, asked it a number of questions and sang a song…”(Teo, 2010: 290) Teo’s initial period of detention also brought to bear some of the bodily pleasures that many of us take for granted. The simple of act of relieving oneself, considered a mundane and inconsequential act, become central when one is placed in such conditions. Even being allowed to sleep in the dark, Teo claims is a source of great pleasure in a cell lit regardless of day or night. Solitary confinement and the threat of indefinite detention bring to bear on one’s mind unspeakable and unbearable suffering. Such conditions seek to reduce and to strip away the layers of ‘civilisation’ which we have placed over ourselves as social beings. Even underwear, which many of us pay scant attention to becomes a bastion of dignity when Teo was made to undress in the presence of prison guards.
As such, as the state develops these ‘technologies’ to chip away at one’s being, reducing one’s world view and perspective to the most minute and the basest. Insects and frogs, in the absence of human company, become playmates. Urination, sleep and defecation become all important. From there the human being becomes a mere shadow of itself, vulnerable to manipulation and ultimately, control. Thus, with the more ‘active’ individuals in society insulated from the rest of society, the larger society is then able to continue with its activities the security agencies continue to maintain structure of the larger society.
VIII. Exposing the Scars
Following Mao Tse Tung’s death, the storm of China’s greatest tragedy, the Cultural Revolution, slowly began to pass and with it came a short-lived attempt at coming to terms with the event. Referred to as 傷痕文學 or scar literature, an entire genre was created out of the suffering caused by the near 10-year event, described by Mao’s detractors as an attempt at rewriting history. This has similarly occurred in Cambodia and the effects has been so deep that many present day leaders believe it is an issue much better left alone. However Bizot’s frank and yet disturbing memoir is a telling reminder that the scars still remain and they have to exposed from time to time to remind the world if not the Cambodians of the atrocities which took place. Pramoedya’s memoir too will stand as a testament to the need for memories and not national narratives to tell the story of a nation’s peoples. Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Trouillout maintains that official history is merely a series of enforced ‘silences’. (Trouillout, 2002) As more of these memoirs appear, many governments in the region will also begin to realise that as its citizens increasingly gain access to free flows of information, their very political survival is at stake. The suppression of expression and memories will become counter-productive. This then leads us inevitably to the question: what then? What Southeast Asian scar literature reveal to us about the region?
By looking at the two memoirs and to a certain Chandler’s study of the Khmer Rouge’s torture ‘structure’ we can see the close links between the state and the physical body of its people. Regional historian O. W. Wolters wrote that in the past Southeast Asia consisted of ‘mandalas’ or concentric circles of influence, which relied on ‘rituals and spectacles’ to entice would be subjects to move towards the centre. (Wolters, 1999) Physical force was also used but often sparingly and in limited ways. But over the course of the 20th century populations in the region increased manifold and it became easier for governments, to utilise ‘biopower’ in disciplining both the minds and bodies of its citizens through exile, physical labour and even torture. The Southeast Asian state had transformed into a fearsome leviathan ‘absorbing’ every aspect of their populations’ being into the structure of the state. Both the memoirs offer us a glimpse into how this is achieved. However we cannot merely stop at a description processes but must also understand why this has happened. Pramoedya’s memoir should be contextualised within Indonesia’s effort in regaining the greater glory and the unity of the Majapahit Empire. That its grandeur should be usurped by foreign powers, placed on the nascent Indonesian nation a ‘stigma’ which had to be removed. The force most capable of removing this stain was the army which then lead the Indonesian government to believe that only physical force and intimidation could re-forge the nation in the image of a greater 20th century Javanese empire. In Cambodia hundreds of years of conquests and re-conquests by foreign invaders had caused it to suffer the disgrace of multiple stigmas, thus necessitating the Khmer Rouge to clean the slate, beginning anew from ‘zero’. At the same time its perpetual stigma had caused the regime to suffer from a severe form of paranoia and schizophrenia to the extent that it had to ‘invent’ enemies. So in the two memoirs we have an example of extremes, one intents on regaining the glorious past, the other intents on exorcising its ghosts at any cost. This then begs the final question: what is the future then of scar literature in the region?
Teo Soh Lung’s memoir then offers us a glimpse into the rich possibilities that the study of ‘scar literature’ within the region can offer us. Given the dominant status which national narratives have in Southeast Asian countries, Teo’s memoir offers us a peek into the smaller but no less important ‘stories’ which inhabit the gaps often washed over by the grander discourses. While the official Singapore Story may only present views from an elite perspective, Teo’s memoir breaks from this view and contributes richly in exposing the ‘wounds’ which inhabits Singapore. These works then allow to rework, rethink and perhaps even remould the way in which history is written within the region.
While countless physical bodies have been held captive, moulded, tortured and ultimately sacrificed in the name of the nation building in Southeast Asia, these books or memoirs reveal to us nonetheless a form of resistance. The scarred memories of its authors stand as a testament to how the human spirit remains free even when its body is not. These examples of Southeast Asian scar literature provides stories which mask a different narrative, more nuanced and thus more powerful than the hyperreality offered by modern day Southeast Asian governments. Throughout modern history, the human condition, according to James C. Scott, has been held ransom by grandiose schemes aimed at ‘engineering’ humanity, a process he refers to as high modernity. (Scott, 1999) However, if there is a consistent effort to reveal the broken bodies brought about by these schemes, then it would be rich field of study indeed for students of scar literature not only in Southeast Asia but in any other localities slowly coming to terms with its past.
For more information please see Halldorsson (2000).
In Indonesia, its national emblem features a Javanese phrase which reads Bhineka Ikka Tunggal or unity through diversity. Unity was goal pursued above everything else in the somewhat chaotic archipelagic nations which spans one end of Southeast Asia to the cover in a series of a thousand over islands. Other concepts such as musyawarah or consultation and gotong-rojong mutual cooperation were also used as ideological tools to foster harmony above all else.
Please see Heryanto (2006). The phrase New Order refers to the Suharto regime so named as to differentiate itself from the previous presidency of Sukarno, regarded as the ‘old order.’
According to prominent Indonesian intellectual Hilmar Farid, the question of ‘class’ virtually disappeared from the Indonesian social sciences lexicon as Suharto developed an aversion to all things ‘communist’. This inability to recognise class conflict further contributed to the hyperreality that all was well in Indonesia. For more information please see Farid (2005).
For an example of how the army and the events of September 1965 was ‘monumentalised’ please see Mcgregor (2007).
For more information please see Tahun yang Pernah Berakhir: Memahami Pengalaman 1965, Esei-Esei Sejarah Lisan eds. John Roosa and Farid Hilmar Jakarta: Elsam 2004
Magical realism is a genre of fiction which blurs the line between reality and ‘disreality’. It is a mode of writing made popular by South American authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Many Latin-American countries share similar experiences with Indonesia, given the region’s fair of military dictatorships and wide-spread human rights abuses.
The quartet includes Child of All Nations, This Earth of Mankind, Footsteps and House of Glass.
The notion of an Indonesian nation grew out of the imagination of several political elites mainly from the island of Java. For all intents and purposes, the other provinces within Indonesia, especially during the early to mid 20th century often ‘imagined’ themselves as separate entities agitating for their own form of independence from the Dutch. For instance, Acheh, a northern province in the western Indonesian island of Sumatra was resisting the Dutch even up until the early parts of the 20th century.
Pramoedya authored a collection of essay put together in a volume entitled the Hoakiau di Indonesia or the Ethnic Chinese in Indonesia which posits that the Chinese in Indonesia should be considered a group indigenous to Indonesia given the fact that generations of them have lived in the archipelago for hundreds of years. This was to counter I state policies which referred to every other ethnic group as ‘pribumi’ or indigenes, a title which came with certain privileges, but the Chinese. Due to the Cold War, most ethnic Chinese not only in Indonesia but in the rest of the region, were seen as less than loyal as they were suspected of harbouring loyalties to communist China. For the greater part of the 20th century, the Chinese of Indonesia were not allowed to speak Mandarin Chinese, celebrate cultural events or to even have ‘Chinese sounding’ names.
For more information on the heavy American influences exerted on Indonesian intellectuals and policy makers please to Hadiz’ and Dhakidae (2005).
The ‘Killing Fields’ refers to several sites in Cambodia were many were killed and then buried in mass graves. It is also the name of a motion picture dealing with this topic directed by Ian Smith and David Puttnam and released in 1984. The film features ‘Killing Fields’ survivor Haing S. Ngor as he potrays Dith Pran, another survivor.
For more information please refer to Ponchaud (1978). Ponchaud was one last few remaining people in the French embassy when the Khmer Rouge rolled into Phnom Penh.
Duch was finally charged with crimes against humanity in July of 2007. Nearly three years later Duch was given a 35-year jail sentence for his role in the torture and deaths of more than 10000 people throughout his entire career as commandant of camp M-13, S-21 and as head of the Khmer Rouge’s intelligence wing, the Santebal. For a fascinating perspective on Duch’s trial please see Francois Bizot’s February 17th 2009 opinion piece in the New York Times entitled “My Savior Their Killer.”
The stories of the two survivors Vann Nath and Chum Mey were later retold in a documentary made by Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Pan entitled S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine. In it their former jailors were made to face them both in an attempt to understand the reasons for their brutality. Both former detainees have since passed away. For more information please see BBC News Asia Pacific’s “Tuol Sleng Survivor and artist Vann Nath mourned”, September 6 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-14799703. (last accessed September 7 2011)
For more information please refer to Hong Lysa’s and Huang Jianli’s Scripting of a National History: Singapore’s Past and its Pasts, Singapore: NUS Press 2008. Also please The Makers and Keepers of Singapore History eds. Loh Kah Seng & Liew Kai Khiun, Singapore: Ethos Books, 2010.
Please see Paths Not Taken: Political Pluralism in Post-War Singapore eds.
Michael D. Barr and Carl Trocki, Singapore: NUS Press, 2008
Andrew Loh’s “An open wound” in The Online Citizen, June 28 2010, http://theonlinecitizen.com/2010/06/an-open-wound. (last aaccessed September 1 2011)
The Internal Security Department within Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs is responsible the maintenance of domestic security. It was part of the Malaysia police’ Special Branch and after separation was made a separate division by itself.
For an extremely fascinating collection of ‘scar literature’ translated from Chinese into English please refer to Perry (1984).
The idea of a truth commission was mooted but many in the current Cambodian leadership believed that it could have put their role in the Khmer Rouge in the limelight. Many of them were former Khmer Rouge cadres who later joined the invading Vietnamese troops in toppling the regime in 1979. A tribunal was preferred given that it would solely concentrate on select individuals at the leadership core of the Khmer rouge but even then, it was years before the tribunals became operational. For more information please see Jarvis and Fawthrop (2005).
Anderson, Benedict. 1993. “Imagining East Timor.” Arena Magazine 4 (April-May.)
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Bizot, Francois. 2004. The Gate. London: Vintage.
______. 2009. “My Savior Their Killer.” New York Times, 17 February 2009.
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______. 2000. “Truth and Juridical Forms.” In Power: Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984 3. James D. Faubian. ed. London: Penguin Press.
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Halldorsson, Jon O. 2000. “Particularism, Identities and a Clash of Universalisms: Pancasila, Islam and Human rights in Indonesia.” In Human Rights and Asian Values: Contesting National Identities and Cultural Representations in Asia. 111-140. Michael Jacobsen and Ole Bruun. eds. London: Curzon Press.
Heryanto, Ariel. 2006. State terrorism and Political Identity In Indonesia: Fatally Belonging. Oxford: Routledge.
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Originally published in Taiwan Journal of Human Rights/台灣人權學刊 第一卷第一期 2011 年 12 月 頁 227-260. Printed with kind permission.