BOOK REVIEW Fear and reporting in
Indonesia In the Time of Madness: Indonesia on the Edge of Chaos
by Richard Lloyd Parry
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Reviewed by Scott B MacDonald
Since the upheaval of the Asian financial crisis in 1997-98, Indonesia has been
a country on the move - the old authoritarian regime of Suharto was pushed from
power, democratic government has taken root and the economy has been
stabilized. East Timor departed from Indonesia and a peace settlement is in
place in the formerly deeply troubled province of Aceh.
Although far from perfect, Indonesia's development since the late 1990s has
been largely within the confines of a representative political system and a
capitalist economy. Part of Indonesia's experience over this period has been
captured in Richard Lloyd
Parry's In the Time of Madness: Indonesia on the Edge of Chaos. If you
are looking for a depiction of Indonesia in the late 1990s, when the old order
of Suharto's authoritarian regime was coming to an end and societal upheaval
ruled, this book is for you, though none the positive developments are
Parry, who wrote for The Independent and now works for The Times of London,
made a number of forays into Indonesia from Japan. Through Parry's eyes we are
taken into the murderous jungles of Borneo, where Dayak tribesmen were seeking
to drive out the Madurese by ethnic cleansing, into Jakarta's universities
during the drive to oust Suharto, and into the turmoil of East Timor, seeking
its independence from Indonesia. Parry makes the point early on: "This is a
book about violence, and about being afraid."
One could add that Parry also is fascinated by what he found in Indonesia. As
he states, "Although I prided myself on deploring violence, if it should -
tragically - break out, I wanted to witness it for myself." Indeed, deeper in
the book (and deeper into Indonesia's heart of darkness), he notes: "In Borneo,
I saw heads severed from their bodies and men eating flesh. In Jakarta, I saw
burned corpses in the street, and shots were fired around and toward me."
The climactic last part of the book deals extensively with East Timor and the
bloody rear-guard actions taken by the Indonesian-supported militias in seeking
to overturn the popular vote for independence. It is in East Timor where the
author comes to terms with being afraid, yet carrying out the responsibility to
report the injustice of what happened.
The fear theme permeates the book, both on a personal level (as Parry opts to
depart from East Timor after several brushes with death) and with Indonesians.
One encounter is most notable, when Parry asked an Indonesian carpenter named
Jamari what he fears. The man answered: "We are afraid that 1965 will happen
again. We're afraid that if we speak out, somebody will come and take us away
during the night, and perhaps they will kill us." An abortive left-wing
military coup in 1965 led to a successful right-wing counter-coup and the rise
of General Suharto as the country's undisputed leader.
Parry also has a solid grasp of the issue of magic that permeates Indonesian
society, especially in the rural areas. Here again he touches upon the fear of
dark magic and the ability of Suharto, long at the helm of his country, to use
that fear to help keep order.
While this reviewer enjoyed Parry's opus, it is not without flaws. It helps to
have some prior knowledge of Indonesia's history and society prior to reading.
While some explanation is given to the turn of events, some explanations are
brief. Sadly, we are left with the image of Indonesia as a place of darkness,
smoldering under the tropical sun and the puppetmasters in Jakarta.
As Parry states: "It was a thrilling time. Like many people ... I was
experiencing self-conscious flushes of excitement at the momentous of it all. A
struggle was taking place between something old, murderous and corrupt and
something new." Can it be that Indonesian history from 1965 to 1998 was old,
murderous and corrupt, nothing more? And what was the "something new"? Could it
be that Indonesia is struggling to create a more open, democratic society in
the post-Suharto era? These are lingering questions when one finishes Parry's
Some have compared In the Time of Madness to Aidan Hartley's The Zanzibar
Chest, another book focused on the journalist dealing with a modern
heart of darkness. Parry's book is an echo of Hartley's, which deals with
family history, colonialism, barbarism and current affairs. Both books leave
you with a sense of sweaty griminess and a Joseph Conrad-like vision of the
world. (Conrad's Heart of Darkness was published in 1902 and looks at
genocide, repression and imperialism by the Belgians in the Congo.)
That said, Hartley's Africa has fallen into far harsher times than Parry's
Indonesia, and the Southeast Asian nation has made some advances in terms of
the standard of living and its effort in forming a more open political system.
Indonesia is hardly Africa, though similar problems afflict both regions.
And Hartley's personal adventures are given some degree of clarity - his
relationships are explained, his likes and dislikes covered, and his turn to
drugs and alcohol understandable considering the nature and pressures of his
work. Parry makes brief mention of a bypassed love and proposal of marriage
among other personal musings.
The criticisms of his book are minor. In the Time of Madness is well
worth reading, especially for anyone interested in the events that shook
Indonesia during the late 1990s. At the same time, one should not entirely
write off Indonesia's history through Parry's lens of a murderous, corrupt
place, seemingly without any hope.
One of the points worth noting is that change did occur: Suharto was forced out
of office, and the country has gone to the polls more than once since 1998,
finally having the option of directly electing a president. All the same (and
this is why In the Time of Madness is worth the read), many of the
problems of corruption and fear remain in post-Suharto Indonesia, making it one
of Asia's more interesting points on the map.
In the Time of Madness: Indonesia on the Edge of Chaos by Richard Lloyd
Parry. New York: ISBN: 0802118089. Grove Press, 2005. Price: US$24; 315 pages.
Scott B MacDonald is senior managing director at Aladdin Capital and a
senior consultant at KWR International.