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Indonesia, Multatuli and me.

Editor's Note:An American development administrator sees parallels in Suharto's Indonesia and the Dutch colonial past and also sees a way to convey his sentiments just as a colonial administrator did in an earlier era. --Ed.

Indonesia is never out of the news. An immense country in every measure of the word: an archipelago of nearly 2 million sq kilometers with over 17,000 islands of which about six thousand are inhabited. About three times the size of Texas it is home to over 240 million people who are mostly Muslim adherents but with significant Christian and Hindu religious practitioners, including, of course, the well-know island of Bali which induces millions of tourists each year ... not to overlook the remarkable Borabador temple to Buddha in Jogjakarta.

Its long history reads as though it were, in part, a universally applicable ironic fiction, replete with a not always happy succession of colonial masters, overrun by the Japanese in WW II, then onto revolution and liberation that spawned an independence movement which while successful in freeing themselves from greedy foreigners found their liberation thwarted by a succession of patriots-turned-dictators.

Indonesia consistently suffers from nature's wrath against an island nation built, in large part, on one of the most unsettling of the earth's tectonic plates. The unbelievable story of Krakatoa was followed by a number a earthquakes and tsunamis, including the 2007 break-up of parts of Sumatra and a smaller, but no less deadly, quake and tsunami in September of this year.

And yet, ironically, Indonesia has a culture and literature that is both remarkable and breathtaking in its scope and effect. Raffles in his History of Java uses twenty-five pages to explain Javanese literature and another seventy pages to elucidate Javanese poetry. In the current era, Indonesia has been represented by many writers, the greatest of whom is Pramoedya Ananta Toer, internationally famous for his remarkable Buru Quartet, which he wrote while being imprisoned by Suharto in the raw jungle island of Buru for 14 years. Though his writings have been translated and published in twenty-three countries, the unhappy irony is that they are still banned in Indonesia. And it is Pramoedya that introduces us into the values of Multatuli when Theodore Friend in his Indonesian Destinies notes that Pramoedya in his imprisonment "... continued to hear the novelistic voice of Multatuli, the great nineteenth-century Dutch critic of Dutch oppression in its Indies: Human Duty Is To Be Human."

Curiously--but understandable in the context of a continuing irony--one of the most tragic yet influential pieces of Dutch/Indonesian literature was a novel, Max Havelar, written under the pen-name "Multatuli." The actual author was Eduard Douwes Dekker who in 1856, as a member of the East Indian Civil Service, became Assistant Resident of the Lebak District in western Java. This, of course, occurred during the era of the Dutch control of Indonesia which never stopped until it finally gave up control in the post WW II battles against the Indonesians who, having suffered the Japanese conquest, were not about to go back into the Dutch Colonial system

Putting Multatuli, Max Havelar and Eduard Douwes Dekker, in the context of the district of Lebak, sets the stage for an unforgettable entry into Dutch/Indonesian irony that I only realized after reading the book and visiting the district.

First, the book--and its origin

Eduard Dekker was born in Amsterdam in 1820, the son of a captain in the Dutch mercantile marine. In 1839, he took his son, who failed in a business office position, on a trip to Batavia (now Jakarta) to see if he might work as a government official in the colonies. He did very well, showing a strong dedication to the work and developed a warm affection for the Indonesia people. At the same time he was known as well for his eccentricities and a quick temper. After some fifteen years in the service, he was appointed deputy commissioner of Lebak, a very poor region in West Java. It was a district the size, more or less, of the State of Connecticut. Then his troubles began and grew and grew.

He was not in harness very long before he realized that the farmers, in particular, were being robbed and exploited by their own chiefs and, in particular, the senior Javanese administrator, the Regent of South Bantam, which included Lebak. Poor farmers had to give "corvees" time, working for the Regent without pay. They were also heavily taxed in kind via chickens, buffalo, etc. that went to the Regent and his retinue. This all, of course, riled the well-meaning and conscientious Dekker. When sworn in he took an oath that he would "protect the native population from arbitrary and unjust treatment." And he was damn well going to see that he would uphold his oath.

But, ironically, he was up against the very system that made him take the oath! The Dutch organization of its Indonesian colony leaned heavily on the actions of the native princes and noblemen in parallel with the Dutch administrators. Thus "law and order" meted out by the local rulers kept the local population in hand and thus the vast area could be governed by a relatively small number of Dutch personnel--thus saving a lot of money for the Dutch colonials.

Determined, devoted and definitely upset, Dekker fired off a stinging letter to the Commissioner in Batavia complaining about the actions of the Regent himself. Unknowingly he raised an issue that went to the heart of the Dutch colonial field operation, an issue that could hardly be tolerated, much less upheld. The Commissioner fired back an equally stinging reprimand, telling him to mind his own business and to carry on in the manner befitting a Dutch colonial officer!

Overpowered by his "whistle-blower" mind set, Dekker immediately resigned, knocking himself--and his growing family--out of a regular income and deliberately ending what could have been under Dutch rule a "glorious and very lucrative career" as a present day writer put it. What followed was an inglorious trip through Europe, ending in its first phase in a cold attic room in Brussels where in a few weeks, Dekker wrote his master stroke, the novel Max Havelar or the Coffee Auction of the Dutch Trading Company, using the pen name of "Multatuli" which in Latin means Much Have I Suffered.

The book is a masterpiece by which truth is garbed in a fictional setup where Dekker's story is carefully told but in a context and cast of characters that tell the story but disguise the actual participants. While the conclusions are clear and an unmistakable attack on the horrors of Dutch rule in Indonesia, to most of the reading public it was a wonderful novel. Only those who knew the Dutch system appreciated the meaning. The irony covers the fact that the book had a profound effect as a formidable accusation of the morally corrupt system, which the Dutch had imposed on Indonesia. Over time later colonial officials roundly endorsed Multatuli's case and the late--but effective--move by the Dutch to establish an "ethical policy" in the colonies that aimed at protecting the natives as well as the Dutch colonial system and, as the Dutch themselves admitted "must be largely attributed to Multatuli's novel." Yet for Dekker himself--and his poverty stricken family--he was not personally vindicated and was, of course, never allowed to returned to government service. He wrote other books but "Max Havelar" was his lifetime's greatest output. Dekker died in poverty, debt and with the mangled feelings of the unrewarded "whistle-blower", in Germany in 1887.

Then the visit

I worked in Indonesia during the end of the 1990s. As the Suharto government faltered under its unwavering commitment to private gain against public good, the details were piling up as though we were back in the Multatuli era. A water improvement project, for example, that we had worked on with an Australian group and submitted a proposal apparently was the low bid. Prior to the award we were then subjected to a series of quietly posed requirements for additional personnel payments. Under U.S. regulations this is, of course, verboten. Even one of our long term local technical managers--whom we had sent to the States for advanced training in water management--politely gave me a cash or nothing ultimatum.

It was then that "Multatuli" became a kind of guiding light. As the Suharto regime began to crumble--and while both the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank finally began to realize their deep and negative commitment to the troubled finances of their failing stalwart, it was clearly time to find solace -- if not vindication--via this remarkable piece of literature, motivated toward a peoples' protection and improvement.

As soon thereafter as possible I made arrangements to visit Dekker's old -- if short lived--stamping grounds--Lebak. In the company of an old friend and interpreter, we drove from Jakarta west toward Serang, then south to Pamdegetamg, east to Rangkasbitung and south on a very small, mountain road climbing some 300 meters to Lebak. There we met the deputy administrator, Asep Sadiana, who knowing we were coming, had laid out a small itinerary re: Multatuli.

Our first encounter was a very large photo of Dekker on the wall of the entranceway to the Lebak governmental building. He is shown as a much older man, replete with beard and a somber view of the world. Below the portrait is small card which notes that the picture is of




Assisten residen lebak

21-1-1865 -- 4-4-1865

We were given Lebak's annual report for 1997, part of which was a "flashback" on the district's history, which was organized in 1828 out of the more ancient Batan Sultanate. Dekker, in fact, came to Lebak when, as a government entity, it was less that thirty years old. Mr. Sadiana underlined the fact that most of the older people in Lebak were well acquainted with Dekker and Multatuli He also suggested that I get the Dekker portion of "flashback" translated so that I would have a better idea of his influence. He also pointed out that Jakarta--and in many other Indonesian cities--has a number of "jalan multatuli"--that is, street names using "multatuli."

We were then encourage by this young officer to be photographed with Dekker's picture which he removed from the wall, took us to the front of what of what was once Dekker's residence where we had a picture taken of an Indonesian and an American holding up the picture of a long dead Dutch administrator whom we both admired.

Back in Jakarta we found the decline more than evident in the burning buildings -- mostly Suharto family enterprises. And on one of the huge toll highways leading into Jakarta--another Suharto family operation--the tollbooths were open, no collections and some had been severely damaged. Clearly, it was time to leave.

We got our packer to come the next day, packed us out and went with him and his crew to the port, got inspected and saw it put away for the next outgoing ship. Then, with no little trouble, we got our outgoing, one way tickets and battened down the house along with the landlord and went to a hotel near the airport and tried to relax and get ready for a reluctant departure from this beautiful, suffering and yet hopeful country.

And it was then I realized that what I needed was to respond--as Multaltuli might have responded--to the present debacle. And so sent this poem to the Jakarta Post from the still functioning hotel computer:

Tumble down In the fall you made yourself having through years formed these islands to fit a Javanese play of shadows

But strong hands turned to blackened claws: Garuda masked, degraded as a grasping bird, defiled your sultanate pushing you and all the islands beyond the edge

When you tumbled you tumbled a whole people who, with these islands, writhing now, ridding themselves of claws look for renewal in a cleansed Garuda, seeking, screaming what and how and who?

But I made a big mistake. I signed my name when I should have signed MULTATULI!

About the author: William Sommers worked as a municipal administrator for many years in the United States and worked overseas advising on various local government assistance programs. He and his wife, Joan lived and worked in Poland, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Egypt and Hungary. Sommers' last overseas assignment was in Bosnia. They now live in North Carolina where Joan has continued her painting and William has continued writing and working on improvements in aspects of local government.
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Author:Sommers, William
Publication:American Diplomacy
Geographic Code:9INDO
Date:Dec 13, 2010
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