What’s Wrong with Contemporary Indonesia?

Mar 05, 2012
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An old leftist looks back at his career in politics, and at the state of Indonesia today.

1213 Harsono Sutedjo was detained and imprisoned by the Dutch for his activities in the leftist organisation, and by the Japanese for his involvement in the underground resistance to Japanese rule.Between 1965 and 1968 half a million Indonesians were killed by the military and civilian vigilantes and hundreds of thousands imprisoned without trial. The purpose of this violence was to eliminate the Indonesian left which had wanted to introduce socialism to Indonesia. The repression targeted not only members of the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) and affiliated organisations, but also Sukarno supporters from the Indonesian Nationalist Party and the military.

It is thus hard to generalise about the political views of the broad spectrum of people targeted in this violence, including those who survived the killings or imprisonment. Nevertheless, asking the survivors to reflect on the state of contemporary Indonesia is one way we can gauge what was lost from Indonesia’s political life with the destruction of the left, and to look for continuities between earlier and contemporary periods of political struggle. In this article I explore the opinions of one former political prisoner about contemporary Indonesia in order to assess what is left of the Indonesian left.

A life in politics

Harsutejo (Harsono Sutedjo) was born in the late 1930s in Wlingi East Java. His mother was an illiterate farmer who managed an aunt’s rice farm. Although she remained illiterate for life she always stressed the importance of education to Harsutejo. His father was a sugar factory employee who frequently challenged his Dutch boss. He was detained and imprisoned by the Dutch for his activities in the leftist organisation, Sarekat Rakyat (People’s Association) and by the Japanese for his involvement in the underground resistance to Japanese rule. On the second occasion, he was dragged from the bedroom in their family home, stripped naked and kicked in front of the family. The violence of this arrest triggered in Harsutejo feelings of revenge towards colonialists, but also a rejection of violent methods.

When the Japanese period (1942-45) ended his father was released and joined the struggle against the Dutch. Many important figures in the independence struggle (1945-1949) visited Harsutejo’s house when he was a young boy. He was surrounded by talk of politics. When his father was pursued by the Dutch, the family fled to the mountains and lived with another family. Harsutejo worked as a courier for the revolution and witnessed much violence during this period.

In 1953, Harsutejo joined his first organisation, IPPI (Indonesian High School Students and Youth Association). Although IPPI discussed some national issues such as the struggle for the ‘return’ of Western New Guinea (now known as Papua) to Indonesia, his participation in IPPI focused on cultural activities. In 1957, he joined Pemuda Rakyat (People’s Youth), a youth organisation affiliated with the PKI. He continued to be involved in cultural productions like poetry reading, choirs and ensembles as a means of promoting the organisation.

Harsutedjo read widely as a child and he was the only member of his family to complete a university degree. When he began his degree in cultural history at Airlangga University in Malang he joined the student organisation CGMI (Indonesian Student Movement Centre). Again he was involved in cultural activities, but also in protests against the Dutch refusal to surrender the territory of Western New Guinea to the Republic. He recalls being part of a crowd that surrounded a Dutch school in Malang and told the students and staff to go home. By the late 1950s, the Indonesian government had nationalised all Dutch assets and also began to expel Dutch nationals. CGMI activists protested against the Vietnam War and against nuclear weapons. They connected Indonesian struggles to those in similar countries at the time.

After graduating and becoming a lecturer at Airlangga, Harsutedjo joined HSI (Indonesian Graduates’ Association). Like the other organisations he had joined, it opposed imperialism and feudalism and promoted socialism as the best political system. One of their greatest concerns was that Indonesia would become ‘just a puppet state to be used by others’. By the mid-1960s, as President Sukarno leaned increasingly to the left, Harsutedjo recalls that most radicals were convinced that Indonesia would become socialist, or at least implement an Indonesian form of socialism.

Harsutejo was conscious of challenges from conservative groups to all the left-aligned organisations he joined. Yet ‘we felt a sense of strength and that the government was on our side’. Like many other members of mass organisations, Harsutejo was unprepared for the violent assault following the Thirtieth September Movement event. He stated that ‘no-one imagined it would be so bad.’ In his view, they should have been better prepared for such an attack.

Harsutejo was arrested in Malang in 1965 and imprisoned for six months. He fled to Surabaya and then Jakarta so as to avoid the pernicious monitoring the Suharto regime imposed on former political prisoners. After assuming a new identity and cutting all family ties, Harsutedjo worked in a foreign bank for two decades.

Staying steady

In an interview in Bekasi I asked if and in what sense he considered himself representative of the Indonesian left. He responded that he defined himself as a leftist in that he was ‘anti- establishment, anti-feudal, anti-capitalist and anti-bureaucratic’. In short, he is for the people and opposes anything that does not support the people’s interests.

He stated that his basic political views had not changed throughout his life, but he now believed that the way to communicate these ideas should be more moderate. ‘I am probably different to others who think that socialism can be implemented just as we learned in the past. In the Soviet Union it failed. Suryono a former journalist for Harian Rakyat (People’s Daily) said in the Soviet Union the communist party ran the country, but he did not meet one communist.’

Harsutedjo began to have hesitations about the Soviet Union as a model for Indonesia in the 1950s, when he learnt about the violent repression in Poland and Hungary. As for China as model he noted, ‘In the People’s Republic they said they would build communism, they have developed a lot but in the end there is a big gap between the rich and the poor.’

Reflecting on the Indonesian left in the 1960s Harsutejo comments that ‘our methods were too extreme, our language was too strong, it had no nuance. We conceptualised things in black and white’. In this rare critique from a former activist, Harsutejo recalls the dogmatic nature of politics in the mid 1960s as those of the left called for a ‘retooling’ of people who were not sufficiently anti-imperialist or anti-feudalist.