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Rewriting Indonesian history

Recent talk by Laksmi Pamuntjak in Melbourne:

See images
<> of
Laksmi Pamuntjak's public lecture 'The Impossibility of History' (1 May
2008), download her notes
for the talk, or listen to the audio recording
of the event.

There's a lot on this coming week, with 100 years of Hari Kebangkitan Nasional. I'm off to Jakarta for part of the celebrations, I'll post my newspaper article on the subject letter


Visited the Museum Nasional (alias Museum Gajah) today, for the first time in a number of years. I started with the old section, which is currently being repainted (I see that the workmen have done a great job splashing white paint on many statues in the courtyard, for those not familiar with the Museum, these all date from the 10th to the 15th century, another case of 'Indonesia, who gives a stuff'!). The collection has always amazed me, and walking in I felt overwhelmed to see the four Borobudur statues just at the entrance.

Going through the old building I was struck by how many key pieces seem to have been moved (especially the rebab from the Puri Klungkung gambuh set, taken during the puputan of 1908), and was feeling a bit depressed about this until I went into the new section which has just been opened. What a revelation, in place of the clunky old colonial exhibition halls (which have a certain charm, but zero explanation for the uninitiated) there are four floors of bright new open space with really top class exhibitions on each. When I got to the top floor I was again bowled over, but this time to see what they had done to the treasures, which were now exhibited with a greater sense of their acquisition (a lovely section on the Puputan Klungkung, with the lovely gambuh flute and rebab, and names of the key kris and other weapons--Margaret Wiener please note).

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Just finished a workshop here in Yogya on 'alternative history', part of my Australian Research Council project. The workshop was made up of what they have called the 'third generation' of Indonesian historians, some might call it the post-Sartono or Reformasi generation. Abdul Syukur, whose paper included discussion of this category, pointed out that this ‘third generation’ includes a lot of practitioners outside the academy, and we had a good representation of them at the workshop: activists like Hilmar Farid, journalists like Maria Hartiningsih, and other media practitioners and those working on history in the media.
Syukur’s paper was one of the highlights of the workshop, he put the developments in historiography in their context, and made some sharp observations about the state of history. Hilmar Farid challenged the way Indonesian historians have stuck to the categories and frameworks of the New Order, in a very important paper. Bambang Purwanto, despite being hampered by a computer virus, delivered some fascinating insights into the changing nature of land ownership in the lead up to 1965. He produced an important argument about how the various local religious leaders had been reclassifying land to increase their holdings, which is a direct challenge to the conventional view of ‘kaum merah menjarah’. Asvi Warman Adam gave some insights into what it is like to be at the centre of historical controversy, in his account of the recent text-book bannings.
All the papers were exciting, so it is hard to pick out particular ones, although I enjoyed Bonnie Triyana’s lively account of the Purwodadi affair of 1968 and its international ramifications (again hampered by a Trojan Horse), and Razif’s comparative history of railways in Java and Sumatra. Interesting that a number of speakers pointed to Anton Lucas’s book on the Three Regions Affair as a methodologically exemplary work.


Back in Indonesia, where the taxi drivers have no change, everything is done to make life impossible for pedestrians, and nothing quite works. Could AusAid design a training program for Southeast Asian plumbers ("what's an S-bend?')? Big wrap to Singapore Airlines for the last-minute upgrade, if only Qantas had more leg room, Singaporean efficiency and a frequent flyers program that didn't off-load people to the budget carrier!


It struck me yesterday what an inspired move it was designing a research project that primarily involved hanging around bookshops, pity the project finishes so soon. It's interesting to see in the Yogya bookshops (the ubiquitous Gramedia, and the wonderful Social Agency) just how much the 'Javanese' sections have grown. One expects the large Islam sections, although they are getting more and more diverse, but there is obviously a strength of interest here in central Java in practices that might at best be called heterodox. Came across an excellent characterisation of self-classifications amongst Javanese Muslims from the north coast in Mudjahirin Thohir's book Orang Islam Jawa Pesisiran, which has a much more nuanced version of the old santri vs abangan dichotomy, and put in the context of political affiliation and long-term changes going on in Java. There is obviously a lot of good work being done by Indonesian Muslim scholars...


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Further to my earlier mention of the wonderfully-named Forum to Safeguard Pancasila and the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesian against the Threat of Neo-Communism, I've had a chance to look at a couple of the publications of the leading historian in the group, Dr Aminuddin Kasdi. He did his PhD at Gadjah Mada University, later published as a book on land-reform in East Java called Kaum Merah Menjarah, The Reds' Looting, no guesses what his position might be. Together with G. Ambar Wulan, listed as a PhD candidate at the University of Indonesia (and author of books published with military sponsorship, one of which is called The Latent Danger of Communism in Indonesia), Kasdi published G.30.S PKI/1965 Bedah Ceasar Dewan Revolusi Indonesia, The 30th September Communist Party Movement/1965, The Indonesian Revolutionary Council's Caesarian (and yes, Caesar is consistently misspelt as Ceasar throughout the book, not just on the cover). I'm not sure where the metaphor of this book is going, but it is a rehash of the New Order's account of the 1965 Coup.

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The Jakarta Post today shows that the book bannings issue continues. At the same time as a new anti-communist front has been formed in Tuban (the Friendship Forum to Safeguard Pancasila and the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia Against the Threat of Neo-Communism!), comes the following piece of silliness. The idea of banning illustrations of the Holocaust is particularly sinister:

Books on 'communism' seized

National News - Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Yemris Fointuna, The Jakarta Post, Kupang

The East Nusa Tenggara Prosecutor's Office on Monday confiscated hundreds of elementary and high school textbooks from bookstores in Kupang, as their contents were believed to have deviated from historical material on communist teachings.

There is concern that the books have been used as a guide for school history lessons.

Carlos de Fatima, acting intelligence assistant to the East Nusa Tenggara Prosecutors' Office, said the confiscation was executed under orders from the Attorney General's Office.

"Certain contents in the books are not in line with historical facts and others are in direct contradiction with (state ideology) Pancasila and the 1945 Constitution," Carlos said.

He explained that sections of the books cover the teachings of Karl Marx as well as the teachings of Lenin, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung and others.

"The books contain teachings which are not in line with Pancasila. Moreover, communism/Marxism-Leninism is linked to the G30S/PKI coup attempt," he said.

G30S/PKI refers to a failed coup attempt on Sept. 30, 1965, blamed on the now-banned Indonesian Communist Party.

Hundreds of the books confiscated by the prosecutor's office bore photos of former Soviet Union president Michael Gorbachev. Others contained articles or photos of the Holocaust committed by Nazi Germany.

"We are concerned that the books will psychologically affect the students," Carlos said.

"The confiscated books will be burned, while those already in public circulation will be withdrawn," he said, urging the public to voluntarily hand over the banned books.

I had the pleasure last Monday of launching Katharine McGregor's book, History in Uniform: Military Ideology and the Construction of Indonesian History (NUS Press, part of the ASAA Southeast Asian Publications Series). This book is probably the best account I've seen of the way that the New Order version of history was constructed. It is very well written, and one of its strengths is that it hones in on the architect of the military version of history, Nugroho Notosusanto, and shows the complexities of his various positions, as he moved from member of the Student Army in the Revolution, to 1950s short-story writer, to pro-military academic and eventually Rektor of UI and Minister of Education and Culture.

Kate's book leaves lots of room for debate, but she deals very deftly with both key issues in the construction of Indonesian historiography, and aspects of the politics of the New Order.


Indonesian newspapers have been running hot with the latest controversy over school history texts. In a move depressingly similar to the Suharto-era propagandising of history, legal action has been taken to withdraw new school text books and to overturn the 2004 school history curriculum. The reason: the new texts and curriculum do not stress the Madiun uprising of 1948 as a communist uprising, and do not use the term 'G30S-PKI' to refer to the 1965 Coup as being instigated by the Communist Party of Indonesia or PKI.

Teachers, university lecturers and curriculum designers have been struggling to get some kind of balanced understand of the events of Madiun and particularly the 1965 Coup into the school curriculum. Rather than introduce some kind of counter-propaganda, teachers and academics I have spoken to are merely attempting to show students that there are a number of different interpretations of these events, not simply the single New Order government version put out under Suharto (described in detail in Kate McGregor's new book, History in Uniform, and in her other work). The New Order version of Madiun has been particularly important for linking the military version of history with that of Islamic groups, so any challenge to that interpretation also challenges new political alliances and claims to legitimacy.

The move to squash the more open interpretation in favour of a return to fanatical anti-communism is another sign that the military and the Suharto supporters are still strong players in Indonesian politics. Word has it that 'Jalan Cendana' (ie the Suharto's) sponsored at least one of the many new histories of 1965 in order to reassert their role. This is a problem of having a negative basis for national ideology, and one that has been festering at least since 1989. If the New Order based its whole effort on opposition to communism, what happened once communism ceased to be relevant?

(As an aside, it is intriguing to see that the Western version of anti-communist ideology still lives: on TV last night we saw scenes of US anti-war demonstrators being abused from the side-lines by pro-war groups shouting 'communists' and equating communism with support for Al-Qaeda. But then the same linkages have been made more subtly by others, for example John Howard in his speech on the 50th anniversary of Quadrant magazine.)

It is a healthy sign for Indonesian democracy that many prominent historians, amongst them Sartono Kartodirdjo and Onghokham) have signed a petition against the recent bannings.


Just back from a short trip to Indonesia, where amongst other things I was able to continue my Australian Research Council-funded project on Indonesian historiography after Suharto. One of the most recent and important contributions to the debate is Bambang Purwanto's Gagalnya Historiografi Indonesiasentris? (Yogyakarta: Ombak, 2006). This is a collection of some of Bambang's earlier articles, in which he challenges the dominant line of Indonesian historiography in two ways. He challenges the 'social banditry' line of argument that is at the heart of Sartono's work (by amongst other things, pointing out that many of the bandits were in fact rich, an argument developed by Radin Fernando), and more importantly challenges the 'egocentric' and 'one-sided' nature of nationalist historiography in Indonesia.

Bambang's points are very important in terms of the recent impasse in Indonesian historiography. As part of my own research on this topic I have built up a data base of some 1,600+ books on history published since the fall of Suharto. Rough counts of topics show that 'nationalism' is still by far the largest topic, with over 700 books in that category. As might be expected from recent religious and social developments, 'Islam' comes in second with over 300 books (and many of these on 'dissenting' or indigenous forms of Islam), but almost equal to Islam is the number of books that can be categorised a social history. What is remarkable is that given this large amount of works on social history, no one study that gives an overall social history of Indonesia has yet been produced (and indeed this is also true of the works of Western historians of Indonesia). How strange that we are still writing old-fashioned political histories of 'great men' to explain the country.


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A series of notes and discussions about current research I am undertaking about Indonesia.

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