- Witch Hunt and Conspiracy: The ‘Ninja Case’ in East Java by Nicholas Herriman
Melbourne: Monash University Publishing, 2016. 208pp.
Witch-Hunt and Conspiracy: The ‘Ninja Case’ in East Java is a well-written and intriguing work which attempts to shed new light on the spate of murders in Banyuwangi, East Java, in the late 1990s. The author’s agenda is clear: through the work he attempts to rectify misunderstandings about the murders as resulting from an ‘elite conspiracy’. The author asserts that a more plausible explanation comes from understanding local villager perspectives (pp. 159–60).
The book has eight chapters and the author immediately reveals and examines case studies based on his interviews and other material in Chapter 1: ‘Sorcerer Killings’. In Chapters 2–6, the author situates the killings in larger contexts from historical, theoretical to present-day political conflagrations in Indonesia. It is really Chapters 7 and 8 which are crucial to this reviewer as the writer asserts his position that the killings resulted from a conspiracy, and how theories that have emerged to explain the killings are not sufficient in the context of the local information that he, the author, has unearthed. Hence, in terms of organization, the work is highly coherent, readable and insightful. It is easy to understand the writer’s methodology, analysis and findings as they are clearly laid out in his uncluttered writing style. In all, the work is satisfying as it does not pay lip service to local perspectives and interpretations and, in doing so, crafts an alternative explanation to the killings which centres on local dynamics. More importantly, the reviewer is very much against imposing analyses on local phenomena which really have to be understood from local perspectives (p. 158).
However, the work could have benefited from much more discussion on the strength and limitations of the author’s approach. Furthermore, even though the writer may have found compelling evidence to substantiate an alternative (and more local) explanation to the killings, it must be realized that he is ultimately offering another set of interpretations based on different evidence used by other researchers. More harmonization of other researchers’ findings is preferable to this reader. There is an additional need for a chapter to elaborate on the writer’s position and insights on the importance of Southeast Asian (if not Javanese) agency and also engage important works on the subject. The author’s ideas, insights and approaches could have been greatly complemented by an engagement with Reynaldo Ileto’s perspectives on the ‘history from below’ as well as Thongchai Winichakul’s ideas on ‘writing from the interstices’. In other words, the book could have been made much richer with a chapter engaging with seminal works on Southeast Asia, especially focusing on how the writer’s work can lead to new understandings of local power, agency and autonomy in the region. [End Page 156]
To conclude, the work should be of considerable interest to young and local Southeast Asian researchers as well as other scholars interested in the region in at least two aspects. Firstly, how the author conducted his fieldwork, conducted interviews with the locals as well as the challenges he faced during fieldwork can be the basis of discussions in undergraduate and graduate classes that feature ‘Basics of Fieldwork Methodology’ approaches. Secondly, the work opens up new insights on how to understand violence in Southeast Asia from local perspectives and the author’s perspective on ‘communal justice’; both can provide the basis for discussion on the real nature of violence in other communities in Southeast Asia.