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In Search of Indonesia

An Autobiography by Sukarno,

as told to Cindy Adams
Bobbs-Merrill, 324 pp., $6.00

An Introduction to Indonesian Historiography

edited by Soedjatmoko, Mohammad Ali, G.J. Resnik and G. McT. Kahin
Cornell, 612 pp., $9.75

It has become ever more evident since last autumn just how unknown a country Indonesia is. For many years, practically all political analysis of the Indonesian scene has centered on the delicate balance between the inexorably mounting power of the Communist Party under Aidit and the army which was itself gradually being infiltrated under the uncertain leadership of Nasution. Between these two shifting forces an ailing Sukarno was poised. On September 30, an unknown lieutenant colonel of Sukarno’s personal guard named Untung (“untung” means “destiny”) allegedly tried to prevent a Putsch of “the generals” by taking power himself and butchering a number of military commanders, but he failed to kill them all and was himself crushed by the survivors. This “episode of our Revolution,” as Sukarno called it, resulted in the wholesale massacre of the Communist leaders and at least a hundred thousand, and perhaps as many as half a million, of their followers by elite divisions of the army and militant Moslems. Since then, many things, all highly contradictory, have happened, and nobody has yet been able to explain the September 30 “Gestapu” coup which has brought down the whole fictitious structure of Sukarno’s state philosophy and balance of power.

Even if it was something more than a particularly unfortunate incident in the incessant palace intrigues which President Sukarno kept going among his crown princes and the various army factions, it certainly was not the Communist uprising it was afterwards supposed to be. The “mightiest Communist party outside the Communist world” apparently had not even time to take sides in the scramble, and the “Communist masses” came into the picture only to be slaughtered. With them, the sounding board of President Sukarno’s fiery speeches and slogans has disappeared; the complicated court rituals surrounding the angry Great Leader of the Revolution have become dull and empty, and although they sound the same the revolutionary war cries, insofar as they ever meant anything at all beyond excitement for its own sake, now mean the opposite of what they seem to be saying. Gone are Aidit, Nasakom, the Peking-Djakarta axis, the Mecca of the New Emerging Forces; embassies and consulates are still burned down but they are different ones from those of a year or two ago; and as the romance of the Indonesian Revolution marches on, the revolutionary legitimacy of Bung Karno is slowly being overshadowed by the much older Javanese legitimacy of Sultan Hamengku Buwono IX.

ANALYSIS HAS TO START afresh in a fog where the accustomed points of reference have vanished. Developments of this kind are usually unlucky for political books written just a few months ago and published when the situation they analyze has been overturned. Writing on contemporary politics is risky for an author, because he must stop just at the edge of the uncertain future but he cannot avoid trying to evaluate its prospects. Furthermore, with the present long delays of printing, his book is usually published when this future has already become the past. Unjustly but inevitably, he runs the risk of being judged more for his foresight than for his insight: How far does he help us to understand present events as the outcome of the past situations and developments that he analyzes?

Arnold C. Brackman’s Indonesian Communism, first published in 1963, casts anxious glances into the future, and in its introductory and concluding parts even utters strong warnings and recommendations. But the body of the book is a scholarly history of the oldest Communist Party in Asia. During almost half of the forty-three-year-old history of the Party the author has been a close observer of the Indonesian scene and a student of its history, from Dutch rule, through Japanese occupation, to Sukarno’s Guided Democracy. For its wealth of material and observations alone, his book is an invaluable contribution to our knowledge of the ideological strains and upheavals on the noisy surface of this synthetic “new nation” of a hundred million people. But Brackman rarely goes beneath the surface of agitation and sloganeering, and, as a result, we never begin to understand what sort of Communists were these many thousands of Balinese who were massacred last autumn, and what beliefs they died for. This is probably the main reason why this excellent and well-documented book leaves us wondering how such an enormous movement standing on the threshhold of power, with three million card-carrying members and more than ten million followers in its disciplined trade and peasant unions and front organizations, could be swallowed by the earth without managing to raise its voice. It is true that the party has survived several earlier disasters (though none of such dimensions), and may rise again by means of the economic and social disorders left by ten years of Sukarnoism. On the other hand, it has identified itself with these disorders to the point of becoming the scapegoat for all Indonesia’s ills. Mr. Brackman shows immense learning and perspicacity in trying to unravel the turbulent forty-year history of party intrigue and personal rivalries, agitation and ideology, the explanation of which must be speculative at best: the organization, the strategy, or the personalities rarely seem to make sense. The history of the small, faction-torn, but adventurous and exuberant, beginnings of the party, with its recurrent splits between “revolutionary romantics” and apparatchiks, “Stalinists” and “Trotskyite” national Communists clearly comes off better in Brackman’s book, and, with all its confusions, is more enlightening than the dull success story of the mass movement built up by Aidit in the 1950s after the disaster of the “Madium rebellion.” Significantly, the heretics of the early period, under the leadership of the erratic prophet-philosopher Tan Malaka, have had far greater impact on Indonesia’s political intelligentsia than the intellectually more primitive party leaders themselves. Aidit’s movement, on the other hand, looked like an enormous octopus ready to swallow all Indonesia, but the octopus had no bones—did it even have a mind?

MR. BRACKMAN HAS READ all available party documents, manifestos, and public speeches, and he has tried to analyze and classify them according to revolutionary strategy and tactics, “Rightist,” “Leftists,” and “Centrist,” “Khrushchevist,” and “Maoist” party lines or intelligible trends. But in spite of his careful analysis “the Peking faction, loyal to both Moscow and Aidit,” does not make much sense, nor do statements like this one:

Aidit described guided democracy as “antimilitary dictatorship of the individual and antiliberalism.” Therefore, he contended, those who rejected Sukarno’s plan were “antinational and proliberal, i.e., promilitary and pro-individual dictatorship.” (p. 255)

Ideological bahasa Indonesia, at any rate, is not easy to translate; combined with pseudo-Marxist jargon, it is virtually untranslatable. Perhaps the author has invested too much in the interpretation of this sort of logomachy which we can consider to be awfully clever or utterly meaningless. He certainly takes slogans rather too seriously when he links a belated discovery that Indonesia’s “millions of fishermen” were a target for Communist propaganda in a party pamphlet of 1959, to the build-up of the Indonesian war fleet in 1961-62 by the Russians, as parts of a Communist maritime world strategy of “enormous implications.”

For all too long a time, Western and Eastern observers have been so fascinated by the specter of Indonesian Communism that they have almost lost sight of Indonesia. Brackman’s study has been followed by two other scholarly books, both about the Communist party of Indonesia: one by Donald Hindley1 covers the 1951-63 period of spectacular growth; the other by J.M. Vander Kroef2 on its history, program, and tactics. Both deal most seriously with the subject, but one might well feel that they have been too serious about the Communists and not serious enough about the specifically Indonesian characteristics of Aidit’s party, which was one of the characters in the Javanese shadow play manipulated by the “Great Leader of the Indonesian Revolution.” This aspect of royal patronage seems to have been rather embarrassing for international experts on Indonesian Communism, because it fits so badly into the picture of a Marxist-Leninist party. For ten years this mass movement thrived and flourished under the protection of President Sukarno, who built it up and amplified it as the chosen instrument of his maneuvering and blackmailing. It was a party that was never allowed access to the inner circle of power, but was always available to mobilize those outbursts of popular enthusiasm or popular wrath which were indispensable to enforcing his power and politics. And if, rather shamefully for a revolutionary organization, the party finally fell into the trap of a shady palace intrigue, it was because its leaders were so frightened by the rumors and prophecies concerning Sukarno’s imminent physical decay. The day Sukarno could not or dared not hold his protecting hand over the party, its power proved almost as fictitious as so many other emanations of the Great Leader’s creative spirit. On this day, too, Sukarno’s personal power was doomed. The Communists? “Always they have been behind Sukarno,” the President says in his Autobiography. “Would the West suggest I kill them off while at the same time fanatical rightwingers are trying to kill me?”

THIS IS ONE of the more matter-of-fact quotations from Sukarno’s Autobiography “as told to Cindy Adams.” No matter how much we like or dislike Bung Karno, it is a delightful book, personal, direct, lively, and reckless. Though it is Sukarno tempered by Cindy Adams for an American public to whom Indonesia’s President wishes to convey his anger and frustrated love, there is enough of Sukarno’s political artistry and mystical eclecticism, histrionics, sentimentality, vanity, and subtle self-irony to bring this glamorous personality to life. His self-portrait is in the book’s opening sentences: “The simplest way to describe Sukarno is to say that he is a great lover. He loves his country, he loves his people, he loves women, he loves art, and best of all, he loves himself.” And how this pan-erotism extends to international affairs can best be understood in this remarkable passage:

If there is an out-and-out question as to who began the name-calling between Sukarno and Washington, then I guess I have to admit it was Sukarno. But, look here, Sukarno is a shouter. He is emotional. If he is angry, he shoots thunderbolts. But he thunders only at those he loves. I would adore to make up with the United States of America. I once even made love with a girl who had hurt my feelings. To me there’s nothing particular in that. And the situations seem identical in my mind [p. 300].

American political scientists have sadly neglected this love-affair aspect of international relations, which applies not only to Sukarno and not even exclusively to “Oriental potentates.” As an account of the emotional background of a political career, Sukarno’s narrative is outspoken, and, in its personal way, sincere, about political friends and foes, about Dutch girls and how they get fat, or about foreign statesmen (his verbatim record of his conversation with President Eisenhower, p. 277, is one of the book’s treasures). Sincerity, especially with such a great actor, is not necessarily historical truth, though Sukarno makes heroic attempts at it. But his book is the authentic version of his past life as he sees it, in a halo of glory, from the height of his own apotheosis. From such a perspective, General Imamura, Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese occupation forces in Indonesia (1942-45), for example, was just “a baby in my hands.” With Independence, the coherence of the narrative stops altogether, since from then on Indonesia is clay in the hands of this sculptor of his nation, an amorphous mass containing human material that is animated only by his inspiration. In contrast to the well-told and often moving story of his youth and his early career as a nationalist agitator, the second part of the autobiography, which describes Sukarno as a statesman, though it is colorful, is decidedly rationalized ad usum Delphini, and should be supplemented by a collection of his speeches to the nation in full text. These are the landmarks of his dazzling statesmanship, and show Sukarno not “as told to Cindy Adams,” but as told to his own people: Nothing but the original can convey these Babylonian high-decibel uproar of these mystagogic state rituals by which, until recently, Indonesia was ruled. Disintoxication, if it now comes, will be long and painful.

A MEMBER of Sukarno’s inner palace circle told the Australian writer Maslyn Williams: “Sukarno is the great Darlan,3 and we are all characters in his Wayang, his shadow play. We have no existence beyond that which he imagines for us. He directs our actions, speaks for us, conjures up demons for us to fight, shows us visions of glory hardly understood.” It is the inevitable conclusion of one who traveled in Indonesia less than a year ago, though Maslyn Williams, as a liberal Australian, was determined not to believe it when he started out on his good-neighbor pilgrimage. So unknown indeed is present-day Indonesia—with the exception of the Hotel Indonesia and such places—that William’s account of Five Journeys from Jakarta to some of the less inaccessible places (Makassar, Palembang, Jogjakarta-Surakarta, and Bali) ending with an exit through Wamena-Sukarnapura in West Irian, reads like a nineteenth-century report of explorations in Tibet and Timbuktu. It is a good report, unbiased, sympathetic, and without political preconceptions. Mr. Williams does not try to judge (in fact, tries not to judge) or even to systematize his contradictory impressions and experiences. He has brought to his task not only a practical knowledge of the country and language and a strong will to understand and to like its lovable and urbane people, but also the bad conscience that becomes a Westerner, and that minimum of gullibility which a guest owes his hosts. If he nevertheless ends in exasperation and bewilderment, this is not due to any lack of good will, but to the omnipresence of the deafening and obsessional pseudoideological claptrap of Sukarnoism.

THE COMPLEMENTARY historical myths of 350 years of Dutch oppression and the thousands of years of a flourishing civilization and imperial splendor preceding the invasion of the Western barbarians are at the bottom of most contemporary Indonesian (and, mutatis mutandis, “Third World”) thinking; and both—especially the first—are generally taken for granted as well by Western visitors, writers, aid administrators, and missionaries, from Maslyn Williams to Ambassador Jones (who persuaded Miss Adam to put together Sukarno’s Autobiography). Far from providing an understanding of Indonesian history, these myths are nothing but the familiar myths of official European “colonial history” in reverse, simply interchanging positive and negative signs, and thus perpetuating past obsessions. A reëxamination of these historical assumptions may appear to be a remote preoccupation, and few people engaged or interested in current political affairs will pay much attention to it; but if vociferation is ever to give way to dialogue, understanding the historical background is a basic problem. This is not the place to discuss at length the collective Introduction to Indonesian Historiography which interested historians have been awaiting for several years. The final publication of this work is in itself an astounding achievement of international team work in the midst of tensions and wars. The material and moral difficulties of bringing together these contributions of twenty-two leading Indonesian, Dutch, American, English, and French scholars can hardly be imagined. As an introduction not to Indonesian history but to the sources and methods of its study this work is scholarly to the point of being esoteric. Its primary usefulness to the nonspecialist is perhaps to demonstrate how frail and hypothetical are all present reconstructions of the Indonesian past, and how scanty and controversial the materials on which they are based. For the first time, the new and often widely divergent approaches attempted by scholars in different countries among which communications had virtually come to an end, are confronted in one common debate and made accessible to an international public. Most of G. J. Resink’s work, for example, is dispersed and almost buried in Indonesian and Dutch papers: In the present volume, his carefully established chronological map of the slow extension of Dutch control, which reached large parts of the archipelago only in the twentieth century (and West Irian only some years before the Japanese invasion) will come as a surprise to most readers. His discussion of the survival of Indonesian states under Dutch supremacy takes us up to 1945 and to the present Sultan of Jogjakarta.

But the bulk of these studies deals with pre-colonial history, and one of the main points of discussion is the provocative conclusion drawn by the Dutch scholar C. C. Berg from a lifetime’s work on Javanese court chronicles and inscriptions (which form most of the existing source material on precolonial Indonesian history). In sum Berg’s thesis is as follows (although this is a crude oversimplification): The Javanese chronicles are not historical records, but magic texts. What they contain are not historical data, but patterns of belief and of reinterpretation of beliefs which we may suspect to have occurred in relation to historical events (such as usurpations or changes of dynasty) and their priestly authors were not concerned with reporting these events but with explaining them away by superimposing on them parabolic stories in accordance with the sacred rules of mythology and cosmic order. To read them as chronicles of events is to take a complex of myths for history. The concrete discussion of this thesis, as far as Javanese history is concerned, is a matter for highly specialized scrutiny of very difficult texts in old scripts and languages which only a handful of scholars are able to read, and on which even these disagree.

SIGNIFICANTLY, the main argument against Berg’s thesis is that it is so discouraging for historians. It might also be discouraging for political analysts, for, though in different degrees, every representation of the past, and even of the present, is a complex of myths. Though the exercise may seem frivolous to political scientists, it would be tempting to apply Berg’s thesis to such recent events as last year’s largely mythical “Gestapu” Putsch, attributed to a mythical figure called Untung (“destiny”), which brought about a reinterpretation of beliefs—i.e., a change of the meaning of the symbols and formulas without changing the formulas themselves: “Nekolim” (Neo-Colonialism-Imperialism) now meaning Red China instead of Britain and the U.S.A., “counter-revolution” now meaning the Communists, and “crush Malaysia” meaning a ritual morning prayer. The reinterpretation of these beliefs is apparent enough, although the event that brought it about is not. But so long as the magic formulas themselves are unchanged, the cosmic order is preserved.

Berg’s warning that historical texts (priestly chronicles or utterances of statesman or political manifestos) should not be taken for their literal meaning, and can never be translated directly into other language patterns, but must be understood as having a magic function within their own language pattern of allegories, myths, and symbols, cannot be taken too seriously by students of the contemporary international scene. Even between the closely related cultures of the West, some of the most current terms of English or American political discourse (like “leadership” or “partnership”) cannot be translated into French, and where the words are the same (like “integration” or “sovereignty”) the difference of meaning is even more dangerous because it generally goes unnoticed. From Indonesian (or, say, Vietnamese) to English, the case becomes desperate, and even more desperate when Sukarno (or the Venerable Thich Tri Quang) uses Western word-concepts in oriental contexts. A good dictionary of international misunderstanding is perhaps the most urgently needed instrument of modern diplomacy, but its difficulties are overwhelming. As a fullscale introductory exercise, even in retrospect, a learned philological edition of President Sukarno’s great Independence Day speeches for the past ten years, with notes and glossary by scholars in Indonesian and international mythology, would be an enormous service to the international community. Probably never has one single man so powerfully and encyclopedically manipulated the whole mass of slogans, catch-words, ideologisms, and magic formulas of East, West, North, South, past and present. Now the stage management is changing behind the screen and perhaps the present thorough bankruptcy will be followed by a sharp spell of realism. The Indonesian leaders urgently need an investment of fresh money from some wealthy Western “imperialist” friends, and they will, accordingly, elaborate a new mixture of formulas and myths which will offer rich new opportunities for benevolent misunderstandings, and even for good relations based on such misunderstandings. But postnasakom Indonesia will still be a fascinating world for the political philologist.

  1. 1

    The Communist Party of Indonesia, 1951-63, University of California Press

  2. 2

    Indonesia in the Modern World, University of British Columbia (Vancouver), 1965

  3. 3

    Williams means the dalang, the halfpriestly wayang player who handles the puppets, tells the story, speaks the dialogues, and interprets the wisdom of these night-long shadow plays which enshrine all the treasures of Javanese tradition, culture, and philosophy.

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