Who controls the past?
In a world of few absolutes it’s safe to say that Dr Peter Carey (right) will not be submitting his CV to a cabal of bureaucrats for a permit to ply his trade.
The proposal that Indonesian historians should be certified like halal foods sounds like a brain fade by the Bureau of Idiot Notions during a full moon. But the source is the Education Ministry's Directorate General of Culture
A spokesman said registration was for international events and scholarly journals. Assessors would check capability and competence.
Carey, adjunct professor in the History Department of the University of Indonesia (UI) appeared bemused. He told Strategic Review:
“It’s odd – pretty outrageous. This is the sort of thing found in North Korea, China and the stan states like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
“Who is qualified to evaluate? About 90 per cent of research on Indonesia is done by outsiders. This is the fourth most populous country but it has the smallest capacity to explain itself to the world.
“Politicians fear history. They see facing the past as dangerous. But society respects historians. We are novelists who visited the archives.”
Government certification also overlooks the brutality of academia where reputations can be shredded by slipshod citations and faulty footnotes. Historians get forensically scrutinised, like climate scientists and cancer-cure researchers. No outside agency’s penalty could match the career-crushing that follows a damning peer review.
The licence proposal surfaced after the International Peoples’ Tribunal meeting in The Hague passed judgment on Indonesia – and Carey detects a link. The judges heard evidence of the government-sanctioned slaughter that followed the failed coup d’état allegedly engineered by communists 50 years ago.
This June the IPT concluded that mass killings which took an estimated 500,000 lives were crimes against humanity and victims should be compensated. The Indonesian government snubbed the proceedings and rejected the findings
Accounts of the 1965 events were taken from individual witnesses and historians unconcerned about endangering their warrants.
Victors write history. After the coup the Soeharto government hired the late military historian Nugroho Notosusanto to pen its account of the putsch.
As the author was also Minister for Education and Culture (and rector of UI) his version prevailed, ignoring the slaughter. This was taught to millions of children across more than three decades.
Australian historian Professor Kate McGregor wrote that Notosusanto was ‘the central propagandist of the New Order regime’.
“It was a dire era, the de-intellectualisation of Indonesia, like being lobotomised,” said Carey. “The results are with us today in the low interest in books and reading.”
Carey’s objections to licensing are not because he quivers on a shaky academic and personal platform. He started research in the archipelago in 1971, speaks the language and is married to an Indonesian.
Before retiring from Oxford University in 2008 and settling in Banten he was a researcher, teacher, media commentator and author. He’s also been an awarded human rights activist in Cambodia, Timor Leste and Myanmar – where he was born in 1948.
Neither is it because he knows less about Indonesia’s past than the Director General of Culture. Carey still holds a British passport but he’s the go-to guy for facts on the guerrilla fighter Prince Diponegoro and the 1825-1830 Java War, the topic of his doctoral thesis.
Carey said stories of the derring-do Yogyakarta-born aristocrat who confronted the Dutch also inspired Soekarno’s anti-colonial revolutionaries. Now the yarns are exciting new generations of aspiring nationalists through books, plays and comics.
Inevitably facts morph into myths. Diponegoro was a skilled tactician who outmanoeuvred Dutch soldiers for much of his campaign, but not the pure and polished royal beloved by his boosters. Carey said Diponegoro was a “Jekyll and Hyde character ... a very difficult person to live with – maybe a bit like (Russian author) Tolstoy.
“He was religious but not a killjoy. He liked sharing a glass of Chardonnay with his captors, claiming he drank for medicinal purposes. He didn’t lose his humanity or his spirit … he was a man of iron.”
Carey’s biography The Power of Prophecy: Prince Dipanagara (alternative spelling) and the End of an Old Order in Java was published in The Netherlands in 2007. It’s around 1,000 pages and has a price tag equal to a dollar a page.
This has put it beyond the reach of most Indonesian libraries, let alone students. So the author has revised his work for a three-volume paperback edition in Indonesian retailing for around Rp 250,000 (US 19). It’s titled Takdir; Riwayat Pangeran Diponegoro. (Destiny; the History of Prince Diponegoro).
The rebel leader was arrested when invited to discuss peace proposals under a flag of truce.
“The Dutch betrayed Diponegoro but didn’t execute him because they feared local anger and problems in Europe,” said Carey. “He was treated with respect and exiled to Manado and Makassar where he died in 1855.
“The Dutch had a deep sense of insecurity and feared the British (who ruled between 1811 and 1815) might return.”
This month [sept] Carey addressed about 150 students at the Malang State University’s campus cafe to promote Perempuan-perempuan Perkasa di Jawa XVIII - XIX (Strong women of the 18th and 19th century). The book was co-written with Dutch historian Vincent Houben.
“The Dutch records don’t give attention to the important role played by women,” Carey said. “It’s my vision and mission to help Indonesians understand the warp and weave of their history. My work is in the public domain.
“More important than talk of registration is to ask: What is the role of the public intellectual in modern Indonesian society? By discovering the nation’s history we can reflect on what is happening today.
“It’s too late for licensing historians – Pandora is already out of the box.”
(First published in Strategic Review 16 September 2016)