The Legacies of Militarization: Norman Joshua Writes a Social and Cultural History of Indonesian Authoritarianism

Shorenstein Postdoctoral Fellow Norman Joshua examines how state-society interactions in Indonesia produced an authoritarian political culture, tracing the implications of the country’s enduring legacy of militarization.
Norrman Joshua Photo Credit: Aaron Kehoe

Indonesia’s “New Order,” the authoritarian military regime led by General Suharto from 1966-1998, originated following the kidnapping and killing of six Army generals on September 30th-October 1, 1965. The conventional narrative often depicts this regime change as a sudden event, but historian Norman Joshua, APARC's 2023-24 Shorenstein postdoctoral fellow on contemporary Asia, challenges this view.  Joshua’s research explains why the civil-military relationships and social militarization that emerged in Indonesia from the period under Dutch colonial rule in the preceding decade allowed the New Order to solidify power in 1965.

In a recent seminar hosted by APARC’s Southeast Asia Program, “Militarization Overlooked: Rethinking the Origins of Indonesia’s New Order, 1950-1965,” Joshua shared his insights into the complex phenomenon of militarization within Indonesian society, spanning from the tumultuous post-independence era to the present day. Through a historian's lens, he traces the origins of militarization and its far-reaching impacts on political, social, and cultural dynamics in Indonesia.

An Environment Conducive to Militarization

At the heart of this narrative lies the period following Indonesia's revolutionary struggle and independence from Dutch colonial rule. Scholars have portrayed the 1950s favorably as a time when Indonesia embarked on an experiment with liberal and constitutional democracy. Joshua, however, argues that, instead of heralding an era of stability and democratic governance, “the post-revolutionary landscape was fraught with underdevelopment, persistent conflict, and political instability.” This environment provided fertile ground for the gradual militarization of Indonesian society, as the military sought to quell armed groups and revolutionary violence.

"In essence, my current project is an endeavor to write a social and cultural history of Indonesian authoritarianism," Joshua explains. He frames this process as militarization, wherein civil society organizes itself for the production of violence.

Joshua's scholarly curiosity about Indonesian authoritarianism stems from his deep-seated interest in the country's post-revolutionary period. He is particularly drawn to the oft-overlooked years of the 1950s and 1960s, which he deems pivotal in comprehending Indonesia's authoritarian trajectory. He was also drawn to the topic by a family member’s involvement in the revolutionary and Communist movements, leading to their exile from Indonesia after the 1965 massacres, “which sparked my interest in studying ‘those who were on the wrong side of history,' so to speak.”

Joshua sheds light on the role of armed revolutionary factions like the Gerombolan, whose lingering presence posed a challenge to the nascent Indonesian government's efforts to establish control and maintain order, even bearing responsibility for the murder of Yale professor Raymond Kennedy and Time-Life reporter Robert Doyle.

"Militarization produced a militarized society that was regimented and conditioned towards the use of violence," Joshua asserts. His analysis reveals how militarization permeated various facets of Indonesian society, from the adoption of military symbolism to the normalization of violence in everyday life.

An Enduring Legacy of Militarization

Joshua cites the continuing role of the military and police in post-1998 Indonesian society. The Army—and the Police, which is in many ways a constabulary force—have retained their territorial organization, and former and active-duty military and police often participate in non-security affairs. He also highlights the important role of security forces in facing domestic challenges such as the ongoing insurgency in Papua.

Joshua considers militarization from a cultural standpoint, including the fetishization of uniforms, marches, and militia-like organizations. Militarization, he notes, is often manifested in slogans, songs, ceremonies, and indoctrination programs. For example, the slogan "Ganyang Malaysia," originating from Sukarno's call to "crush" Malaysia, became emblematic of Indonesian nationalism and militarism.

Challenges for Democracy

Despite the downfall of the New Order regime, Joshua underscores the implications of the enduring legacy of militarization in contemporary Indonesia. Just two months ago, Indonesian voters elected Prabowo Subianto, a former special forces commander with a controversial history, as their next president. Expressing apprehensions about the potential for further militarization, Joshua points to the ascendancy of leaders like Prabowo. "Militarization under Prabowo would be evident in two ways," he cautions, citing increased military budgets and an expanded role for the military in non-security affairs. “While we have yet to hear about the shape of Prabowo’s cabinet, I believe that we will see an increasing role for the military and police—whether active-duty or retired—in non-military affairs,” he said.

“This trend started during the Jokowi administration and will continue under Prabowo, and has invited concerns from civil rights organizations and human rights groups. Ultimately, I think Prabowo’s election is a test for Indonesia’s democratic values and how resilient the civil society is.”

Assessing the health of Indonesian democracy, Joshua notes fluctuations that warrant concern. "Indonesian democracy is still working well, especially compared to neighboring countries," he observes. “I think the election of Prabowo shows the robustness of Indonesian democratic procedures, as the 2024 Presidential Election was conducted peacefully and with relatively minor complaints of voting fraud or irregularities.” However, he highlights potential challenges ahead. “It appears that Indonesian democracy will face a great challenge in the next four years, and we will see if the guardrails of democratic procedure will hold or not.”

An Interdisciplinary Scholar Community

As a Shorenstein Postdoctoral Fellow, Joshua connected with APARC scholars to further his research. “I work mostly with Southeast Asia Program Director Don Emmerson and am glad to be connected with APARC faculty Stephen Kotkin, who I found as an inspiration for my work,” he notes. Engaging with Lee Kong Chian Fellow on Southeast Asia Soksamphoas Im, who works on authoritarian politics in Cambodia, with fellow scholar Yuya Ouchi, and Visiting Scholar Gita Wirjawan, who is an expert practitioner of Indonesian politics, has also been an enriching experience, Joshua says. conversations with .”

Delving into the Hoover Institution archives, Joshua examined the papers of Guy Pauker, an Indonesianist and “Cold Warrior” in the 1960s, and his engagement with Indonesian poet, writer, and scholar Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana, who was a fellow at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.

“I am grateful to have spent my postdoctoral fellowship at APARC, as it allows me to spend more time working on my dissertation toward transforming it into a monograph,” said Joshua.

“The interdisciplinary nature of APARC is particularly helpful for a young scholar like me and helped the process of refining my arguments, especially in terms of engaging with people outside of my field and academic discipline."

After his time at APARC, Joshua will serve as the Hoover History Lab’s Research and Teaching Fellow at the Hoover Institution under Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Kotkin.

Joshua’s research provides a comprehensive exploration of the nature of civil-military relations within Indonesian society. By tracing its historical roots and examining its contemporary manifestations, he provides valuable insights into how militarization has shaped Indonesia's political, social, and cultural milieu.

His analysis of the militarizing process offers scholars insights into an understudied period in Indonesian history and helps us better understand the origins of authoritarian military regimes worldwide. As Indonesia continues to navigate its path forward, grappling with the legacies of its militarized past will undoubtedly remain a complex and pressing challenge.

“I believe that history serves as more than just a chronicle of the past,” Joshua reflects. “It serves as a vital lens through which we can comprehend and contextualize the events that are still unfolding in our contemporary world.”

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