May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

The politics of culture

Stephen Miller and Dorothy Meyer

For more than thirty years, almost every time Pramoedya's name was brought up in public discussion in Indonesia and elsewhere, mention would be made of his malevolent role in the cultural polemics of the early 1960s. Thankfully, following his death, most writers and commentators have focused on the many contributions Pramoedya made to Indonesian and world literature. Nevertheless, when the polemics have come up, it has always been to point out Pramoedya's wrong-doing. Many otherwise favourable articles included comments like, ‘There is no question that Pramoedya was complicit in the censoring and hounding of his political opponents under the left-leaning rule of Sukarno in the early 1960s’. This has left readers with respectful silence on one side and the same old story of Pramoedya's oppressive behaviour on the other.

The cultural polemics

Two key events marked the period of the cultural polemics. The first was the declaration of a ‘Cultural Manifesto’ by a group of writers and intellectuals in late 1963. This was intended, and was seen, as a rejection of Sukarno’s cultural policies. The signatories saw themselves as ‘free’ intellectuals fighting communist authoritarianism. It was followed by the All Indonesia Writers' Conference (KKPI) of early 1964, which was organised by the same grouping. Despite strong opposition from the left, the KKPI went ahead with army support, although the manifesto itself was banned in mid-1964. After 1965, much was made of Pramoedya's role in the opposition to these two events.

Pramoedya was an editor of the cultural section of Bintang Timur, a newspaper linked to the small radical nationalist party, Partindo. Besides editing, he was also a key contributor to the newspaper. From late 1962 until May 1965, more than 150 of his non-fiction articles appeared in Bintang Timur - the vast majority concerned with Indonesian history. Two series of articles, however, are often referred to in discussion of the polemics. The first, ‘What to Clear Away and What to Build’ (Yang Harus Dibabat dan Harus Dibangun) is by far the most controversial. Its title contains ambiguous words that have been used to produce translations with sinister undertones, such as ‘Those Who Should be Encouraged and Those Who Should be Cut Down’. Pramoedya, however, has emphasised that he was referring to things rather than people, and there is evidence to support his claim. His key targets in this series are actually Sticusa (the Dutch-funded cultural institute), Balai Poestaka (the colonial era state publishing house) and the ideas of the writer/critic Takdir Alisjahbana, whose contributions during the colonial era Pramoedya was careful to recognise. The second series ‘Report on the Teaching of Literature’ has received far less ‘airplay’, but contains many more direct criticisms of individuals. The ‘pope’ of Indonesian literature, H.B. Jassin, is a key target. Nevertheless, it is always clear that Pramoedya's focus is the dissection of the ideology of ‘universal humanism’, which Jassin and others represented.

Pramoedya also showed his commitment to open debate by publishing a series of articles by an opponent that attacked his own position.

While the series have been presented as being an important part of the polemics following the declaration of the Manifesto, both were actually published before its declaration and the holding of the KKPI. In late 1963 Pramoedya also showed his commitment to open debate by publishing a series of articles by an opponent that attacked his own position in a highly personal, and at times racist (anti-Chinese), way.

While we know a significant amount about Pramoedya's writings in Bintang Timur, we know little about what others wrote, or how the polemics related to wider social struggles. There has also been little study of the role of signatories to the Cultural Manifesto following the coup and counter-coup of late 1965. In 1966 Wiratmo Soekito (the key force behind the Manifesto) wrote in the newspaper Merdeka supporting the banning of ‘communist books’, including Pramoedya’s work. He was not alone. Pramoedya was arrested and his library as well as many unpublished works were destroyed in the brutal anti-communist frenzy. In 1991 Pramoedya wrote bitterly that the accusations thrown against him were ‘only a smokescreen for what [the right-wingers] themselves have done and want to do’. As the Army established a new regime on the foundation of the bloodbath of 1965-66, it seems erstwhile champions of freedom may have been either active supporters or silently complicit. 

Stephen Miller ( ) and Dorothy Meyer work and study at the University of New England. For more detail on Pramoedya’s articles in Bintang Timur, see

Inside Indonesia 88: Oct-Dec 2006

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