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Manoa 12.1 (2000) 38-44

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Silenced Voices, Muted Expressions: Indonesian Literature Today

John H. McGlynn

In Indonesia, silence often speaks louder than words. A generalization, perhaps, but the fact is that, despite the impression one might have gained from Western media reports of the violent demonstrations and armed conflicts of the past several years, Indonesians are not particularly outspoken. Inscrutable, reticent, polite, repressed, perhaps. But however Indonesians might be characterized, the effect is the same: in their daily lives, most go out of their way to avoid conflict. This characteristic also shows up in the way they approach writing. And when you mix natural reticence with strict censorship and repression--not only by government authorities, but also by religious leaders and various special-interest groups--the result is a population nearly mute, or at least one whose voices seem remarkably (and even maddeningly) monotonal. You have a nation of silenced voices and muted expressions.

Unfortunately, even today--after the fall of Suharto in 1998 and the more "liberal" administration of his successor, President B. J. Habibie, who came to power amid nationwide demands for reform (or reformasi, as student leaders called it)--tolerance of differing viewpoints is far from having been achieved.

To understand why this is so, one must recognize that censorship in Indonesia did not begin in 1965 with Suharto's so-called New Order--nor with Suharto's predecessor (the Sukarno government also imposed brutal constraints on freedom of expression). Indonesia's history of suppressed speech began far back in the country's feudal past and continued in the sixteenth century, when the first European colonialists arrived.

In a conversation in February 1998, the well-known author and former political prisoner Pramoedya Ananta Toer spoke about the relationship between the Dutch colonizers and the Indonesians. He called Dutch treatment of Indonesian political prisoners "enlightened" in comparison to the treatment meted out by Suharto's New Order. "The Dutch must have been awful teachers," he added, "or the Indonesians were idiotic students." In learning how to create humane conditions in prisons, Indonesians may [End Page 38] have been very poor "students" indeed. But one could argue that some Indonesians--those who gained control over the country's legal, military, and educational systems in 1949, after independence--were excellent students when it came to learning from the deposed colonial rulers how to undermine mass political and social movements, especially when the goals of those movements involved freedom of speech.

Indonesia's Dutch rulers had established a set of laws called the Haatzai artikelen (Hate articles). Under the pretext of keeping activists and politicians from "sowing hate" among the local population, these articles were used not only to justify government surveillance of political activities, but also to monitor and control virtually all intellectual life in the colonized region. Under the articles, anything could be printed or published, but the authorities reserved the right to sue, imprison, exile, and even execute any person associated with publications deemed to be a danger to public order. When Indonesia gained independence, the "hate articles" were simply reformulated in Indonesian guise, and the tradition of repressive censorship was perpetuated.

The Dutch scholar Henk Maier, in a lengthy article on censorship, points out the role of Indonesia's founding father, President Sukarno, in suppressing freedom of speech. Sukarno's infamous presidential decree known as PP. NO. 4/1963 requires publishers to submit copies of all books to their local prosecutor's office within forty-eight hours of publication. The Attorney General is thus vested with broad powers to criminalize the writing and publication of certain books and to seize all copies of works adjudged by him as "capable of disturbing public order" and having "a negative influence on efforts to achieve the goals of the Indonesian revolution."

In practice, this decree authorized the Attorney General to ferret out any writing that appears to oppose Indonesia's national ideology, constitution, laws, and social norms, or that has the potential to disrupt the nation's political, economic, and social structures. Examples of such material include writings that contain Marxist, Leninist...


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