Serious threats to modern state and society

Serious threats to modern state and society
The Jakarta Post

Olle Törnquist , 16 Feb. 2010

Only a year after the two most comprehensive Indonesian democracy surveys, an update is needed.

The final report by activist researchers supported by academicians at the Yogyakarta-based Gadjah Mada University and myself pointed to some deterioration of the remarkably improved quality of elections, freedoms and human rights (

Yet, the 900 senior pro-democracy informants around the country who answered to the more than 300 questions insisted that the basic problem remained miserable popular representation, because this is the only way to fight the abuse of power and the poor rule of law in a democratic way.

Recently, however, there have been so serious threats against the freedom of speech in particular that many observers wonder if Indonesia is about to slide back from its basic achievements.

The major enemy of those who now ban books seems to be history. Obviously several actors fear that the official story of the transition from the old to the new order in 1965-1966 and the killings of some 500.000 or more people would be challenged.

After 12 years of reformasi, one would have imagined that both the winners and the losers would be less hesitant to reveal the truth — to thus reconcile in joint prevention of similar catastrophes in the future.

Especially one would have expected that the liberal democrats and their supporters in the West would compensate for not having tried to stop the genocide. But the main recipe seems to be the imposition of collective amnesia.

Most seriously however, one of the books that were banned late last year because they might “disturb public order” is a major scientific text, Dr. John Roosa’s Pretext for Mass Murder.

The September 30th Movement and Soeharto’s Coup D’état in Indonesia (University of Wisconsin Press; in Indonesian by the Indonesian Social History Institute).

Hence it is not “only” the freedom of speech that is at stake but also academic rights and principles.

Even if the reader does not care about presumptuous academicians, the practice of granting scholars freedom to develop as objective as possible knowledge and to judge what is valid and reliable information is among the pillars of the modern state and society as compared to the mediaeval religious and political lords as well as relics of the past like the Soeharto regime.

In a state and society like Indonesia that wishes to promote both modernity and democracy, it is thus a self-contradiction if the authorities begin to judge again whether or not a scientific work is good or bad.

Rather, it is for the authorities
to read and learn and if necessary prevent people from fighting if they get angry about the truth.
That is what we have judges and police for.

So let us simply assume that the major leaders subscribe to the fundamentals of a modern democratic state and society (or they may clarify what they think it is wrong with it) and meanwhile go ahead with our job of judging the quality of Roosa’s book in accordance with academic principles.

Maybe I am excused if I begin. My only merits are, firstly, that I spent the 1970s and 1980s to write a PhD dissertation on why the politics and strategy of the PKI backfired and then compared with India and the Philippines, and, secondly, that I examined Roosa’s book for the prestigious International Review of Social History (Vol 52:2, 2007). But certainly other learned colleagues will correct me if I am wrong.

Roosa’s historical detective work is based on extensive and often new sources. In a commendably balanced and non-partisan way, he concludes on the one hand that the PKI leader was secretly involved in the kidnapping of the leading generals, to disclose their cooperation with the United States and to give the Left an upper hand.

This is quite against what many radical historians have suggested. On the other hand it is also clear from Roosa’s sources and analyses that neither the members of the party nor the related mass movements were involved or even informed of these manipulative actions.

Moreover, Soeharto and his associates made the killings of the generals (and the false story about women having mutilated their bodies) into the pretext for instigating the mass murder and for getting into full power. This is in sharp contrast to the official Indonesian history.

Based on a critical reading of the book, my conclusion is that Roosa’s analysis is the best study hitherto of who organized the 30th of September Movement, why it failed and how it could lead to mass killings and the overthrow of president Sukarno. In order to get a more comprehensive understanding, it is certainly necessary to add results from other scholars.

One example is my own writings about the problems of the communist mass based politics when the party had given up democracy — which made it logical for a few leaders to engage in secret actions.

Another example is the results by colleagues who have written about the role of the USA, the hesitation of the Indonesian liberals to prevent the killings and much more.

This is not a problem for Roosa because he must focus on a specific task to generate new knowledge.

But it is a challenge for colleagues who engage in comprehensive and comparative analysis and for journalists or filmmakers who must summarize the wider picture.

In conclusion democratic Indonesian leaders may wish to stand up in defense for the freedom and right of academic work both because it is important as such and because as reliable as possible information is fundamental for the modern democratic state and society that I trust they are in favour of.

In fact, such a signal would also be crucial for those who try to promote international cooperation on research and education on the basis of academic principles but may now have become confused.