Sep 25, 2021 Last Updated 4:59 AM, Sep 20, 2021

The struggle over history

Published: Jul 27, 2007

Adrian Vickers

During the Suharto era, Inside Indonesia provided the only consistent and popularly available alternative views of Indonesia. While it was easy for Indonesian officials to dismiss these views as coming from ‘outside’ Indonesia because of the clear Australian base, the critique underlying Inside Indonesia’s line has been as much Indonesian as foreign. This is because this critique was grounded in the vision of Indonesian history laid out in the corpus of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s work, and played out in Pramoedya’s life. These were both sources of inspiration to the editors and contributors, many of whom edited, translated or commented directly either on Pramoedya’s works or on the works of writers with whom Pramoedya identifies, such as Mas Marco Kartodikromo. After Suharto, the standing of Pramoedya’s work in Indonesia is indicative of Inside Indonesia’s changing role, but also of problems of a magazine whose object of criticism has markedly changed.

Pramoedya against the New Order

The New Order’s attempt to create a monolithic official history came in the face of an existing Sukarnoist historiography, and sought to suppress or submerge the diversity of potential historical accounts of the nation: Marxist, Socialist, Islamic, secessionist, marginalised or otherwise. The New Order vision was essentially Javanese and military, it located the origins of nationalism in conservative Javanese groups such as Budi Utomo, and presented history as a succession of military events, events which included so-called acts of treachery by the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI). Such a simplistic, not to say simple-minded, view of history was always going to be difficult to sustain. But one of the more durable and dubious achievements of the New Order’s investments in monuments, a prescribed school history curriculum and the sponsoring of films such as ‘The Treachery of the Thirtieth of September Movement/PKI’ has been the continued acceptance of this account of national history by a large number of Indonesians.

While Pramoedya’s work does not represent the full range of alternative history, its consistent suppression prior to 1998 made it a rallying point for dissent. The fact that the Buru Tetralogy (This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps and House of Glass) could not be banned until they actually went on sale in the 1980s — a quirk of the censorship laws inherited from the Dutch — meant that they were always in circulation, albeit a circulation that quickly became illegal. Alternative voices in support of the books even came from inside the New Order. Adam Malik, part of the Triumvirate that created the regime, and a socialist with impeccable anti-PKI credentials, argued in Parliament against the banning of This Earth of Mankind. The importance of Pramoedya’s work as a rallying-point was seen in the gaoling of student activist, Isti Nugroho and his colleagues for distributing works by Pramoedya, and in the general way that student groups looked to Pramoedya, publishing intervieus with him in student magazines in order to test the limits of the New Order’s 1990s sham ‘Openness’. Works such as Arus Balik challenged the official view of Java’s response to European colonialism, while the This Earth of Mankind tetralogy displayed the complex and leftist origins of nationalism, while also demonstrating parallel between the power of capital and coercion in the Dutch period and under the New Order. This theme was given a different spin in the essay commissioned as part of the engrossing Dutch film Jalan Raya Pos, Great Post Road), in which Pramoedya’s account of Governor General Daendels’ introduction of colonial modernity forms the basis of a class analysis of Java. Earlier works, banned by the regime, provide alternative visions of the course of the National Revolution: the short stories in Tjerita dari Blora undermine the idea that the military played any kind of heroic role in the struggle, while an earlier story Dendam (translated and analysed by Benedict Anderson), portrays the disturbing forces of social violence at work in a way that presages the New Order’s bloody inauguration and continued use of force.

In these and his other works Pramoedya is an historians’ novelist, his works are part of a struggle over history, but equally his life has been as much a reflection of that contest. Born during the colonial period, he endured Japanese rule and fought in the national Revolution. Pramoedya played a major role in the cultural politics of the 1960s until gaoled by the in-coming Suharto regime for his leftism. He had already been gaoled twice, once by the Dutch during the Revolution, once by Sukarno for his outspoken writings on equality, but in this case the imprisonment turned into long exile on the harsh prison island Buru, a period described in A Mute’s Soliliquy (Nanyi Sunyi Seorang Bisu). His life in prison was a mirror of the oppression under which Indonesians lived, and the appearance of This Earth of Mankind in the 1980s opened a window to that oppression. Even after his return to Jakarta from Buru, Pramoedya was under effective house arrest.

Pramoedya after Suharto

What happens when a banned author is no longer banned? Part of the attraction for Indonesians of reading alternative works such as Pramoedya’s, according to cultural critic Dwi Marianto, was their banned status. In a paper given during the 1990s, Marianto compared the eager reading of such banned works by students overseas to the viewing of pornography — the frisson of the forbidden. When it is no longer forbidden, no longer a dangerous object, any of Pramoedya’s works have to rely on their own inherent power.

Almost as soon as the greedy General resigned, Indonesia was flooded with alternative publications, books produced particularly in Yogyakarta, giving everything from a translation to Derrida’s Spectres of Marx to replication of Mas Marco’s Student Hijo, to the analyses of Benedict Anderson and a host of other suppressed works.

Pramoedya, now allowed to travel overseas, has most of his works in print, and has been commissioned to write for, amongst other sources, Time Magazine. The forbidden might be in danger of becoming ‘mainstream’. Except for one thing. The Indonesian media has, to a large extent, avoided detailed commentary on and interviews with Pramoedya. His main foray into public debate was over Gus Dur’s apology to the victims of the slaughter of the PKI, in the context of an attempt to set up South Africa-style ‘Truth and Reconciliation’.

Pramoedya’s works are still not part of school curricula — even a supposed former dissident has joined the conservative voices against their inclusion into attempts to revise the national history curricula. Media debates on the re-writing of history have been largely concerned with ideas of ‘correcting’ Suharto-centred accounts of specific incidents, such as the ‘General Attack’ on Yogyakarta during the Revolution, or the official version of what happened during the Coup of 30 September 1965. As yet only one or two voices from the margins have advocated a fundamental rethinking of national historiography. All the New Order’s monuments, including those at Lubang Buaya, remain in place. This lack of movement on the subject points to the continued dominance of New Order thinking in Indonesian public culture. It will be a long time before Inside Indonesia can shut up shop, its job of presenting alternatives such as Pramoedya’s vision having been done.

Adrian Vickers ( is a lecturer at the University of Wollongong.

Inside Indonesia 76: Oct - Dec 2003

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