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Obituary of Joesoef Isak

28 August, 2009

The death earlier this month of one of the most courageous opponents of Suharto’s three decades long authoritarian regime provides an opportunity to recognise the ability of one man to wage open defiance, despite the terrible personal risks involved during many dark years in Indonesia before the fall of Suharto.

Joesoef Isak, died on 15 August at the age of 81, having been suffering from respiratory problems for many years, along with a weak heart.

To those of us who lived in Indonesia during Suharto’s so-called New Order, we perhaps remember him most vividly for the courageous activities of his publishing house, Hasta Mitra, which was responsible for publishing the books of Indonesia’s foremost novelist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, even though they were banned.

Educated in the Dutch school system which left him initially with a poor knowledge of Indonesian, Joesoef was struck by the popularity of Sukarno even during the Japanese occupation, and the attraction of his speeches at mass rallies with special emphasis on the need for Indonesia to become self-reliant by turning its back on programmes of aid promised by the World Bank.

He started his professional life as a journalist, working for the newspaper, Merdeka, becoming its editor. But he was sacked in 1962 for being ‘too leftwing’. His journalistic activities led to him attending international conferences organised by the Asia-Africa Journalists’ Association, of which he became the secretary-general. He still held this position in 1965, frequently travelling the world, making contact with journalists in the ‘non-aligned world’. When the military under Suharto took power following a wave of killings which claimed at least half a million people for alleged membership of, or sympathy with, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), Joesoef was arrested, released and re-arrested several times up to 1967. Observers believed that he was treated somewhat more leniently because he was so well known internationally.

However, during a second wave of mass arrests that took place in 1968 at a time when the banned PKI seemed to be trying to make a comeback, he was arrested and held in detention without charge or trial, for ten years. Unlike others such as Pramoedya who spent more than a decade incarcerated on the remote Buru Island, he spent these years in Salemba Prison, Jakarta. He was able to strike up a friendship with one of the prison guards who, perhaps in recognition of his journalistic profession, slipped in newspapers which he avidly read and passed on reports about what was happening in the world outside to his fellow prisoners.

As I knew myself during the years of my own incarceration from 1968 - 1971, such favours were indeed possible as we too had friendly guards who would smuggle in newspapers (for a small tip) which had to be kept hidden at all times as reading matter of all kinds, with the exception of the Bible and the Ku’ran, was strictly prohibited. Being able to follow what was happening outside, including the growing anti-war movement and the US defeat in Vietnam, helped prisoners to retain a sense of proportion and a feeling of hopefulness.

Joesoef was released in 1977 and two years later was able to re-establish contact with a journalist friend, Rachman, who had edited the cultural pages of the Eastern Star newspaper. It was at that time that Pramoedya was also released from Buru, where, against all the odds, he had been able to write or relate to his fellow prisoners one of the books, Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind), which was to become the first of four books published from 1981 by Hasta Mitra.

Describing the impact of the book’s appearance, Max Lane, who later translated this and many of Pramoedya’s books, describes how the ‘book was universally hailed, Isak and Rachman were caught in a whirlwind. Isak’s living room was swallowed up by the Hasta Mitra secretariat.’ Other ex-prisoners were eager to help circulate the book, which could not be sold in bookshops, and make a small living by selling the books door-to-door.

However, as the book become increasingly popular, a group of Indonesian writers issued a statement, alleging that the book written by Pram was ‘communist inspired’ leading to a clampdown. According to Max Lane, Isak bore the brunt of the interrogations that followed, with his accusers seeking to obtain some kind of recognition that the book, dealing with an early period in the history of Indonesian nationalism, was in fact intended as communist propaganda. In October 1980, two months after the first appearance of Bumi Manusia, the book was banned ‘for conveying Marxist-Leninist teachings’. However, the publishers were not formally notified of the ban and continued to reprint the book. It is difficult to imagine just how popular the book became, even going into five reprints and how it was circulated and widely read in many parts of the country.

One of Isak’s son, Verdi (the name had been chosen because of Isak’s love for the music of the great operatic composer), who helped to circulate the books, was expelled from university, along with three student colleagues who were often seen standing at the entrance of their university offering Pramoedya’s books for sale.

Joesoef was the recipient of several international awards, including the International Jeri Laber Award from a US publisher in April 2004, the Keneally Award from Australian PEN as well as an award given by the French government, Chevalier de l’Order des Arts et des Lettres’ in September 2008. These were all a sign of how well known Pramoedya’s book had become throughout the word, having appeared in numerous translations.

On the occasion of Joesoef’s 80th  birthday one year ago, a large group of Indonesian intellectuals gathered at the Jakarta Marzuki Cultural Centre The occasion was marked by the publication of a book, Liber Amicorum 80 Years of Joesoef Isak, containing articles by 22 friends of his from various sections of society, with Max Lane appearing as one of the main speakers, along with a young Indonesian historian Boni Triyana.

Just a few days before his death, despite his poor health, his wife Asni said that he attended a meeting held by the editorial board of the news weekly, Tempo at which a discussion was held about one of the PKI’s leading intellectual figures, Nyoto.

Joesoef was clearly a man who never lost interest in the intellectual life of the country and was keen to take part in a variety of activities, sharing his thoughts and following current developments with the same keen interest that inspire him throughout his long and eventful life.

Carmel Budiardjo