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Manoa 12.1 (2000) 169-182

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An Activist in New York

Ayu Utami

[New York, 7 May 1994]

Dear Yasmin,

Well, here I am, finally, in New York. I landed at Kennedy on the afternoon of the 3rd. The day was wet, cold, windy, and strangely empty. All I'd ever wanted from the States was to see the maple trees in October. The brilliant scarlet of the maple leaves is supposed to be glorious. But I'll have to wait a full six months for autumn. What a shame.

I encountered no problems with customs at the airport, but I was on a domestic flight, having already entered the country through Los Angeles. All the customs officers in L.A. had bullying looks and seemed extremely suspicious. I suppose that's the kind of face that superpower countries must show all new arrivals who want in. (And it seemed to me, for the first few days, that every time I went to the market, the cashiers were checking my money to see if it was counterfeit.) Even though there was a long queue, the customs officers kept on opening people's bags. When I saw a person of color taken off to a special interrogation room, that put the wind up me. I have to confess that the sight of anyone in authority is still enough to fill me with dread. I always assume that such a person is there not to preserve the peace but to disrupt it. You yourself once said something similar: that even the sight of a traffic cop makes you anxious. My sense of unease was heightened by my having not so much departed Indonesia as escaped it. I wouldn't have found it amusing if U.S. Customs had deported me because of some administrative red tape.

Ferouz, my Bangladeshi friend from Human Rights Watch, was at the airport to pick me up. We went straight to the HRW office at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. HRW shares the third floor with a few other organizations with similar concerns: human rights, democracy, freedom of the press--all just ordinary problems in third-world countries. Despite HRW's sincere concern about these problems, its office seems so remote--an entire world away. I can't imagine how the people who work there--having never experienced such problems themselves--can have a feel for what is happening so far away. Can they really believe it possible that a young woman like Marsinah might be brutally beaten and left to die for [End Page 169] having the audacity to question the fairness of her wages? Can they imagine how they would feel about the police investigation that followed her murder and that resulted in innocent people being tortured until they falsely confessed--thereby enabling the real murderer to get off scot-free?

At the same time, people in the HRW office might also have an exaggerated notion of the effectiveness of an oppressive system like the one in Indonesia; they don't seem to realize, for example, that it's not all that difficult to obtain the books of Pramoedya Ananta Toer and other banned authors. Or that you can throw a small party for your friends in jail--or give them a laptop computer or cell phone!

I don't see Indonesia as you do, as a machine of oppression. Instead, I envisage the country as swirling with unpredictability, a place where the law oscillates like a pendulum. At one end of the pendulum's arc, there seems to be complete inefficiency. In the middle, there's straight-out law enforcement. And at the other end of the arc are all the excesses--the overstepping of the mark. In such a system, there's no such thing as receiving equal treatment regardless of who you are. At the same time, how you are treated depends on the situation.

The authorities have the power to buy or manipulate anyone. Sometimes people like you and me can bargain with them; at other times we're just the playthings of overzealous...


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