Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Rifle Reports: A Story of Indonesian Independence

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Rifle Reports: A Story of Indonesian Independence

Article excerpt

Rifle Reports: A Story of Indonesian Independence. By Mary Margaret Steedly. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.

Keywords: Indonesia, Karo Batak, gender, nationalism, decolonization, violence, narrative, memory, ethnographic history, storytelling practice.

Review Essay I: Benedict Anderson

Mary Steedly's new book, Rifle Reports: A Story of Indonesian Independence, is one of a kind and will continue to be so. The Republic of Indonesia tries to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of Sukarno's and Hatta's proclamation of the country's independence this year, but will have serious difficulties in commemorating the Revolution that followed, ending only in December 1949. The still living persons who directly experienced the Revolution are almost all more than eighty years old. Once they are gone, Indonesians and Indonesianists will have to rely on myths and documents, which rarely provide readers with any frisson. Thus Mary's work may well be the last on the "living Revolution".

She came to do anthropology in the highland home of the Karo Bataks in North Sumatra as early as the middle 1980s, when today's eighty-year-olds were in their fifties. Out of her fieldwork came the wonderful book Hanging without a Rope: Narrative Experience in Colonial and Post-Colonial Karo land (1993). But the Revolution was neither colonial nor post-colonial. In the middle 1990s, she did further extensive fieldwork, focused again on "narrative experience", which seems to tackle the "missing period". Here anthropology outdoes history (usually concerned with the dead) and political science (usually focused on politicians, bureaucracies, and generals), by studying living popular memories and myths among local communities.

As early as the first few weeks after the Total Collapse of the Japanese Empire and the surrender of its soldiers, Indonesian newspapers were already describing Indonesia's coming struggle with the British and above all the Dutch as "our Revolusi", which had a strong utopian tonality. But the term had a double meaning. Alongside a nationalist Revolution against the foreign colonialists, there was also a populist "social" Revolution against collaborationist bureaucrats, oppressive local monarchies and aristocracies, odious village headmen, spies of the Dutch, sometimes also "traitors" (mostly Christian Indonesians), and of course the much disliked Sino-Indonesian merchants, moneylenders and so on. The most wellknown examples of such bloody social revolutions were Atjeh, North Sumatra, North Coast Java, Banten and Surakarta in 1945 and 1946, and the Madiun Uprising in 1948. In the time of Post-Revolutionary Indonesia, 1950-65, foreign and Indonesian historians and political scientists tended to obscure such "social revolutions" in the name of the Nation. It was "we against the foreigners" above all. But with the deepening Cold War, Revolusi was increasingly identified by right-wingers, the military, Muslims, etc. as communist. With the vast campaign of slaughter, torture and endless imprisonment against the Communist Party and its allies, along with the rise of the military dictatorship of Soeharto, Revolusi more or less "disappeared", to be replaced by the deceitful "War for Independence" in which only the military were proclaimed as national heroes.

Even today, seventeen years after Soeharto's fall, Revolusi is an emotional term. That Mary titles her book with the flat phrase "Indonesian Independence" shows her caution, though inside the book Revolusi (given as "Repolusi") shows up all over the place.

If one looks at the well-known scholarly books about the Revolution one sees at once that ninety-five per cent scarcely mention any women. Popular books, autobiographies and comicbooks written by Indonesians follow this pattern. The signal beauty of Mary's work is that she writes about all kinds of Karo women, whether individuals or groups--without neglecting the Karo males. …

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