Indonesian police recently banned the Turn Left Festival in Jakarta. The Jakarta Post’s Margareth S. Aritonang and Pandaya analyse the incident, which has raised fears concerning the return of authoritarianism and put young leftist movements in the spotlight.
It all started with Yayak Yatmaka writing Militarism for Beginners, an Indonesian picture book intended for younger audiences that he wrote years ago when he lived in Germany.
Then, last year a member of a discussion group, consisting mostly of young idealist intellectuals, students, artists and activists like Yayak, became born-again after reading a book about the history of communism in Indonesia.
To make a long story short, the artist stumbled upon a historical fact that it was the Indonesian Communist Party’s (PKI) anti-colonialist and nationalist spirit in the early 1920s that fired up our founding fathers’ struggle for independence.
The reading gave the artist a whole new perspective that was never available to him at school — the PKI was in fact a significant movement in laying down the foundations of Indonesia but its contribution is nowhere to be found in history books.
“The only communism the youth know comes from the propaganda created by the New Order [regime], which stigmatised the PKI as a frightening party worthy of nothing but loathing,” says sculptor-cum-activist Dolorosa Sinaga, referring to Suharto’s authoritarian military-backed regime that controlled Indonesia between 1965 and 1998.
Dolorosa was the lead organiser of the Turn Left Festival that was disrupted by a bunch of intolerant thugs with the apparent backing of the police, with the latter then forcibly dispersing attendees when the event was just about to begin at Taman Ismail Marzuki, a government-owned cultural center in Jakarta on February 27.
Scores of people from an alliance of Islamic and nationalist groups chanted slogans, intimidated the organisers and accused them of being sympathetic to the PKI.
No official permit
The police argued that the gathering should be banned because “some groups” had raised objections and the organisers had failed to obtain the official permit.
The ban, which forced the organisers to relocate the festival to the premises of the nearby Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation, was only the latest incident in a string of banned events that include seminars, film screenings and publications containing anything that smacks of “leftist” activism (see “Left out in the cold”).
Instead of cowering, the festival organisers have vowed to extend the festival — that features discussions, leftist books sales and art shows — every weekend “until the nation has transformed for the better”.
They will be marching on with the battle cry of “resist Suharto’s propaganda”.
The more than 32 activists that spearheaded the festival have a noble purpose of making a better Indonesia that is free from fear, which has been deeply rooted due to the corrupt culture built by the Suharto regime, since he seized power on the heels of the 1965 deadly aborted coup, blamed on the PKI.
“Until today, we all see the continuing reproduction of the New Order [regime’s] culture and values,” Dolorosa says.
“With the Turn Left Festival, we want to resist the whole legacy of the New Order that managed to cling to power for so long thanks to their effective propaganda.
“Intolerance as we [festival organisers] are suffering now is an example of the New Order political culture I’m talking about.”
The main event was the launch of a provocatively titled book History of Indonesian Leftist Movements for Beginners and discussions about leftist movements that “few young people know about”.
“The festival aims to inspire the young and make them aware of the need to learn history that hasn’t been twisted, [in order] to build a better Indonesia. I’m wondering why the government is so afraid of the festival,” Dolorosa said.
It is not that the activists want to promote the “isms” as some government officials may suspect.
In fact, they believe that communism, Marxism and Leninism are dead and irrelevant. They seek to rewrite history, which they say has been distorted.
The Turn Left Festival is a major collective project mostly by and for younger activists who strive for greater freedom of speech. With the preparatory work having begun a year ago, the canceled event was hosted by 40 volunteers aged between 18 and 40 from major cities across Indonesia in addition to the 32 authors of the 527-page History of Indonesian Leftist Movements.
Among familiar names that co-authored the book are Ayumail, Harry Waluyo, Iwan Gunawan, Kuncoro Adibroto, Tsoe Tjen Marching, Usman Hamid and Yayak Yatmaka, just to name a few.
Dhyta Caturani, one of the organising committee members, said Turn Left was only one of many similar events initiated by young people.
In Yogyakarta, an “education city” where activism has always been vibrant, the city held a discussion on the 1965 tragedy.
In Salatiga, Satya Wacana University students published Lentera despite a ban on its August 2015 edition on 1965.
The young want the state to allow them greater room to exercise their freedom of speech and have a say in policymaking.
“Our aim is to encourage young people to exercise critical thinking. We are targeting the young […] many of them quench their curiosity about what actually happens to their rights through the internet.”
The Indonesian Military (TNI), which officially quit politics after Suharto’s downfall but still wields clout in the government, retains its strong stance against communism as it believes the ideology still poses a threat to the state ideology, Pancasila.
A week after the festival was banned, Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu told a media gathering that communism was one of the four main ideologies in the world that the military closely watched, with the other three being radicalism, socialism and Leninism.
“It’s not that they are bad but it’s just because they are not suitable for Indonesia. The US may not be as strong as it is now had it not adopted liberalism. Communism is good in China. In Indonesia, radicalism began only after the Bali bombing [in 2002].”
Sharing Ryamizard’s concern, the Home Ministry’s director-general for political affairs and general administration, Sudarmo, warned that the danger of leftist movements were that they “lurk in the dark and wait for the right time to come into the open”.
Leftist ideologies, Sudarmo said, provoke civil organisations — especially the Islamic ones — to come forward and oppose activities they see as adverse to Pancasila.
Sudarmo, who also formerly worked at National Intelligence Agency (BIN), acknowledged most of the various hard-line groups that helped disperse the Turn Left Festival were registered with the Home Ministry and that the police did not use them to intimidate organizers as many suspected.
“Supporters of the festival may hold a grudge against the New Order but remember that everyone living in the country must follow the rules.”