Joesoef Isak passed away, August 15, 2007

The Thinker: Joesoef Was Right

Monday was Independence Day, the anniversary of the proclamation of independence by Sukarno and Hatta and the beginning of a four-year struggle by millions of Indonesians to prevent a colonial army from seizing back the land they had plundered for 350 years. “ Merdeka atau mati! ” (freedom or death!) was the cry of the day, and many did die, killed by the bullets of the Dutch army. “Better to go to hell than live under colonialism again!” was the slogan written on the trams and buses of Batavia.

 At Joesoef Isak's burial

“Merdeka”. It means freedom, and that was the great victory for the Indonesian people: freedom from colonial rule. But it was not the end of the struggle for freedom in its fullest sense.

Two days before this Independence Day, one of Indonesia’s most important fighters for freedom, Joesoef Isak, passed away in his home at the age of 81. He is most known as the man who, together with the late Hasyim Rachman, defied the dictator Suharto and published the works of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, which were banned under the New Order’s decrees. He was probably the only man who, being freed in 1978 after 10 years in prison without trial, had to go to jail again because of his defiance of Suharto regarding Pramoedya. Again and again he published, was summonsed and interrogated, and then published again.

It is very likely that without the courage and tenacity of Joesoef and Hasyim, Pramoedya’s Buru Quartet, starting with “This Earth of Mankind,” would not have been published here until after the fall of Suharto. Just imagine that. These are Indonesia’s greatest novels and, though still banned today, they are the best-selling serious novels in Indonesian bookshops. Indeed, if Joesoef and Hasyim and Pramoedya had not defied Suharto and the books had not come out and created such a stir at the time, perhaps they would have yet to be published in English, or perhaps only published in some expensive university version, with hundreds of footnotes, inaccessible to the ordinary reader. Instead “This Earth of Mankind” is in Penguin paperback and into its 23rd reprint.

After Suharto fell, Joesoef continued the Hasta Mitra publishing company, bringing out books on Indonesian history and politics that defied taboos and tried to return the people’s history to the country. Hasta Mitra, the effort of Joesoef and his lone assistant, Bowo, published more than 80 titles: memoirs, histories, the complete collection of internal CIA documents concerning Sept. 30, 1965, and the first Indonesian version of Karl Marx’s “Capital.” He wrote many essays and commentaries that were published in these books. He won awards for courage in publishing from PEN USA and PEN Australia as well as winning the prestigious Dutch Wertheim Award. He was awarded the Legion of Honor from France.

Through this work he stood for something still rare: He was outspoken and firm in his support for full democracy and full freedom. He often wrote and often would say that Indonesia could never move forward while the minds of its people and its intellectuals were stuck in a false world, where ideological taboos locked them into both falsehoods and an antidemocratic straitjacket.

“If you want to attack socialism and communism, please do so. If you want to argue against these ideas, or insult them or campaign against them, you have every right to do so. But how can freedom and thinking progress when a society thinks it is OK to kill somebody just because he is a communist or a leftist, or jail them or ban them, or beat them up or torture them?” He often expressed this sentiment to me. He was moved by this not so much because he was a leftist himself, but because he was a democrat. Of course, he had lost his own freedom for 10 years, in prison from 1968 to 1978 without trial. He knew what repression was like. Some of his best friends were murdered in 1965.

But, I think, his sentiment is correct. A country is either free or it is not. It will be a test for the future to see just who, and how many people, will speak out for such freedom. During the decade or more that Pramoedya and 15,000 others were in jail, virtually none of their “fellow” intellectuals or political activists called for their release from prison. Nobody has been held to account for at least 500,000 illegal killings. Leftist ideas are still formally banned. As far as I know, the ban on Pramoedya’s writings has not been formally lifted. Indeed, I think even the ban on the writings of the founding president, Sukarno, have not been lifted. It is still almost impossible to find his later speeches in a contemporary book.

“Merdeka!” Pak Joesoef.

Max Lane is the author of “ Unfinished Nation: Indonesia Before and After Suharto.”

Published in the Jakarta Globe, August 17, 2009