Sunday, December 9, 2012

Why the documentary "The Act of Killing" or "Jagal" is equally impressive and troubling

 Image from "The Act of Killing" taken during a private screening. Photo by:Yosef Djakababa

Why the documentary “The Act of Killing” or “Jagal” is equally impressive and troubling
By Yosef Djakababa*

 I finally saw the documentary that created so much buzz in Indonesia after its clip appeared on YouTube a while ago, “The Act of killing” or “Jagal” (Indonesian title) by Joshua Oppenheimer. The documentary focuses on the perpetrators of the 1965-66 mass killings in Indonesia that took the lives of hundreds of thousands alleged Communists.  This violent episode is part of a chain of events leading directly to a major political and social transformation in mid 1960’s. This series of events is popularly known as “Peristiwa’65” or “the 1965 event.”

The roots of the problem are deep and complex. Since early 1960s, the rivalry between PKI (Partai Komunis Indonesia – Indonesian Communist Party), the Army, and President Sukarno intensified. The situation worsened as the interests of the Cold War and Sukarno’s “Konfrontasi” campaign against the new State of Malaysia increased the already heated political atmosphere, and thus complicated Indonesia’s domestic politics. The situation culminated on October 1, 1965 when an allegedly left-leaning military group who called themselves the 30th September Movement (G30S) launched an operation to abduct several top brass Army officers from their respective homes.  G30S took the generals to a place called Lubang Buaya in East Jakarta, where they killed them, dumped and left their bodies in an old well.

The Army blamed the PKI as the mastermind behind the killing of the Army Generals. As an act of retaliation, General Soeharto led the mass purging that made Indonesia a success in the Cold War’s anti-Communist campaign. The immediate outcome of this incident was the arrest and killings of hundreds of thousands if not millions of PKI members and its alleged sympathizers. Emerging as an important figure during this period, Soeharto eventually became Indonesia’s second President, replacing the ailing Sukarno and he will remain in power for more than thirty years. During his regime – known as the New Order, Soeharto consistently maintained his anti-Communist outlook and systematically suppressed any left leaning groups in Indonesia.

The New Order – sponsored history of 1965 highlights the heroism of the falling Generals and demonized the PKI and its followers.  The mass killings and illegal incarceration are absent in the school curriculum and public discourse. For decades, Indonesian public is reluctant to talk about this dark period. The survivors of the 65-66 tragedies however, continue to suffer from the violent repercussions and discrimination, especially throughout the New Order period. Thousands, if not millions of Indonesians are still suffering from what happened during those years and still struggling to recover from their troubling past.

Unlike other movies with 1965-66 themes, the documentary “The Act of Killing” bravely deals with the perpetrators. In my knowledge, “The Act of Killing” is the first documentary that highlights the point of view of those who actually did the killings and thus revealing their deep roles in the purging campaign. Joshua Oppenheimer, the director of the film, masterfully uses an innovative method to bring out this difficult and sensitive topic. By giving the space for the perpetrators to portray and reflect upon their experiences through re-enactment and movie making, Oppenheimer follows the perpetrators’ recollection, fantasy and ideas. The result is an image of ironic, absurd, sometimes comical, but also grotesque portrayals of men who proudly boast their ghastly roles in the 1965-1966 mass violence. Oppenheimer has succeeded in getting not only the point of view of the perpetrators, but also managed to take it into a different level when these perpetrators who are mostly preman or thugs, agree to re-enact and collaborate with him in what they thought to be a production of a feature film.

A spectator of the “The Act of Killing” might be wondering on how ethical is the method of the movie making. In several interviews, Oppenheimer denies any allegations that accuse him for manipulating the actors. He argues that these men actively participate not only in choreographing the film, but also in selecting costumes and themes, writing the scripts, and the filming such as selecting the camera angle. Furthermore, Oppenheimer claims that all actors have signed a release form, written in Indonesian language, that grants him, the filmmaker, unprecedented permission to use any footage. Just for my own curiosity, I was wondering whether the actors knew that the filmmaker had a plan to release behind the scenes fragments as a full documentary on its own rather than the feature film that they were producing. In any case, it would be interesting to see the final version of “Arsan dan Aminah” (the actual feature film project made by the perpetrators.)

The “Act of Killing” successfully highlights multifaceted personalities of the perpetrators as they are not only pictured as cold blooded, brutal, inhuman murderer, but also a loving father and a fun person to hang out and have drink with. Looking from this perspective, these perpetrators behave not too far different from the so called “normal” people.

I appreciate Oppenheimer’s groundbreaking approach in filming a sensitive and controversial topic. However, I am utterly disappointed with the lack of historical context in this documentary. The complicity of the period in which the mass killings took place is radically (if not pathetically) reduced into a few lines shown in the very beginning of the film. Plenty of evidences have shown how the events in the “1965 Indonesia” are very complex in nature. For example, the victims and survivors are not all the members of the Communist party or its affiliates, many of them are Sukarno loyalist and strong followers of the state ideology Pancasila.

Another misleading point of the documentary is the portrayal of Pancasila through the Pemuda Pancasila, a militant group consisting of radical youths and thugs. This focus could send a deceptive message that Pancasila is simply a “bad ideology” that blinds people. While this argument might be true for some, many others would think otherwise. I think the problem lies on the interpretation and implementation. All ideologies are subject to radical interpretation that perhaps leads to suppression and violence, but reducing Pancasila into merely a group of thugs would dangerously simplify not only the ideology itself but also the whole historical context of the atrocities in 1965-66.

With the lack of historical context, juxtaposing the act of killings, the perpetrators, and Pancasila suggests a simple opposition of evil versus good. Oppenheimer is exactly doing what Soeharto's New Order regime has done, but this time it is the other way around. The New Order’s infamous film “Pemberontakan G.30.S/PKI” (some called it “Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI”) simplifies the narrative by depicting the evil Communists performs torture and acts of killings in their effort to get rid of Pancasila. What Oppenheimer does in “The Act of Killing” is the same simplification with the reverse protagonist and antagonists. He depicts the State sponsored perpetrators as the loyal Pancasila supporters who are eagerly wanting to get rid of the Communists. Highlighting this group as the representative of Pancasila ideology is just simply misleading. In my opinion, Pemuda Pancasila CANNOT be seen to be the only representative of Pancasila ideology nor their actions as the typical mindset of Pancasila followers. It is just the same by suggesting FPI (Front Pembela Islam) as the representative of Indonesian Islam, which they are NOT! This fact troubles me the most about the movie.

I understand that it is impossible to tell a complete story of “1965 event” in a documentary and I do not expect “The Act of Killing” to reconstruct the “1965 event” narrative. But I think it is still critical to establish at least a proper context to explain why the perpetrators; Anwar Congo and his friends, did what they did.  In the private screening that I attended, most people were disturbed by this movie. Many were also at lost and raised the following intriguing questions; Why can Anwar and his friends be so brutal but yet seems cool and happy in telling/reenacting their experience? What triggered them at that time to easily kill people, certainly not only because of the declining income from the cinema where they worked as told by one of the perpetrators? Why they suddenly becoming sadistic and so proud of what they did?  Why they were hailed as heroes in a TV show depicted in the movie? The documentary barely touches these questions, let alone provide hint to answer them. Interestingly, most of the audience also wanted to know what is the motivation of the filmmaker in making “The act of killing.”

Whatever the motivation could be, this documentary contributes to the debates around the “1965 event.” Better understanding of the historical context is a must to grasp the violence in 1965-66. One former political prisoner, who endured New Order incarceration in Buru Island, confided to me in an interview. He wanted to know and understand the whole reason why the government put someone like him (who were not a member of PKI) into a remote prison camp without any trial, and why he had to endured years of physical and mental suffering along with discrimination after being released. That being said; even someone who experienced first hand the turbulent period of 1965-1966 still has many questions about the nature of the conflict let alone those who did not live through that period.

I want to be clear that I am not condoning nor sympathizing with Anwar Congo or other perpetrators of the mass killings. I also do not support any repressive and violent acts even if a religion, state or a person sponsors and “legitimizes” it.  I only wish to see the multifaceted aspects of the “1965 event” not only being shown as a simplified black and white, good versus evil campaign, as the Soeharto’s New Order regime has done for years. Since the fall of Soeharto in 1998, scholars, activists and a number of human rights groups have worked so hard to debunk a simplified New Order version of “1965 event.” Unfortunately, “The Act of Killing” has the potential to repeat the mistake that the New Order regime has done by showing certain aspects of the “1965 event” (the perpetrators point of view) in a merely simplified black and white, good versus evil manner.  

Could a national reconciliation emerge from “The Act of Killing”? It is hard to tell. I think the otherwise would likely to happen; reconciliation will be even more difficult to attain.  The movie not only sends a message and portrays how brutal and violent the Indonesian people could be, but it also tells the supporters of PKI, victims and survivor of 1965-1966 tragedies that they should not dig into the past or otherwise they will be dealing with another potential violent repercussions; a fact that is suggested in some parts of the movie. Indonesians need to find peaceful ways in dealing with the troubled past by critically re-learning its history. Without knowledge and good will, history tends to repeat itself.

Nonetheless, I still recommend people to go and see, “The Act of Killing” aka “Jagal”, but one must observe it very cautiously and critically. Furthermore, I would strongly urge those who will or have already watched this film to seek as much as possible additional information about “the 1965 event” from many different perspectives: both from the “winners” and from the “losers.” Finding additional information is crucial in order to learn and have broader knowledge about how difficult and complex the situation when the mass killings took place. And hopefully we can all work together and find peaceful means in dealing with our nation’s troubled past so that we can move on and not to repeat the same mistakes.

*The writer is a historian and Director of Center for Southeast Asian Studies-Indonesia. He has conducted a long and extensive research about the construction of the 1965 New Order official narrative for his Ph.D dissertation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison U.S.A.

More info about the film:
Youtube link of the trailer:

Monday, April 21, 2008

Teaching history in Indonesia: the 1965 case

This article was originally published in Van Zorge Report on Indonesia: Commentary & Analysis on Indonesian Politics and Economics Vol.VIII-Number 12. July 2006

The history story in Indonesia: The ‘1965’ case
By Yosef Djakababa*

The New Order version
Indonesian historians are now facing the problem of writing and teaching the “new” history of Indonesia. During former President Soeharto’s New Order regime, an indoctrination style of teaching that centred on militaristic achievements dominated the way history was taught inside Indonesia’s schools. The military theme was prevalent and usually focused on the heroism of an individual who fought against the Dutch colonizer, but at the end was always defeated.
The point of the history lesson was to show that Indonesians have always longed and fought hard for their independence.

Moreover, the teaching style also intended to show that for centuries Indonesians had always maintained their fighting spirit and bravery in resisting the colonizer. Yet, the manner in which history was taught heavily implied that the nation could only achieve its independence through armed struggle and not by other more diplomatic means.
The inclination to depict the nation’s history in this manner caused achievements in other areas such as education, trade, and diplomacy to be simply ignored or sidelined. In addition to that, students were never encouraged to think critically about history and discussions or the questioning of the past was seldom if ever practiced in the classroom. As a result, history never went beyond memorising countless names, dates, and events.

Nevertheless, despite the lack of objectivity and critical content in schools, history during the New Order maintained a certain consistency in its portrayal of the nation’s past, as it glorified the achievements of certain military figure like Soeharto and his regime, while at the same time the historical narrative sought to undermine the regime’s enemies. This was carried out in order to justify and legitimate the New Order’s existence. An example of this is the way the regime presented the Lubang Buaya incident in its official history.

Lubang Buaya refers to the events surrounding September 30, 1965, and according to the New Order’s version, it was when the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) orchestrated and killed six high-ranking army officers and one middle-ranking officer in order to gain power and establish a Communist state in Indonesia. Therefore, to achieve these goals the PKI needed to eliminate its major enemy, the Indonesian Army. The deaths of these army generals triggered a series of chaotic events and widespread unrest in the country ensued. (Lubang Buaya literally translates to mean “alligator hole” and is a reference to the well at Halim Air Base where the generals’ bodies were dumped sometimes between September 30 and October 1st.)
In the New Order version, General Soeharto succeeded in preventing the PKI plan from materialising by acting swiftly and decisively in destroying the PKI organisation and its members, thus saving the nation from the threat of the evil Communist. In the 18 months following the thwarted coup, hundreds of thousands and perhaps even one million PKI members and sympathisers were slaughtered throughout Indonesia, particularly in Bali, Central Java, and East Java. Former President Soekarno was also implicated in the incident and rapidly lost power, later transferring his authority to Soeharto. Following that, the New Order portrayed the army and in particular Soeharto as the savior and guardian of the nation. At the same time, the regime downplayed Soekarno role in Indonesia’s independence struggle.

For years, the regime glorified this particular event and used it to justify its continued existence. The glorification of Soeharto’s role in the Lubang Buaya incident was disseminated not only through the educational system but also through films and intensive annual commemorations. Despite the fact that the regime undertook massive efforts to ensure that people remembered the Lubang Buaya episode, they deliberately ignored the massacre that followed it.

Under the New Order, it should also come as no surprise that there was never any discussion concerning the thousands of individuals that were accused and punished without any legal recourse for their alleged involvement in the PKI or in the killing of the generals. Such a system allowed the New Order to marginalise any potential individuals seen as a threat to it. Any representation of that was absent from history books and also never brought up publicly during the New Order.

Shifting interpretations
After the fall of Soeharto in 1998, different interpretations and information about Lubang Buaya began to emerge. Former political prisoners began talking about their experiences in public while at the same time the publication of new books and formerly banned academic studies on Lubang Buaya and its aftermath became increasingly available to the public. Since 1998, the opening of the press has also helped in bringing new interpretations of history to light, as the media continues to cover the debate surrounding the history of 1965.

The media’s coverage of that debate has also generated discussions on other disputed events in Indonesian history, including the Supersemar incident when Soekarno allegedly issued a letter to Soeharto calling for the disbanding of the PKI in March 1966, while also legally transferring power from Soekarno to Soeharto. Soeharto’s alleged role in the March 1, 1949, offensive in Yogyakarta has also been scrutinised.

While the political openness following 1998 has allowed for unrestricted public debate over the nation’s past, it has not come without some difficulties. There is now a palpable confusion among people on what actually did occur some 40 years ago. Teachers are having a difficult time explaining this disputed history to their students, as so many interpretations are now available to the public. Furthermore, much of this new information challenges the histories still found in the textbooks that students are using.

The ongoing debate has certainly been beneficial to Indonesia’s youth in opening their minds up to a more critical version of Indonesia’s history and has at the same time created the need for a rewriting of the nations’ past. A group of senior and junior historians are now writing these new history volumes, which are yet to be completed. There are indications, however, that there has been some disagreement within the group on how certain topics should be approached and thus presented in the books.

Although the books are not out yet and many teachers have been forced to improvise their approach, there has been a real change in the way teachers are addressing historical issues. Much of the regurgitation of the New Order’s purported contributions to Indonesia, which are found in older textbooks, is no longer occurring; there are of course some instances where teachers do rely on them. But increasingly teachers are encouraging their students to study history in a more critical way by drawing on their own experiences and any outside materials they might have read concerning past events.

Despite the fact that the new books are still being edited, there already have been some subtle changes to history textbooks in Indonesia. Regarding the history of 1965, the most recognisable difference is in the writing of the movement’s name that was allegedly responsible for kidnapping and killing the army officers. Under Soeharto, the movement was referred to as G.30.S/PKI, or the September 30 Movement of the Indonesian Communist Party. Now, as the exact role of the PKI in the events of 1965 remains a mystery, many of the school textbooks and newspaper articles simply write “G.30.S” and no longer include “/PKI” when referring to it.

Some of these same textbooks also contain different versions of the event, complete with analysis on each of the versions. That is a much different method than was found under Soeharto when only the official version of events was allowed to be printed in the textbooks. Furthermore, there are some textbooks that now finally mention the mass killings of the alleged Communists and Soekarno sympathisers. That sort of information clearly never made into the New Order history books.

Official version still resonates
The encouraging changes to the teaching methods and textbooks have not, however, necessarily meant a change in public perceptions about Indonesia’s past and particularly the events of 1965. Despite the confusion and challenges caused by the new and emerging historical interpretations, the majority of Indonesians still strongly believe the New Order version regarding 1965. The fact is that most Indonesians still perceive communism and Communists as evil and, therefore, that it is acceptable to kill them.

While years of propaganda and intensive indoctrination by the New Order regime has indeed convinced many that its version is true, it can be argued that the origin of anti-Communist views in Indonesia does in fact pre-date the New Order. But the writing of history in any country changes and evolves in relation to the current political context, societal norms, and the needs of the state. As we see in Indonesia, changes to the local political climate and changes within a more global context have allowed many historical interpretations to surface. While that may be true, these transformations in the writing and teaching of history do not guarantee that societal perceptions of history will inevitably be altered, as we see in Indonesia with the events of 1965.

Dueling interpretations will continue
Parties who have an interest in how the official history is presented in public will continue to negotiate until their side is accommodated and their views are folded into the country’s ever changing historical narrative. But due to the very nature of history, where the process of searching for the truth is in fact endless, there will always be parties that are unsatisfied and feel left out and misrepresented. In Indonesia, the events of 1965 continue to be debated and negotiated; the official history of 1965 has yet to be settled and how it will be represented, at least for now, in Indonesia.

There is an oft-cited statement that “history is written by the winner.” Regarding the history of 1965 in Indonesia, it remains unclear who will be the winner and who be the loser as the process of debate is ongoing. But as contexts change and narratives develop, the loser might someday become the winner.

*The author is a PhD candidate in History At the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Analysis leaves Sukarno's rise to popularity untouched

This book review was originally published in The Jakarta Post Sunday Edition, November 26, 2006

Features - November 26, 2006

Yosef Djakababa, Contributor, Jakarta
Bung Karno Menggugat!: Dari Marhaen, CIA, Pembantaian Massal '65 hingga G.30.S ('Bung' Karno accuses!: From the working class, CIA, the mass killings of '65 to the Sept. 30 abortive coup) Dr. Baskara T. Wardaya SJ Galang Press, February 2006 297 pp.

Bung Karno -- Brother Karno -- Indonesia's first president, has never ceased to spark debate and controversy. This recent book by Dr. Baskara Wardaya SJ is another such book that discusses Sukarno and his legacies during the struggle for establishment of the republic and his leadership.

Nonetheless, the more appropriate title for this book would perhaps be "Menggugat Bung Karno" (accusing Bung Karno) instead of Bung Karno Menggugat (Bung Karno accuses/charges). The reason is that the book contains mostly the author's analyses of Sukarno's reactions, attitudes and positions towards colonialism, the United States' involvement in Indonesia's domestic politics, the 1965 tragedy and national leadership; and less about what Sukarno actually thought about all these topics.

Bung Karno Menggugat is organized into four sections. The first section shows how the young Sukarno initially developed his strong feelings of anti-colonialism and -imperialism, as he became more involved and active in the nationalist movement. The second section jumps to the latter part of his presidency, and discusses the involvement of various American administrations in Indonesian domestic affairs in the 1950s.
In this illuminating second section, Baskara discusses many aspects of the relationship between Indonesia and the United States that have received little attention, especially by Indonesian scholars. This section is clearly the strongest part of the book.
The information presented here is abundant, comprehensive and well researched. Baskara illustrates various U.S. foreign policies towards Indonesia, including the CIA's involvement in the 1957-1958 armed movement in Sumatra and Sulawesi (PRRI/Permesta).

In the third section, Baskara talks about Sukarno's alleged involvement in the September 30th movement -- the abortive coup allegedly orchestrated by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) -- and the New Order regime's efforts to produce and reproduce memory and myth about the tragedy in order to reinforce its legitimacy.

Finally, the fourth section compares the national leadership styles of Sukarno and Soeharto. Both leaders are considered strong men -- or absolute rulers -- but this section highlights the differences between the two leaders in implementation of their somewhat similar but different leadership style.

Bung Karno Menggugat seems to be trying to track the development of Sukarno's political thinking from the beginning of his political career into the late period of his presidency. However, the illustration of Sukarno's evolution is hurt by the sudden jump in chronology -- from Sukarno's early years as a political activist into the middle of his presidential period.
As a result of this abrupt jump in the historical narrative, the book does not provide an analysis of how and when Sukarno shifted from a relatively unknown figure into a major Indonesian political leader.

Without discussion of how Sukarno transformed himself into one of the new republic's founding fathers, the character analysis of his later political career feels skewed.
The book is also lacking in discussion of one of the most important periods in Sukarno's political life, which in my opinion is too critical to be omitted: the Japanese occupation.
Without any discussion of Sukarno's activities during this period, Baskara misses major developments in his character, ideas, actions and his leadership style, which are perhaps relevant in explaining his leadership later in his presidency.
Moreover, I would argue it was during this particular time that Sukarno gained popularity among the masses, since he appeared in public so many times through many different kinds of Japanese war propaganda, while at the same time, he was also promoting the cause for the establishment of Indonesian nation in a subtle way to the public. Thus, it is crucial to discuss the Japanese occupation period in order to have a more complete understanding of Sukarno's character.
In addition, as result of the sudden jump in the chronological timeline, the analyses done in the previous sections on Sukarno's initial character development as anti-colonial and anti-imperialist loses their strength later on in the book, since the narrative becomes incomplete and somewhat confusing. For example, Baskara argues (citing McVey) that for young Sukarno, although the masses appeared important for their symbolic potential in politics, in reality they were more needed as a source to support his first political steps (p. 61). Then the author argues (citing Bernard Dahm) that Hatta once complained about Sukarno's limited contact with the masses, as this "contact" was limited to their reactions to his public speeches, full of applause and cheering.
Still citing Dahm, Baskara mentions how Sukarno disliked the common people's attitude of easily accepting/surrendering to their fate, while on the other hand, he needed their ovations and rooting to boost his self-confidence (pp.61-62).
None of the examples above give a clear explanation as to how and when Sukarno emerged as the most popular Indonesian political leader. Hence, how can we explain Sukarno's huge popularity and support among the masses prior to and after the proclamation of independence in 1945? If Sukarno's relationship with the masses was limited only to "speeches that were full of clapping and cheering", as the author suggests by citing another source, then how can we explain the many ordinary people who were ready to sacrifice their lives in following his leadership towards Indonesian independence? Many ordinary Indonesians prior to, during, and after the revolutionary war were extremely loyal to Sukarno and were willing to die for him and his cause.
Moreover, in the chapter on "Bung Karno as the teacher of the nation", Baskara quotes the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer as saying, "The influence of Sukarno is great. That is because he was closer to his own people than those other leaders who were educated in Europe." (p.205)
This statement clearly contradicts earlier arguments the author uses in describing Sukarno's limited contact with the people.
In the beginning, Baskara points out Sukarno's distance to the masses (although he needed them), but then suddenly in the latter part of the book Sukarno is shown to be very close and popular. Without any proper and satisfying explanation for this seemingly sudden change in character, there is a big gap that could make some readers feels lost in trying to understand what made Sukarno a very popular leader. The lack of information could be confusing for some -- let alone for those readers who are trying to figure out the subjects of Sukarno's accusations (menggugat), as the title suggests.
There is still much work need to be done in trying to understand and appreciate the thinking of Indonesia's most important political figure. However, despite its shortcomings, this book should be welcome as an engaging study on Sukarno's character development, especially as it gives a fresh perspective on one of the country's founding fathers and is written by an Indonesian scholar.

The reviewer is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Indonesian History as an autonomous history

This Article was originally published in The Jakarta Post Sunday edition, May 29 2005
Indonesian history as an autonomous history Yosef Djakababa, Contributor, Jakarta
Indonesia: Peoples and Histories Jean Gelman Taylor 448 pp Yale University Press

Jean Gelman Taylor's book titled Indonesia: Peoples and Histories is an important addition to the study of Indonesian history.
In this book, Taylor uses an original and unique approach in not having any citations in the book. Instead, she uses what she called capsules. These small capsules appear frequently to give the reader specific examples of a particular topic that is currently being discussed in a particular chapter.
For example in chapter five, titled "New Comers in the Muslim Circle", she discusses the arrival of foreigners in the archipelago, among others, the Chinese.

In that particular chapter, one of the capsules explained the dynamic relationship between the local elites and the Chinese. She described the relationship that forced the Chinese to be depended on local elites who in turn empowered them as the principal tax collectors from the common people. As a result, the commoners saw the Chinese as their oppressors. (Page 128-129).

From her narratives we can see the influence of an idea of history. "Autonomous history" approaches history from local perspectives in contrast to the more common approach (especially in Indonesian history) that comes from foreign perspectives. Much of her influence on autonomous history came from her mentor, John R.W. Smail, her Ph.D advisor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's department of history. Smail is well known as a scholar who wrote an important essay about the possibility of autonomous history in Southeast Asia.

Taylor tries to place local people not merely as victims of foreigners, and especially not as victims of the Dutch. She also criticizes many narratives on Indonesian history that only emphasize nationalism. In the nationalist version of history, Indonesians are always portrayed and perceived as heroic and dramatic, but in the end, losers and victims. This view of Indonesian history is not only narrow but totally ignores the intellectual and cultural exchanges between the indigenous peoples and the foreigners.

By focusing on social, cultural and intellectual exchanges, Taylor is trying to eradicate the view of Indonesians as merely heroic losers, instead showing them as major players.
The book has a clear and yet concise style of writing which makes the texts easy to grasp and understand. Moreover, the book also provides criticism and overviews on the development of approaches to Indonesian historical writing.

Nevertheless, the book also has some drawbacks. First, without any citations, the book lacks credibility on some of the data the writer presents. Hence, it is also difficult to cross check some of her statements and narratives in the book. One example would be what she wrote concerning the 30th September 1965 event. Taylor wrote that the bodies of the slain generals were hidden inside the Indonesian Air Force base Halim, while in fact, the bodies were actually found in an old well located in a former rubber plantation called Lubang Buaya.

Moreover, she also discusses how the New Order regime banned the teaching of Weber and Chinese language in Indonesian universities (page 359). In fact the New Order never banned the teaching of Weber, and actually allowed very restricted Chinese language instruction in the Chinese literature department of the University of Indonesia. Again without any citations, it is difficult for the reader to check or to find out where she obtained such information.

Second, Taylor's account of Indonesian autonomous histories needs to be questioned. In the book's introduction Taylor states: "My aim in this book is to place Indonesians at the center of their own story". In fact, most of the sources she used for this book are in English and written by foreigners. Her book actually gives the impression that only foreigners can write general histories of Indonesia as she has not placed Indonesians at the center of their own story as she sought to do.

However, despite the weaknesses and drawbacks, the publication of the Indonesia: Peoples and Histories should be received as part of recent developments in Indonesian history writing.
Jean Gelman Taylor wants to promote new perspective on Indonesian history, a perspective that hopefully is not only filled with indoctrination of narrow political and nationalist ideas. We also need to realize, however, that it is not easy to write Indonesian history that covers every aspect of this diverse nation while at the same time being general one, because the writer will always be faced with the problem of deciding which aspects to leave in or out in the narrative. Hopefully, this new book will stimulate more fresh writing on Indonesian history.

Yosef Djakababa is a PhD candidate in Southeast Asian history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, U.S.A. He is currently conducting research for his dissertation on modern Indonesian history.