Indonesia’s voice of dissent has some good news

GOENAWAN Mohamad’s mother did not raise him to be one of Indonesia’s most prominent dissidents. Perhaps the ghost of his father did.

Mohamad makes a silent shooting gesture to describe how his father died. “He was a political activist. He and my mother were exiled to West Irian in the ’20s, before I was born. They were left wing. Then they brought him home to Java, with my mother. Maybe he cooperated with the Dutch (colonial regime) for a while; I don’t know.

“But after the Japanese were defeated in World War II, the Dutch tried to return. I’m not sure exactly what he did; maybe a lot of meetings. One day they came to fetch him and executed him without trial.”

Mohamad was five. He has few memories and no photographs of his father. His family lost all their mementoes when they fled to the mountains with other guerrillas, leaving the Dutch to seize and burn their homes.

After what had happened to the family, he says, his mother did not want to instil political activism in her six children. “But education was the first priority. My father told my mother, `If anything happens to me, you should bury your jewellery so you can use it for the children’s education.”‘

She did just that, helping mould a son who became an analytic and relentless critic of government repression. For more than 25 years Mohamad was managing editor of Tempo magazine, Indonesia’s equivalent of Time and one of the few publications to report fearlessly on the nation’s politics.

In 1994, President Suharto banned Tempo for its uncompromising coverage of an expensive Government defence bungle, sparking worldwide protests. Mohamad fought hard against the ban – late last year, in the era of Reformasi, the magazine was relaunched – and has written widely on Indonesian identity, democracy and freedom. His book of essays, Sidelines: Writings from Tempo, was published in Australia in 1994.

He left Tempo last year to devote himself to the Institute for the Study of the Free Flow of Information, a body he created to circumvent government censorship. He was in Melbourne this week to deliver the Asialink 1999 Kenneth and Yasuko Myer Walkley Asia Media Lecture.

How was he drawn to journalism? “Well, I always wanted to be a writer, and writing doesn’t pay, really.” He gives a conspiratorial chuckle. “Journalism is a good combination, and in my case it brought a lot of money, when I was the editor.”

It also brought surveillance of his house, tapping of his phones and, during two separate bans on Tempo, loss of his job and income. “When we were banned for the first time, I told my friends that working in this kind of job you had to be prepared for the worst. That’s why you have to marry spouses who have jobs.”
He laughs again, amused by the pragmatic requirements of a life of subversion. He and others have maintained their covert networks despite the recent freeing up of media. Publications no longer need a government licence and the Department of Information has been disbanded, but Mohamad does not trust to the future.

“When you have gone through this long period of repression, you never take freedom for granted. That’s why we still have the underground.”

After Tempo was banned, one group of journalists used the Internet to set up Tempo Online – “We had to stay visible; we had to demonstrate to the Government that we defied them” – while Mohamad founded ISAI using principles established by Palestinians under Israeli rule.

“We created forum meetings in several places in Indonesia. We trained students to improve their political communication skills, gave awards to the best student newspaper. We created underground publications, books, magazines and even a news agency on the Internet. The Government focused on Tempo Online, but other channels were being created without the Government’s knowledge.

“The number of people with access to phone lines and computers was and is very small. But this forum we created, the student groups, they downloaded material and printed it and distributed it. Sometimes they sold it to finance the movement. Indonesia now has a more organised underground and information network than ever.”

Media freedom depends on democracy, and Mohamad is wary because Indonesia’s democracy is still fragile. “It faces many problems. First, the so-called national disintegration (the unrest in places such as Aceh and the Moluccas, chafing under the rule of central government). I think the break-up is inevitable because the present government and the past government have done too little, too late. Second, the weakness of the democratic traditions like political parties, local governments and labor unions.”

These make attempts to establish a democratic regime “like reinventing Indonesia”, he says. “It’s like issuing a new edition of the country. So now that we have a government that’s popularly elected, it’s rather amateurish and dangerously erratic. The President travels so much; he says the Australian Government is being childish.” He shakes his head.

Australians are often accused of misunderstanding Asia. Mohamad himself once accused the Australian media of regarding the Indonesian Government’s aversion to them as an inverted compliment. He said Australians were not willing to take the time to learn what Indonesia was like. Now he takes a softer, more reflective line on cross-cultural confusion.

“Nobody can claim that he or she can understand Indonesia, not even Indonesians. And newspapers are not only the creation of journalists; they are also the creation of the reader. In poetry and fiction you don’t have to really worry about what the readers are aware of; in journalism you have to. Every time you want to write, even if you are smart and very knowledgeable about the country, you have to think about your reader in Australia or Ireland or Brazil.

“It’s not just culture. It’s geography, it’s history, it’s the limit of the human capacity to know. What do Indonesians know about Malaysia or Australia? Nothing. So why should we blame others for not understanding us?”

Mohamad’s life journey, like his father’s, has been interwoven with the historic ebb and flow of forces in his nation. As a public figure who has vigorously championed free speech, he is much admired. Is he a hero?

He is instantly dismissive. “I believe `hero’ is a false identity. What matters is not being a hero; what matters in the human life is heroic deeds. Somebody who did heroic acts might also some day do stupid acts, indefensible things, and to proclaim someone a hero is to put him or her in a category where you forgive everything of them. So I believe in heroic acts, but not heroes.”

But he does admit to putting one man on a pedestal: “Mandela. He saved the 20th century from cynicism. The most valuable thing a person can do for his fellow human beings is to create hope, and to create hope is not to talk about the future but to indicate that mankind is worthwhile.”

He falls silent. A good journalist recognises when no more need be said.

First published in The Age.