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Indonesian history

Do Southeast Asians have a better understanding of their region than Westerners? I've really enjoyed reading the highly praised novel by Tash Aw, Map of the Invisible World. It covers much of the ground of Christopher Koch’s Year of Living Dangerously, although when the latter first appeared, Koch was criticised for basically reproducing a Western, colonialist, view of Indonesia. Map of the Invisible World is very well written for the most part, with highly poetic and moving passages evoking the sense of loss, separation and longing that moves and motivates the main characters. It captures much of the atmosphere of Jakarta.

Yet problems remain.

The novel’s characters express the need for an understanding history, but somehow the novel is lacking in historical understanding, by which I mean that its representation of the historical context, and its attention to detail, is lacking. Aw gets correct one key fact usually ignored by other writers, that Sukarno’s famous “Year of Living Dangerously” speech was made on 17th August 1964 (ie that year was over before the 30th September 1965 “Coup”), but he makes a number of other basic mistakes. Some of these are minor, and the kind of thing only a pedantic historian like me would worry about, for example that Jakarta’s civilian airport in 1950 was at Kemayoran, not Halim (p. 68); and I doubt there were any self-flushing urinals, even in the most elaborate of hotels, at the time (p. 246)? Some are also geographically confused, for example the Great Post Road goes along the north coast of Java, not through Yogyakarta (p.109); and I am not sure about seeing lots of clove trees on Bali (p. 178)—wrong side of the Wallace Line.

Some of the changes were probably made for some kind of effect, for example renaming the Hotel Indonesia, but does this explain why the Welcome Monument in the centre of Jakarta is called “The Victory Monument” in the book (p. 212)? Generally, Aw is prone to presentism, as with the many references to heavy traffic in Jakarta (eg p. 19, “the never-ending traffic…a river of patched-up, rusting steel”). Such traffic may be the case nowadays, and at least since the 1980s in my experience, but those who can remember Jakarta in the 1960s comment on its lack of traffic (Firman Lubis' Jakarta 1960-an is a great memoir of the period). There was no parking ramp leading from the Hotel Indonesia, cars stopped on the streets (p. 250). And no one wore crash-helmets (p. 284). Dutch being deported from Indonesia would not have been sent my aeroplane, but by ship (p.68).

If these atmospherics are wrong, so too are some of the political issues. Political tensions in the regions are blamed on the Transmigration policy (p. 118-119). While this policy did indeed start in the 1960s, and drew on previous Dutch policies, it was very small scale, and only had a major impact on ethnicity in the New Order period. More serious is the depiction of the Communist Party of Indonesia sending death squads around the island from which Adam comes. These are at best creations of Suharto-era propaganda, but even Christopher Koch, who makes his Cold War politics clear, does not makes such blatant misrepresentations. Political violence in this time mainly came in the form of clashes over land ownership, and in clashes at rallies, not in systematic murder. The key character, Adam, is induced by radical activist Din to plant a bomb in the Hotel Java (ie the Hotel Indonesia) to coincide with Sukarno’s visit to the hotel. There were no Communist attempts to assassinate Sukarno, indeed in 1964 this would have been the last thing the Party would have wanted, all the assassination attempts came from the Right. This kind of misrepresentation clouds the imaginative insights of the novel.

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Last week we had a showing of Rob Lemelson's film, 40 Years of Silence. Amongst the comments that I got from members of the audience, the word 'disturbing' came up most often. This is a very powerful film, and to my mind works more effectively than the overview films such as Shadow Play or Terlena. I saw the latter at a conference in Cambridge earlier in the year, and it suffers from a lack of good editing, and a too-strident message, although it has some excellent material--most memorably an interview with someone who dug the graves for those executed on one of the beaches at Jembrana, West Bali.

There are a couple of things that set 40 Years of Silence apart. The production values are very high, and the personal approach of the film gives it a greater impact. It basically follows the experiences of four families as they live through the legacy of the Indonesian killings, and what is particularly disturbing is the fact that there is on-going victimisation of those with 'PKI' associations, as with the case of the young man, Budi, whose family were beaten up and their house burnt down when they tried to move into an area that had been a site of conflict in the post-1965 period.

As a documentary, I think the level and tone of the film are right. Some people have commented to me that it is too 'commercial', in the sense that it has some of the production values and ways of narrating found in films for TV distribution, others have criticised the film for being too academic, in that there is a lot of background material and a lot of complex material in it. You can't please everybody (and nor should you try), but I think it strikes the right balance. I'm not sure that Rob should have put himself in as a 'talking head' for some of the background material, I can see that he needed to do this to fill in some gaps, but I would have favoured doing this as voice-over. Some of the commentary of the other talking heads may be subject to challenge, but having John Roosa, Geoffrey Robinson and Baskara Wardoyo as these commentators works well. Perhaps there could have been an 'alternative' political view from a more anti-communist commentator, but then that would have taken the film in a different direction and complicated the message.

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Hari Kebangkitan Nasional yesterday also marked the historic passing of one of the last leaders of the Indonesian independence movement, SK Trimurti. Trimurti had been a member of the nationalist movement since 1933, and during the Revolution had been Minister of Labour (how many countries had female ministers of labour in the 1940s?!). She had been a leading figure in the labour movement and in journalism. Australian audiences may remember her for the brief interview in Curtis Levy's documentary Riding the Tiger. Amazing woman. She was 96.

By a strange coincidence yesterday also saw the death of Ali Sadikin (b.1926), Jakarta's most popular governor ever from the 1970s, and the man who pioneered the wearing of batik shirts as official uniform (I used to have one of the black and gold Ali Sadikin batik shirts, but it has long since gone to Vinnies). Probably the President who never was.


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.

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Just got a copy of the condensed translation of the Serat Centhini by Soewito Santoso and Kestity Pringgoharjono, with great photographs by Fendi Siregar (The Centhini Story: The Javanese Journey of Life, Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2006). The philologist in me would like to know more about how the translation was done (what text was used, the multi-volume romanised version?), and how the condensation process occurred, but from a reader's point of view it is very exciting to have the text made available to a wider audience. What is really nice about the book is that it includes photographs of the key sites, and even objects and ceremonies, discussed as the various protagonists wander over the island of Java in the wake of the fall of Demak to the kingdom of Mataram.

The text has an interesting relationship with Panji stories, not just because both are concerned with journeys, but also because the expositions of contemporary life and values is clearly meant to provide models for readers. I look forward to sitting down with this book next to the full Javanese text. It would be nice if this could also provide a precedent for publishers to sponsor translations (preferably in full) of other classics of Indonesian literature. Stuart Robson long ago talked of the need for readable versions of some of the great Kekawin in a series like the Penguin Classics.


Ide Anak Agung Gde Agung, former raja of Gianyar, former Prime Minister of the State of Eastern Indonesia, and Former Foreign Minister of the Republic of Indonesia, has been named in this year's round of 'National Heroes'. This elevation has sparked great controversy in Bali (and elsewhere in the Republic), since his role in Indonesia's achievement of independence was mixed. On a national level he took a pivotal action that brought the Dutch to the negotiating table, but on a local level he was involved for a while in the active suppression of nationalists, and according to the memoirs of Tjokorda Agung Sukawati (Memoirs of a Balinese Prince), the Anak Agung was involved in the torture, and possibly responsible for the deaths, of a number of independence fighters.

The most important action taken by the Anak Agung was in his role as Prime Minister of the State of Eastern Indonesia, which was a Dutch-sponsored state set up as part of their attempt to maintain an Indonesian Federation, in competition with the move to independence of the Republic. After the Second Police Action, a military action that saw the capture of the Republic's leadership and the independence fighters forced into guerilla warfare, Anak Agung brought down the State of Eastern Indonesia as a way of exposing the Dutch Federation as a sham, and thus undermining Dutch attempts to gain legitimacy in international forums. Most importantly this meant the Dutch could no longer maintain US support. From the reports I have seen, this move, which led to the final negotiations for Sovereignty, was what was recognised in the award.

The announcement has seen letters of support from some in Bali, but outcry from others, according to reports in Jawa Pos and the Bali Post over the last two days. Although no one has cited the evidence of Tjokorda Sukawati's book, or other similar accounts such as that of Nyoman S. Pendit, the criticism from surviving veterans of the struggle for independence and their family members has been very strong, and there are even calls to have the President revoke the award.

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With the death of leading historian Onghokham on 30th August, one of the important voices of Indonesian history has been silenced. Many of us knew Ong as much for his eccentricity as his work, and within the Indonesian history profession his contribution was often overlooked for those of the other greats of his generation, Sartono and Taufik Abdullah. Sartono's contribution to peasant history and his leadership of the Gadjah Mada school of historians made him important, but his health and age have meant that he has been less of a presence in the last decade. Taufik Abdullah remains the leader of the history profession in Indonesia, and the best commentator on national history.

However Ong's role, and this may be why he was not fully appreciated in his own country, was as the maverick voice, always standing slightly askew of the mainstream. He was the first—Indonesian or Western—to write real cultural history, with his incorporation of Javanese spiritualism, food history and the understanding of power in operation into his analysis of the lived nature of history in Indonesia. We await with great excitement David Reeve's biography of Ong.



Went to the wonderful Gondng Baru sugar mill and sugar museum at Klaten today. I thought that viewing all those fabulous Dutch photographs of the interiors of sugar factories would have prepared me for the experience, but it was truly awesome. This is one of the very few working sugar factories left in Java, as many closed down during the Asian Crisis. As readers of G. Rodger Knight will know, this factory dates back to 1868 (that’s what it says on the chimney anyway), and all the old Dutch machinery is still working. Apparently they even have people come out from Europe from time to time to service it (to be more correct, some of the machinery is French and English, the trains for pulling the cane cars were made in Germany, Ornstein, Berlijn-Amsterdam-Batavia). With the usual Javanese ingenuity, machinery is patched up, and some things are very run down, that is some of the machinery has thick coatings of sugary grease. But still the milling goes on around the clock.


Occupational health and safety? What’s that? You walk along the gantries past all the moving parts (keep your hands in your pockets), churning pistons, massive wheels, grinding teeth of giant cogs, while everyone else is walking around with bare feet. No wonder they have to have big selamatans with slaughtered buffalo, reyog dancers and other offerings (I refer everybody to the article by John Pemberton in the festschrift for Ben Anderson if they want to read more on that subject).


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