Buruh Siluman: The Ghost that Haunts Indonesian Plantations

Hariati Sinaga
8 min readApr 18, 2021

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Not long ago, an investigation report by The Associated Press on working conditions on oil palm plantations, including in Indonesia, drew large public attention. Public were horrified by the report that reveals rape and abuses experienced by women on plantations. Indeed, the report provided horrible stories by these women in details. These also include the exposure of these women workers to toxic chemical as they often have to do maintenance activities. The report also shows that the tasks on plantations are also physically demanding for women workers.

The report was shocking for many people. The horror of what women workers on plantations experience is unsettling the public. Shocking! Horror! Unsettling! Here, I want to focus on the affective brought about by the report. While the materiality of the working conditions on plantations provoke the affective of the public who read or heard about the conditions, I argue that this reflects the haunting by the ghosts of the plantations, namely Buruh Siluman.

I recently wrote a chapter about Buruh Siluman for an edited volume about bioeconomies and global inequalities. Buruh Siluman is a term sometimes used by workers on plantations to specifically refer to women workers. They are called this way since their roles and their works on plantations are often deemed invisible. On that chapter, I attempted to provide a historical analysis on the construction of women workers as a plantation labour subject and their important role on labour relations on plantations that rely on cheap and disciplined labour. Buruh Siluman is deemed invisible in order to sustain this kind of labour relations.

In this article, however, I am interested in Buruh Siluman as a ghost who haunts the plantations. After all, while siluman is an Indonesian word for something invisible, the word is also commonly used to refer to a demon or a ghost. While I am a fan of horror stories as well as interested in superstitions, here I rather cast Buruh Siluman as an important social figure. Drawing on Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters, I want to work with the sociology of haunting in order to capture Buruh Siluman as a ghost that haunts the plantations.

Between the Disappearance and Apparition

I opened this article with the public reaction to a recent report on working conditions on oil palm plantations. The affective dimension brought about by the report is one of the ways through which we could trace the ghost that haunts the plantations. As Avery Gordon (2008: 63) puts it, “The ghost makes itself known through haunting and pulls us affectively into the structure of feeling of a reality we come to experience as a recognition.” Indeed, a haunting ghost leaves the haunted people unsettling feelings, shocked, surprised, and feelings of fear. Through these feelings, the haunted people recognise that someone or something else is there, yet barely visible to their own eyes.

For Gordon, there is an obscure line between disappearance and apparition: the disappearance is only “real” when the ghost makes itself known to us (i.e. apparitional). Of course, Gordon (2008: 126–7) acknowledges that there are two kinds of disappearance: (1) those who have disappeared and then returned; and (2) those who have disappeared and then reappeared through apparition. Gordon focuses on the second since the first obviously could speak for themselves, especially about what had happened to them. In the second kind, meanwhile, the disappeared could not speak for themselves, rather through the language of haunting. Gordon argues that our encounter with this disappeared group of people through haunting is important in order to obtain (or regain) the loss or erased memories, particularly on what, how and why it had happened. To put it simply, this encounter is imperative to, “…provide a hospitable memory,” for the ghosts or for the disappeared.

Throughout the book, Gordon works with three themes through which she explores ghostly of things as a social figure. In the first theme, Gordon traces the ghost of Sabina Spielrein, whose absence in psychoanalysis reflects how the field does not take haunting seriously although haunting has always been an issue explored in psychoanalysis. In the second theme, through a literary fiction by Luisa Valenzuela’s He Who Searches, Gordon explores the state-sponsored disappearance and how this terror produces such effects that haunt the people to submit themselves to the government regime. In the third theme, exploring Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Gordon looks for the ghost of slavery and racial capitalism.

The last two of the above-mentioned themes have been parts of my interest in looking for the ghost of Buruh Siluman. Concerning the ghost of racial capitalism, my academic chapter on Buruh Siluman has been influenced by the haunting of nyai, about which I have written on this medium. The concubinage regime, the Dutch cultivation system, as well as the expansion of plantation during the Dutch colonization together interweave in constituting the coolie women as a plantation labour subject. The ghost of nyai, as I have mentioned in my article, haunts the present lives of Indonesian women through ongoing process of racialization, creating an image of exotic and disposable person. This process of racialization cannot be separated from colonialism and imperialism. The colonised worlds are seen something exotic, something to be conquered. As Maria Mies (1994) argues in her theory of “housewifisation” that this process that leads to the subordination of women and the colonised people rests on the argument on women as colonies, that is, female body as a colony. Women and the colonies are, then, considered as non-human. The racial violences experienced by women coolie on plantations during the Dutch colonialism are not only the signatures of the plantation labour regime but are also imprinted in our “coloniality-modernity”. The shadows or the ghosts of these women haunt the present lives of Indonesian women, considered invisible and disposable.

Often times plantations leave us with eery feelings, that something or someone else is there, yet invisible to our eyes

Concerning the ghost of the disappeared through state-sponsored terror, we may as well remember Indonesian radical women, the Gerwani women, who played influential roles in women’s movement in Indonesia during the pre-New Order era. As I have written in this medium, their roles were so important in the radical movement so that their members were also targeted in mass killings. What followed was the rise of an authoritarian regime during Suharto administration. The state repression during this regime also manifested through the disappearance of people who opposed the government’s policies. The ghosts of the Gerwani women, the overall pre-New Order radical movement as well those who had disappeared during the New Order era haunt the present lives of Indonesian people shown by the prevailing social stigma of communism. “Hantu komunisme”, or the ghost of communism, has always been used by the present governments whenever they refer to something deemed threatening to the national’s ideology and unity.

Back to plantations, whereas the Indonesia’s oil palm development has led to deforestations in the country, it is also worth mentioning that deforestation was (and has been) one of the efforts to counter insurgency. Hence, deforestations not only lead to the destruction of human and non-human lives, but also to disappearances and disarray of radical movements. Our encounter with the ghosts of the plantations is not only imperative for the recognition on how plantation development has devastating effects on the human and non-human lives, but also for us to recollect the loss of radical perspectives, knowledges, and agencies.

Haunting as Ways of Knowing

Paying attention to the ghostly of things implies paying attention to the absence, the loss, the erased, the disappeared. As briefly explained above, the line between the visible and invisible is thin. In Gordon’s (2008: 6) own words, “…by being there and not there at the same time.” And this also implies the unstable relations between knowing and not knowing, fictive and factual, imaginary and real. By paying attention to ghosts, Gordon criticises our contemporary knowledge production. The classification and separation of academic fields limits and disciplines our holistic approach in understanding a certain social issue. I have also written in this medium that the division of academic disciplines doesn’t help in decolonising knowledge. We commonly find stories of ghosts in literary fictions. Whereas in sociology — if we are to treat ghost as a social figure — emphasis is made on what is considered factual and empirical. This separation doesn’t work since haunting implies the relationality between facts and fictions. Haunting as ways of knowing means that we have to allow conversations between, “the fictional, the theoretical, and the factual…” While there is a few historical writings on concubinage during the Dutch colonialism, in my writing on this medium about nyai, I briefly discuss fictional stories about nyai. By doing so, I try to identify colonial portrayals about nyai and show how these still haunt the present lives of Indonesian women. Most importantly, however, by looking for the ghostly of things, Gordon draws our attention to what is ambiguous, contingent, yet barely there. In other words, Gordon insists on the complexity of everyday lives as well as complex personhood.

Apart from allowing us to capture the intimacies in our present lives, haunting as ways of knowing not only posits the question towards the subject or object of scrutiny but to those who scrutinise. As Gordon (2008: 21) puts it, “…our encounters must strive to go beyond the fundamental alienation of turning social relations into just the things we know and toward our own reckoning with how we are in these stories, with how they change us, with our own ghosts.” This implies a reflection not only on our (or those who do the scrutiny) own positionality towards the subject and object of scrutiny, but also on our own worldly perspectives and horizons. This could be started by asking ourselves about the ghosts who still haunt us. Gordon believes in the complexity not only of the subject or object scrutiny, but also of those who do the scrutiny.

Haunting as A Future Possibility

Gordon’s Ghostly Matters stunningly shows the correspondences between the past, the present and the future. The haunting of the ghostly of things matters not just in terms of any kind of recognition that something else is there, rather in terms of a “transformative recognition”. Throughout the themes that Gordon works with, readers are shown a cycle of haunting. The ghosts who haunt are also haunted by something. As I was finishing this article, I watched M-8: When Death Rescues Life on Netflix, which is about a black medical student in Brazil who is haunted by the ghost of a corpse. The ghost is haunted by a system that allows black youth genocide in Brazil. This cycle of haunting shows that there lies a systematic or structural problem. The only way to get out of this is a “transformative recognition”, as Gordon (2008:66) puts it,:

“Upon recognition, the oppressed past or the ghostly will shock us into recognizing its animating force. Indeed, to fight for an oppressed past is to make this past come alive as the lever for the work of the present: obliterating the sources and conditions that link the violence of what seems finished with the present, ending this history and setting in a place of different future.”

A transformative recognition means that the affective brought about by our encounter with the ghostly of things is so forceful that we desire a transformation, a different future, a radical future. Here, again, the line between dystopia and utopia is thin. We are shocked by a ghost or something terrifying — commonly the realm of a dystopian world — and this apparition (or revelation) agonizes our world, our perspective, our knowledge, that eventually we think that the only way to end this distress is a radical change, a hope, even something considered utopian.

References:

Gordon, Avery (2008) Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Mies, Maria (1994) Patriarchy and the Accumulation on A World Scale. London: New Internationalist

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