One might think that ‘after Communism’ is an uncomplicated idea, experience, or socio-political condition, but in the two countries of South-East Asia which I intend to discuss—namely, colonized, Muslim Indonesia, and uncolonized, Buddhist Thailand—‘after Communism’ has markedly different meanings, which therefore in turn affect the imaginary of contemporary radicalism. To set the stage, therefore, it is necessary to say something about the trajectory of Communism in each of the two countries.
The Netherlands East Indies was the first Asian ‘country’ outside the Soviet Union to have a Communist Party at all. The pki (Communist Party of Indonesia) was founded on 23 May 1920. In the relatively ‘liberal’ climate of the immediate post-World War I era, it developed rapidly, especially among estate labourers, dockers and railway personnel. As there were then no universities in the colony, and very few natives had gone to Holland for tertiary education, its leaders were a mix of Indonesian autodidacts and
Already, however, a difference in generations was visible. Many of the older generation were quite fluent in Dutch—some had even served in the anti-Nazi underground in Holland itself; they had travelled abroad, or been exiled there, and selfconsciously saw themselves as part of a world revolutionary movement; many had European friends and sometimes wives and lovers; they worked closely with progressive local Chinese; and they were by experience ‘activists’, above and below ground, trade-unionists, propagandists, strike organizers, and occasionally ‘terrorists’. They had no experience of parliamentary, legal politics. The second generation came to adulthood during the bloody Japanese occupation; their Dutch was usually minimal, they had never been abroad, and they had no foreign friends; they were not fond of Chinese (so that when they took control of the Party in 1951 they excluded Chinese from open Party membership); they were ardent nationalists, and also Party men and women first and foremost, because they entered politics under the infant Republic which governed itself as best it could by a regime of parliamentary institutions and political parties with their various affiliates.
About halfway through the Revolution, the Cold War set in with a vengeance, and increasingly polarized the internal politics of the Republic. The outcome was a brief but very bloody civil war on Java in the autumn of 1948 in which the Left, branded by a Muslim-dominated government as the traitorous agent of Moscow, was ruthlessly crushed. Many older leaders were executed or murdered, and more would have been had not the Dutch in December made a last, large military effort to suppress the Republic. A good number of second-generation Communists escaped from jail and joined the short guerrilla struggle if only in a marginal capacity. When the fighting ended and a liberal-democratic Republic covering all of Indonesia was formed in the last days of 1949, this generation emerged to take over and rebuild the Party’s membership and reputation.
In this endeavour they were astonishingly successful, for reasons that are too complex to go into here. Suffice it to say that already in the
Under Guided Democracy, which lasted from 1959 to 1965, the Party’s mass affiliates—of youth, women, peasants, estate workers, and so on—continued to grow rapidly, because these were better adapted than the parliamentary Party itself to conditions of non-electoral competitive politics. By 1965, the pki’s leaders claimed a ‘family’ of twenty million partisans, and the dubious honour of being the largest such Communist family in the world outside the Socialist bloc. But this success was matched by the development of comparable Muslim and so-called secular-nationalist (bourgeois) families, leading to increasing polarization, especially as hyperinflation set in and the economy spun downwards. The Party clung to its legality, and in any case had no guns.
It could do little in the more advanced sectors of the nationalized economy since these were controlled by the deeply hostile military. The Party leaders tried to compensate for this weakness with vociferous support for Sukarno’s anti-Western foreign policy and a narrowly chauvinist kulturkampf against ‘liberal’ intellectuals which was never forgiven them.