Learning about Indonesian language, history, society and culture

Tan Malaka – Read All About Him!

Tan Malaka BooksThe Tan Malaka publishing industry seems undeterred by a flare up in anticommunist rhetoric

It is now just over a month since this year’s anniversary of the 30th September Affair, an abortive coup attempt carried out in 1965, it seems, by a group of military officers working with the leader of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) via trusted intermediaries. (Precise responsibility for the event is still hotly contested, but the above summary very crudely reflects the important analysis carried out by John Roosa; the Indonesian version of his book on the Affair can be downloaded for free at his blog).

As often happens around this time of year, the anniversary has seen an uptick in anti-communist rhetoric, this time compounded by political manoeuvring. It peaked with an ugly scene that saw a violent crowd gather and surround the building of the Legal Aid Foundation, where an event was being held that was supposedly about the PKI. Tear gas and a water cannon were needed to clear the protesters.

Yet whilst the anti-communist posturing has been ramped up, one can still find books relating to communism in some book stores. In particular, the image taken here is a recent photo from  a popular book shop and shows a series of books by or about the revolutionary (and at one time leader of the PKI, although he later fell out with the party) Tan Malaka.

The presence of these books points to the complex position of Tan Malaka in Indonesian history. His early break with the PKI, and his premature death in 1949 meant that he was distanced from the most controversial events that have become totemic in Indonesian political discourse about Indonesian communism’s alleged treachery: the Madiun Affair of 1948 and the September 30th Affair mentioned above. Indeed Tan Malaka was made an official National Hero in 1963.

Yet even the factors mentioned above could not free him from the taint of communism under the ferociously anti-communist New Order military regime that emerged in the wake of the 30th September Affair, and he was effectively un-made a National Hero, being removed from the National Heroes Biography Book used in schools (this point is made by Asvi Warman Adam in his essay ‘History, Nationalism and Power’ in Vedi R. Hadiz & Daniel Dhakidae)(ed.), Social Science and Power in Indonesia).

Since the fall of the New Order, the situation has become more complex. Tan Malaka now has his place on the official website of the Heroes Centre (under the auspices of the wonderfully named Directorate of Heroism, Pathbreaking, Comradeship and Social Restoration).

This is not to say that Tan Malaka’s status is uncontroversial: there has been continued debate about how he should be viewed and whether he should be a National Hero. Indeed, in 2016 an show about Tan Malaka was cancelled following pressure from the easily angered Islamic Defenders Front. Yet, as my recent book shop visit shows, Tan Malaka’s voice cannot be silenced that easily.


‘…tell us anything, but tell us from Asia. Anything that helps opening up our view on the world.’

The above quote is from a blog post by Marieke Bloembergen on the website of the Royal Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV). The comment is part of a reflection on the recent celebrations to mark the opening of Leiden University’s new Asian Library. The post touches on issues of central importance for those studying the histories and societies of Asia: who gets to have their voices heard in conversations about Asia, what are their perspectives and what are the unstated implications of those viewpoints, and how are these intertwined with relations of power? Thought provoking.

An Authoritarian Chill

Just read a good piece from New Mandala about the authoritarian implications of a recent legal instrument issued requiring mass organisations to be in accordance with Pancasila, Indonesia’s vague state philosophy. So thought I would share the link.

Another Podcast of Interest: ‘New Books in Southeast Asian Studies’

Last year I posted about podcasts on Asian politics, but recently I have also been enjoying the New Books in Southeast Asian Studies podcast. As would be expected from the title, each episode takes the form of a discussion about a new book on some aspect of Southeast Asia, whether crime in Thailand, sport in Laos, political reform in Burma/Myanmar or Catholicism in Vietnam.

The ones that I have listened to so far consist of an interview with the author and last about an hour, allowing time for a reasonably in depth discussion around the book’s content an implications.

Plenty of food for thought here.

Coup d’État – A Practical Handbook

Reading about the political turmoil of mid twentieth century Indonesia I have been thinking about broader theoretical issues in relation to revolutions and military governments. In my reading I happened across Edward Luttwak’s Coup d’État – A Practical Handbook.

The preface makes quite a change from the average book on the military in politics:

This is a handbook… It can be compared to a cookery book in the sense that it aims at enabling any layman equipped with enthusiasm – and the right ingredients – to carry out his own coup; only a knowledge of the rules is required. Two words of caution: in the first place in order to carry out a successful coup certain pre-conditions must be present, just as in cooking bouillabaisse one needs the right sort of fish to start with. Secondly, readers should be aware that the penalty of failure is far greater than having to eat out of a tin. (The rewards, too, are greater.)


If you thought your viva was stressful, think again…

For a PhD student, the viva can elicit strong emotions.

A quick scan of online forums gives a taster, with one postgraduate student posting ‘I have my viva… and I feel physically sick’ and another that ‘I’m experiencing a really quite overwhelming fear over my PhD viva’.

However, if you are getting tense about your viva, spare a thought for Ali Sastroamijoyo. The future two time Prime Minister of Indonesia was, in the late 1920s, studying for a law degree in the Netherlands. He was also a political prisoner, having been arrested for activities related to his involvement in the Indonesia Association (Perhimpunan Indonesia). Yet this did not stop him sitting his oral examination. He describes the occasion in his memoirs, Milestones on My Journey: The Memoirs of Ali Sastroamijoyo, Indonesian Patriot and Political Leader.  The account is remarkable, bringing into stark relief the scholarly discussion of legal theory with the stark realities of colonial repression. Yet it is also remarkable for the impression that it gives, that the oral examination created an anxiety that seemed in some ways to exceed his concern about the prospect of a lengthy jail term:

On the morning of the examination I was taken to Leiden, accompanied by two members of the secret police, in a prison vehicle. When we arrived, the two guards and I went in through a back door into the basement of the university in Rapenburg, from where we went straight to the “sweating chamber”, a room near the examination room, where behind a green table the Faculty of Law professors who were concerned with “the Law of the Dutch East Indies” were already seated. All the professors who were at that time famous in Holland were there: Professor C. van Vollenhoven, Professor Hazeu, Professor Andre de la Porte, and Professor Scheltema. University examinations of this type were usually open to the interested public, who would be seated behind the candidate being examined. But in my case nobody was allowed to be present except for two secret police who were guarding me.

For approximately two hours I had to answer the questions put to me by the professors. I must explain here that from the questions and attitudes of the professors one could not even get the slightest indication that my status at that time was that of a political detainee. Their attitudes and actions were completely scholarly. This calmed me down a great deal and enabled me to concentrate completely on the examination. I forgot all about other things, I no longer felt even the watchful eyes of the two guards at my back. Without my being aware of it the examination passed quickly. I was asked to wait outside the examination room in order to give the professors an opportunity to make their decision. After a short wait, I was asked to come back in again, and the president of the faculty announced that I had passed and qualified for the degree of master of laws. I was filled with a feeling of relief, and full of sincerity I gave thanks to God. Now I would be able to concentrate more calmly on the accusations made against the four of us, and I felt as if I did not care whether I would be sentences to a number of years in prison as a result.

*That* Ahok Campaign Video – A Translation

Indonotes provides a translation of a recent viral video from Ahok’s campaign for Jakarta Governor

Its been all over social media, its been a source of controversy. Most of the controversy has been about the imagery employed.

Yet the words overlaying the video, from a speech by Djarot, Ahok’s running mate, bear repeating. There is little to be argued over here. Yet often the divisive election campaign has shown the importance, and the fragility of the sentiment they express:

My brothers and sisters
all the citizens of Jakarta.
The time is coming
to be part of history
and we will show that
the country of pancasila
is truly present in Jakarta.
We will also show
that ‘Though Many, We Are One’
is not just an empty phrase, but is grounded here in Jakarta.
Whoever you are
whatever your religion
whatever your ethnicity
wherever you come from
you are all
our brothers and sisters, of one people and one one homeland
and have the same rights and responsibilities.
Don’t ask where you come from.
Don’t ask what’s your religion.
But ask what have you done for Jakarta.

seluruh warga Jakarta.
Waktu sudah mulai mendekat.
Jadilah bagian
dari pelaku sejarah ini
dan akan kita tunjukkan bahwa
negara Pancasila benar-benar hadir di Jakarta.
Kita juga akan tunjukkan
bahwah Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, benar-benar
bukan hanya jargon, tapi sudah membumi di Jakarta.
Siapapun kalian
apa agama kalian
apa suku kalian
dari mana asal usul kalian
saudara saudara semua adalah
saudara kita sebangsa dan setanah air
dan mempunyai hak dan kewajiban yang sama.
Jangan tanyakan dari mana kau barasal.
Jangan tanyakan apa agamamu
tapi tanyakan apa yang telah kau perbuat untuk Jakarta.



The Disturbing Silences in Former CIA Director John O. Brennan’s Account of Visiting Indonesia in 1974

A former senior security official’s account of a visit to Indonesia elides dark episodes in the past of Indonesia and the United States

This year’s prestigious Richard Dimbleby Lecture was given by former CIA Director John O. Brennan. He used the lecture to argue for (amongst other things) the benefits of international co-operation and a globally-engaged United States.

However, it is not Brennan’s broad arguments that I want to look at here, but rather a specific vignette which he used to set up his case. During the lecture he gave a a brief biographical sketch, in which he suggested a visit to Indonesia during his time at university proved a turning point in his life – one that would ultimately set him on a path to his role at the CIA. The trip brought him into contact with a range of beliefs and worldviews and was struck by ‘the tolerance evident in the nation with the world’s largest Muslim population’ in a country recovering from the ‘authoritarian and bloody rule of President Sukarno’.

There are a couple of grains of truth here. Indonesia is certainly characterised by religious diversity and this is officially recognised (within certain limits) by the state. Moreover, Indonesia had taken an authoritarian turn in the latter part of Sukarno’s presidency (though in the earlier period Indonesia was a remarkable, if fragile, constitutional democracy).

Yet from Brennan’s account, one would have no idea that, less than ten years before Brennan’s visit, Indonesia had witnessed one of the great mass murders of the twentieth century, carried out under the auspices of the military regime that sidelined Sukarno, and with the support of the US government (among others). Moreover, in some areas religion played a significant role in the killings.

And this is not to mention Indonesia’s bloody invasion of East Timor that would occur the year after Brennan’s visit, with the blessing of the US and several close allies.

With this knowledge, the elisions evident in Brennan’s account (an excerpt from the speech is provided below) become quite chilling, and provide an ironic slant on the lecture’s title: ‘Staying Safe in a Dangerous World’.

‘The journey that led me to become the director of the CIA began in June 1974, when I set off on a trip that would fundamentally alter my life’s course. I had just finished my first year at college… a cousin of mine invited me to visit him in Indonesia. At the time my cousin was a diplomat at the US embassy in Jakarta, serving as the Food for Peace Officer at the US Agency for International Development. So, at the tender age of 18, I set of for Indonesia, after I pillaged my modest bank account, and bought a round-trip, but multiple-stop plane ticket to Jakarta. To help defray the cost of my trip, I convinced one of my political science professors at Fordham to grant me credit toward my degree if I wrote a paper on oil and politics in Indonesia. And most important, for two glorious months I had a brief, but oh so enlightening initial glimpse, into the wonders, the contours and the dynamics of our beautiful world. Indonesia was just emerging from the economic devastation wrought by nearly twenty years of the authoritarian and bloody rule of President Sukarno. Squalor was widespread and beyond anything I could have imagined. Splendour was a rarity, and there was almost nothing in between, and population pressures were overwhelming. But I was also struck by the tolerance evident in the nation with the world’s largest Muslim population. I rode motorcycles across the island of Java with an Indonesian Christian, I marvelled at the world’s largest Buddhist temple, the Borobodur, and I surfed on the beaches of the predominantly Hindu island of Bali. And it was in these latter excursions that I interacted with and talked to people with entirely different life experiences, different cultural norms, different religious beliefs and different world views. It was an intense two month seminar in just how special, how thrilling, and how diverse life is on our planet. It was in that summer of 1974 that my wanderlust and my deep fascination with the diversity, the scope and the dynamism of the world’s riches, challenges and opportunities were born.’

Stop Throwing Around the Label ‘the Donald Trump of…’


Calling other politicians ‘the Donald Trump of…’ obscures more than it clarifies

Since the election of Donald Trump, there has been a tendency in certain parts of the media to label anyone with the most superficial similarity with the US President as ‘the Donald Trump of…’. It has been used in the context of Europe, the Philippines, and Guatamala, to name but a few cases. Yesterday the BBC ran with a story Meet the Donald Trump of Indonesia about Indonesian businessman and politician Hary Tanoesoedibjo (often known in Indonesia as Hary Tanoe). This kind of analysis is really not helpful.

The point I am trying to make is not that Hary Tanoe has no connection to Trump. The BBC story details Hary Tanoe’s dealings with Trump, as a business partner and guest at Trump’s inauguration. A more nuanced story for the Financial Times points out certain parallels between the two men:

Both are aggressive dealmakers who express admiration for Russia’s Vladimir Putin; have run beauty pageants alongside their glamorous wives; and seek to marry business acumen with political power.

Yet this by no means makes Hary Tanoe ‘the Donald Trump of Indonesia’. An obvious difference is that Hary Tanoe is from an ethnic and religious minority, being Chinese-Indonesian and a Christian. There is a certain irony in likening him to Donald Trump given this given Trump’s history of discrimination against minority groups.

This points to another flaw in the BBC analysis, which describes Hary Tanoe as ‘known for his forthright and straightforward views’. Although outspoken in some regards, being a public figure from a minority background involves a challenging balancing act. Hary Tanoe’s visits to Islamic religious sites and establishments are well publicised, as are his links to the family of the late Abdurrahman Wahid, former President and leader of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation. He has also backed Anies Baswedan in the race for Jakarta governor. Anies Baswedan, formerly seen as a proponent of religious tolerance, has cosied up to the hardline Islamic group that has been at the forefront of an attempt to press blasphemy charges against the current governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (often known as Ahok), who is Chinese-Indonesian and Christian. Earlier Hari Tanoe had expressed support for the police announcing Ahok was a suspect in the blasphemy case.

The above goes to show that Hary Tanoe must be understood on his own terms, in a particular context. It is over 60 years since the historian (and former colonial official) DGE Hall argued for seeing Southeast Asia as ‘worthy of consideration in its own right’ (though as has been argued, Hall did not necessarily follow his own advice). It is a shame that the argument still needs to be made.

All this is not to say that the comparative study of populism is not valuable, if one fully engages with the methodological and conceptual challenges such an enquiry poses. But to just call someone else ‘the Donald Trump of…’ is lazy and unhelpful.



An Indonesian Muslim Response to Trump’s Divisive Approach to Islam

An esteemed Muslim academic warns that Trump’s attitude towards Islam may prove counterproductive

Professor Azyumardi Azra is the former rector of Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University Jakarta, a prolific author, and in 2010 was awarded a CBE by the British government for services to interfaith dialogue (to list just a few of his many achievements). So when he raises concerns about interfaith relations, it is wise to pay attention.

The below is a brief translated excerpt from his recent article in Republika, a major Islamic news website in Indonesia. This was written before Trump signed his executive order restricting entry to the US for refugees and citizens of certain Muslim-majority countries, but that order adds yet greater force to the argument:

The statements of President Trump from the campaigning period through to his inauguration speech seem to have rejected diversity…

It seems that Trump has not changed much since he was chosen as president. In his inauguration speech, it’s true Trump did not again mention ‘banning Muslims entering the US’. But he did put out statements that were no less confrontational, among others ‘[we] will unite the civilised world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.’

There is a big question mark over how Trump can unite the ‘civilised world’ with a confrontational manner and a hard approach. Various academic studies about eradicating terrorism have shown that a hard approach is not always effective in overcoming radicalism and terrorism – not only among Muslims, but also among followers of other religions.

But besides the above-mentioned problem, Trump’s confrontational and Islamophobic tone received condemnation from many moderate Islamic figures, both leaders and academics. Condemning Trump does not meaning that they ‘approve of’, let alone support, radicalism or terrorism. Simply put, Trump’s statements and approach may be very counter-productive in their efforts to overcome the problems of radicalism and terrorism. Conversely, tension, conflict and violence may find a new raison d’etre and momentum on a scale that is difficult to imagine.