An Interview with Goenawan Mohamad on Politics and Journalism in Indonesia: After the CrackdownSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Gaynor: I'm curious about your background: where you grew up, how you became a writer and a journalist.
Mohamad: Well, I grew up in a small town called Padang, on the north coast of Central Java. My family was . . . a rather political family, my father and mother were exiled to Digul, West Irian [a remote internment camp], in the twenties. One of my brothers was born there. And then they returned in the thirties, I think. And in 1946 my father was again arrested . . . and executed by the Dutch, who came back [to Indonesia, after the Japanese occupation] to bring it back under their colonial domination.
Gaynor:How did you become a writer?
Mohamad: There were a lot of books in my home. I think my father read a lot. And he even trained my immediate older brother in English.... We got books, we bought books from Jakarta, after my father was no longer with us. And I listened to the radio. There were poetry readings on the radio.
Gaynor: How did you turn to journalism?
Mohamad:: Well, it's very easy, because journalism pays. To be a writer does not.
Gaynor: You were the editor of Tempo magazine until it was banned by the Suharto government in 1994. I'm curious about what the motivations were in starting Tempo.
Mohamad: I was working in a newspaper run by young intellectuals after Sukarno's downfall in 1965, called Harian Kami (Our Daily). It was supposed to be just a student newspaper but it was not, it was an ordinary daily, with a lot of intellectual flavor. Then a group of friends came to me and suggested that we should have a magazine. So I proposed: "OK, if you want to do it let's do it in a very different way." And the only thing we knew at the time was the model of Time magazine. That kind of thing had never been attempted before [in Indonesia]. In fact Tempo was the first magazine of its kind in Southeast Asia.
Gaynor: The other weekly magazines that exist now in Indonesia, are they very different from the way Tempo was?
Mohamad: They followed Tempo's format, but when we started, nobody had done it. And we didn't know that it was going to be a success. We thought that nobody was going to buy it, and then... we made history, that's what we believe.
Gaynor: Twenty-four years of publication, right? Do you know how big the readership was?
Mohamad: Just before the ban we had 200,000 a week. It was the biggest weekly.
Gaynor: How is being a journalist in Indonesia now different than it was, say, 10 or 15 or 20 years ago?
Mohamad: Not very different. The level of freedom of expression varies with the political atmosphere. . . . Sometimes you could do a lot of things in this very limited space of freedom, sometimes you couldn't move very far. But essentially the licensing system has created a lot of problems. . . because the government has the power to close you down.
Gaynor: And they can just remove the license anytime.
Mohamad: Well, for Tempo, 1994 wasn't the first time it was banned, it was the second. When we got banned the first time it was rather easy to get the license back.
Gaynor: What year was that?
Mohamad: 1981, maybe. Just for a month. One month, and then we got the license back. But now it's more and more difficult, because you have to have financial backing from people who are close to the government. You have to have a letter of recommendation from the union, the government-backed union of journalists. And you have to have other things.
Gaynor: Do all journalists need to be part of that union?
Mohamad: No, but if you want to be an editor you have to [join]. That's why a new alliance, a new organization was set up after the banning of Tempo — to challenge that. . . . The union was just an extension of the government's power, like in a communist country.
Gaynor: The other day you said something that really struck me. I think it was, "Courage is contagious." It's a great phrase which hung in the air. I wonder if that's an idea that you came to realize over a long period of time, or if there are specific moments when it really crystallized for you?
Mohamad: Well, my favorite metaphor for being an editor in Indonesia is that you work like a captain or a pilot of a hijacked airplane. You make one small step or move which the hijackers don't want you to do and the plane will be blown up, and then everybody innocent dies. So you have this fear of jeopardizing other people's careers, [and] living in fear was not very easy. One day — I wrote about this in "Sidelines" — a group of young men came to me with a picture of their father, killed by the military. And I didn't dare to publish it. It made me feel very bad. And from then on, I started to feel like I had to find a way to deal with this [fear]. And then there was Aung San Suu Kyi's writing [an outspoken critic of the Burmese government, under long-term house arrest], which was very inspiring in terms of giving me the [tools] to conceptualize what I was looking for and trying to do, which was to manage the fear. . . . If you're an editor, you have to assume the fear yourself, or [keep it in] a very small circle around you. You cannot spread the fear. You should not, so that reporters can do anything they want to do, writers too. But editors should be very cautious. So [that] the fear is contained.
And then, from time to time, you have to meet people who have been victims,. . . [and] you confront a situation where you have to choose. You don't choose the powerful but the weak. If you don't meet the weak, you tend to visualize only the powerful. What you see in your mind is a military figure standing in front of you trying to slap you. But if you see the victim of oppression, you know that there's somebody who is with you, in the same boat as you. Then, I met these young activists who were really fearless. They gave me a lot of inspiration, I learned much from them. That's what I meant when I said, "Courage is contagious." It's your job now to spread this feeling, to give people some kind of resilience, or power, not to be intimidated; because the success of intimidation depends on the victim. If you refuse to be scared, then intimidation doesn't work.
Gaynor: It sounds like a tremendous challenge that must come up again and again. Do you think that you get better at doing it, or is it always like you're starting from scratch again?
Mohamad: You have to learn it every time. For example, after the crackdown [this past summer] . . . friends told me, "you've got to go away." Then, after a while, I said, "no, that's not the way to go." So, I learned it again. If you confront them, what will you get? Imprisonment? I saw people in prison. And they're OK.
Gaynor: In prison, or afterwards, after they came out?
Mohamad: Both. They're always in very high spirits. That's the good thing about having friends in prison. You visit them, and you see them being very cheerful. And the AJI people [the Alliance of Indonesian Journalists] have this system of supporting friends who are in jail.
Gaynor: Since we're on the subject, I wanted to ask you some things about the summer. This past summer, it appeared that the government of Indonesia engineered a change in the leadership of the PDI [Partai Demokrasi Indonesia, a government-sanctioned opposition party], reversing an earlier change. They tried to oust Megawati Sukarnoputri and reinstated Soejardi, who they had previously removed from that position. Throughout the country, there was a strong popular reaction, especially in Jakarta, where there were public demonstrations. The government then called in the military to put down these protests and to expel supporters of Megawati's leadership from PDI headquarters. These events, in part, caused the biggest riots in Jakarta in 20 years. The government detained and questioned various activists and vocal critics. On September 9, you were brought in for questioning. What reason did they give for bringing you in, if they gave a reason at all?
Mohamad: The PRD people, the Partai Rakyat Demokrat [an unsanctioned opposition party] confessed after torture that they made an attempt to contact me. . . .
Gaynor: After the government cracked down on protests in Jakarta on July 27, officials began to warn people about "communists" or "communist-like elements." That surprised me, because it seemed that even the word "communist" has been practically taboo in public contexts for so long [especially since the large-scale killing of supposed communists in 1965, after an abortive coup which brought down Sukarno, and brought in Suharto's New Order regime]. In this way, the government drew on popular anti-left sentiment, and also on a long history of political suppression in general, and against the left in particular, with roots in the colonial period and in international cold- war politics. Accusing democracy activists of using organizational techniques that were like those of communists in an earlier era, the government also warned people, via the media, not to be manipulated or "ridden" by organizations and individuals who wanted to take advantage of the situation and exploit it for their own purposes. This line positioned the government as the "protector" of the people against opposition critics. What do you think about this advice from the government, and how do you gauge popular response to it?
Mohamad: My guess, my feeling, is that the government has lost the capacity to lie. They have lost the persuasive power of ideas. So they start talking about the old things, and use this politics of memory against the young, who have different kinds of memories. You know that those activists who are in jail, the chairman of the PRD, for example, was really a child when Suharto came into power. But Suharto thinks that the young people's memories don't exist, [that they're] just a kind of copy of his own memory. So how could you convince. . . ? Because you cannot control others' memories.
Gaynor: I remember reading things in the paper in August about people in the military saying, "We have to teach the young people. They just don't understand because they were born later, they were babies, and we have to teach them how serious this threat is." I wonder if young people believe that. I know some people who are very aware, of course, of the sort of national trauma of 1965, but...
Mohamad: The majority is, perhaps, just being brain-washed, one way or another, by this government's. . . favorite ghost- buster. My institute, the Institute for the Study of the Free Flow of Information, published a book that was later banned. In it we published an opinion poll among the young, [asking] what kind of attitude they adopt toward the former communist party. And one of the interesting things is that they don't think that the continued persecution of the old communist members was legitimate.
Gaynor: Speaking of young people and opinion polls, I wonder what sense you have about popular sentiment toward the creation of new parties like PUDI [Partai Uni Demokrasi Indonesia], and PRD itself, which the government refuses to recognize as legitimate.
Mohamad: Well, regarding Bintang [Bintang Sri Pamungkas, who recently founded PUDI], my impression is that people admire his courage, but don't take his party seriously. And I donÕt think he takes his party seriously. When he said that he was going to nominate himself to be the future president of Indonesia, nobody took him seriously. He doesn't take it seriously either. It's just to challenge the established system. PRD was more serious. Their line of thinking was that you have to have a party to change the country. But they were rather naive. Charmingly naive. Very courageous, but they are young, they have the privilege of being naive and courageous at the same time. When I say that they were naive, [I mean that] they were not prepared to go underground. They were not prepared with an alternative way to confront the government crackdown. . . .
Gaynor: A lot of the people in the PRD were students. There is a song by Iwan Fals [a popular musician], "Sarjana Muda" (College Graduate), where he satirizes the pursuit of an academic degree and dwells on the hopes and expectations that these degrees create, and on the limits of their practical usefulness. Do you think that sentiment still has a lot of relevance for students today?
Mohamad: Yes, I think so. Indonesians invest so much in the education of their children. That's the only way to have a guarantee for the future of the family, such an uncertain future, unless they believe it. The job-oriented atmosphere in the university is always strong, increasingly so, they say, because of the economy. But it's always [been] the tradition of Indonesian students to be politically concerned. They are always people who want to be involved in politics, especially because the bright ones find that the critical analysis of things is lacking. So there's a kind of rebellion against this — especially in the humanities and social sciences. It's illustrative that most of the activists, especially in the PRD, came from history departments — maybe because they were trained to find facts. But facts are not there. So there's a kind of despondence, disillusionment, and anger.
Gaynor: Do you think that students really are essentially powerless when it comes to addressing political circumstances in Indonesia?
Mohamad: Indonesian history has a myth that students change things. But look carefully at historical fact. The colonial time was brought down by the Japanese War, by the Second World War. The 1965 upheaval was a creation of popular support, of which the students were the vanguard, the front-line, but basically the real power was in the army. And this myth, if it persists, can endanger, [can give] students a kind of delusion of grandeur, which may prevent them from really creating networks to reach out to other groups.
Gaynor: Do you think that now students are prepared to organize and build those networks again, among different segments of the population?
Mohamad: There were signs of it, like when they joined the Independent Election Monitoring Committee. But at this stage, the initiative is mostly taken by NGOs [non- governmental organizations]....
Gaynor: Iwan Fals also has a song, a really funny sarcastic song about development, where he pokes fun at the rhetoric of progress in Indonesia. He says things like, "Well, it's fine, as long as it doesn't strip the forests bare or make the people 'restless.'" Do you imagine that it might be possible in the future to build a kind of political legitimacy in Indonesia in which those people who have been the targets of development can also emerge as equal participants in the political process?
Mohamad: Well, there have been attempts from SMID [Solidaritas Mahasiswa Indonesia untuk Demokrasi, Indonesian Students' Solidarity for Democracy], which is part of the PRD, to work with the working class. . . . And they've been very successful in this attempt. The problem is that most people neglect to build up networks with the urban poor in general. Most workers. . . are outside the city, and their number is basically small. Manufacturing industry is only about four percent of the labor force. So other things should be done to build power, to make these people represented in the future. And that requires a political party.
Gaynor: Or more than one.
Mohamad: More than one, but a serious one.
Gaynor: I wanted to ask you about East Timor. Recently two prominent activists for East Timorese independence won the Nobel Peace Prize, and Ali Alatas, the Indonesian foreign minister, commented that he was shocked about this decision and that these individuals were just "political adventurists." What do you think the effects have been internationally or domestically?
Mohamad: It reminds people that we still have problems. . . . For twenty years the result of this Timorese thing was always zero, in terms of Indonesia's attempt to win the hearts and minds of Timorese [and reconcile them] to annexation by the Republic [of Indonesia]. The Nobel Prize is a cue, a sign, that tells the people that we have achieved almost nothing [in East Timor].
Gaynor: Can we return to Tempo? It was banned in 1994, and now there's Tempo on-line. What do you think about the extension of Indonesian journalism into electronic media, and what effects do you foresee, or see already, as a result of on-line journalism?
Mohamad: On-line journalism is still very costly. It doesn't make much money — it doesn't make money at all. Tempo on-line has only about 15,000 [readers] — that's not bad, considering it's new — and over half of these are from Indonesia. But everybody goes on-line now, including the government newspaper, so it's not a big deal, just a different kind of technology — except Tempo, because Tempo is not in hard copy.
Gaynor: Has the government said anything to you about the fact that Tempo is on-line?
Mohamad: Yes, Harmoko, the minister [of information] asked, "What would you do there [in cyberspace]?" And I said, "Well, there's no law against that [publishing an on-line journal even though the magazine is banned]."
Gaynor: So are you still editing Tempo?
Mohamad: No, there's a very small team, led by Tempo's bureau chief. It's not wild news. It's not as wild as the underground newspapers.
Gaynor: Is there a lot of underground publishing?
Mohamad: Maybe it's not yet a widespread thing, but there are at least three that are important. One is Kabar dari PIJAR [News from the Information Center and Action Network for Reform], which is on-line. The second is SiaR [Broadcast], which is new, it started just after the crackdown. The third is Suara Independen. Suara Independen used an address in Melbourne. You can't mail anything to it, but nobody checks — well, until recently. They found the printing office [for the hard-copy version in Indonesia]. But the editorial office — I don't even know where it is. I write for it, but I don't know.
Goenawan Mohamad is a journalist, an activist and a poet. He served as editor of the Indonesian magazine Tempo, from its inception in 1971, until it was banned by the Suharto government in June 1994. In Fall 1996 Goenawan took part in the Advanced Study Center's Sawyer Seminar, "Nation, Community and Culture in the Aftermath of Empire."
From 1977 on, Goenawan wrote a weekly column in Tempo called "Catatan Pinggir" (Sidelines). These essays, while covering a broad range of topics, reveal a consistent concern with history. This theme recurs not merely in an effort to explain how current conditions came to be, but also to undertake a historiographic inquiry about that which is taken for granted, about the ways in which the past and present are represented, and about the processes of forgetting. Four volumes of the essays that comprised his weekly column have been published in Indonesian, and a selection of these have been translated into English as Sidelines: Thought Pieces From Tempo Magazine (South Melbourne, 1994), Jennifer Lindsay, translator).
For Goenawan, the play of language is always evident in both his poetry and prose. Despite the fact that Indonesian is not his first language — something that holds true for the majority of Indonesians — his writing is filled with an enormous variety of styles and expressions. This attention to the play of language runs counter to a widely acknowledged trend toward the bureaucratization of Indonesian.
Goenawan's concerns for freedom of expression are evident both in his writings and in his involvement with experimental theater, and the active role he plays in Indonesia's Alliance of Independent Journalists and the Independent Committee for Monitoring the General Elections. These elections are scheduled to take place this year (1997).
The following interview, which took place on November 6, 1996, concerns his experiences as a writer and his opinions about the current political climate in Indonesia. The interview was conducted by Jennifer Gaynor, a graduate student in the Anthropology and History Program.