Photo for Geoffrey Robinson wins the 2021

Geoffrey Robinson, professor of history at UCLA, recounts George Kahin's support and mentorship throughout his research and what it means to receive the George McT. Kahin prize.

By Kitty Hu (UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies)

Before the Book

"Don't forget about 1965," repeatedly said George McTurnan Kahin, former director of Cornell University's Southeast Asia Program.

When UCLA history professor Geoffrey B. Robinson was a graduate student at Cornell, Kahin was instrumental in his studies. "It was an organic process that grew out of one seminar that I took with him," Robinson recounted. "He liked the paper that I wrote, and he was a very kind, gentle man. Eventually, his persistence paid off."

Robinson originally chose a "boring topic" for his dissertation, but upon realizing that he wanted to work on research that would resonate more with everyday people, he decided to switch topics. Kahin and another advisor, Benedict Anderson, continued to support his work, encouraging him to look at both the global implications and internal cultural politics of Indonesia's mass killings in 1965.

Even when Robinson briefly left academia for a few years to work as a human rights expert for Amnesty International and the United Nations, Kahin kept contacting and facing him, "We're waiting for that book." Unfortunately, Kahin passed in 2000 before the book was finished.

The George McT. Kahin Prize

In 2018, Robinson published The Killing Season: A History of the Indonesian Massacres, 1965-66, which was recently awarded the 2021 George McT. Kahin Prize by the Association for Asian Studies for distinguished scholarly work on Southeast Asia.

The Killing Season explores how from October 1965 through mid-1966, five hundred thousand people, mostly members of the Communist Party of Indonesia, were killed and more than a million others detained without charge in a shocking antileftist purge that gripped Indonesia. Robinson gave a book talk at UCLA in May 2018 cosponsored by the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies and the UCLA Department of History. In his talk, he analyzed how the mass violence of 1965–66 can be attributed to three major factors: existing historical conditions related to Indonesian political life, the army’s leadership and the influence of powerful external states.

"I've been studying and working on Southeast Asia for more than 30 years," Robinson said. "It's meaningful that among fellow Southeast Asianists, this book should get that recognition." He shared that this book would not have been possible without the support of Kahin's wife, Audrey Kahin, who is also a scholar of Indonesia.

The book already has an Indonesian language translation and will soon to be translated to Mandarin and French as well. Robinson is also working on a sequel with Douglas Kammen from the National University of Singapore to explore a visual history of Indonesian violence from 1965 to 1967. He hopes to give people a sense of what life was like in the period before, during and after the violence to create a societal memory and alternative history different than the dominant military narrative.

"For the longest time, this violence of 1965 was considered a taboo subject, both inside Indonesia and among foreign scholars," Robinson said. "Indonesian history gets left out of larger discussions whether it's about military, violence or genocide. The older I get, the more I feel it's really important that academics write books that anyone can read."

He hopes that Kahin would have been proud.


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Published: Thursday, March 4, 2021