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".
1975 trial of a student activist, prosecutors
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."
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
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
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.
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."
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
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%."
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
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
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.
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
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
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].
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."
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?"
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."
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,
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