In his first lecture on Indonesian soil after being banished for 26 years,
Benedict Anderson spoke about the bewildered expression on the faces of his
Indonesian students over the years at Cornell University whenever he asked them
"who in Indonesia today do you admire and look up to?"
Anderson regards the inability of his young Indonesian students to name their
national heroes as a terrifying indictment of a deformed political culture,
dominated in recent years by monsters such as Suharto, Murdani and Wiranto.
However, the same question posed to young Americans or Australians would have
elicited a similar response. In the media of both countries, Indonesia has been
a regular source of bad news. This is not entirely surprising, given the
brutality and corruption of the Suharto dictatorship and the occupation of East
But why have we not heard about the inspiring and courageous dissenters who, at
great personal risk, resisted the New Order regime and everything that it stood
for? Why did they remain anonymous when their counterparts in Eastern Europe -
the ‘refuseniks’ – were so publicly lauded in the West? The answers to these
questions tell us much about our own diplomatic culture.
While Alexander Solzhenitsyn was feted in the West for his personal indictment
of Stalin’s gulags, Indonesia’s Pramoedya Ananta Toer never appeared on the
radar screens of Western political elites. The author of the acclaimed Buru
Quartet and The Mute’s Soliloquy, which recounts his horrific experiences while
incarcerated on Buru Island from 1969 to 1979, wasn’t the kind of political
prisoner that interested Washington or Canberra during the Cold War – he was a
man of the left.
No-one who has read Pramoedya’s memoirs would be under any misapprehensions
about the true nature of the Suharto regime, which probably explains why his
books never found their way onto the shelves of the Jakarta lobby in Australia:
for them, Suharto’s crimes were always a case of see no evil, hear no evil and
speak no evil.
Similarly, Carmel Budiardjo’s detention without trial (1968-71) and her efforts
to free her fellow political prisoners, detailed in Surviving Indonesia’s Gulag,
was unlikely to be reviewed by those promoting the closest possible relationship
between Canberra and the dictatorship in Jakarta.
Budiardjo also founded TAPOL to campaign on behalf of Indonesia’s prisoners of
conscience, remarkably an organisation and a cause almost unknown in Australia
and the US. Given his predilection for quoting the number of human rights
representations he made while Australia’s foreign minister, it would be
interesting to know how many Gareth Evans made on behalf of tapols (Indonesian
political prisoners) during his term. One suspects not many, and possibly none.
There are hundreds of others with even lower profiles, such as the elderly
sisters who run the Research Institute for Victims of the ’65-’66 Killings
outside Jakarta while under constant harassment and the threat of attack. They
work quietly with extraordinary courage to account for the crimes of their
country’s leaders. These remarkable people deserve the support of Australia and
the United States, but are unlikely to ever receive it.
Pramoedya, Budiardjo, Colonel Abdul Latief and thousands more were not only the
victims of a cruel and sadistic regime, they shared another unfortunate fate.
They had the misfortune to be the political prisoners of a government
ideologically allied to the West. By definition they became invisible.
Suharto was not only anti-communist, he was also admired in Australia for
bringing "stability" to the region. According to Opposition leader Kim
Beazley, "Australians pay far too little attention to the value … of the
stability" which he "brought to the Indonesian archipelago" -
without detailing just what was being "stabilised" there, such as
political repression, the denial of basic human rights, endemic corruption,
sadistic cruelty, torture and mass murder. Over 32 years Suharto’s
"stability" took a minimum of 800,000 lives and possibly as many as 2
million in both Indonesia proper and East Timor, a record as vile as Pol Pot’s
and infinitely worse than Saddam’s or Milosevic’s.
A reckoning is due, if not immediately. An editorial in The Jakarta Post last
April puts this and Suharto’s forthcoming corruption trial in their proper
"If the goal is to show that justice will be upheld in this country, then
surely corruption, as bad as it is, is the least sinful misdeed that Suharto
committed during his 32 years of tyrannical rule. What about the atrocities,
from the summary executions of suspected communists to the killing of people in
East Timor, Irian Jaya, Aceh and Tanjung Priok? If the government wants to show
that justice and the rule of law prevail in this country, then these and other
heinous crimes committed during his reign should be the reasons for the
prosecution of Suharto. Not corruption."
Even if former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam still believes that
"[former] President Suharto is a reasonable and honourable man" and
the foreign editor of The Australian thinks that "in human rights there is
a case for Suharto" (Greg Sheridan), a growing number of courageous
Indonesians are no longer frightened of speaking and confronting the truth. They
are the real heroes of their country. To find them, however, our leaders will
need to stop consorting with "the elite…that implemented fascism and ran
the country by terror" (Pramoedya Ananta Toer) and focus their attention on
those Indonesians struggling against enormous odds to restore pride and honour
to their country.
Lecturer in International Relations
School of Australian and International Studies
221 Burwood Highway
Burwood Victoria 3125