LAST March 19-20, 2016, I was invited to a seminar in Japan that aimed to tackle the urgent and fundamental issues affecting Southeast Asia. Sponsored by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies of the Japanese University, scholars from all over the world congregated to discuss the current and long-standing issues affecting the region.
My panel, convened by Dr. Jafar Suryomenggolo of the Center, tackled the prevalent occurrence of political assassinations in Southeast Asia. The spectre of organized and systematic killings as the presentations of academic scholars from South Korea, Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand bear out, is a phenomenon that is apparently not exclusive to a single country in the region. Although there are differences in the actors, primary motivations, and contexts, people are being killed for political reasons in each country.
South Korean scholar Jung Bub Mo highlighted two cases of community leaders being killed in relation to the implementation of foreign-assisted development projects or the implementation of alternative models of economic livelihood in the Philippines. I presented the case of the historical marginalization of Mindanao’s indigenous peoples now facing the threat of physical elimination through on-going state-sponsored militarization, displacement, and extrajudicial killings.
Indonesian scholar Budi Hernawan brought to light the assassination of key personalities of the National Committee of West Papua in recent years revealing the deep social and political fissures that exist between a wide section of Papuans seeking independence and the central government of Indonesia and their formal political structures imposed on the populace. Thai scholar Nuttakorn Vititanon analyzed political killings related to devolution of political power in Thailand.
The cases cited in these studies indicate the problematic nature of democracies in Southeast Asia where, in varying degrees, a culture of impunity exists victimizing specific sectors. Decades after these countries have presented themselves before the world as functioning modern democracies, if you belong to a marginalized group such as the case of the Lumad of Mindanao, or West Papuans; or you resist against harmful development projects, you can easily be neutralized by dominant state-aligned forces. In the case of Thailand, the competition for local power and influence after devolution has led to bloodshed - a phenomenon that is also true for the Philippines.
What is it in the Southeast Asian context that could account for the preponderance of political assassinations? Here are some provisionary attempts to make sense of this phenomenon.
There are many similarities between the Philippines and Indonesia. Geographically, they are sprawling archipelagos with numerous ethnolinguistic groups comprising both their body politic. They also suffered through 500 years of colonialism and primitive accumulation under Western powers. The only way for the extraction of raw materials to continue unabated, which was the agenda of the colonial rulers in the region since they reached these shores, was to hold a tight reign over their subjugated people.
It has been many years since independence for these two nations and yet in many occasions self-governance has assumed the same tactic under various episodes of strongman rule. You have Sukarno and Suharto in Indonesia and Marcos in the Philippines who left deep and indelible imprints into the functions of the state in these diverse archipelagic populations.
Ever since colonialism and the imposition of the conqueror’s economic agenda to a diverse ethnic population, the impulse has always been to strengthen the footing of the State through its apparatuses whether it be political or the military, in order to arrest the natural inertia toward dispersion of the differentiated body politic in an archipelagic setting.
Both the present-day Philippine and Indonesian states are therefore, in essence, not really different from the colonial rule of their Western conquerors in terms of practice and economic logic since, as Dr. Suryomenggolo pointed out in his introduction to the panel, the practices of primitive accumulation in behalf of neocolonial interests in these two nations have not actually ceased.
Devolution, on the other hand, can be ironically interpreted as another tactic of strengthening the State in Thailand. Funds from the central government are devolved to local political players which set the stage for intense political competition among interested parties. In some cases, the in-fighting for local power awarded by the central government become so extreme that political killings occur.
Korean scholar Jung Bub Mo raised a most important intervention in his presentation by raising the question: who benefits from these killings? Another important question is: what explains the culture of impunity behind political assassinations? Given the foregoing analyses, political assassinations ultimately benefit the necropolitical State, as Budi Hernawan pointed out citing Mbembe. The state’s power and legitimacy are amplified by the deaths of those who resist its political economic agenda.