Reproduced from Journal of Contemporary Asia, Volume 41, Issue 3, 2011
Review by Prof James Peacock, University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill).
Max Lane (London: Verso, 2008)
Unfinished Nation: Indonesia Before and After Suharto, by Australian researcher and activist Max Lane, is excellent in many dimensions. It offers a compact yet comprehensive overview of Indonesia since independence. It brings to light little known information while expertly reviewing the important basics. It is a great read; I bought my copy in England and read it non-stop back to the USA. Max Lane is an excellent writer, as one would expect from one of the world’s best translators of Indonesian; he is known as the translator of the trilogy novel by Indonesia’s finest twentieth-century writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer. For those who do not know Indonesia and for those who do, this is a superb book.
Unfinished Nation is primarily a short history of Indonesia since it became Indonesia, that is, a new nation and no longer a colony, starting with the declaration of independence in 1945, continuing through the revolution against the Dutch and achievement of independence in 1950. The history continues through the half-century-plus of this new and “unfinished” nation: rule by the founding president, Sukarno, Gestapu, the massacre of as many as a million Indonesians in 1965, the succession by Suharto and death of Sukarno in 1970, Suharto’s rule until the late 1990s and the various regimes, including that of Megawati, Sukarno’s daughter, Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) and others since Suharto’s New Order ended in 1998. Intertwined with the narration of events is Lane’s shrewd and well-informed analysis of the political dynamics that drove this nation nearly to the present.
What is missing? What is biased? Any reader will perceive a bit from his or her own experience, if any, in or with Indonesia. Two of my experiences suggest neglected aspects. The first pertains to the 1960s, when I first went to Indonesia. I was there during 1962-63 on the eve of the “year of living dangerously” when the Communist Party was the third largest in the world and Sukarno struggled to balance the forces of NASAKOM (nationalistm, religion i.e. Islam, and Communism), only to explode into Gestapu, the massacre of alleged Communists by the army supported by some Muslims. My wife and I lived in a slum in Surabaya with a family of 12 children, two of whom died of tuberculosis. Economic conditions were awesomely bad and the social fabric was tearing apart while Sukarnoist mythology rode high. In my view, Lane tends to romanticise Sukarno and his period while somewhat underplaying the suffering of that time. The other aspect that seems somewhat underplayed is the Islamic surge. Muhammadiyah, the organisation that I began to study in 1970, now claims 30 million members. Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), their rival, claims even more. The post-Sukarnoist, even post-Suharto rise of Islam in Indonesia deserves fuller treatment.
All that being said, Unfinished Nation is certainly one of the best current histories and political analyses of Indonesia’s career so far. Max Lane deserves our deep gratitude for writing it and everyone will gain by reading it.
James L. Peacock – 2011