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Mixing Marx and Indonesia

Asia Times - October 20, 2012

Muhammad Cohen, Bali Max Lane is a Marxist and leading authority on Indonesia. That's somewhat ironic since Indonesia has been a bulwark of anti-communism since the 1965 coup that brought General Suharto to power and led to the killings of up to 3 million alleged communists. Yet Lane says that Indonesia turned him into a Marxist.

"I first came to Indonesia in 1969. I was not a Marxist, I was 17 years old," Lane explains in an interview during the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali earlier this month. "I had sentiments toward democracy and those who were less well off."

Over the next five years, Lane, an Australian, made more trips to Indonesia, living for extended periods with establishment families in Bali and Yogyakarta But his political thinking remained "immature".

During the 1975 trial of a student activist, prosecutors noted the defendant's contacts with a teacher holding Marxist sentiments. "I was named as that teacher," Lane says. "That was an impetus for me to study Marx and find out more about what I'd been accused of."

Fast company

But it was association with three giants of Indonesian letters that solidified Lane's political thinking. Novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer, and journalists Hasyim Rachman and Joesoef Isak had all been held as political prisoners by Suharto for their leftist leanings. By 1980, they had been freed and teamed up to found the publishing house Hasta Mitra, Sanskrit for Hands of Friendship.

Their first order of business was to publish the four novels Pramoedya composed during his imprisonment with Rachman on Buru Island. Lane, who had been working with Australia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Jakarta, was engaged as Hasta Mitra's English translator. "My contact with these men pushed me more into the left framework," Lane says. "It was Indonesians who turned me into a left-winger."

He translated Pramoedya's This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps and Glass House, which came to be known as the Buru Quartet. The books were banned by the Suharto regime but were widely lauded overseas.

Despite his notoriety and his politics, Lane has been able to continue observing Indonesia first-hand for six decades. "Strangely enough, I've never had the experience of being stopped from entering Indonesia. There were times when I thought I might be, so I avoided larger airports. I was able to come to Indonesia throughout 1980s and 90s. I came often but only stayed two or three weeks at a time. After I was here for a couple of weeks, my friends said officials would call them to check up on where I was."

Distant star

This year's Ubud Writers and Readers Festival focused on Pramoedya, who passed away aged 81 in 2006. The festival featured Lane, who decried the persistence of Suharto-era restrictions on teaching Indonesian literature that have kept Pramoedya more widely read overseas than in his homeland.

"His work is taught in high schools in Singapore, Malaysia, the US, the international baccalaureate program, but it's not taught in the schools in Indonesia. And because of that 99% of Indonesian children haven't read it." Lane cited a survey that found 0% of Indonesians had read Indonesian literature.

In addition to his partnership with Pramoedya, Lane worked with Indonesian poet and dramatist W S Rendra, spending part of the 1970s with Rendra's troupe in Yogyakarta and translating many of his writings. Lane has also written his own articles that are frequently cited in Indonesian scholarship.

His most recent books about Indonesian history and politics are "Catastrophe in Indonesia" about the massacre of leftists after Suharto took power, and 'Unfinished Nation: Indonesia before and after Suharto", published first in Indonesian in 2007 and in English the following year.

"My book tells the story of the rise and fall of Suharto to work out the terrain the country faces as a legacy of his rule," according to Lane. The "unfinished" description, he said, applies to the reformasi movement that led to Suharto's ouster. Even nearly 15 years and four presidents since Suharto's authoritarian New Order regime, Lane notes, "The power structure, the class structure, the interests of the people who run Indonesia haven't changed."

No fear factor

There have been some benefits from the fall of Suharto, Lane concedes. "There is no longer the fear that existed under the New Order." With that has come a freer press and, more important in Lane's mind, the right to public protest. "During the New Order, the biggest crime was to mass people on the streets. The students who fought the campaign against Suharto from 1989 to 1998 put that right back into the Indonesian political culture."

Post-Suharto Indonesia is lauded as the world's third largest democracy, but Lane is more skeptical. He contends Indonesia has "formal democracy" with its trappings such as direct elections and a large number of political parties. "But they're all political parties in the pocket of small circle elites," he says.

Lane, true to his Marxist leanings, particularly laments the lack of a Latin America style trade unionist or peasants' association party. "To what extent a mass popular party will emerge is the big unanswered question in Indonesian politics," Lane, a longtime lecturer on Indonesia at Australian universities and globally, says.

"The inert bureaucracy, greedy elite, and social inequity are acutely manifested together in the current major party system," he says. "In the first election after Suharto, there was 90% turnout. Now it's 40% because the parties are all the same. Different colors, different languages in their policies, but they're all really the same. No party has a loyal mass following. No national figure has solidified power. They all poll around 10%."

Lane shrugs, "Of all these unpopular cliques and unpopular leaders, which one will be the next to run Indonesia? And one of them will be elected president."

Heavy hangovers

No matter who is elected, they will face devastating and persistent "hangovers" from the Suharto years, Lane claims. Those inheritances include "poverty and social inequality; a greedy elite giving foreigners whatever they want as long as the elite gets its slice; and a backward view of modern culture, holding up the tradition of old royalties as the most important thing in Indonesian culture."

Unlike many other observers, Lane doesn't see Islam as a key issue in Indonesia, even though it has the world's largest Muslim population, estimated at around 200 million among its 240 million people.

"What's slowly taking place is a strong process of secularization," Lane believes. "If you want to survive in urban Indonesia, it's so hard. You have to fight hard, think rationally, so superstition and religion really become less important. Life, not values, is making people more secular.

"But, in this atmosphere, people who are religious become more defensive. The times draw a defensive reaction. That strain between natural secularization and religion will be a feature going forward."

Lane sees it as a practical contest, with little intellectual substance. "There are no groups standing for an alternative to Islam as an ideology," he says. "Islam is the only organized expression of a philosophical point of view. The New Order left a lot of vacuums, social, cultural, political. Some hope liberal Islam will be an alternative, but it's oblivious to the question of poverty. Conservative Islam addresses poverty in its own way."

Forget poverty

Addressing poverty is the greatest challenge facing Indonesia, Lane says, and he laments that alleviating it no longer appears on public policy agendas. "Development has been redefined as growth of the middle class," he observes. "In Indonesia, one million people a year are added to the middle class. But even if that continues for 30, 40, 50 years, it still leaves 400 million in poverty [factoring in population growth].

"China's the same way, with 20% doing okay. That's 200 million people: as a market for businessmen that's juicy. But the 800 million earning two or three dollars a day doesn't show up."

Lane doesn't see Indonesia growing its way out of poverty any time soon. "Slave wages fuel the Indonesian economy. Even among the emerging left and radical groups, a lot of them see the problems as neo-liberalism, policies of giving big money, foreign and local, a freer hand while reducing subsidies. I think they're always bad policies, but here they're bad policies on top of a terrible legacy, and the worst legacy is still colonialism.

"The economic legacy of colonialism is the basis for Indonesia's backwardness. In the 1950s, the middle of the twentieth century, you could see the incredible manufacturing power of the major economies was the source of their wealth. The Dutch had not built a modern factory in Indonesia, except for one to make light bulbs and bicycle tires. There was no industrial development whatsoever," Lane says, adding, "Only 10% of Indonesian children were going to school. How do you overcome such a legacy?"

Low productivity is one symptom of that legacy, Lane says. As part of the solution, he advocates canceling Indonesia's foreign debt, leaning on author Pramoedya's reasoning. "Pram's explanation was [that] it's not because of the Suharto regime that contracted for the debt was illegitimate, but because the West owes us the money. The West sucked millions out of the East Indies" though the transfer of natural resources from spices to timber to precious metals during colonial rule.

Lane smiles and says, "I must admit I have great sympathy for that sentiment."

[Former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen told America's story to the world as a US diplomat and is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie. Find his blog, online archive and more at www.MuhammadCohen.com, and follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.]

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