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Jakarta Post

Writing our way to freedom

  • Endy M. Bayuni

    The Jakarta Post

Ubud, Bali   /   Wed, November 4, 2015   /  04:38 pm

When Indonesia celebrated its 70th independence anniversary this year, we paid tribute to our heroes for making it happen. Through blood, sweat and tears, they turned Indonesia into a free and independent nation.

Not widely appreciated or recognized in these celebrations is the contribution that some of these heroes made through their writings.

We tend to focus more on those who took up arms and joined the physical struggle in the late 1940s. Equally important, if not more so, was the work of thinkers who launched the independence struggle decades earlier through their writings.

Without their expression, there would have been no independence to fight for to begin with and there may not be an Indonesia today.

The idea of Indonesia, and the idea of a free and independent nation, came from these writers. I am talking not only of Sukarno and Hatta and people of their generation, but of their seniors; people like Tjokroaminoto. These men and women were writing much earlier; dreaming of their people becoming a free and independent.

There was not that much freedom then. Many worked under the most difficult circumstances, enduring intimidation, harassment, arrest and torture. Some were sent into exile to malaria-infested remote islands and never returned.

Indonesia'€™s independence struggle recognizes three milestones: May 22, 1908, with the launch of Budi Utomo, the first movement that marked the birth of national consciousness; Oct. 28, 1928, when youth representatives from far flung islands came to Jakarta to read out the Youth Pledge proclaiming one nation, one country and one language: Indonesian and the Proclamation of Independence, on Aug. 17, 1945.

In all these three historic events, we see the influence of writers. They are the unsung heroes. They wrote their way to freedom and independence for the entire nation.

Fast forward to today'€™s independent Indonesia. Writers still contribute to the progress of the nation although they take a backseat role. But the one thing that has not changed is censorship. It existed then during Dutch colonial rule and it exists today in an independent Indonesia.

Indonesia made a great impression at this year'€™s Frankfurt Book Fair in October, but so elated were we that we missed the theme of Frankfurt 2015: Freedom of expression.

Salman Rushdie, the renowned Indian-born author who still has a death warrant against him going back to 1989 after the publication of his book, The Satanic Verses, was a keynote speaker in Frankfurt. He made a brief appearance, but left a powerful and important message that is worth reciting because it resonates with the current situation in Indonesia.

Rushdie lamented that in the 21st century, people in the West still talk about freedom of expression, an issue that he said should have been settled long ago. Rushdie cautioned societies against complacency, saying that '€œwithout freedom of expression, all other freedoms fail.'€

Journalist Goenawan Mohamad, who chaired the Indonesian national committee at the Frankfurt Book Fair, addressed the question of freedom in his speech, referring to a 19th century Javanese poem that talks about a character, Malang Sumirang, sentenced by kings and priests to burn in fire for blasphemy.

The story goes that he voluntarily walked into the fire. As the fire raged, he asked for pen and papers and started to write a poem. He did not burn or die, and once the fire was out, he gave the poem to the king. He then walked off and disappeared into the jungle.

Power is not unlimited, and it ends when it is confronted by a desire to write, said Goenawan. By writing, Malang switched his place from being condemned to being an invisible man, and made those with power powerless.

The Frankfurt message on freedom of expression and the importance of writing is important for Indonesians to hear, especially in view of what has happened in this country. We are currently witnessing a shrinking of the space for public expression.

A campus publication was withdrawn under police pressure because it reported on the 1965 massacre of communists in Indonesia. A 77-year old Swedish citizen of Indonesian origin was manhandled and deported by the police for praying at the grave site of his father, a victim of the 1965 mayhem.

And then there was the decision by the Ubud festival to cancel a number of programs deemed '€œsensitive'€ by the authorities. The organizers of the Ubud festival were forced to cancel all discussions on the 1965 tragedy or risk losing the entire permit. There have been other cases of infringement on freedom of expression in Indonesia, including bans on publications, public discussions and the screening of films.

These are all recent events. For much of the last 17 years following the collapse of the Soeharto regime, there has been an expansion of freedom in Indonesia. Just look at the number of books published, films and documentaries produced and plays performed.

Indonesia was well on its way to claiming its place as the third largest democracy in the world. Events in recent weeks, however, raise serious questions about Indonesia'€™s commitment to democracy and freedom.

History shows that once the censors get away with one ban, say a public discussion of a particular issue, another one will quickly follow and the censorship will not stop. Before we know it, we discover that the space for expression and discussion has disappeared.

Freedom in Indonesia is in peril.

Thankfully, the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival 2015 went on in spite of the restrictions to offer up over 200 events. The title, '€œ17,000 islands of imagination'€, is an invitation for writers and readers to come to Indonesia because it remains a largely unexplored goldmine for people to find inspiration.

The Ubud festival is an event to celebrate some of the best literature in Indonesia and the world. It is also a festival to celebrate freedom of expression and to recognize and appreciate the work of writers. Ubud serves as a reminder to continue the fight, the good fight, against censors of any kind and to keep the public space as wide open as possible for free thought and free expression.

We should take our cues from early writers in Indonesia. Through their imagination, they were able to create a nation called Indonesia. A nation free and independent.

Like them, we must fight our way to freedom and prosperity through writing.

The writer is senior editor of The Jakarta Post. This is an abridged version of his keynote address at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival 2015.

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