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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

FIGHTING WORDS

Neither prison nor the passing of years has weakened Pramoedya Ananta Toer's passion for justice in Indonesia

By Yenni Kwok / Jakarta


TO HAVE ONE OF his books in your possession is to invite a stiff jail sentence. Even so, Pramoedya Ananta Toer views the outlawing of his work with pride. "Every book that is banned is a badge of honor," he says. Others think so too -- copies of his work are circulated widely, but clandestinely in Indonesia. Toer smiles and takes another puff of the clove cigarettes that never seem to leave his hand. The soft-spoken grandfather is a thorn in the side of President Suharto's New Order government, and has been for decades.

For Toer is celebrated as much as an ex-prisoner of conscience as a writer. His advocacy of social justice and left-wing sympathies made him a natural target in the anti-communist witchhunt following the 1965 coup that brought Suharto to power. The 14 years behind bars and barbed-wire fences failed to sap Toer's spirit. "I'll do as I please," he says. "My mind is not to be imprisoned." The uncompromising response is typical. Too typical for his wife, Maemunah Thamrin: "I tell him, 'Don't be so stubborn. It is the family who has to suffer.' But he is still defiant."

Because of his persistent calls for open debate and political change, the 73-year-old writer remains a potent symbol of dissent. In 1996, for example, the now banned People's Democratic Party presented him with a trophy -- a mark of their respect, says the inscription, for a "true fighter and democrat." That was as evident after he was released as before he went to jail. In 1979, Toer was placed under city arrest, forbidden to leave Jakarta. Not that it has deterred him. He has slipped out of the capital on several occasions, most recently in February, when he visited his hometown of Blora in central Java.

The curbs on Toer's personal and creative freedom have also boosted his international profile. A regular nominee for the Nobel Prize in literature since 1981, he was conferred a Magsaysay literary award three years ago and more recently received U.N. recognition for promoting non-violence and tolerance. His banned but acclaimed Buru Quartet -- novels written during his exile to the eponymous prison island -- are must-reads for anyone interested in Indonesia's history. Toer's prison memoirs, Nyanyi Sunyi Seorang Bisu (A Mute's Silent Song), are a more recent prohibition. An English translation to be published by Hyperion Press next year may meet a similar fate in Indonesia.

When Part I of the memoirs was first issued in 1995, the government had to pay for the privilege of imposing a ban. Toer, who published the work himself, refused to submit copies for the censors' approval. Officials ended up having to buy their own from the author. Nyanyi Sunyi Seorang Bisu makes harrowing reading. Forced labor, torture and humiliation were routine. Yet the work is more than a chronicle of the treatment that Toer and other political prisoners endured. It is also an intellectual journey, an attempt to understand the injustices he faced (Toer draws a parallel between his experience and that of the anti-fascist forces fighting Franco's regime in Spain). The second and last volume of his memoirs was published last year.

These days, novels take second place in Toer's life. In fact, Tailalat (Mole), a short story written in 1996, was his first work of fiction since leaving Buru. Having been silenced for so long, he is keen to give voice to others. His energies are currently focused on putting together an anthology of writing by the prisoners of Digul. A mosquito-infested swamp in Irian Jaya, Digul is notorious as a place of exile for nationalist leaders locked up by the Dutch colonialists during the 1930s. Among the authors: members of the outlawed Indonesian Communist Party -- a provocative choice, considering how dearly Toer paid for his past associations with them. But Toer says he's not afraid of retaliation. "Why should I fear? [These writings] are part of Indonesian history. They will be forgotten if not recorded," he explains.

There is an unmistakably Javanese politeness to Toer's manner. Dressed in a casual shirt and a sarong, he invites a visitor into his simple home. His wife had it built during his prison years with the little money she scraped together from making and selling cakes. Toer listens carefully to each question, cupping a hand behind his left ear. He lost his hearing in the right ear when soldiers beat him one night, more than 30 years ago.

It was a Thursday evening, he recalls, an unlucky alignment according to Javanese belief. Six generals had been killed a fortnight earlier and the hunt was on for suspected communists. A stone-throwing, knife-wielding mob gathered outside Toer's home, screaming abuse. Before he could find out what the crowd wanted, the military and the police turned up. They were taking him in -- for his own safety, they said. But he soon found himself tied up and hauled into a waiting car. That was when the rifle butts rained down on his head.

The military took everything that he had. Books, manuscripts, his precious library. Before they drove him away, Toer pleaded with the men to save his papers. "If necessary, give them to the government," he had begged. But all the writings were destroyed. Some were burned, others ended up as wrappers for market vendors. Almost a year passed before his wife learned where he was being held. In the first four years, he was shunted across Java from one jail to another. Then on August 16, 1969, the eve of the 24th anniversary of his country's independence, Toer was shipped to Buru island, in the Moluccas. As a "birthday gift," he remarks wryly, to the Republic of Indonesia.

The miserable conditions at the infamous island proved a particularly effective spur for Toer's imagination. Prevented from writing -- he was allowed neither pencil nor paper -- Toer fell back on the oral tradition of Java. His tales were like soothing bedtime stories for his fellow prisoners, men whose hopes of getting out faded with each passing day. They had been jailed without trial, and they had no way of knowing when they would be released, if ever. Everyone lived in terror.

But from the cruelty emerged Toer's masterpiece. Set in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Buru Quartet is an epic about the birth of Indonesian nationalism. It follows the coming of age, politicization and incarceration of a journalist named Minke. The character is based on a reporter who lived during that period. After countless nights, the story-teller of Buru got his first, and perhaps most treasured, reward. "The prisoners' fear diminished," says Toer. "I was happy. The stories were to uplift their spirit."

Later, Toer was allowed a pencil. But the dispensation did not signal any government softening. If the missionaries at Buru hadn't been able to smuggle out his manuscripts, the world would never have known Minke. The prison authorities destroyed many of Toer's drafts, including the novel, Pusaran (Whirlpool). "I will never forgive the New Order," he says, bitterly recalling the loss of his manuscripts.

After all these years, the grand old man of Indonesian literature is still labeled a communist. An official pariah. Toer shrugs. "I don't follow any kind of 'isms,'" he insists. "If there is one, it will be Pram-ism." He is a loner, he says. Toer fights for justice in his own way. And with his weapon, the written word.


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