INDONESIA: Top academic supported militarism - book

An Australian academic's book about Indonesia's military reveals the alleged role of a leading academic and university rector in spinning history in favour of militarism and the dictatorship. Nugroho Notosusanto, one-time rector of the University of Indonesia and Minister of Education under Suharto, is the subject.

In 1945, when Indonesia proclaimed its independence from the Netherlands, it had no army-in-waiting, indeed no police, nothing at all in the way of a formal apparatus of repression or defence. The leadership was essentially anti-militarist and in the case of Prime Minister Sutan Sjahrir, avowedly anti-fascist.

Twenty years later the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) submerged the nation's leftists, principally but not solely the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in a bloodbath that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

That bitter episode continues to be the target of official obfuscation and falsification. The shameful 2007 burnings of school history texts offering alternative versions of the events of 1965-66 demonstrate a continuum between democratic Indonesia and Suharto's New Order, at least where presentation of uncomfortable truths is concerned. The spectre of the New Order continues to hover above writers and historians.

Australian historian Kathleen McGregor tackles this period in a new book, History In Uniform. Central to the book is the control of history - who decides what can and cannot be said about the history of Indonesia. Central to that are certain important individuals such as General Abdul Haris Nasution, former Chief of Staff of TNI, the pro-military University of Indonesia academic and rector Nugroho Notosusanto, and former President Suharto himself as well as figures in the defeated and now banned PKI.

McGregor knew when she took on the project that the military would vet her and seek to control her output and that she would work under constraints not imposed in her native Australia. Never willing to let the truth out at the best of times, TNI operates on a platform of suspicion and obfuscation in which independent researchers are seldom welcome.

Interestingly, however, certain compromising material remains in military archives and skilled, determined researchers can unearth it.

Nugroho Notosusanto was the quintessential state-sanctioned academic and the leading spokesman of the so-called Generation of 1945, the age group which claims to be the true harbingers of independence through the armed struggle of 1945-49 which gave birth to TNI.

Nugroho became more or less the official historian of the military. As spokesman for the Generation of 45, it was Nugroho's purpose to write up the heroism of the armed struggle against the British and the Dutch, leaving out inconvenient matters such as the holding of Dutch civilian internees - men, women and children - as hostages and the November 1945 Bekasi massacre of British and Indian troops and airmen.

We learn that in the 1950s and especially the early 1960s, PKI was doing what Stalinist parties everywhere tried to do - writing its own account of national history, omitting inconvenient truths or indeed anything that would cast it in poor light. The TNI's Nasution was desperate to put out a counter-view that would cast TNI in a good light in relation to the same period.

The TNI leader brought together a team to write an official, military-endorsed history and Nugroho, a man of aristocratic background from Central Java, did most of the writing. Out of this project, which succeeded in Nasution's aim of beating the PKI to the publication punch, came the Armed Forces History Centre, which has since had the role of propagandising on behalf of TNI. It would be a mistake to dismiss the centre lightly.

Nugroho was an admirer of Japanese militarism and of the ancient bushido warrior spirit that infused it. This would appear to place him close to the fascist end of the political spectrum but McGregor, without cautioning against the use of the term 'fascist', does not openly say so. Certainly the historian was passionately anti-Western and no democrat. What mattered most to him was the integrity of the state, which should, according to integralist thinking, subsume society.

Arguing that only historians with a 'national spirit', narrowly defined, could write national history, Nugroho offered up a template for some of the bleakest New Order censorship.

McGregor has done an essential service in this lucidly written account in highlighting the way in which the military has both erased much of Indonesia's history and shaped a conformist interpretation of it. She has shown how the leading university in Indonesia was an instrument of militarism.