AAS Annual Meeting

Interarea/Border-Crossing Session 177

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Session 177: Colonial & Postcolonial Policing in Asia: Comparative Perspectives on State Surveillance - Part 1

Organizer: Marieke Bloembergen, KITLV, Netherlands

Discussant: Martin Thiry, University of Hawaii, Manoa, USA

These two back-to-back panels investigate the longue durée political effects of policing, secret police, and surveillance in colonial and postcolonial Asia, placing national studies from East, South, and Southeast Asia in a global context. Although far more elusive and less documented than the much-studied military, police nonetheless play a central role in state formation, often serving as the prime point of contact between citizen/subject and government. While policing is immersed in community and thus intensely local, police have been, since the imperial age, global in their policies, with reciprocal impacts between Asian colony and European metropole. Reflecting recent political developments, the study of policing has experienced resurgence in academic interest, manifest in conferences, symposia, and publications. To test assumptions about police as instrument of colonial hegemony, some historians focus on postcolonial practices in former Asian empires, investigating lasting effects on colony, metropole, and transnational politics. Others question how police tools and techniques were transmitted across space and over time, problematizing such knowledge in both local and international practice of public security. Moreover, anthropologists study policing and political transitions in post-conflict or post-authoritarian states in Asia. Applying appropriate theory, participants will insert policing into state-formation models from Ben Anderson, Foucault, James C. Scott, and Charles Tilly. With five short presentations, website-posted papers, and a discussant cum presenter, these panels will allow anthropologists and historians to present on-going research into policing and surveillance in Asia--comparing findings, testing theory, exploring commonalities, probing continuities and, above all, examining a lingering colonial inflection in Asia’s (post)colonial policing.

Blind like a state: policing and the avoidance of information in the colonial Indonesia
Robert Cribb, Australian National University, Australia

Scott’s influential work, “Seeing like a State”, emphasises the importance to states of making ‘legible’ the societies that they govern. Scott describes a process of administrative ordering, classification, standardization and structural simplification, carried out in the interests of state domination. The state required regularity in order to function most effectively, and that regularity in turn required clear lines of sight down into the depths of society. Scott’s analysis applies to a wide range of areas of government and to both metropolitan and colonial states. In the case of colonial Indonesia, however, Dutch policy was in important respects converse to that which Scott predicts. Rather than prizing legibility, the colonial authorities preferred to sustain general ignorance of many aspects of colonial society. This studied blindness had its roots in the colonial strategy of legal pluralism. Adopted first as a form of parsimony, pluralism became a matter of colonial doctrine, based nominally on respect for cultural difference and an abstinence from ideas of a mission civilisatrice. Developing international norms for state performance, however, placed the colonial government under pressure to deliver standards of service that were difficult to reconcile with the profit motive of the nineteenth century and the preference for balance budgets of the twentieth. In response, the colonial government retreated into a studied ignorance of its colony, blind because it refused to see.

Colonial State, Police State? Policing and Surveillance in the Dutch East-Indies and the Myth of the “Glass House”
Marieke Bloembergen, KITLV, Netherlands

Referring to Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s famous novel, scholars studying the late colonial state of the Dutch East-Indies (1900-1942), have referred to this state as a “Glass House”. By this, they mean a state, which – despite its ethical claims – based its power on political surveillance and information gathering, and which reduced the indigenous social progressive and political movements to a police problem. Although the Dutch East-Indies after 1918 did show conditions of a police state, in this paper I argue that a closer look at the practice of political policing reveals however a failing police state. Neither the Political Intelligence Service (set up in 1916) nor the local police authorities had an effective grip on the stream of political intelligence or on the direction of political policing. Due to the fragmentation of state power and police authority, and due to structural miscommunication that characterized this colonial state, they lacked important information at crucial moments. Furthermore, because the political police had to search for predefined signs of communism, the police in fact contributed to the blinding of the colonial state. Finally, the police showed the essential weakness of the colonial state: for, while the police brought political surveillance into practice, they were also watched and criticized by the public. Therefore the “Glass House” as characterization of the late colonial state seems unsatisfying: it suggests too much power. In the end it was incapacity and failure to oversee and understand everything, instead of knowledge, power and discipline, that guided this state.

Colonial Policing In The Dutch East Indies: The Case Of The Ambonese Gewapende Politie (1873-1945)
Martin Thiry, University of Hawaii, Manoa, USA

The role of ethnic minorities in colonial policing is integral to the rise of the nation-state and an expression of agency on the part of minority groups in the development of the nation-state. During the late colonial period an amalgamation of ethnic minorities, referred to collectively as the Ambonese, were employed as policing agents. In this capacity the Ambonese have been understood as subject forces and less as actors, obscuring a fuller history of the Ambonese as colonial police. The ways in which they served in the years 1873-1945 helped lay foundations for the Indonesian nation-state. The Dutch were trying to form and keep together the colonial state; with the help of the Ambonese they served to cohere Indonesia. The introduction of armed police units, fortified in ever greater numbers by the Ambonese (personnel from Ambon, greater Maluku, Manado, and Timor), allowed the start of the pacification of the archipelago, particularly in the Outer Islands where the Dutch had so far exercised no more than nominal control. Ambonese would serve prominently in the Marechausse and later in the much more robust gewapende politie, critically in their own home areas.

U.S. Colonial Conquest of the Philippines and the Rise of the National Security State
Alfred W. McCoy, University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA

From the first hours of the US occupation in August 1898, the Philippines served as the site of a protracted social experiment in the use of police as an instrument of state power. Indeed, America's ad hoc innovation in colonial policing proved mutually transformative, central in both the formation of the Philippine polity and the transformation of an American national security state. At this periphery of empire, freed from the constraints of courts, constitution, and civil society, the US colonial regime fused new information technologies, the product of America's first information revolution, with Spanish models of centralized policing to create a modern police apparatus and fashion what was arguably the world's first full "surveillance state." Significantly, the colony's police, the Philippines Constabulary, became the first Federal agency with a fully developed covert operational capacity. Under US rule, colonial surveillance--by the Constabulary, Manila Secret Service, and the Army’s Division of Military Information--shaped the country's political development by destroying radical nationalist movement and advancing political moderates. Colonialism, moreover, made police a central facet of the modern Philippine state, both in actual administration and in popular perception that equated good governance with effective policing. A decade later, these illiberal lessons percolated homeward through the invisible capillaries of empire to foster domestic surveillance in America itself during the social crisis surrounding World War I. Advances in policing at this periphery of empire thus served as both blueprint and bellwether for a later metropolitan transformation--as bellwether for surveillance of American citizens and blueprint for the formation of the US Army's Military Police and Military Intelligence.

The dynamics of colonial policing in British India, 1870-1930
David A. Campion, Lewis & Clark College, USA

In 1861, the Government of India overhauled its system of policing and established the Indian Police. That organization formed the backbone of law enforcement in India until partition and independence in 1947. This paper surveys the major developments in colonial policing throughout the period of the British raj. Throughout its existence, the Indian Police occupied an overlapping, and at times contentious, role with the Indian Civil Service and the Indian Army. Its subordination to the Civil Service (and to the Army in moments of unrest) often created tension among the ranks of the police. Added to this were chronic problems of corruption, poor recruitment, and incompetence in combating new forms of organized crime, and poor relations with the general public. Efforts to reform the police in the early 20th century led to some success. Pay and recruitment standards were increased, specialized units of detectives were created, and--most significantly--efforts were begun to advance Indian candidates to supervisory levels in the upper ranks. These measures met with some success, but the strains of communalism and mass nationalism combined with retrenchment in civil policing in favor of rapid armed response led to new and more serious problem. This paper reviews the most recent scholarship and research on the policing of colonial India. It moves away from the image of the Indian Police as a blunt instrument of colonial hegemony and toward a more nuanced picture of power dynamics in a colonial setting