New Internationalist

Hasta Mitra The Friendly Hand

Issue 116

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INDONESIA [image, unknown] When prisoners come home

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Hasta Mitra the friendly hand
To be an 'ex-tapol' (former political prisoner) can mean social ostracism, unemployment and political impotence. Against the odds, three 'ex-tapols' are beating the Suharto government's crackdown on free speech. An Indonesian friend of the Hastra Mitra book publishing company in Jakarta tells their story.

Hasjim Rachman and the book which frightens Suharto.
Hasjim Rachman and the book which frightens Suharto.

When Joesoef Isak, Hasjim Rachman and Pramoedya Ananta Toer were released after many years of political imprisonment, each had his identity card stamped with the letters El. They stand for ex-tapol and confer a special brand of Indonesian freedom’.

The carrier of an El identity card cannot leave his or her city or town without the permission of the local military commander; employers are extremely reluctant to hire ETs: ETs cannot become journalists: many thousands of ETs cannot vote. Those letters are akin to being branded with the Star of David in Hitler’s Germany.

Before he was jailed in 1965 after the overthrow of President Sukarno. Joesoef was chief editor of the daily newspaper Merdeka and secretary-general of the Asia-Africa Journalists Association. Released after 10 years. Joesoef was never brought to trial.

Hasjim and Pramoedya also were jailed in 1965. Pramoedya is Indonesia’s best-known twentieth-century author. Hasjim at the time of his arrest was director of the daily newspaper Binrang Ti,nu,: After four years in Jakarta they were transferred to the prison island of Buru where they spent 10 more years before being released: Neither was ever brought to trial.

All three. on their release, were forbidden to return to their former occupations. Like thousands of other intellectuals allowed back into society. Joesoef, Hasjim and Pramoe dya were faced with the prospect of surviving by their own devices.

Talking it over, these three ETs decided they would chance their hand at establishing a book-publishing company, knowing full well the barriers and restrictions they would face. Their trump card was Pramoedya’s international reputation. He is a man the world of literature has seen fit to recommend for a Nobel prize.

They decided to call their company Hasta Mitra. which in classical Javanese and Sanskrit means the friendly hand’. They made their bold move for several reasons: it would mean they did not have to rely on others for employment; it would mean jobs for about 20 other ex-rapo Is; it would mean work in an area not totally divorced from the employment they followed before being detained; it would mean they could provide a medium for the works of ex-tapols, many of whom had produced art, short stories, dramas and novels during their prison years. (No established publishers would touch their works.)

They also saw it as a way of re-establishing their identity as free citizens and of continuing to work for their ideals of social justice and democracy.

Hasta Mitra was launched in April 1980. And the going has been tough ever since. It has had to operate in an environment of neoCarthyism in which secret, repressive government organisations abound, ironical considering the Suharto regime is praised by so many Western nations for its declared support for democracy.

Hasta Mitra’s first publication and its first big test was Bumi Manusia. later to be translated and published in English as This Earth of Mankind Two days after Bumi Manusia was printed, Hasta Mitra received a call from the intelligence bureau of the attorney-general’s department The message was: don’t distribute until the censor’s clearance.

Joesoef and Hasjim decided to ignore the instruction. They explained: We didn’t consider the notification to be legal as it was not issued in writing. If we had obeyed the telephone call we would not have known how long we would have had to wait for official clearance. Or if it would be cleared.’

Anyway, Hasta Mitra’s directors were convinced the book had high literary merit that they had not broken any state law and that if the government really had wanted to ban the book it would have issued an official notification.

Because it did not want the world to see its true colours, the government had slyly tried to suppress publication by verbal intimidation. Suharto obviously worried about the international implications of an official ban on the book, especially as he had been trying to deceive the Dutch, Americans and other Westeners with investment in Indonesia into thinking that all ex-tapo/s now enjoyed full freedom.

Within two weeks of the attorney-general’s telephone call, 10,000 copies of Bumi Manusia had been printed and sold.

This novel, written by Pramoedya while on Buru Island, had become a best-seller.

Muslim Rach man and the book which frightens Suharto.

The success restored Pramoedyas faith that his intellectual ability had not been impaired by the ill-treatment and humiliation of 14 years in jail. It also was evidence that Indonesians were ready to read the work of an ex-tapol despite government assurances that the Indonesian people despised ex-tapols.

Soon Hasta Mitra producedAnak Semua Baizgsa (now being translated as Child of All Nations, a sequel to Bumi Manusia with two more to come). It got the same enthusiastic response.

Eventually the government, worried by the tremendous popularity of Hasta Mitra’s publications, came out into the open. On May 29. 1981. it placed an official ban on both books. But this decision was not made until after the attorney-general had been replaced and civilian Vice-President Adam Malik, who had earlier heaped praise on both novels, was out of the country.

Before the ban, Bumi Alanusia had been reprinted five times in 10 months and Anak Semua Bangsa, three times in six months. More than 400,000 copies of Bumi Manusia have now been sold.

The irony of the banning is that Pramoedyas novels are set in the period of Dutch colonialism from the early 1 890s to 1918. In them he traces the growing will of the Indonesian people to stand up to the oppression of the Dutch. Was it that Indonesian readers of his books today might detect the historic parallels between turn-of-the-century colonial Dutch East Indies and 1980s Suhartoism?

Jakarta was able to rationalise its decision to ban Pramoedya’s books by declaring that they might incite the people through their emphasis on 'Marxist-Leninist class struggle'.

Joesoef and Hasjim. for their sins, were interrogated for more than a month after the banning by the new attorney-genera!. They, in turn, asked their interrogators to produce evidence of the alleged Marxist-Leninist propaganda. They received no answer.

It seems the governmenfs greater fear was that Pramoedya was in the process of reestablishing himself as a hero in the hearts of the Indonesian people.

As well as direct action, the government orchestrated a press campaign to discredit Pramoedya’s novels. Hasta Mitra was unable to get any of its refutations of press charges published in the publications which were attacking iL It was not because the newspapers did not want to: it was because they were afraid of being accused of having sympathies with the Left.

In September 1981 more trouble was brewing for Hasta Mitra Pramoedya was invited to attend a panel discussion organised by the students’ senate of the social sciences faculty of the University of Indonesia. The subject was: ‘ihe Role of Intellectuals in Third World Countries, especially Indonesia’. Within days Pramoedya was back under interrogation. Hasjim too. Joesoef and four university students were detained.

For four months Joesoef was kept in prison. Since his release he has been made to report to the military three times a week. The four students, one of whom was Joesoefs son, were expelled from the universitx’. After being detained for two weeks they were released. Then they were arrested again and were still in custody at the end of July.

The problem again was the same. It was not what Pramoedya had said at the panel discussion: it was that he had again appeared in public, particularly before students upon whose strength Suharto once rose to power and whose strength he now fears as a source of opposition.

Joesoef was accused of being an organiser of the discussion. In Indonesia today it is not possible to have a civilised exchange of views. The directors of Hasta Mitra are facing a reign of terror. This terror is in the hands of government officials and its use is arbitrary.

Hasta Mitra is now recognised as the de facto representative of alternative Indonesian opinion and, more worrying for the New Order regime, the focal point of potential socio-political re-grouping.


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