Indonesia Gets a Peek Under its Facade of Harmony BITTERSWEET CELEBRATION

September 10, 1995|By HAL PIPER

Jakarta, Indonesia -- Until a literary award spoiled the fun, Indonesia's 50th-birthday party was going beautifully. Schoolchildren were marching. Political prisoners were released. Prostitutes got a three-day vacation. Shoppers scored bargains when the government jawboned merchants into cutting prices. Even a little cautious, but constructive, political criticism was allowed.

Then the Manila-based Magsaysay Foundation decided to honor Pramoedya Ananta Toer, a grand old man who has been in trouble with one set of authorities or another for more than 50 years -- that is, for longer than Indonesia has been a nation.

The award tore some scabs off Indonesia's carefully cultivated social harmony. For 30 years, this archipelago of 13,000 islands, home to 190 million people -- the world's fourth-largest population, after China, India and the United States -- has been one of the world's quietest countries. But 30 years ago, it was one of the most turbulent -- and the past, as William Faulkner said, is never really past.


The convulsion that ripped Indonesia 30 years ago was dramatized in a movie starring Mel Gibson, "The Year of Living Dangerously." During those months, as many as half a million people were murdered. Roving death squads slaughtered whole villages, ostensibly because they harbored Communists.

The killing was touched off by an apparent coup attempt on the night of Sept. 30, 1965. Seven top military leaders were kidnapped and murdered. The army officers who quickly seized control blamed Indonesia's large and powerful Communist Party.

Unclear to this day is the role of Sukarno, the country's charismatic independence leader. Officially, he remains a national hero; Jakarta's airport is named for him. But amid rumors that he might have given at least tacit backing to the leftists, Sukarno was shouldered aside within a year.

Indonesia has been governed since by Suharto, a former army general. His rule has been authoritarian, but generally effective. Literacy and personal income have risen, and infant mortality has dropped. Economic growth averages 7 percent, year after year. With an average per-capita income of $885, about the same as Egypt's, Indonesia is still a Third World country, but one where life is improving for most people. Last month's independence celebration, heralding the end of 300 years of Dutch colonial rule, was designed to celebrate that progress -- and also, as the Suharto era moves into its autumn, to begin the healing of the wounds of its 30-years-ago springtime.


In 1965, Subandrio was Indonesia's foreign minister, a diplomat who hobnobbed with such Cold War superstars as Andrei Gromyko and Chou En-lai. The U.S. secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, acidly called Subandrio "the most eloquent spokesman of the double standard" of Third World neutrality. After the 1965 coup attempt, he was jailed for alleged complicity.

Three weeks ago, on the day before the independence celebration, Subandrio, now 81, was freed from prison, along with two other former high-ranking figures.

In addition, the government canceled the "ET" identity-card designation used to monitor more than a million persons suspected of harboring leftist sympathies. "ET" -- from the Indonesian words for "ex-political detainee" -- was like a scarlet letter or the mark of Cain, an external sign of past sins that made it difficult for the "ETs" to get jobs or rent apartments.

But the government isn't letting down its guard. "The scrapping of the ET code is not a step backward," said Susila Sudarman, coordinating minister for political affairs and security. "Everyone will still be watching them, the government and the people. . . . We will always be watching out against the latent danger of communism."


The Magsaysay literature prize, named for a former Philippine president, is considered the Asian equivalent of the Nobel, and many writers and artists circulated a statement saying that they were proud when it was awarded to Mr. Pramoedya. But others are not yet ready to forgive and forget. A group of 26 intellectuals formally protested the award on the grounds that in the 1960s Mr. Pramoedya was a leftist cultural bully who conducted "witch hunts" against other writers.

One of the protesters, Mochtar Lubis, a former Magsaysay laureate, was so outraged that he traveled to Manila to return the gold medallion he won in 1958. He handed back $1,000, too, and said it was a down payment toward the return of his entire prize money, $5,000.

One of Mr. Pramoedya's novels obtainable in English is "The Girl from the Coast." In style and theme it is similar to the "socialist realist" fiction that used to be published in the Soviet Union. The setting moves back and forth between a fishing village and an aristocrat's palace. Mr. Pramoedya develops interesting and lively characters in both settings, and his writing is light and swift-moving.

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