The predictability of politics IV: The slide to violence and the deep state — Farish A. Noor
MAY 13 — Over the past few months we have witnessed the alarming escalation of violence in the country, on a number of registers: symbolic, discursive and even physical. My weary eyes have seen all this before, in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand; and so I cannot help but sigh aloud when I see the same symptoms of what is fundamentally the same structural-institutional problem manifesting themselves slowly closer to home.
Yet we need to remind ourselves constantly, again and again, that violence in the public domain is never ‘natural’ or accidental, but that they are invariably organised and linked to modes of political behaviour that are likewise predictable. People do not riot for no reason, and people do not go around with machetes and parangs like they go around shopping or watching movies at cinemas.
John Sidel’s work Riots, Pogroms and Jihad is instructive here: For Sidel’s work looks at how violence in Indonesia has always been linked to interested parties and has been conducted with some form of sanction or support from those who may benefit from a state of general lawlessness, and yet would not want to be seen publicly endorsing such lawlessness.
Inevitably, the finger of accusation points to the powers-that-be, who, under certain circumstances, find it easy and useful to allow the state’s grip on monopolised power to slip momentarily, merely to create the circumstances whereby the re-imposition of power and authority seem expedient and timely.
We forget that we happen to live in one of the most violent parts of the world: The Vietnam war witnessed the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of people; the insurgency in the Philippines cost the lives of tens of thousands of others during the period of martial law; the killings in Indonesia in 1965-1970 led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands; the bloody reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge led to slaughter that can described as genocidal; and the insurgency in Southern Thailand had likewise bleed the south of the country.
I myself have seen too much of this violence close-up — I recall crossing the border into Southern Thailand when a victim had been shot in the market less than an hour before, the blood in the mud still fresh. In Indonesia I saw what happened to the Glodok quarter in Jakarta, and how the urban skyline of Surakarta was illuminated by the fires of malls burned down by mobs. I have, therefore, grown sick and tired of violence by this stage of my life.
But parallels can be found elsewhere, and Pakistan is a case in point: Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s use of the Federal Reserve Force (1970s) comes to mind, when the Prime Minister felt the need to create a private army of his own in order to shore up the support for his Pakistan People’s Party PPP. The FRF was meant to serve as Bhutto’s own praetorian guard, but ended up being a law unto itself as it recruited some of the basest characters — lowlifes, ne’er-do-wells, desperados — to its ranks during its reign over the country and the enemies of the Prime Minister. In the course of doing so this para-military outfit ended up being yet another institutionalised body in the country, contributed to the inflation of violence and the culture of the Kalashnikov, and in the end grew stronger than its sponsors and benefactors. Like Frankenstein’s monster, it developed a will of its own and in time could not be controlled by its own founders.
Nor was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto saved by his own paramilitary forces, for in the end he was put to death after the ascendancy to power of General Zia ul Haq. But by then the culture of violence has spread all over the country and countless other militias have sprung up, long before anyone even heard of the Taliban. This is what we fail to take into account at times: That violence needs a climate where it can thrive, and that long before the spectre of machine-guns and car bombs blight our lives, the ground has been readied by politicians whose discourse has already slipped into the register of the violent, sectarian, communitarian.
Indonesia today is likewise being forced to deal with the spectre of radical groups gone out of control, with mobs breaking into bookshops, academic institutions, public rallies. As a researcher who has studied Indonesia since the 1990s I lament the fact that the country I research has not known a day of peace since the 1980s. But if Indonesia today is witness to the rise of violent groups like the Fron Jihad Indonesia, Fron Pembela Islam, Jamaah Ansorul Tauhid, etc, we need to ask why? How and why did it lead to this?
Again we need to look at how violence was normalised in the country. From the time of Suharto violence has been seen as a legitimate tool to attain desired political results. Nation-building itself was achieved via violent means at times — from the suppression of the numerous revolts across the archipelago in the 1950s and 1960s to the annexation of East Timor and West Papua.
But it was from the 1970s that we saw the rise of new groups like the Komando Jihad who are said to have been set up at the behest of elements in the Indonesian army elite, ostensibly as a ‘religious front’ against the threat of left-wing agitation.
Like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s mistake, the same mistake was made here: The assumption being that political-business elites can create, sponsor, fund and support violent groups so that they can do the dirty work of the elite without implicating the state.
Here is where the ‘deep state’ emerges: As democracy deepens and public demands and expectations increase, those postcolonial elites find themselves isolated and pressed upon. The fear of loss of power, loss of control, loss of resources and patronage, leads them to retreat into unseen spaces where power is held among an elite few, who seek means to ensure the status quo. Bhutto, Marcos, Suharto, the colonels’ regime in Thailand — all felt that in order to maintain power they had to secure their position via means both legal and extra-legal, constitutional and extra-constitutional. Private militias, underground networks, provocateurs etc — these were the sad instruments with which elite power was maintained in these countries.
The net result was the creation of groups like the Komando Jihad, and many many more that came after, that did the dirty work of eliminating opponents, attacking newspapers, harassing universities, silencing civil society. But again the tale of Frankenstein’s monster comes to mind as one by one these groups grew more powerful and soon fell outside the range of elite control. I recall the profound embarrassment suffered by the authorities in Indonesia when Jaafar Umar Thalib, head of the violent Laskar Jihad, bluntly stated to the press that he and his violent Jihadis were helped by rogue elements of the Indonesian army.
Was this not the case in Pakistan too, and we should not forget the supreme irony that the Taliban’s rise came at a time when Pakistan was led by Benazir Bhutto — the Oxbridge educated cosmopolitan liberal — who, like her father, played with the toy of religious radicalism while professing her liberal credentials abroad. How ironic, then, that both of them died violently, consumed by the forces they themselves had unleashed.
It is with these observations in mind that I worry and lament about the state of Southeast Asia today, and the violence I see all around me. The cases of Pakistan and Indonesia, as well as Thailand, Philippines, Cambodia, India and Bangladesh — ought to remind us that toying with violence is always a dangerous tactic for politicians and political-business elites.
The naive assumption that sponsoring such groups means that they can be kept under control has been proven to be false time and again, and yet so many political-business elites fall into the trap of making the same mistake. And lest we forget, this was precisely how the Fascists of Europe rose in the 1930s, at the behest and with the tutelage and patronage of the elites who sought to use them as a buffer against the rising call for reform.
I am reminded of the lines spoken by the character of the Fascist leader Atilla in the film ‘1900’, when he snidely remarks: “And they, the businessmen, the church, the elites — it is they who will foot the bill for the Fascist revolution in Italy.”
* Dr Farish A. Noor is a Senior Fellow at the Nanyan Technological University in Singaprore.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.