Blog: To my fellow decolonial researchers and advocates: A note from a female Indonesian researcher

Photo: Saul Loeb

By Grace Leksana

On 8 and 9 October 2018, the KITLV organized a workshop on the subject of Academic research in a decolonizing world: Towards new ways of thinking and acting critically? It was a fascinating event, bringing together participants from different backgrounds, and also opening up some thought-provoking discussions during the sessions. However, over the course of those two days, some remarks made within the framework of ‘decolonization’ felt disturbing to me. They could even be interpreted as accusations.

I will go into those remarks in more detail later on, but to clarify why they felt disturbing, I would like to explain who I am. I am an Indonesian (of Chinese descent) and spent most of my life living in the capital city of Jakarta before moving to East Java. I can say that I am one of those middle-class Indonesians who had the opportunity to pursue higher education at a private university in Jakarta, and even a post-graduate degree in the Netherlands. In my younger years, I was taught to obey the teachers and not ask a lot of questions. As a result, I grew up with a narrow perspective, believing, for example, that our history was only about war, that Suharto was a significant hero, and that the Chinese had not made any contribution to our nation. When Suharto stepped down in 1998, I was very upset, particularly because of all the lies that I had lived with. This anger was the drive that led me to various kinds of activism, and around 2004, I started to become acquainted with victims of the 1965 violence and their advocates. It was at this time that I came to the conclusion that in order to define ourselves as Indonesians, we should begin by looking critically at our past, which is much more complex than just war and heroes. Of course, this is not easy, because for centuries our history has been controlled by the Indonesian military. Making efforts to take a critical look at our national historiography means not only shattering the image of the military but also the construction of the nation it built.

I wanted to take a critical look of the events of 1965. But I knew that I would not be able to do this kind of research in Indonesia. So, when the KITLV opened a vacancy for a PhD researcher working on the theme of a memory of the 1965 pogrom, I decided to apply. At that time, there was no Indonesian institute that was either willing or had the funds to support this kind of long-term research. So, when I arrived in Leiden, I took advantage of everything: grants, archives, documents, full access to academic publications, and also experts on this issue.

This experience of coming to Leiden was in the back of my mind when I heard the remarks at the workshop. A participant made critical comments to Dutch researchers conducting research in Indonesia, pointing at the legacy of colonialism in their presentation. I asked myself why over the course of any Dutch-Indonesian partnership (or any other partnership between post-colonial countries) there is always decolonial criticism, framing the Dutch researchers as colonizers, taking advantage of Indonesians as the colonized? This is contrary to my experience in my own project. It was basically me who was taking advantage of the Dutch and not the other way around. And I think this goes for all the hundreds of Indonesian students who have come to the Netherlands to study.

I noticed this typical (stereotypical) decolonial thinking not only in the workshop but also in other settings. For example, in a discussion on the radio about the recent earthquake in Palu, Sulawesi. One of the Dutch speakers, a critical ‘decolonial advocate’, made a remark that Dutch NGOs have a colonial attitude and that Indonesians can take care of themselves. It sounded as if we are still victims who need to be protected against ‘colonial NGOs’. I can also ask the same question to my fellow decolonial researcher: who is she representing when she says that Indonesians can take care of themselves? People who she thinks are victims can speak for themselves, and she does not have to frame us as victims all the time. This is also something I learned in my own fieldwork while interviewing communities who experienced the violence in 1965. Contrary to the image of victims who are silenced and reluctant to talk, these communities were very much open about the military taking people from their villages and killing them. They have been dealing with the violence for more than 50 years and have their own way of surviving and remembering it.

Coming to the end of my note to my fellow decolonial researcher, I would like to ask the person in question to realize that while we are advocating decoloniality, there is a risk of falling into the trap of a constant decolonial mindset – a way of thinking that continuously frames everything within the unequal power relationship. Through this, we – Indonesians – will always be framed as the victims, the subordinates, the subalterns, and we will always be in a vulnerable position, liable to be used by the so-called ‘powerful parties’. This is not always the case. What bothers me most is that when my fellow decolonial researchers and advocates raise this issue, they always think that they are representing us, acting as the voices of the ‘victims’, while in fact they are just conveying their own critical thoughts. Please be careful with these acts of representation, as we can speak for ourselves.

(Grace Leksana is a PhD candidate working on a project of post-New Order memories in Indonesia. Her research focuses on the construction of Indonesia’s collective memory and the changes that occur along with changes of regimes.)

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