Learning about Indonesian language, history, society and culture

Month: July, 2012

Mochtar Lubis, Twilight in Jakarta and Indonesian Communism

The depiction of communism in Mochtar Lubis’ Twilight in Jakarta sheds light on elites’ fears during the Cold War.

I’ve been reading Twilight in Jakarta, probably Mochtar Lubis’ best known novel. The first Indonesian novel to be translated into English, it is rich in its social and political commentary on Indonesia in the 1950s. Amongst much else it tackles corruption, the plight of the urban poor, the problems of the party system, as well as regional, religious and social tensions.

The story of its publication is also interwoven with Indonesian politics. Having been arrested then held without trial in 1956, Mochtar Lubis began work on the novel in late 1958 whilst under house arrest. An English version was published in 1963 with the help of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an international cultural organisation which received funding (at the time unbeknownst to Mochtar Lubis) from the CIA. It was not until 1970 that an Indonesian version was published.[1]

Given the Cold War dimension of the circumstances surrounding the publication of Twilight in Jakarta, its depiction of communism takes on particular resonance.

Mochtar Lubis’ anticommunism comes through in telling exchanges between the communist Achmad and the Muslim reformer Murhalim. On the one hand communism is anti-democratic, standing against the values of independent thought and expression.

‘Brother Achmad has forgotten that human beings are not machines that can be ordered to become parts of a production system… [He] wants an economic system wholly controlled by the state, one hundred percent.  Such a totalitarian system must, of necessity, control the lives and thoughts of people, because without such absolute control and authority it would be impossible to attain what brother Achmad wishes for.’[2]

However, there is a more visceral fear, a fear that hung over the politics of Southeast Asia (and beyond) throughout the Cold War. This was the fear of manipulative communists unleashing the masses in destructive, explosive fashion. Thus Achmad explains to the Muslim reformer Murhalim, as they watch a communist-orchestrated mob demonstrate:

‘Look at that.’ He [Achmad] pointed at the crowd that kept moving forwards relentlessly, like a stream of lava blazing with heat, like some howling animal pawing the ground and filling the air with frightening noises. ‘Isn’t that,’ said Achmad, ‘a beautiful sight?… Listen to what they’re shouting – “The Little People Must Eat! The Little People Must Win! Down with the Capitalists!”

Murhalim steps in to prevent the ‘half-maddened mob’ ransacking a little food stall, only to have Achmad turn the ‘half-dazed and frenzied crowd’ crowd on him. The becak (trishaw) driver who kills Murhalim is in turn shot by a policeman.[3]

The descriptions of the crowd as animal-like, frenzied, half-mad stick in my mind. They speak to deep fears among political, military and intellectual elites that help explain the ferocity of the response to communism in Indonesia in the mid-1960s. The description is all the more significant for being written by someone who, as evident in Twilight in Jakarta, was able to empathise with the plight of the urban poor and was acutely aware of many of the failings of the political system as it existed.

The bitter irony was, despite this fear of an animalistic, maddened poor being manipulated by communists, the left itself was ultimately destroyed in the most violent manner, with the massacres and mass imprisonments of 1965-6. And the military-led ‘New Order’ built upon this bloody foundation would be no more democratic than the communist rule it claimed to have prevented.

[1] The circumstances surrounding the publication of Twilight in Jakarta are detailed in David Hill’s Biography of Mochtar Lubis, Journalism and Politics in Indonesia: A Critical Biography of Mochtar Lubis (1922-2004) as Editor and Author, pp. 76-8.

[2] Twilight in Jakarta, Mochtar Lubis (trans. Claire Holt), Oxford in Asia (1983 edition), p. 54.

[3] Twilight in Jakarta, pp. 238-45


Prabowo Subianto and the Rollercoaster of Indonesian Politics

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Despite his failure in the 2009 presidential election and his Suharto-era baggage, Prabowo Subianto is doing everything he can to ensure he is a genuine contender in the 2014 elections.

Interesting times for Prabowo Subianto, head of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) and former Indonesian special forces (Kopassus) commander. Following the failure of his 2009 bid for the presidency, he has continued to manoeuvre for position for the 2014 elections.

A key question for Prabowo is how far he can overcome his past associations with the Suharto regime and army units that were responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses in the latter stages of the military regime. Recently there have been calls from activists and elements in the press to further investigate the disappearance of activists in 1998, in which Prabowo was allegedly involved (Prabowo was dismissed from his command then the military after a military tribunal found him culpable for kidnappings during 1998). As someone who has ‘never denied that I am Suharto’s man’, he represents a link to some of the dark reaches of Indonesia’s recent past

Prabowo has made some efforts to overcome these challenges. He managed to gain the support of some of the activists kidnapped in 1998 (the reasons these activists came out in Prabowo’s support have been hotly contested). Moreover, in the Jakarta gubernatorial elections of this July, Prabowo has thrown his support behind Joko Jokowi Widodo and his running mate Basuki Tjahaja Purnama. This is particularly significant given that Basuki Tjahaja Purnama is ethnically Chinese Indonesian, whilst Prabowo has struggled to shake of allegations that he was involved in the incitement of rioting in 1998 that targeted the ethnic Chinese.

Prabowo is in a strange position. The race for the presidency is open one – president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono cannot stand beyond his current second term and the current crop of candidates is rather uninspiring (the Indonesian phrase itu-itu saja, or ‘the same old’ comes up often). Indeed in some polls he has come out as  the most popular of the major likely candidates. There is a long way to go and one survey found 60% of Indonesians had not yet made up their minds. Moreover, he is still vulnerable to accusations about past abuses. One survey found only about 30% were aware of his ejection from the military for his role in the aforementioned kidnappings.

Organisationally, Prabowo has run up against opposition but also sought new allies. His leadership style, exacerbated by tensions between civilian and military elements in the party, has encouraged some high-profile defections. Moreover, following Prabowo’s re-election as head of the Indonesian Farmers Association (HKTI), a rival grouping has formed an alternative leadership. On the other hand, Prabowo has gained support of ‘reformed’ gangster Hercules and his New Indonesian People’s Movement.

Add in a high profile international trade dispute indirectly involving Prabowo’s business interests and it seems there is are all manner of twists and turns possible before the next general elections.