Just received news of the death in the early hours of the morning (Yogya time) of Indonesia's greatest historian of the twentieth century, Sartono Kartodirdjo, at the age of 86. Fifty years after the defining Indonesian National History Conference (which he attended in his native Yogyakarta), another of the writers who defined history for two generations of Indonesians has died.
Although he was almost totally blind by the late 1980s, Sartono's teaching and commentary continued to influence Indonesian history up until the present day. I saw him in action at the 1994 National History Conference at Udayana University in Bali. Seeing this old, frail man being led in, I did not expect much, but I still remember his session as one of the most exciting of the many conferences I have attended. Satrono gave a brilliant analysis of the lack of a concept of 'heritage' in Indonesia, and the need for a national heritage body, and his discussion showed that he was as sharp as ever. However it was in the question-and-answer session that the Conference really came alive.
You will remember this was still in the period of Suharto's proclaimed 'Openness', but most Indonesian academics, cowered by years of intimidation and spying on campus, were too scared to raise issues. Some of the more daring students began to ask Sartono about his education, and at first I wasn't sure where this was leading. Sartono had been a student of Harry Benda at Yale, and then studied under Wertheim in Amsterdam. The questions amounted to asking him whether he followed Wertheim's theory of the 1965 Coup (never explicitly stated at the meeting, but everyone knew that this was the theory that the Coup was all Suharto's doing). Sartono made a very skillful answer about having more than one 'guru', meaning that he wasn't tied to the ideas of Wertheim, but he never directly denied the suggestion that Wertheim's theory might be true.
He was then asked why the last volume of the National History had never appeared. Some of his panel co-members (from the University of Indonesia) prevaricated, too scared to discuss the problems directly, but Sartono was very firm in saying that he refused to allow this final volume to be published because the military were trying to force their interpretations on him. If I remember rightly, this was just before the press bans, but people understood that there were penalties for being too outspoken, and Sartono would have been aware that some of the members of the audience (including members of the History Department at the host university) were military appointees of little talent except for enforcing New Order ideology. My strongest memory of that Conference was the formidable intellect of Sartono, as he put all the other paper-givers and commentators into the shade.