Subject: Economist on Book Banning: SBY's New New Order?
The Economist [UK]
January 21, 2009
The books of slaughter and forgetting
Why Indonesia's book bans should not be shrugged off
THE past, even in Indonesia, is a foreign country: they did things differently there. The downfall in 1998 of the 32-year Suharto “New Order” regime seemed to mark the border as clearly as would a checkpoint and a queue for immigration. This side of the boundary, Indonesia enjoys liberties, a raucous free-for-all of competing ideas and the luxury of democratic choice. On the other side lurked repression, rigged elections, stifled opinions and a long list of banned books. So it is odd and not a little disturbing, in this last respect, to find the freely elected government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono not doing things differently at all. In December the attorney-general’s office banned five books. The government is looking at proscribing a further 20, which might, it frets, prove a threat to “national unity”.
If this is continuity, it is also an attempt to disguise it. Most of the books in question are histories; guidebooks to parts of that foreign country which the government still wants to keep out of bounds. One tackles the mysterious atrocities that still haunt Indonesia: the massacre of hundreds of thousands of alleged communists and others as Suharto consolidated his power in 1965-66. Few horrors have been so unexamined. In Cambodia a flawed judicial process is at last asking questions about the Khmer Rouge terror from 1975-78. Even in China the show-trial of the Gang of Four served to hold a few responsible for the crimes of the many in the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). But in the villages of Java and Bali people still live side- by-side with their parents’ murderers or their families. And the torrent of bloodshed in which they were bereaved has never been officially acknowledged, let alone subjected to a truth-and- reconciliation commission.
Back in 1998 the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia’s greatest novelist, a prison-camp veteran who was by then a deaf and cantankerous but still eloquent old man, enjoyed a moment of untypical optimism. At last, he believed, the truth about 1965 would come out. He dismissed the usual guess of up to 500,000 deaths, claiming there had been 2m. Now that Suharto had gone, there was no reason the truth had to lie buried with the many dead. Today Pramoedya’s books, at least, are unbanned. But had he lived, he would be raging against the incompleteness of reformasi (“reformation”) and the resilience of censorship.
Nor is 1965 the only forbidden territory. Also banned (censors do not do irony) is a book called “Lekra Doesn’t Burn Books”, a reference to a leftist cultural institute, very influential in the early 1960s, to which Pramoedya belonged and which was later demonised by the Suharto regime. Another banned volume covers Indonesia’s controversial annexation of Papua in 1969.
An Australian film has also been banned. “Balibo” presents the story of the deaths of five Australian journalists during the 1975 invasion of East Timor. The film is flawed as a work of history. José Ramos- Horta, president of what is now Timor-Leste, jokingly grumbled to the director that the actor playing him as a young firebrand was not handsome enough. He can have had few other complaints about his portrayal. But its basic plot is the one Australia’s courts have decided is true: that the five were murdered by Indonesian soldiers.
Few Indonesians have much time for Australian efforts to dig up this bit of their country’s past. And some argue that the fuss the usual civil-libertarian suspects have made over the book bans misses the point. Far from sliding back to the authoritarian ways of the past, Indonesia now has arguably the freest and most vibrant press in South- East Asia. “Law number 4”, passed in 1963 to sanction fierce censorship, was lifted for the press in 1999.
So, though books, pamphlets and posters remain under the censor’s thumb, newspapers and magazines have proliferated. They report the latest political intrigues involving Mr Yudhoyono with little restraint. The attorney-general’s office is reportedly also mulling a ban on a book claiming campaign-finance violations by the president last year. But as soon as this became known hawkers started flogging pirated versions across Jakarta. Indonesia has more than 30m Indonesian internet-users, with access to every fact, theory and guess about their country’s recent past. The censors’ argument—the one used by their peers everywhere—is that the banned works might divide the nation and lead to bloodshed. That does not hold water, for censorship no longer works.
By the same token, it does not seem to matter overmuch that censors try to keep a couple of fingers in the information dyke. The attempt to suppress recent history, however, does have two serious consequences. One is that the same mistakes keep being made: not because they are forgotten, but because there is little public exploration of other options. So the blunders Indonesia’s occupying soldiers made in East Timor—the dependence on torture, the co-option of unreliable local thugs, the closing-off of the region and refusal to discuss it with foreign countries—have been repeated elsewhere, in Aceh and now Papua.
SBY’s new New Order?
Second, and more fundamentally, the book bans hint at the identity crisis suffered by the Indonesian political elite. The Yudhoyono regime is rightly proud of its other democratic and liberal credentials. But it is not willing to declare a complete break with the past. The president himself is a New Order general who served in East Timor. Both the main opposing presidential tickets in last year’s election featured another Suharto-era general (each with a murkier reputation). It is easy to understand why they are unwilling to confront the past. But until they have—and have repudiated parts of it— Indonesia’s democratic transformation will always seem provisional, and the past not so much a foreign country as the place where its leaders still live.