Tuesday, December 10, 2013
- Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s writings led to his imprisonment under the Sukarno regime, then banishment in the Suharto era. But a book by one of Indonesia’s most celebrated writers seems to have given President Aburrahman Wahid some innovative ideas.
Indeed, Wahid has entertained Pramoedya at the presidential palace, where he told Pramoedya he had read his book ‘Arus Balik (Reverse Current)’ and wanted to discuss with him the concept of a maritime state.
‘Arus Balik’ calls for the development of Indonesia into a maritime country. A day before Pramoedya visited the President, Wahid created the Ministry of Maritime Exploration.
Many Indonesians believe that Wahid’s decision to put up this ministry was inspired by ‘Arus’.
Under his new policy, Wahid has also named Admiral Widodo A.S. as Indonesia’s new military chief – the first time in more than three decades that a non-army officer leads the armed forces.
“Before I was the only one who thought of developing Indonesia into a maritime nation,” said Pramoedya in an interview with IPS. “Now that some people are paying attention to that idea, I feel happy.”
But he demurred to comment on the popular view that the President’s interest in developing Indonesia’s maritime sector had been due to one of his novels. “That is what people say,” he allowed. Still, he said, “it would be unethical for me to ask that question”.
Wahid has not publicly said he had been inspired by ‘Arus Balik’. But while he has yet formally lift the ban on Pramoedya’s books, he was present at the 1995 launching of ‘Arus Balik’ and regards Pramoedya with deep respect.
He has told the media here: “If I need advice, I will meet Pak (Mr.) Pram.”
Under previous regimes, Pramoedya had been referred to as an “undesirable guest” and would have never been received at the presidential palace. Up until recently, Pramoedya – again nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature this year — had been a political pariah.
In 1959, Pramoedya was detained for writing ‘Hoakiau di Indonesia (Chinese in Indonesia)’, which he had made in protest of a government regulation that he said perpetuated racial discrimination. The rule banned Chinese-Indonesians from putting up businesses in the countryside.
Pramoedya, who was never tried on any charge, was released from the Cipinang jail in 1960. Nine years later, however, he was banished for his alleged leftwing inclinations to Buru Island, Indonesia’s remote gulag, where he suffered forced labour for 10 years and two months.
It was while he was on Buru, some 4,500 km east of Jakarta, that Pramoedya wrote ‘Arus Balik’, as well as four novels, ‘Bumi Manusia’ (This Earth of Mankind), ‘Anak Semua’ (Children of All Nations), ‘Jejak Langka’ (Footsteps), and ‘Rumah Kaca’ (House of Glass). Collectively titled ‘The Buru Tetralogy’, they are prized by many in Indonesia.
Pramoedya actually finished more pieces in Buru, using an old but trusty typewriter, but the authorities confiscated whatever he wrote. He managed to save ‘Arus’ and the four novels only by smuggling them out and giving them to a Roman Catholic church in Buru’s Namlea port.
He recalled, “When I was released in 1979, the scripts were widely circulated in Europe, Australia, and the United States and published as books in Jakarta when Suharto was still in power.”
But his books were not only banned, but seized during the Suharto New Order era for their supposedly communist undertones.
Pramoedya, however, could not be stopped that easily. “The books were banned so we published again, banned again, published again until the company went bankrupt,” he said.
He also published his memoirs of his decade-long stay in Buru, ‘Nyanyi Sunyi Seorang Bisu’ (The Mute’s Soliloquy) in 1995, at the peak of Suharto’s power.
Written in the book is a list of people who died and were killed on Buru Island. It also includes letters he wrote to his wife, Maimunah Thamrin, and eight children, three of whom are from an earlier marriage.
Technically, Pramoedya was still under house arrest at the time. After being released from Buru, he had been required to report to the military once a week. But in 1992, he issued an international statement saying he would stop doing so. “I don’t want to obey the rule anymore,” he said.
So instead, two intelligence officers visited him every week and their visits stopped only after he got the Madangeet Singh Prize from the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1996.
Today, Pramoedya is a free man, and, if many Indonesians are to be believed, even getting the President to look more closely at Indonesia’s neglected maritime sector.
Indonesia becoming a maritime nation should not be a novel idea. After all, it is an archipelago with more than 14,000 islands and 70 percent of its are is made up of rich seas.
Indonesia is bound by two international sealanes, one of which extends from South China Sea to the Indian Ocean, passing by Sunda Strait that is located between Java and Sumatra Islands. Another sealane stretches from the Pacific Ocean to Banda Sea in Maluku, Ambon, down to Arafura Sea and onto New Zealand.
But Indonesia, Pramoedya pointed out, has neglected its marine resources. Its fishermen, who are supposed to become the main human resources for marine exploration, have been marginalised.
“Under a maritime nation, seas are not boundaries but rather highways that connect one region with another,” Pramoedya told IPS, adding that developing Indonesia into a maritime nation means fostering national unity.
He observed: “The irony is that Indonesia is a maritime nation, but it has been ruled by an army, not a navy and the (Indonesian) army has never won a war.”
“Under the rule of an army,” said Pramoedya, “the ocean becomes a separator, rather than a connector that it should be. If we become a maritime nation, the ocean would serve as a bridge rather than a barrier.”
“We have no maritime experts and that hinders the development of Indonesia into a maritime country at the initial stage,” he said. “But once Indonesia would be developed into a maritime nation, with strong sea forces it would become a powerful country.”
But Pramoedya is not about to change careers and become a government adviser. While he spends most of his time on his farm, the 74-year-old said he plans to continue writing. Then again, he added, “Perhaps I need a new atmosphere to resume writing.”
Meanwhile, Indonesians are still talking about the first two volumes of his five-part work on the Indonesian revolution against the Dutch, ‘Kronik Revolusi Indonesia’, launched in September.
Later this month, the historical novel ‘Arok and Dedes’, which he wrote while he was in Buru, is expected to be out. Pramoedya has had about 34 books published so far.
Pramoedya of course has his share of critics from the literary world, most of whom harp on his supposed communist leanings that allegedly gave him clout during the Sukarno era and saw him banning books, which he denies.
But he declined to answer a question on whether his writings are communist-tinged. Said Pramoedya: “It is all up to the readers how they judge my writings.”