Book bannings spur Indonesia's struggle for political liberty

On December 23, the Indonesian Attorney General’s Department announced the banning of five books. Soon afterwards, it became known that the attorney general is looking at possibly banning another 20 titles. This follows the banning of the film Balibo, which tells the story of Suharto’s invasion of East Timor and the suppression of history textbooks in 2007. There has been no repeal since Suharto’s ouster of any of the book bans imposed during the dictator’s rule.

The five banned books are: Suara Gereja bagi Umat Tertindas Penderitaan Tetesan Darah dan Cucuran Air Mata Umat Tuhan di Papua Barat Harus Diakhiri (The Voice of the Church for the Suffering of the Oppressed: The Spilling of Blood and Tears of God’s People in Papua Must Be Ended) by Cocratez Sofyan Yoman, Enam Jalan Menuju Tuhan (Six Roads to God) by Darmawan, Mengungkap Misteri Keberagaman Agama (Explaining the Mysteries of Religious Diversity) by Syahrudin Ahmad, Dalih Pembunuhan Massa Gerakan 30 September dan Kudeta Soeharto (Pretext for Mass Murder: The September 30 Movement and Suharto’s Coup) by John Roosa and Lekra Tak Membakar Buku: Suara Senyap Lembar Kebudayaan Harian Rakjat 1950-1965 (Lekra Did Not Burn Books: The Silent Voice of the Cultural Pages of the Peoples Daily, 1950-65) by Rhoma Dwi Aria Yuliantri and Muhidin M. Dahlan.

Attorney-General Hendarman Supandji said that these books could “erode public confidence in the government, cause moral decadence or disturb the national ideology, economy, culture and security”. Of course, he didn’t explain how the books could do these things.

Regarding one book, Pretext for Mass Murder, the attorney general’s spokesperson claimed, without any details, that they had identified 143 objectionable passages.

Establishment fears

Critics of the bans have tended to belittle the attorney-general’s statements, asking how such books could really “disturb the national ideology, economy, culture and security”. The reality is, however, that to let such books, and others like them, continue to be published is indeed dangerous for the Indonesian political establishment.

The five books banned on December 23 deal with a representative range of taboo subjects that, if allowed to be debated openly, can let loose ideas that will destroy all the myths upon which the Indonesian capitalist ruling class relies to achieve the political acquiescence of the rest of the country’s population.

The five books cover the plight of the Melanesian people in West Papua, religious pluralism and the history of the Indonesian left. These are key issues which the Indonesian political elite — a creation of 33 years of Suharto’s New Order regime — wish to keep under their tight control. There is little in any of the books which is ideologically radical or politically threatening in its own right.

The book that has been the subject of most public discussion has been Canadian academic John Roosa’s Pretext for Mass Murder. It provides the most convincing explanation to date of who was behind the September 30 Movement, the organisation of young officers that allegedly attempted a “communist” coup in 1965 providing the pretext for General Suharto’s seizure of power and the slaughter within months of at least 1 million members of the Indonesia left.

Roosa argues that the junior officers’ coup plot was masterminded by Dipa Nusantara Aidit, central leader of the Indonesian Communist Party, but without him telling the party leadership of his involvement in the plot. The book’s political analysis of the events leading up to Aidit’s actions, while throwing more light on the anti-democratic machinations of the army commanders, remains within existing parameters of liberal scholarship.

Monopoly threatened

The threat that all of these books pose is that the continued publication and public discussion of the material in them will end the state’s 40-year monopoly on interpreting matters relating to the history of the Indonesian class struggle, the history of the people of West Papua and of religious doctrine.

This monopoly has been undergoing steady erosion over the last 10 years. In Indonesia today books on all these subjects can be purchased in most mainstream bookshops. Even books by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Fidel Castro and Che Guevera, as well as Indonesian leftists, can be easily purchased.

The novels of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, still officially banned as far as anybody knows, often occupy a whole table or section in these bookshops. Many smaller publishers are becoming increasingly daring in the titles they produce, and there is a steady growth in the number of such publishers.

The action of the attorney general, so far silently backed by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, no doubt reflects an increasing fear that this process may get out of hand. Adding to the political elite’s nervousness has been the appearance on Facebook of two openly pro-communist sites Komunis Indonesia and Partai Komunis Indonesia 2010. Between them they have accumulated around 1500 members in just a few weeks.

The threat to the elite is that a jump may be made from selling books flouting the state’s past monopoly on taboo subjects to open campaigning and political organising around banned ideas. Spreading Marxism-Leninism is a capital crime. Campaigning for secession from Indonesia is still banned — there are people still in jail in Papua for raising the Papuan flag. Public advocacy of atheism or “unauthorised” religious views is also illegal.

Those in power will have noticed that there is also a Facebook campaign demanding the repeal of the ban on spreading Marxism-Leninism which is also attracting support.


The recent book bannings have already provoked protests and legal challenges. Civil liberties lawyers are challenging the government’s right to ban any books at all in the Constitutional Court. A number of public protest forums have been held. Eighty-three prominent intellectuals, lawyers, artists and others have also signed a public petition demanding the bans be lifted and that there be no more.

Liberal democratic as well as radical left-wing groups have been organising these protests. The Independent Journalists Alliance is also launching legal challenges to the banning of Balibo. There are two separate Facebook campaigns against the bans, with almost 3000 signatories between them.

The voluntary withdrawal in December by bookshop chain Gramedia of another book, Uncovering the Cikeas Octopus, by dissident academic and journalist George Aditjondro, also provoked widespread protest. Aditjondro’s book reported on the election and fundraising activities of foundations and other entities alleged to be close to Yudhoyono. The book was not formally banned, and in fact has now become a bestseller.

Yudhoyono and his Democratic Party have gone out of their way to indicate they were not interested in having the book banned. Yudhoyono supporters have since issued a book countering Aditjondro’s work. However, there are reports that the attorney general is now considering banning both books.

As the current intellectual ferment extends and the radical left-wing current grows within it, it will not only be reflected in the continued publication of books threatening the state’s monopoly on public opinion. A critical mass will develop and the jump will occur: from new and radical ideas as commodities to be sold in a bookshop or on an activists’ book stall, to the banner under which political campaigning and organisation occurs.

From the point of view of their interests (which of course they are well aware of), the Indonesian political elites will be looking for ways to maintain their old monopoly through the state’s banning power, laws governing the recognition of religions and the ban on the spreading of Marxism-Leninism.

While these laws remain, even if the government still turns a blind eye on some occasions, the campaign for their repeal is likely to become an increasingly important part of a revived struggle to win complete political liberty.