Beacons of Freedom, Towers of Might

Beacons of Freedom, Towers of Might

Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Not until what surely must be the final part of my life, in the summer of 1999, when I was seventy-four years of age, was I given the opportunity to visit the United States. There were reasons for this delay: in the 1950s, during the first part of my adult life, Joseph McCarthy and people of his ilk held sway in the United States, thereby making it virtually impossible for a person like myself -- a firebrand and a leftist, I’m sure I would have been called -- to set my eyes on Liberty’s raised torch. In the second part of my adult life, from 1965 until 1979, I was a political prisoner in a penal colony established by a man whose company McCarthy would surely have enjoyed: General-, then President Suharto, who, after taking power in Indonesia, oversaw the detention and killing of up to one million Indonesian citizens who were or were purported to be leftists or members of the Indonesian Communist Party. Though I was released from Buru Island Penal Colony in 1979, from that year onward until 1998, when Suharto finally relinquished his hold on power, I remained a prisoner in my own land, first under house-arrest and then later under city arrest. There  may have been no bars around my home, no armed guards at my gates, but Suharto and his minions did all in their power to keep my mind immobile and my voice from being heard. Every book I published during Suharto’s ‘New Order,’ the euphemistic sobriquet for his thirty year militaristic regime, was banned. Activist students who took up my cause were jailed. Proprietors of bookstores where my books were sold were threatened. Thus was how the third part of my adult life spent.
      And so it was not until this the final period of my adult life that I found the chance to breathe American air and to seek confirmation or, possibly, refutation of my personal views about the United States and that country’s role in the international dissemination of freedom and democracy.
      The interminable plane ride from Jakarta to Newark where I first landed had put my nerves on edge and when first stepping foot in the land of the free I felt, I must admit, an almost tangible sense of victory rush through me. I was now in the land of the free. I had finally disentangled myself from Suharto’s grasp! I had experienced and yet had somehow survived the many forms of oppression visited upon me by that man and his militaristic regime.
      Looking around me that day, as I traveled into Manhattan – first at the maze-like highways, then at the Palisades, the New York skyline, and finally at the melange of humanity on the streets of Manhattan Island -- it registered frequently in my mind that I was in the land of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, home of two of the modern world’s most revered thinkers. These two Americans had helped to shape American thought and, through their descendents, the American people, had (or were said to have) disseminated their concepts of, freedom, democracy, and humanitarianism to the wider world. But had they? Even when thinking these thoughts I was also aware, uncomfortably conscious of the fact that while freedom and courage make complementary soul-mates, democracy and power do not always walk hand in hand.
      Let me explain: somewhere long ago I once read that in the United States there are only two criteria for being a good citizen: paying ones taxes and committing no crime, that as long as a citizen does not break these two cardinal rules, he or she is guaranteed freedom of thought and freedom of expression – regardless of  his or her religious or political beliefs. During my stay in the United States, a two-month sojourn that took me both to large cities and smaller burgs, this opinion appeared to be justified. On the streets of New York and in the farm towns of Wisconsin, the forthrightness of the American people I met and their almost too urgent need to express their opinions and beliefs, impressed me greatly. By the time I left the United States, I could understand why that country or, more accurately, the American people have often been labeled ‘champions of democracy.’ In the United States democratic principles are indeed honored and upheld; they are part of the warp and woof of American society. Americans are, in their own homes and towns, a truly free and democratic people.
      But labels can be misleading. From the beginning of my own career as a writer in the early 1950s and through my intellectual travels in the years and decades that followed I was given numerous labels: ‘socialist,’ ‘leftist,’ ‘Communist,’ ‘anti-American,’ and so on. Regardless of their accuracy, which, frankly, has little if any relevance at this point in time, I know very well why they were originally applied to me – and it was not because I was a leftist, a communist or whatever; it was because I spoke out against the use of a double standard in the application of democratic principles, whether by the United States or by my own country. As I saw it then and as I see it now, democracy is not the right of the powerful only. Democracy is, as America’s revered spiritual leaders proclaimed, the right of the disenfranchised too. But that was then and with the Cold War raging, such principles, it seemed, could be ignored.
      Outside the United States, especially in countries of the third world such as Indonesia which enjoy both abundant natural resources and a geographically strategic position, it appears to many that the American government views power (and not courage or justice!) as one of the pillars of democracy and that American interests all too easily blur the standards of democracy as they are applied elsewhere. In Indonesia, and perhaps in other countries of the world as well, I have surmised that there is a general view, especially among people like myself who have suffered the loss of their civil rights, that democracy is something reserved for Americans only.
      My personal opinion -- and on this point, I would like to be proved wrong -- is that the United States believes that Indonesia will only be a true democracy if and when it accepts as its own the American paradigm of economic and militaristic interests. In the 1950s, during the Cold War, when Sukarno was president of Indonesia, the American government let him (and the rest of the world) know that if you are not with us, you are against us. If you are not anti-Communist, then you must be Communist and therefore, a target for toppling.
      Sukarno opposed capitalism and imperialism; he mobilized the Asian-African freedom movement and was the first world leader to oppose the war in Vietnam. As a result, he was viewed in the West and, more particularly, in the corridors of Washington as an anti-Western political agitator. Sukarno’s fault was that he did not want the country whose independence he had proclaimed to become a nation of beggars, dependent upon Western largesse and investment. He wanted democracy but of a form suitable for Indonesia.
      It is no secret, as recently-released CIA documents reveal, that the American government gave its backing to Sukarno’s overthrow and helped to put in place as head of state a man who had no respect for democracy but who understood well the value of economic and military aid. In the years that followed, while Suharto and his cronies enriched themselves and their families, they put the country further and further in debt, a sum now amounting to US$ 140 billion dollars or, approximately, US$ 200 million dollars for each and every Indonesian citizen.
      While this was happening and as Suharto suppressed all opposition to his development policies, what was the United States, Indonesia’s main benefactor, doing? Applauding itself that the Cold War in Indonesia had been won and that democracy was now in place. But where was freedom? Where was democracy? What was in place was power. Even in 1976 when Indonesia invaded East Timor, the American government patted Suharto on the back and, with a wink and a shrug, mumbled polite apologies that this and other ‘excesses’ were minor stumbling blocks on the way to the creation of an economically developed and democratic Indonesian nation state.
      Now let us advance to the present time, when a different American president and a different American government is saying, that if you don’t support the American war on terrorism than you must be a terrorist nation yourself. I fear that the United States is making the same mistake that it made during the Cold War: not only measuring a country’s value by it level of support for American economic interests but weighing that country’s need for democratic reform against the country’s embrace of American political goals.
      Several weeks ago I saw on CNN a broadcast commemorating the anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States. At the former site of the World Trade towers two symbolic pictures emerged, one for Indonesia and the United States.
      In 1998, when the Suharto militaristic regime ended, Indonesia was left with a veritable mountain of detritus from the New Order’s destruction of this country’s democratic pillars. Today Indonesian political reformers are trying to rebuild a democratic system but haven’t, it seems, either the power or the will to clear away all the New Order rubble and are, therefore, mistakenly attempting to build a democracy on less than solid ground.
      Now let us look at New York. There, after only one year, the rubble that once had been the soaring towers of the Trade Center has been cleared. Rebirth and redevelopment can now begin. Meanwhile, in retaliation for the attacks on the United States, President George W. Bush is calling not for justice but for further destruction.
      It is time for the American people to think back again of the principles of the country’s former leaders, to Thomas Jefferson and to Abraham Lincoln, who freed the United States from colonialism and slavery, and not let calls for vengeance avert the United States from what its true mission should be: the propogation of freedom and democracy throughout the world. The United States has the strength to do this but power can blind and is not always right.
      Replace those towers of might with beacons of democracy.

Subowo bin Sukaris
HASTA MITRA Updated at: 10:49 PM

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