Indonesia: The History Wars: Banning Books, Closing Minds?


Associate Professor David Reeve

The campaign to ban the Indonesian Playboy has captured much press attention. But a more serious ban occurred on 5 March, when 13 history textbooks from 10 publishers were banned. These books have been used in schools and universities, and were based on a more analytical history curriculum approved in 2004.

The major failing of these books was to question the role of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in Indonesian history. During former president Suharto's rule (1966-1998), the PKI was blamed as the key player behind the terrible events of 1965, when an abortive coup attempt was followed by the killings of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians by other Indonesians. In contrast, the 2004 curriculum encouraged consideration of a number of explanations of the 'coup'.

During the Suharto period, the term 'Communist' was used to discredit protest against the government. Student demonstrations, strikes, peasant actions were all labelled 'PKI'. The term 'PKI' was stretched to mean the Communist Party itself, any leftist movement, and then any form of popular action.

The impetus for this latest ban came from Education Minister, Bambang Sudibyo, although it is the Attorney General's office that officially banned the books. Professor Bambang is much more an economist than an educator, and served as finance minister in the Abdurrachman Wahid cabinet. At his inauguration there was public criticism that his selection was a political compromise, and that he did not have the intellectual breadth for the ministry. Another strand to his career has been to hold senior positions in Muhammadiyah, the modernist Islamic social-educational movement. Muhammadiyah was fiercely anti-communist in the 1960s.

In September 2006 Bambang Sudibyo had told journalists that the Indonesian government had decided to abandon the 2004 curriculum, and had asked the Attorney General to investigate the history books. He spoke in the name of the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono government.

During the Suharto period, critical historians were cowed into silence. Not so this time. On 20 March it was reported that 74 historians, senior and junior, had signed a petition opposing the ban. Civil society is much stronger now.

It is quite a notable petition, amongst its signatories several respected intellectuals. For example, Professor Ong Hok Ham, who celebrated his 74th birthday on 1 May, a distinguished historian from the University of Indonesia. Prominent members of the next generation of historians are seen in Bambang Purwanto (Gadjah Mada University), and Asvi Warman Adam (Indonesian Institute of Sciences). From the next generation again is Andi Achdian, director of the recently-formed Onghokham Institute. By the beginning of May 2007, the petition had some 500 signatures, with support continuing to flow in.

The 2004 curriculum came out amidst discussions amongst historians that began in the relatively liberal period of President Abdurrachman Wahid's presidency, October 1999 to July 2001. In mid-2000 Wahid had moved to have the 1966 ban on communism lifted, but met too much opposition, in the public arena and within his cabinet. In Indonesia, anti-leftist sentiments are regularly seen in major cities with street banners urging the populace to 'watch out for the rise of communism', or warning of the 'dangers of latent communism'. These seem to come from groups associated with the military.

In this affair we see two opposing trends. The first is a liberalising trend towards freer expression and intellectual enquiry, part of the 'Reformasi' movement which began in 1998. The second is a conservative backlash, seeking to reclaim ground lost since 1998. The 'anti-communist' backlash brings together a loose alliance of Muslim organisations, the military and the bureaucracy. It looks like the backlash has won this round. The critical historians have moral and intellectual authority, but lack political clout. But they will keep pushing their petition. After all, who knows more about historical enquiry, the Minister of Education or the historians?

WATCHPOINT: Can the critical historians step up pressure on the Education Minister at the Alternative History conference at Gadjah Mada University on 4-5 July?


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