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Manoa 12.1 (2000) vii-xi

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Editor's Note

Twice a year, Manoa gathers significant new writing from throughout Oceania, Asia, and the Americas and highlights a particular country or region. Silenced Voices features prose and poetry of Indonesia, a country in dynamic transition from dictatorship and censorship to democracy and free expression.

Following 400 years of colonial rule and then occupation by the Japanese army during World War ii, Indonesia gained its independence in 1945. Now the fourth most populous country in the world, Indonesia is home to more than 200 million citizens distributed across 17,000 islands extending in an archipelago from the Indian Ocean, at the southern tip of Southeast Asia, to Irian Jaya, on the island shared with Papua New Guinea, in the Pacific Ocean. Indonesians comprise hundreds of ethnic groups, practice all the world's major religions, and speak over 600 languages and dialects. Building a unified nation from such diversity has been challenging, especially because of the political turmoil throughout the region after World War ii--followed by a bitter and violent Cold War in which superpowers vied for regional and global dominance. Unfortunately, national unity in Indonesia has been maintained over the past several decades largely through severe restrictions on freedom of expression.

As we go to press with Silenced Voices, East Timor's struggle for independence from Indonesia has been all but resolved; and although outbursts of sectarian violence continue, the bloody riots that scarred many of the nation's cities in the late 1990s have ended. In 1999, after decades of authoritarian rule--first under Sukarno and then under Suharto--Indonesia held its first freely contested national election, putting into office a president and vice-president who appear to represent diverse political and religious views.

The situation is far from stable, however. Indonesia faces, for example, additional independence movements in the provinces of Aceh and Irian Jaya. And, just as important, the government has yet to investigate openly and fairly the brutal treatment of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians between 1965 and 1967 and in the years that followed--particularly under Suharto's rule. These abuses included the kidnapping, imprisonment, and [End Page vii] [Begin Page ix] killing of labor, political, human-rights, and other activists. Examples of these injustices, and how they were abetted through draconian restrictions on freedom of speech, are described here by some of the writers who suffered as a result of them.

Since the 1999 presidential election, many of the extralegal regulations that were used to silence Indonesia's writers and ordinary citizens have been lifted. Nonetheless, under existing law the government retains the power to arbitrarily arrest authors, ban books, and censor the media. While everyone is hopeful that reform will continue, censorship is still an issue during this period of transformation. Indeed, censorship is deeply ingrained in Indonesian society, according to dissident author Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who spent a substantial part of his life as a political prisoner and who, for years after his release, had to report weekly to military authorities. This condition is partly a result of cultural attitudes, such as the Javanese principle of tepo selero (knowing one's place)--and partly, Pramoedya explains, because censorship of various kinds has been institutionalized for so long.

Goenawan Mohamad, one of Indonesia's foremost writers and thinkers, makes the further point that, in a country with so many languages and dialects, the national language and its literature have been "used by nationalists as a tool" to create loyalty to an official, monolithic version of the truth. In an attempt to unify and calm the populace, the national language, Indonesian, has been stripped down and impoverished. But, Goenawan asserts, "in the Third World at least, every significant piece of literature represents a former wound," and that is why a nation's language must be allowed the "carnival of expression" necessary to record the full range of human emotion and experience.

Selected for Manoa by John H. McGlynn, the Indonesian writers presented here are from various provinces, backgrounds, and generations. They are united by their resistance to...


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