Jun 21, 2024 Last Updated 1:20 AM, Jun 20, 2024

Twenty candles for Inside Indonesia

Published: Oct 01, 2003

How ever did we get through 20 years? And what does the future hold?

Gerry van Klinken

When Inside Indonesia was born in a Fitzroy restaurant in 1983, Suharto was at the height of his powers and East Timor solidarity organisations were beginning to settle in for the long haul. Twenty years later, Suharto is gone and East Timor is free. Looking back, what have we learnt (other than that it's hard yakka keeping a little magazine going)? What's next?

It's tempting to flick through past editions and remember the highs and lows. The highs? Robert Domm's 1990 interview with Xanana in the mountains (#25 Dec 1990) has to be one, the whole Papuan edition (#67 Jul-Sep 2001) another. And the lows? Well there are a few that make my ears tingle to think of them. Let us know your candidates for the best and the worst.

However, let us do this thematically. The magazine has always aimed to communicate, to report, and to take sides on Indonesian issues for non-Indonesian readers.

To communicate you have to be interesting. A rule I once read in a book for magazine editors says every edition should have a little surprise. Terry Hull's 'Penis enhancements' (#69 Jan-Mar 2002) was one example, so was Emma Baulch on Bali's Generation X (#48 Oct-Dec 1996). We spend a fortune every edition on making the cover look good. The occasional offbeat travel story and interview goes down well. I thought Ciaran Harman's walk across Kalimantan was fabulous (#65 Jan-Mar 2001), so was Duncan Graham's profile of Rizza in Surabaya (#72 Oct-Dec 2002).

Yes, there's the tourism exotica trap of making Indonesians look weirder than they really are. But it's a hard-bitten traveller who never catches themselves thinking 'what an amazing country this is.' The magazine wants to broaden horizons especially for people only recently interested in Indonesia. Young people today have less faith than previous generations in politics as a way of making the world a better place. Running intelligent travel and human-interest stories for them is part of the magazine's educational emphasis. I hope we can keep doing our best in this area. Far from falling into the tourism exotica trap, I suspect we slip too easily into the activist trap of taking ourselves too seriously.

'Mutual understanding and cooperation between the peoples of Indonesia and Australia and elsewhere' is the declared goal of Inside Indonesia. That calls for communication skills, but also for solid reportage. This is the heart of what Inside Indonesia has always been about. In 1983 credible information about Indonesia was scarce. The Indonesian government routinely issued misleading propaganda, its military often expelled foreign correspondents, and Australian newspapers carried little about the giant neighbour to the north. Academic researchers were denied permits, and activists were blacklisted. When I joined the board as editor in 1996 I learned that accurate, unbiased reporting was the most important thing they expected the magazine to do. Editorials were deliberately kept low-key, so the reportage could speak for itself.

Of course we will never be a Far Eastern Economic Review. We couldn't even pay our authors. But several board members had university backgrounds like myself. Our academic networks provided a pool of talent. Lots of knowledgeable postgraduate students were only too pleased to share what they knew with a popular readership. And for nothing! I did often have to wrestle with them to drop jargon and agree to bolder titles. The quarterly format was good for their more thoughtful approach. Production times were too long for 'hot' news, but just right for the short essay.

For years this reportage was so good that Indonesian students and activists themselves began to read the magazine. It was not produced primarily for them, but they found stuff there they couldn't get elsewhere. I recall seeing well-thumbed copies slumped on the library shelf at Satya Wacana University in Central Java in the 1980s.

That all changed in 1998. The Indonesian press is now much freer. Australian newspapers also began to cover Indonesia in much greater depth - either excited by the mushrooming democratic movement, or driven by fears of the country's 'break-up'. The internet revolution came on strong about the same time as well. Inside Indonesia appeared online with a home-made design in late 1996. Indonesians are our biggest single group of readers. Whenever something big happens, like the war in Aceh, our access statistics take a leap. Less so our subscriptions, unfortunately.

These big changes in Indonesia presented the magazine with a dilemma that came to a head early last year. One view within the board was that since Suharto was gone and East Timor was free, maybe the mag had served its purpose and should close. Money and time were also in short supply. Subscription income was really not enough - we have always needed gifts to survive. The young students and activists who started the magazine in 1983 were by now super-busy professors and managers. And we had more competition. The mainstream press was better at Indonesian reportage than before and new alternative magazines like Latitudes were appearing on the market.

The other view was the opposite. Reformasi has been largely a failure. Indeed the horrible violence following Reformasi turned many westerners off the country altogether. The military destruction of East Timor, the Muslim-Christian fighting in Ambon, and especially the Bali bombing, caused Australian interest in Indonesia to plummet. Enrolments in language classes are down everywhere. 'I ask myself, do I really still like Indonesia�', a friend of mine who has studied Indonesian history for years told me not long ago. The question haunts many Indonesians too.

There's no doubt that Indonesia has a serious self-image problem. And yet, and yet. Once we are there, most of us experience enough hospitality, hope and friendliness to counteract the worst pessimism. Is this really a good time to give up on trying to understand this vast country, where little is as it seems? Even today, the mainstream press gets it wrong all the time. Foreign correspondents almost never travel outside Jakarta, unless it is to a war zone. Some end up reflecting the prejudices of the diplomatic circuit.

Fortunately, the second view prevailed. A new board took over from the old, some new money was found (not really enough), a system of rotating guest editors was invented, and the magazine is here for its 20th anniversary edition. If you'll forgive the hype, we still want to 'get behind the soundbite, the propaganda and the stereotypes to keep you informed about the real Indonesia'. We hope you share the vision.

Taking sides is the third part of the magazine's aim. It is not the most obvious aim. No publication that claims to provide quality reportage wants to be predictable and easily put into an ideological box. This has made the issue of editorial orientation a little subterranean, but not undiscussed. The new board has spent a lot of time writing it all down for a new constitution. Indonesia still contains so much more potential for change than seems likely in the industrialised West. Believing in the creative potential of change keeps the magazine from falling into the tourism trap.

The struggles for justice in Indonesia are multi-dimensional. They include struggles for economic equality in the face of capitalism, for environmental sustainability in the face of industrialism, for human rights and peace in the face of militarism, for gender justice in the face of all forms of sexual discrimination, and for cultural freedoms in the face of the authoritarian state. Though often related, each struggle has its own agendas and network of activists. Indonesia's political parties have so far proved fairly clueless advocates of these emancipatory agendas. They are being carried by young people who often organise through non-government organisations or through less structured forums. Inside Indonesia wants to be there for them, to help get their message out.

The aim is to rotate through the various themes regularly. Hence the recent editions on the environment (#65 Jan-Mar 2001), gender (#66 Apr-Jun 2001), the arts (#64 Oct-Dec 2000), and on the poor (#69 Jan-Mar 2002). But things happen unexpectedly. We dumped another edition on the arts after the Bali bombing, for example, and that wasn't the first time.

One big question I would like us to look at is 'what have people learned from 1998?'. The establishment in Indonesia and overseas often behaves as if Reformasi was a success and Indonesia is now a democratic country. The groups that worked for change in 1998 feel the opposite - that their work has been a failure. It is not hard to see why. The war in Aceh looks remarkably like the invasion of East Timor in 1975. Religious and ethnic violence in some areas has wrecked an emerging democracy.

Many activists have gone back to work almost as if nothing has happened to interrupt the rhythm. A younger generation was too young in 1998 to have even been there! Some older ones have become disillusioned, like East Germans after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. What went wrong? How will democracy activists create opportunities in the future? I don�t think any of us believe that Indonesia is 'by nature' violent or authoritarian. But most people who were there in 1998 would probably now say they were naive to expect that change was as easy as getting rid of Suharto.

Gerry van Klinken (editor@insideindonesia.org) is coordinating editor of Inside Indonesia.

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