Mute no more

Indonesia's greatest novelist reflects on his nation's upcoming election and on the crimes of his archenemy, Suharto.

Published June 4, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

On an October night in 1965, soldiers took acclaimed Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer from his home, bound his hands behind his back, tied a noose around his neck and threw him into the back of a truck. When he asked them to save his vast archive of historical materials from the angry mob that was burning his books, a soldier struck him on the head with a rifle. The blow left him almost completely deaf.

It was the first of many brutal acts against the novelist, historian and tireless critic of Indonesia's rulers. He was to spend the next 14 years in jail or on the penal colony on Buru Island, a grim camp for political prisoners under the New Order regime of President Suharto. After his release, his books were banned, and he remained restricted to the city of Jakarta until Suharto fell in May 1998. This spring, for the first time in 40 years, the 74-year-old writer left Indonesia to promote his new book, "The Mute's Soliloquy" (Hyperion).

"The Mute's Soliloquy" is a loose autobiography woven together from letters and essays Pramoedya wrote secretly on Buru; he never expected them to survive, but a Catholic priest smuggled them out. The book is an extraordinary mixture of advice to his children, wrenching self-examination and testimony of his time on Buru, a place of shifting, petty rules, grinding labor and indifference to life. "I saw my friends killed by soldiers just for fun," Pramoedya told me in Jakarta earlier this year.

Once he was allowed to write, however, "It was like a flood being released." He turned out a steady stream of books and plays, including his masterwork, "The Buru Quartet," which began as a tale narrated in daily installments to his fellow prisoners. The four books it comprises are extraordinary meditations on culture, colonialism and national identity, but they are also pungent, melodramatic novels filled with turmoil and romance. Their challenge to Suharto lay in their withering examination of both the Javanese feudalism and the colonial structures of surveillance and control that had provided models for his rule. Published after Pramoedya's release from Buru in 1979, they were banned as Marxist, their editor jailed and the Australian diplomat who translated them into English thrown out of the country.

On Monday, Indonesia holds its first real elections since 1955, with 48 parties fighting for seats in a parliament that will choose the next president. While the press is once again free and political activity is legal, the nation has been struck by ethnic and religious violence that has left hundreds dead. Mobs have burned mosques and churches, and ethnic Chinese, the main victims of the May riots, continue to flee the country. East Timor will be allowed to vote on independence, but already a civil war is brewing there, stirred up with arms and encouragement from the Indonesian military.

I spoke to Pramoedya in Berkeley, Calif., just after he came back from UCSF Medical Center, where he was fitted with hearing aids; his hearing was suddenly better than it had been since 1965.

You haven't left Indonesia in 40 years. What does it feel like to travel again after all this time?

I consider it a personal victory in the face of the fascism and militarism of my own country. And yet my victory is actually riding on the coattails of the struggle of Indonesia's young people and the students.

What has struck you most about America?

The general life, the public life -- where people of all races and ethnicities live together in peace, at least compared with what is going on in my own country right now -- is what I find most touching.

In "The Mute's Soliloquy," you are very open about what you see as your faults -- your relationship with your father, your divorce, your sense of failure as a father to your eight children. What was their reaction to this work?

I have lived a solitary life from the time I was a child, so I feel as though I have never really had a relationship with my children. To this day they have never told me how they reacted. I've never asked them about it.

In the West, whenever your name is mentioned, the words "Nobel Prize" come up. What do you think about that sort of expectation?

As I've said many times in response to such questions, not just about the Nobel Prize but about other prizes as well, I'd always rather get a prize that be on the receiving end of repression.

Will you vote on Monday?


Why not?

If I were to participate under these conditions, I would just be choosing my own prison warden.

Why is that?

The elections are being held by the same New Order, with the same New Order bureaucracy, with the same New Order military, with the same money and the same parties.

So what has changed since Suharto stepped down?

There has been no basic change. The main force in Indonesia is the military. It is an extension of the Dutch East India Company, [which existed] even before the colonial state and it is practicing the same things as the military of the colonial state -- for example, exporting terror into the areas outside Java.

There is some threat that Indonesia may fall apart. Do you think it will?

The problem again lies with the army. Indonesia lies under the force of the army. This means that Indonesia is not seen as the maritime nation that it is. With the army in charge instead of a navy, the waters between the islands are seen as barriers. The sea has become a barrier separating one island from another, whereas if Indonesia were seen as a maritime nation, the sea would be seen as a means of communication. So long as the army mentality dominates, each island will be separate, and if the army continues in power then there is little hope in the future for Indonesia as a nation.

How can the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia protect themselves?

There are two problems. [One is that] the Chinese Indonesians don't have an association; they lack solidarity and they don't have a spokesman for their cause. The other is that over the years the government has used them as a scapegoats to cover up its own weaknesses. I've told them that they should create organizations and find a spokesman; this will enable them to withstand the efforts of the government to use them as scapegoats. Today we are beginning to see the formation of such associations.

The government has signed an agreement with Portugal on East Timor. Will the military let East Timor go?

The Indonesian army needs a target for all the weapons that they have accumulated from abroad. East Timor should be free to do what they feel they need to do. Indonesia should simply let them go. But the army has been using them for target practice. The irony of the situation is that Indonesia is a nation that fought against foreign occupation, but it became an occupying force. And this is again because of the army.

How do you think history will judge Suharto?

That's easy. History will judge Suharto as a criminal -- for his crimes against humanity, for the massacres of the people, for the deprivation of their rights without trial, for all the killings that he perpetrated. Every human being has the right to bring charges against Suharto for his crimes against humanity. His whole rule was a huge lie against humanity. Compared to this, all the other crimes -- like corruption -- are petty crimes.

How can Indonesia overcome the legacies of Suharto's rule?

There are two possibilities. The first is to support the young people in the reform movement. The second is a social revolution. If the young people are not supported, then there will be a revolution, and Indonesia will be wiped off the face of the earth.

Amien Rais, Megawati Sukarnoputri and Abdurrahman Wahid are all presenting themselves as democratic replacements for Suharto. What do you think of them?

None of these people have been tested by history. The only national leader that Indonesia has produced is Sukarno. Since then Indonesia has not produced a national leader, and that is a great pity.

Does Indonesia, a nation of 210 million people, need a great leader, or can it find a political system that doesn't depend on the forceful vision of one person?

It is possible, but up to now it hasn't happened.

Why not?

There has been, from the beginning, a major flaw in the concept of the nation as one people, whereas in reality Indonesia consists of many different ethnicities. These are not simply little minorities but nations in themselves, peoples in themselves with their own cultures. The idea of one people has eliminated the notion of these ethnicities having their own systems. This is where the flaw lies. There has never been an Indonesian people. There is just an Indonesian nation.

By Robert Templer

Robert Templer teaches at the University of California at Berkeley. His "Shadows and Wind: A View of Modern Vietnam" will be published by Putnam Penguin in September.

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