new internationalist
issue 202 - December 1989


Asking forbidden questions
Mary Durran meets Indonesia's greatest - and probably
most determined and courageous - living writer.

His books are best-sellers and he is winner of the prestigious North American 'Freedom to Write' award, Yet the works of Pramoedya Ananta Toer are banned in his own country. And the Government has declared he has no place in Indonesian society.

Pramoedya - always referred to by his first name - is no stranger to state persecution. He has spent 17 of his 63 years in prison with three different regimes viewing his works as a threat to national security. First he was arrested by the Dutch colonial army, during the war for Indonesian independence in 1947. After independence he was arrested for writing articles critical of the Government's racist policies. Then, in 1965, he fell foul of the current Suharto regime. His library and all his manuscripts were burned and he spent the next 14 years in detention on the arid islaind of Buru. There he was forced to work in the rice fields and for seven years was denied access to reading and writing materials,

By scavenging scraps of cigarette packets and bits of old newspapers, however, he managed to write - in tiny script - chapters of the four novels that were to become best sellers. When these unconventional manuscripts were discovered and destroyed by guards he resorted to the only means left: writing the story in his head and relating it to other prisoners in his group.

Today, Pramoedya lives in a modest bungalow in a pleasant, tranquil suburb of East Jakarta where he remains a virtual prisoner. The state forbids him to work as a journalist or teacher - two of his former occupations. His family is stigmatized and he is not allowed to leave Jakarta without permission. He welcomed me into his home graciously -undeterred by the recent Government warning against receiving journalists. A slim man, who moves deftly and youthfully, Pramoedya's face is tanned and framed by wisps of silver hair. I asked him how he answers the Government's accusation that his books 'surreptitiously spread communism'.

'I know nothing about Marxist or Leninist ideologies. And the truth is, neither do they. If they are going to try me over this latest ban, there should be an independent expert in the teachings of Lenin and Marx at the trial who can assess whether or not my books propagate them.'

Promoedya speaks boldly and deliberately. He has a dignified strength and charismatic presence. He smiles frequently, hut one catches momentary glimpses of strain and worry in the furrows around his eyes and on his forehead.

Only in 1973 was he at last able to start putting to paper his story of the Indonesian people's slow and painful awakening and eventual liberation from Dutch colonialism. 'It was as if the floodgates had been opened. A torrential river came pouring out of me onto paper'.

A year later This Earth of Mankind was published. Child of All Nations, the sequel, followed shortly. Both books became best sellers before being banned by the Indonesian Government in 1981 on the grounds that their contents had been 'infiltrated ... by the teachings of communism'. The third and fourth volume Footstepsand G/ass House were banned in May 1986 and June 1988 respectively.

Why are the books so threatening? Pramoedya describes his writings as a 'continuous evaluation of Indonesian culture'. Colonial Java is seen through the eyes of Minke, a young, Dutch-educated Javanese intellectual. Using the European values he has been taught as a tool for evaluating his own culture, he begins to question the colonial system that enslaves his people to corrupt plantation managers and where justice is for whites - not for native people. In the context of Indonesia today, where 20 per cent of the population own over 50 per cent of its wealth and Government dissent is punishable by detention without trial, Pramoedya's books ask a forbidden question: who are the new tyrants'?

The present Suharto regime is doing its utmost to stop anyone attempting to answer - or even ask - that question. That is why they have banned Pramoedya. But the intensified campaign against the author only fuels the appetites of his readers - and there is a large underground circulation of photocopies of his banned books.

Pramoedya's publisher Iusuf Isak tells a tale which indicates the extent of the writer's popularity. As Isak was being released after a month's interrogation by the authorities, the officer in charge drew him aside to ask him a favour:

'You haven't .. um .. by any chance got a spare copy for my wife?' They may have banned Pramoedya Ananta Toer. But they certainly haven't silenced him.

Mary Durran works with the El Salvador Committee for Human Rights in London.

I think

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New Internationalist issue 202 magazine cover This article is from the December 1989 issue of New Internationalist.
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