When books become threats: preserving ‘public order’ in Indonesia

Book banning has a long history in Indonesia, and is often associated with the public spectacle of book burning.
Book banning has a long history in Indonesia, and is often associated with the public spectacle of book burning.

 

Minister of Defence Ryamizard Ryacudu recently urged the military and police to confiscate books on communism and left-wing ideas, to prevent what he described as the reawakening of communism. His comments reflect the distress caused by the recent national symposium on the 1965 violence and other recent attempts to debunk the myths perpetuated by the New Order regime and force Indonesia to come to terms with its dark past. Military figures, like retired general Ryamizard, are no doubt concerned about efforts to reveal military complicity in the deaths of more than 500,000 members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and their alleged sympathisers. They have therefore stoked fear of a communist revival.

 

President Joko Widodo must also take some of the blame for the surge in anti-communist sentiment. Perhaps in an effort to appease military disquiet after the national symposium, he called on the military and police to take action against anyone distributing communist symbols. Over the past couple of weeks, police in several Indonesian cities have confiscated books on 1965 and leftist ideas, and people have been questioned for wearing badges or t-shirts displaying the hammer and sickle. It should be noted, however, that the president has since clarified his position and warned the police not to go too far.

 

Fearing that it would be targeted, the nation’s largest chain of bookstores, Gramedia, pulled all books on Marxism, Leninism and the 1965 tragedy, including the bestselling Buru Island, A Memoir (Memoar Pulau Buru) by Hersri Setiawan. In a sad irony, on the eve of National Book Day, the head of the National Library, Dedi Junaedi, lent his support to plans to confiscate “communist books” (although, following public ridicule, he backed away from these comments). In addition to preventing a revival of the PKI, officials have claimed that book banning is necessary to prevent freedom of expression that is “without limits” (kebablasan), echoing the vague terms used by the New Order to suppress opposition.

 

Book banning has a long history in Indonesia, extending back to the colonial period, although it was most pronounced during Soeharto’s New Order period. The New Order government relied on a 1963 Soekarno-era presidential decree (No. 4/PNPS/1963) to suppress dissenting ideas. Soon after it came to power, the New Order regime began using the decree to ban books connected to communism, and the decree was converted to law in 1969. To sustain efforts to repress communist ideology, the Soeharto government also published a regulation (TAP MPRS XXV/1966) that prohibited the spread of communism, Leninism, and Marxism. It remains in effect today.

 

Book banning and censorship in Indonesia has often been associated with the ugly spectacle of book burning. Book burning is a highly public display of power, and symbolises the state’s dominance over ideas it considers at odds with national cultural norms and principles. In Burning Books (2008), Haig Bosmajian cites a New York Times article that describes how Indonesia celebrated National Education Day in 1964 by burning 500 books deemed contrary to Indonesian ideas and theories.

 

The works of Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer were celebrated overseas and he was even nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature. But because of his association with Lekra, a literary organisation under the PKI, his works were suppressed. In 1981, two of his books were burned by the government in Jakarta and his epic Buru Quartet remained banned in Indonesia until after the fall of Soeharto.

 

The collapse of the New Order heralded a new era of freedom of expression and many of the Soeharto-era restrictions on the press were lifted. But book bans and burnings continued. In 2007, for example, the Attorney General’s Office banned 13 school history books on 1965 because they failed to include the suffix “PKI” when referring to the 30 September Movement. The Bekasi branch of the prosecutor’s office followed up by burning more than 1,000 copies of the books. In 2009, five more books were banned, including John Roosa’s Pretext for Mass Murder, which also discussed the 1965 violence.

 

In 2010, the Constitutional Court ruled that the 1963 Presidential Decree was unconstitutional, effectively revoking the Attorney General’s power to ban books. But, as was predicted at the time, the banning of books has continued. The regulation banning communist ideology (TAP MPRS) still exists and is still used to justify banning anything related to communism, including books. The Constitutional Court cannot revoke this regulation, as its jurisdiction is limited to the review of legislation.

 

The state set a disturbing precedent by banning books. Over recent years, conservative non-state actors have also pressured publishers to withdraw and even burn books deemed “against national culture”. This has particularly been the case with books discussing issues of sexuality. In 2014, for example, a sex education comic book for children, Why Puberty (Why Pubertas), was pulled from bookstores after protests from conservative groups. Although the book included a disclaimer stating that it should be read with assistance from parents, the Indonesian Child Protection Commission (KPAI) argued that the comic promoted homosexuality, and as such, violated national culture. Several years earlier, the former editor of the now-defunct Playboy Indonesia magazine, Erwin Arnada, was jailed for indecency after protests from the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). The magazine closed after less than a dozen issues.

 

Conservative groups have also sought to ban books over perceived blasphemy. In June 2012, Gramedia burned thousands of copies of the Indonesian translation of the book Five Cities that Ruled the World (Lima Kota Paling Berpengaruh di Dunia), following protests from the FPI and the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI). The FPI reported the publisher and translator for blasphemy and under pressure from this vigilante organization, Gramedia decided to publicly burn the copies of the book. Book lovers were dismayed, and questioned why it would buckle to pressure from hard-liners instead of fighting the issue in court.

 

The recent confiscations of communist and leftist books are a continuation of this trend and put Indonesia’s freedom of expression in further peril. Although in this case the state has been responsible, hard-line groups have also used the same arguments of “social stability” and “cultural norms” to ban and burn books deemed against the views of the majority. Access to information is vital for democracy and imagination is essential for social progress. The response from civil society and members of the public opposing efforts to restrict freedom of expression suggests young people do care about these hard-won reforms. If we don’t protect freedom of expression now, it is possible that other books containing issues deemed subversive or a threat to public order will also be banned.