Dec 09, 2022 Last Updated 6:29 AM, Nov 29, 2022

History, horror and homelands

Published: Mar 30, 1996

Ron Witton

Robert Cribb and Colin Brown, Modern Indonesia: A History Since 1945, London and NY: Longmans, 1995. 192pp. Rrp: AU$33.95.

Seno Gumira Ajidarma, Eyewitness: Protest Stories from Indonesia, Sydney: ETT Imprint, 1995. 139pp. Rrp: AU$14.95.

Psychology tells us we can learn about the world either through the left side of the brain, which involves logic and reasoning, or through the right side by using creativity and imagination.The two books under review are examples of both approaches to an understanding of Indonesia now that 50 years have passed since independence.

Dynamic but authoritarian

Using logic, reasoning and a comprehensive knowledge of Indonesian history, Cribb and Brown provide an excellent overview of how Indonesia has become the dynamic but authoritarian society it is today. By focusing on structural themes and societal forces, rather than dates and personalities, they have managed to encapsulate Indonesia's often turbulent past into a coherent analysis.This analysis serves as a useful guide to the present and leads us into an understanding of the future Indonesia now faces.

For anyone who feels a lack of understanding of Indonesia's pre-revolutionary past, the book's first chapters providea clear outline summary of the historical background to modern post-war Indonesia. Through a discussion of thecollapse of Dutch colonialism, the Japanese occupation and the revolution, the major themes of Indonesia's more recent history are developed. Of particular use is their summary of the events of 1965 that so sharply divide Indonesia's post-independence history into the strikingly different Sukarno and Suharto periods.

Many Australians visit Indonesia and in museums and elsewhere, like ordinary Indonesians, they are indoctrinated with the 'official' version of the 30 September 1965 'coup' which sees those events as an attempted 'communist' overthrow of the state. However, Cribb and Brown very usefully summarise the evidence that points towards a much more complicated scenario in which elements of the army (and western intelligence) are intimately involved.

Cribb and Brown then analyse the twin elements of economic development and political repression that have guided the policies of the Suharto regime over these past thirty years.The events surrounding Indonesia's invasion of East Timor are outlined in detail, as are many other events that most Indonesians are restricted from learning about. Indeed, the author's discussion of such matters as the gross wealth accumulated by members of the president's family means that this book, like many other foreign analyses of contemporary Indonesian society, will not be translated into Indonesian and will not be allowed to be distributed within Indonesia.

The book concludes with a fascinating chapter 'Social Change and Future Prospects', which looks at the increasingly dysfunctional nature of the governmental system Suharto has called 'Pancasila Democracy'.It also examines changes in rural society, the growing middle class, changes in military doctrine, and the rise of Islam. The final section examines the role ethnicity plays in regional politics, and particularly focuses on Indonesia's trouble spots of Aceh, Irian Jaya and, of course, East Timor. I was surprised that when they examined (p.162) the exploitation by Jakarta of the natural resources in these three regions, which is an element in the disaffection felt by the people there, East Timor's oil resources are not mentioned. Australia's connivance in exploiting these resources is a continuing stain on our reputation as an international law- abiding nation.

Wonderful short stories

So how, given the very tight authoritarian control of the Indonesian state, do Indonesians concerned with the denial of human rights in places such as East Timor express themselves? The second book under review reveals one strategy - that is for a writer to engage the right side of the brain and turn to imaginative writing to get a message across. Eyewitness is a wonderful collection of short stories which,surprisingly, were originally published in Indonesia'smass media.The stories none too subtly expose the trauma and horror visited upon the East Timorese people. Testimony to the creative writing talents of the author is found in the fact that the writer has achieved his aim through whimsy, surrealism and satire.Thus the first story, 'Eyewitness', revolves around an Indonesian judge having to decide whether someone whose eyes have been removed through torture can still be called as an 'eyewitness' to the horrors of which he has knowledge. It is truly astounding that these stories have actually appeared in the Indonesian mass media. Every story has a twist to it that reaches through one's consciousness to expose the hurt that an authoritarian regime can inflict on society's weaker members.

Of particular value is the author's introduction. He writes of his removal as editor of one of Indonesia's best selling magazines after he published stories that exposed the continuing repression in East Timor.The fact that his removal was a result of the actions of the magazine's publishers, rather than by government intervention, is used by the author to show the role of self-censorship in Indonesia.His discussion of the events surrounding his removal are a fascinating portrayal of the conditions under which Indonesian intellectuals must work.

The translations of the short stories, by Jan Lingard, Bibi Langker and Suzan Piper, are so well done that one is rarely if ever aware one is reading a translation rather than a work originally written in English.It is therefore surprising to find a sexist rendition of an important sentence in the author's introduction:

'Thirdly, it is the obligation - and shrewdness - of a journalist, to be able to state the facts as clearly as possible, at the same time not sacrificing the media he works for.' (p.28, my emphasis)

Given that the original Indonesian would not have indicated any gender, it would have been desirable to render the sentence as either

'Thirdly, it is the obligation ... of journalists, to be able to state the facts ..., at the same time not sacrificing the media they work for.'
'Thirdly, it is the obligation ... of a journalist, to be able to state the facts ..., at the same time not sacrificing the media he or she works for.'

At a time when even Australian legislation is being written in non-exclusivist gender free terms, one might expect the same sensitivity to prevail in Australian academia, particularly when the original Indonesian would not have had this text refer only to male journalists.

Both the above books deserve to be considered as useful and stimulating additions to anyone's library of books on Indonesia, and hopefully will be ordered for school and university libraries.     ii

Dr Ron Witton is a sessional lecturer in Indonesian at the University of Western Sydney and the University of Wollongong.

Inside Indonesia 46: Mar-Jun 1996

Inside Indonesia 46: Mar 1996

Latest Articles

Acehnese fishermen and Rohingya rescue at sea

Nov 16, 2022 - BILAL DEWANSYAH

The criminalisation of people smuggling has created complex moral and legal difficulties for those who assist refugees in peril

Review: Bali, 50 years of changes

Sep 25, 2022 - MARY ZURBUCHEN

Chasing a cure for beriberi

Sep 15, 2022 - NIA DELIANA

A long search for a cure for beriberi in Southeast Asia in the late nineteenth century was led by trial and a lot of error

Review: The candidate’s dilemma


Review: 25 years of music activism


For two decades Bali-based rock band Navicula’s mission has been to tackle some of the country’s biggest social and environmental ills

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

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


Lontar Modern Indonesia



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