Bloody history behind Indonesian literary debate

Issue 

By Max Lane
In Indonesia during June and July, polemics raged between supporters and opponents of the country's most famous and widely read novelist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer. The polemic was sparked by the announcement that the Philippines-based Magsaysay Foundation had decided to honour Pramoedya with an award for literature and journalism. This surprised many people, because the foundation has traditionally given its awards to conservative writers. One Indonesian writer who received the award in the 1950s, Mochtar Lubis, a prominent journalist, novelist and business consultant, had been a strong campaigner against the Indonesian left during the 1950s and 1960s.
Soon after the foundation's announcement, Mochtar Lubis announced that he would return his award if the Pramoedya award went ahead. He carried out this threat in Manila two days before the official ceremony. Lubis also organised a petition of 26 other writers, including the country's most famous poet and dramatist, W.S. Rendra, who stated their strong concerns about Pramoedya receiving the award.
In response, another petition was sent to Manila signed by 120 younger writers and students defending Pramoedya's award and lamenting that he was unable to defend himself in the Indonesian media. Among the signatories were an increasingly popular poet and people's theatre director, Wiji Thukul, and the essayist and alternative publisher Farid (Fay) Hilman.
At the core of the dispute was not the content or style of Pramoedya's writings. His opponents generally avoided this issue. What really lies behind it are events dating back 30 years, which culminated in one of the biggest massacres of the 20th century.
The massacres began on October 1, 1965, and stretched right through 1966. At least 1 million people were killed. In some areas, whole factory work forces were killed, whole villages wiped out.
The Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), other left-wing parties and most of the country's active trade unions were closed down. The repression and killings brought General Suharto to power and put people like Pramoedya Ananta Toer and hundreds of other intellectuals and thousands of worker and farmer activists in prison camps until 1979, and under town arrest and other restrictions since then. Pramoedya still cannot write in the newspapers and magazines, his books are always banned shortly after they are published, he must report to the military regularly, and until recently his official ID card carried a code indicating he was a former political prisoner.
In their attacks on Pramoedya, Lubis, Rendra and the others claimed that he had acted undemocratically before 1965 — a claim that he and others have rejected outright.
In the years leading up to October 1, 1965, the organised worker and peasant movement, under the leadership of an alliance between the PKI and the left-wing of the Indonesian National Party (PNI), campaigned for the redistribution of land to landless peasants, the nationalisation of foreign companies, increased welfare spending, opposition to US policy in Vietnam and support for national liberation movements, such as those in Algeria.
Indonesia withdrew from the United Nations, and called for a conference of "new emerging forces", based on the non-aligned countries of the Third World. The Sukarno government opposed the British plan to force the small British colonies of Sabah and Sarawak in Borneo into a federation with Malaya and called for a referendum in those territories.
Ranged against the PKI-PNI-Sukarno alliance was an increasingly anxious army, the most conservative sections of the Islamic business and land-owning establishment, big sections of the bureaucracy and a coterie of right-wing intellectuals and students.
Between 1960 and 1965, the PKI peasant organisations launched a series of land seizures protesting against the blocking of new land reform laws, resulting in increasing physical clashes between peasants and the police and army. Worker actions increased in the big plantations and some state enterprises, nearly all of which had been taken over by the army itself in the late 1950s.
Mass mobilisations increased at a phenomenal rate, including huge rallies in Jakarta, demonstrations outside the embassies of western governments and a massive number of smaller rallies in towns and villages as the PKI and the left PNI established more and more active branches of their parties and their mass organisations.
It is estimated that by 1965 at least 20 million people belonged to a mass organisation affiliated with either the PKI or PNI. There were a large number of smaller parties that were active as well. The conservative Islamic organisations, the Nahdatul Ulama and its youth wing, Ansor Youth, and the Islamic Students Association also became more active. These organisations were also backed by the army.
Both the PKI and PNI had large organisations that took cultural activities into the villages and small towns. They promoted the idea that literature and the arts should directly contribute to the struggle to "complete the Indonesian Revolution". They polemicised against writers and artists who avoided these questions or who they thought concentrated too much on subjective, individual issues.
Pramoedya was a member of a PKI cultural institute, LEKRA, but most of his cultural work during this period was carried out through an independent left-wing daily called Eastern Star. In it he polemicised against literature and art that did not seek to explain the origins of the country's problems and inspire people into action.
He wrote many essays on the history of the Indonesian struggle against colonialism and began writing a novel about the fate of a village woman from a small fishing village. Earlier he had written on the positive contributions of the Chinese community to the nationalist struggle at a time when Indonesian-Chinese relations were bad and spent a year in jail under Sukarno.
As the polemics between conservative and radical artists intensified, the army became involved and helped organise a conference of conservative writers. The army banned left-wing publications in a number of provinces, while Sukarno ordered the arrest of a number of intellectuals who had joined anti-government campaign organisations. Among these was Mochtar Lubis.
These tensions finally came to a head in the wake of a failed mutiny by a group of left-oriented middle level army officers on the evening of September 30, 1965. The mutiny was apparently an attempt to pre-empt a coup by a Council of Generals. The mutiny was bungled. Key generals — including Suharto — were not arrested, and those who were arrested were later killed, inflaming the sentiments of most of the officer corps.
The mutiny was carried out without the knowledge of the mass base of the worker and peasant movements, who were taken completely by surprise, although it is possible that some individual left wing leaders were aware of the plot.
There is evidence that Suharto himself may have been aware of what was planned. In any case, Suharto seized the initiative, blamed the mutiny on the PKI and the left, and launched the mass killings.
Within a few months, Suharto had won control of the government, and the conservative writers and intellectuals had won control of the universities, the newspapers and the country's cultural institutions. For 30 years, Indonesia's official literary and cultural life has been dominated by these conservative writers, who offered no real resistance to the mass killings or the jailing of their cultural opponents on the left. They also monopolised all international cultural relations.
This dominance was first publicly challenged by Pramoedya in 1981, when, having been released from 14 years' imprisonment, he began publishing his prison novels, starting with This Earth of Mankind. Since then he has published at least 10 books, all of which have subsequently been banned. His publishers have been harassed and his editor at one stage imprisoned for three months.
The struggle between left and right was not ended by the massacres in 1965 and indeed is reasserting itself with more and more vigour. The 120 younger writers and intellectuals who supported Pramoedya in the recent controversy represent the bearers of new radical perspectives who are not intimidated by old taboos.
Lubis and Rendra have been critics of the Suharto dictatorship on many issues of democratic rights, but it seems the resurgence of the left is something they cannot tolerate. One positive sign, however, is that one of the key anti-left campaigners from before 1965, prominent writer and publisher Goenawan Mohammed, has defended Pramoedya's award and distanced himself from Mochtar Lubis' stand.

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