Jul 19, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Essay: Redefining Indonesia

Almost twenty years after reformasi, journalist and novelist Leila S. Chudori ponders on the successes and failures of this historic period for Indonesia

Leila S. Chudori

Translated by Jennifer Lindsay

21 May 1998

It was the third day in a row that I had got up early to go to the House of Representatives. For me, as well as friends and colleagues, these days were both tense and exciting. Thousands of students from all over Indonesia had occupied the parliamentary building. We, their ‘seniors’, joined them, kept them company, listened to prominent people making speeches; and from behind the scenes encouraged them to demand Suharto’s resignation. The night before, stories had circulated that an announcement was imminent. That morning, before I had even left the house, suddenly the television stopped me in my tracks. It was a direct broadcast. President Suharto, accompanied by his eldest daughter, finally announced that he was stepping down. I simply could not believe it. I immediately called friends and we agreed to meet at the House of Representatives where at that moment the student occupation erupted in celebration. 

For anyone born and raised during the New Order, 21 May 1998 is an important date. I had long despaired that I would only ever experience one president during my lifetime, because for more than thirty years Suharto had appeared unshakeable.

For me, that moment in 1998, became a rebirth. The fall of Suharto, later to become an extremely important part of the ending for my novel Pulang (published in English translation as Home), was a chance to re-imagine what kind of Indonesia do we want to be? 


17 August 1945, the auspicious date in Indonesian history when Sukarno and Hatta proclaimed Indonesia’s independence, is also marked by a little bit of humour. Our nation operated without a constitution for a day. This is a historical fact, because the decision to proclaim independence was made hastily to take advantage of a moment following the Japanese wartime defeat. However, the basic constitution for the Republic of Indonesia (in Indonesian known as UUD ’45), had in fact already been drawn up by the Founding Fathers a few months earlier. Members of the Preparatory Committee of Indonesian Independence adopted the Five Principles, Pancasila, as the foundation of the state the day after the proclamation, namely on 18 August 1945. The more important fact, though, is that the debate about shaping those founding principles included representatives from all ethnicities, religions and groups in Indonesia. 

The final debate in the history of the formation of the Republic, still raging in the minutes leading up to the announcement, was over what came to be known as the debate of ‘seven words’. The first principle of Pancasila, which today we know as ‘Belief in the One and Only God’ (Ketuhanan yang Maha Esa) actually had a sub-clause ... ‘with the obligation for its Muslim adherents to carry out the Islamic law/syariah’. There was constant debate about whether it was necessary to include or edit those seven Indonesian words – ‘dengan kewajiban menjalankan syariat Islam bagi pemeluk-pemeluknya’. Islamic leaders felt that their inclusion was mandatory, whereas Christian leaders thought the seven words should be left out. Eventually, after intense lobbying and persuasion, Mohammad Hatta convinced them that the seven words should be omitted, because this was the Indonesia that we wanted, inclusive and respectful of difference. 

In my opinion, we, who today enjoy and fulfill independence, must forever be mindful of this important historical fact.

In 1998, I don’t think we had the time think philosophically about ‘Indonesia’. The people’s movement and the Indonesian elite were more practically involved in efforts to remedy things. The first thing deemed in need of correction was to revive the function of all the pillars of democracy, which had been frozen, if not killed off by the New Order government from the time Suharto took over as president in 1966.

It is not surprising that various efforts for change and reform occurred spontaneously in the midst of the euphoria of greeting ‘the new Indonesia’. There were efforts to empower legislative and judicial institutions as well as to make a free the press the fourth pillar of democracy. Over the next decade or so and several changes of president, hundreds of laws were revised and new ones written, including setting a time limit on the presidential period, introducing regional autonomy and writing new press laws.

As a journalist, for me the most important reform, apart from Tempo magazine being published again for the first time since the Suharto regime banned it in 1994, was the dismantling of the Department of Information by President Abdurrahman Wahid in one of his first acts as leader in late 1999. Here was formal acknowledgement that if we wanted a truly free press, then it should not fall under the aegis of any government department. Dismantling the Department of Information meant that the print media no longer had to request publishing licences and automatically, the government had no right to muzzle the media.

Further, as a writer and reader of literature another very welcome change was the free circulation of books previously banned under the New Order, particularly those by writers the New Order deemed as communist or ‘communist sympathisers’. More than thirty years earlier, the alleged attempted coup by members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) on 30 September 1965, had led to a mass purging of those deemed to have associations, however loose, with the PKI. It was at this moment that General Suharto assumed the presidency. 

After 21 May 1998 all the books once on the Attorney General’s banned list – the works of former political prisoner Pramoedya Ananta Toer and many others considered ‘leftist’ – were soon on the shelves of bookshops big and small. Other former political prisoners began writing their memoirs, including Soebandrio and Omar Dhani. There was an art exhibition of Lekra artists also imprisoned by the New Order. Beginning in 2005, Tempo began to publish a special edition on this period of Indonesia’s history every 30 September featuring these writers and artists. It was imperative to look back on this period of violence and oppression, which swept the New Order to power and defined its rule.

In 2006, I began conducting research for my novel Pulang. I met Indonesian political exiles in Paris and former political prisoners in Jakarta.  As a member of the generation born in the 1960s, and like the all those up until 1998, I learnt the official version of the 30 September 1965 tragedy according to the government ‘white book’. In this narrative Suharto is the saviour of the nation and the Indonesian Communist Party the evil force that had to be hunted down, beaten and killed. This is the history depicted in the Museum of the Treachery of G30S/PKI at Lubang Buaya in Jakarta and in the government-produced propaganda film Annihilation of the G30S/PKI Treachery (Penumpasan Pengkhianatan G 30 S PKI), which all school children watched annually. 

I agree with comments historian John Roosa made in an interview with Left Book Review in 2012, 'The identity of the Indonesian nation changed completely after 1965. The spirit of the anticolonial disappeared and anti-communism became the basis of national identity'. According to Roosa, for a long time, hatred towards fellow Indonesians became the basis for determining which citizens are evil and which are good. 

I became increasingly convinced that we had grown up as an ahistorical generation; the generation that knew Indonesian history based on a government construct only. My awareness that this might be so first began when I spent six years studying in Canada in the 1980s.  I was free to watch films or read literature forbidden in Indonesia, including the Cornell Paper written by Ben Anderson and Ruth McVey (two researchers I knew through my father). But after 1998 I became more keenly aware of just how little we knew as a nation about our past. 

With the press now free and this literature available, closely followed by the explosion of the Internet, attacks on the ‘official’ history of the New Order period intensified. With fellow journalists, activists, historians and survivors we began to ask questions: how long would the Indonesian education system continue to use the New Order official version of history? Would we be a nation that would pretend that the mass murders had simply never happened. Who were we, really? Is it true that Indonesians can kill so easily? How long must Indonesians go on asking what really happened after 30 September, with the deaths of at least 500,000 people accused of being communist, and hundreds of thousands of people imprisoned without trial?

This is why for me personally, 1998 was such an important moment and opportunity. I hoped this would be the beginning of an effort to review and renew our national identity and examine our country’s past so that brutal events like the mass slaughter of 1965-66 would never happen again. So it is, that if since 1998 we have heard the voices of 1965 victims, one after another, recorded calmly or stridently through works of fiction, theatre, dance, film or journalistic writing, then I think this is perfectly right. 

In 2012 when Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary film The Act of Killing exploded onto screens the world over, I was concerned. The film was hard-hitting and disturbing. I think Oppenheimer deliberately made the film with this brutal technique to show what the Indonesian writer Zen R.S. has called the ‘grotesque of Indonesian-ness’. Though I understand why Oppenheimer took the approach he did, I was also worried that the film did not offer enough context for an audience who knows nothing about Indonesia. Most (younger) Indonesians who saw the film were also in a state of shock in response to this newly-found past and the older ones are either in denial or preferred to forget it because it was too brutal. 

For me, the most important thing was that Indonesia owed it to itself to revisit and question the New Order constructions of this history. Tempo magazine, where I worked, and where we had seen the film long before it caused such a sensation globally, decided to publish a special issue inspired by Oppenheimer’s film. We set about ourselves to interview executioners of Communist Party members, or those considered to be communist supporters in 1965-1966, in Java and Bali. A special edition of the journal was later published in book form and remains one of our bestsellers. In the same year, Laksmi Pamuntjak’s novel Amba and my Pulang, both set against the background of 1965, were also published.

2015 was the 50th anniversary of the tragedy of 1965 and coincidentally also the year Indonesia was the Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair. In Germany at the time of the Book Fair, and elsewhere around the world commemorative events linked to 1965 were held, including symposiums, seminars, performances, book discussions, films and exhibitions. Combined with the release of Oppenheimer’s second film, Look of Silence, the international spotlight was shining on this aspect of Indonesia’s dark past. 

I believe the Indonesian government, particularly the military and the conservative right, felt disturbed by the strident voice they saw as presenting an alternative history. At the same time, bans, or at least opposition to such events inside Indonesia began to escalate. In late October, a program of book discussions on the 1965 theme at the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival planned in collaboration with the Herb Feith Foundation, experienced obstruction from local police. The festival suffered interference and intimidation and in the end the organizers decided to cancel the program. From this time on, with few exceptions, almost all discussions, film screenings and book launches related to 1965 in various cities all over Indonesia experienced intimidation and were forced to cancel their programs, or at the very least faced demonstrations. Some organisers chose to continue their events but moved to smaller venues. Others carried out their programs after asking for the assistance of high-ranking officials to reassure the police. 

The Indonesian government’s defensive attitude on the issue of 1965 intensified around the time an International People’s Tribunal 1965 got underway in early November 2015, in The Hague, Holland. The Indonesian government immediately rejected the tribunal, the findings of which would not be legally binding under Indonesia law. 

Then in April 2016, a government-sanctioned National Symposium 1965 held in Jakarta brought victims together with the government and military for the first time. The event was live streamed thereby making it also the first time the wider public could hear and watch the victims’ testimonies for themselves. Nevertheless, the government’s nervous and defensive attitude was still clearly evident. The symposium not only ended in heated debate, but also saw military veterans call a rival ‘alternative symposium’ of their own. 

Very soon after the symposium and counter-symposium the military carried out ‘sweeping’ actions for books with 1965 or Marxist themes. They entered bookshops and took away such books with the excuse that they were going to ‘study them’. What they did was not only against the law, but the explanation for it was truly ridiculous. 

However, such types of actions – or inactions – are not isolated to the issue of 1965. We also see a rise in militancy against minorities like Shi’a and Ahmadiyyah, and in anti-Chinese and anti-LGBT sentiment. These acts of intolerance by some groups and the unwillingness of government agencies to condemn them, is increasingly clouding the image of Indonesia, which thus far has been viewed as a country with a majority ‘moderate’ Muslim population. This lack of political will or concern for issues such as human rights and transitional justice was made stark in the latest Cabinet reshuffle, with President Joko Widodo appointing former General Wiranto – condemned internationally and at home for his part in human rights violations in East Timor in 1999 – as his Coordinating Minister of Political, Legal and Security Affairs.  In short, I believe Indonesia is again on the threshold of a big question: what is Indonesia now? 

Almost twenty years after reformasi, I feel increasingly worried and uneasy about these developments and wonder how we got to this point. On the one hand, efforts continue to build and strengthen the pillars of democracy, but on the other, in both society and the state there is a gradual assembling of a kind of moral police, which threatens pluralism. It seems that the desire to rediscover Indonesia’s national identity after 1998 based on the rule of law, human rights, gender equality and religious tolerance – is again on shaky ground. The word ‘communism’ seems to once more determine ‘who is evil and who is good’; and in addition, the LGBT community and those from beliefs other than Islam have become the targets of attacks.

I recall my history lesson about the creation of this country on 18 August 1945 and how the Founding Fathers battled over the elimination of those seven words because they wanted a plural Indonesia, which accepted all differences of religion, belief and ethnicity. This is the opportunity we seem to have missed in 1998: to come in agreement to redefine our nation, Indonesia.

Leila S. Chudori is a novelist and journalist at Tempo magazine. She is also the author of 9 dari Nadira, Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia, 2009. In December 2013, Pulang (Home) received Indonesia’s preeminent prize for literature, the Khatulistiwa Literary Award for a work of outstanding literature. Home examines the tragedy of political exiles during Suharto’s regime (1965-1998) forced out of Indonesia after the 1965 massacres. It has been translated into English, French, German and Italian. 

This essay is part of the Australia Indonesia Essay Series from the Australia Indonesia Centre, featuring Australian and Indonesia writers and thinkers who were invited to reflect on key issues facing their societies.

Find the Indonesian version here.

Inside Indonesia 126: Oct-Dec 2016{jcomments on}

Latest Articles

Essay: Testing out my Bahasa Indonesia

Jul 09, 2024 - PATRICK J MAHONY

We need to learn more about each other. If we do, we will find that in many ways we have much in common

Asbestos danger

Jul 08, 2024 - GWYN ROBERTS

What can be done to prevent suffering in Indonesia?

Obituary: Stop telling, start listening

Jul 04, 2024 - DUNCAN GRAHAM

Owen Podger’s guide to aid-giving

Essay: What remains of the 1998 tragedy for the post-1998 generation


Hearing about my mother's experiences in May 1998 became a pivotal moment that has shaped my life. 

Obit: Bob Muntz, 1947-2024

Jun 24, 2024 - HELEN PAUSACKER

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.

Bacaan Bumi: Pemikiran Ekologis – sebuah suplemen Inside Indonesia

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar.