Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Old Bastard Died in Bed

The careful reader of my occasional musings will note two normally unconnected facts: I don't think much of state sanctioned murder and I hold a doctorate in Indonesian Studies. These items are curiously connected this week in what ought to be the unmourned death of the worst of the third world tyrants, Suharto.

I should note, sarcastically, that he is actually Haji Muhammad Suharto, so named by the Saudi king after he performed the hajj some time before he finally fell from power. So named, he immediately reverted to the decidedly more Javanese mono-moniker, Suharto. Occasionally Soeharto for the hopelessly archaic. The Muhammad part was never mentioned again so far as I know.

I won't rehash the history. I thought that the New York Times obit was balanced and factual. It quoted Benedict Anderson, doyen of Indonesian Studies in the U.S., who was a persistent and principled critic. I'll try to find an online copy of the famous Cornell Paper on the events of 1965 by Anderson and Ruth McVey [see bottom of this post for an update.] Until then, I will note here that I met the great scholar only once at the time of the devolution of our department at Cal into a bitter tenure-driven feud ... Anderson knew nothing about it ... again, some time I will have to write obliquely about how graduate students should never be trusted.

Onward, onward .... Suharto ...

I have only ever been in Suharto's Indonesia; I have not returned since he fell. I was last there in 1995. It often felt like a light-handed dictatorship on the level of everyday life. It was not the always visible totalitarianism of the Khmer Rouge or the quaking fear state of the wicked Burmese generals or Saddam. But it was without doubt the bloodiest regime in the history of the de-colonialized third world. Suharto is personally responsible easily for a million, perhaps two million, deaths. His rise to power in the events following September 30, 1965 ... which the Indonesians refer to as Gestapu, an acronym for Gerakan September Tiga Puluh ... was the occasion of no less than half a million deaths over a year and a half. Benedict Anderson, in a well-known 1978 letter to the New York Review of Books (available only by subscription) quotes a CIA report:

In terms of the numbers killed, the anti-PKI massacres in Indonesia rank as one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century, along with the Soviet purges of the 1930s, the Nazi mass murders during the Second World War, and the Maoist bloodbath of the early 1950s. In this regard, the Indonesian coup is certainly one of the most significant events of the twentieth century, far more significant than many other events that have received much more publicity.

It has long been thought to be one of the CIA's greatest accomplishments, for it halted a popular Communism in one of the largest country's in the world with hardly anyone noticing. This iconic piece by Peter Dale Scott gives the broad lines.

Indonesia, the forgotten giant. And today's Indonesians seem to be willing to forget their own history.

But my purpose here was to reflect a little on Suharto not as the monster that he was but in terms of how I encountered his rule when I was a student wandering around Indonesia. I have two stories:

Wrong Way on Jalan Cendana

I was staying with my great friend DH who had taken a job with a Singaporan financial house in Jakarta. He lived in Kebun Kacang, a nice middle class part of town, quite central and very liveable. But he had taken up the idea that he ought to find a place in Menteng, the tonier part of town, much more central, generally described as leafy by reason of the trees. Suharto had always lived in his old house in Menteng on Jalan Cendana (for the fastidious, Jalan = street, and the 'c' is pronounced 'ch'). I believe that it is the house he was living in when the generals were seized on September 30, 1965, but I will have to confirm that and modify this.

So one evening, DH had this 20-something Indonesian friend who worked in real estate to show us around Menteng in DH's car. A pleasant evening ... and Jakarta is always more pleasant in the evening than by day when it is dusty and hot and sticky and uncompromisingly not-very-pretty ... looping around the curving streets of Menteng, whose madness reflects not the Indonesian sense of order but rather the Dutch sense of the quaint which is what invented this swamp as the Indonesian capital. We came to what I assume now was a five-way corner (again I will check on a map to see if that is true) ... DH at the helm ... ooops, wrong way down a one way street. Now DH, for all his brilliance and wit and courage, was not the world's most punctilious driver, and it turned out that the street he chose to barrel down wrong-wise was the one block in the entire archipelago where lived Presiden Suharto.

Jalan Cendana. Quiet, leafy, seemingly occupied only by a few warung, the ubiquitous Indonesian itinerant food stands. But these warung were manned by unusually buff and young peddlers, and they seemed to have rather few customers. Before we were half way down the block, from nowhere, soldiers appeared to pull us over. Within a moment, there was a large truck in front of us, its open bed occupied by a phalanx of rifle-toting soldiers.

My memories of the details are a little foggy, and no doubt DH will correct a few details. I was in the back seat. An officer came to the driver side window (they drive on the wrong side of the road in Indonesia), and asked what we were doing. The entire conversation was in Indonesian; I lurked throughout in the back seat not saying a word, and not indicating that I understood anything of what was going on. Soon enough, they hustled our Indonesian friend away ... he was evidently terrified ... and the officer slid into the driver's seat and off we went with the lorry full of rifleman following close behind. We drove around as DH and the officer more or less nakedly negotiated the bribe. I think DH was quite peeved because he had, by reason of living in Jakarta, paid plenty of bribes to assorted traffic cops and what not, and I think he saw no reason why this obvious little error couldn't be settled quite quickly in the usual fashion.

But the officer evidently wanted to know just where on the totem pole we sat. I figured that too high would mean no bribe, or maybe just a tip, as it were. Too low would limit the total take possibility. But we were right in the middle ... obviously no good could come of actually arresting us since then the bribe would have to pass to someone higher up. At the same point, mere convenience would dictate that we would be willing to pay considerably more than we would pay to some cop in a roundabout who wanted a little palm greasing.

Twice we circled past the local police station, slowed down, then moved on. Finally, as we returned to Jalan Cendana, DH just up and tossed Rp100,000 (Rp = rupiah) at the guy, and that did the trick. I believe that the rupiah at that point was around 1600 to the dollar. I was aghast at DH's arguably obnoxious behavior toward the guy, but on reflection it was apparent that that was part of establishing the relative position on the totem pole ... too obsequious might have got our "fine" doubled, too aggressive might have got us arrested.

We sat there for a while after the officer got out, and eventually our young Indonesian friend returned, and off we went. Our friend had had quite enough. He told us that they had grilled him about DH and me, but he made it eminently clear that he wanted to go home. I do not believe that he and DH had further commerce.

Certain Books

Again, my details are a bit fuzzy here, and I will amend this piece as I figure things out. I had spent a summer in Malang, East Java at an advanced Indonesian language institute. Malang is a pleasant highland town ... if you have followed recent history, between Malang and Surabaya, Indonesia's second largest city, is the location of the great mud upwelling caused by a gas drilling project gone awry.

After a sweet summer in Malang, I returned to Jakarta's unbearable thickness and, among other things, set out to get copies of the banned books by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the Buru Quartet, so named after the prison island in the eastern part of the archipelago where he was imprisoned after 1965 until 1979. I knew the name of the publishing house, Hasta Mitra; it published other stuff, but Pramoedya's works were banned. I found the address in the phone book, and proceeded there. It was located in a monstrous and famous shopping center ... half modern concrete prison-like construction, half ancient trading bazaar. He was on the top floor, above the three or four stories of warren-like shops. I had to go a couple of times because no one was ever there.

I finally met a man whom I remember as Hasjim Rachman, and I told him I wanted "buku-buku yang terkenal" (certain well-known books). He replied in English, "You mean Pramoedya." Well, yes! We had a chat in Indoninggris, the fashionable dual-language version of Indonesian and English practiced by Indonesian cognoscenti and semi-fluent foreigners alike. And he took my address and told me that someone would come at such and such a time. Right on the dot, a young man who turned out to be his son arrived at my cheap, even seedy, hotel room with all the banned books that I requested and a few extras. They charged me through the nose, notwithstanding that I had honestly portrayed myself as a starving student. Indonesia may have been a cheap place to travel, but I was always on a tight budget.

And I had my books and my vicarious dance with the dictator who is now, at last, safely dead.

The photo is one of very few from the terrible events after September 30, 1965, well-known among those who have followed the history. The sight of the boy in the white shorts and the hell that followed scant moments after the shutter snapped has haunted me for decades. I post it here that it might haunt you too.

Curiously, Cornell continues to attempt to elicit $13.95 for the Cornell Paper. What are they thinking? It's 2008, and this is part of the scholarly conversation. Let it go, folks, let it go.

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