Monday, March 7, 2022

Mochtar Lubis in prison

Mochtar Lubis, one of Indonesia’s best-known and respected journalists of the 20th century, was born a century ago today. Variously imprisoned under the Surkarno and Suharto post-independence regimes for, essentially, defending his and his newspaper’s right to free speech, he also kept diaries during at least two of his prison terms.

Lubis was born on 7 March 1922 in Padang, West Sumatra, to a high-ranking civil servant working for the Dutch administration. After studying at business school, Lubis worked as a teacher in Nias, North Sumatra, and for a bank in Batavia. During the Japanese occupation in World War II, Lubis translated international radio news for the Japanese army (and also for his brother who was in the resistance). In 1945, he married Asia Raya, and they had three children.

Also in 1945, after independence, Lubis joined the Indonesian news agency Antara as a reporter; and, in 1949, he cofounded the daily newspaper Indonesia Raya, later serving as its chief editor. From 1952 to 1954, he concurrently edited the English-language Times of Indonesia. But his responsibility for Indonesia Raya led to him being imprisoned several times for dissent, the longest period being between 1957 and 1966, during the latter three years of which he was held in Madiun, East Java. The newspaper, too, was intermittently shut down (such as between 1958 and 1968), until its permanent closure in 1974.

In 1975, Lubis was again arrested, this time in relation to the 1974 riots during the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka. He was imprisoned, without trial, but then released after a few months. He went on to found and co-found numerous other publications and foundations, including the Obor Indonesia Foundation in 1970, Horison magazine, and the Indonesian Green Foundation. He was generally regarded as an honest, no-nonsense reporter; and, in 2000, he was named as one of the International Press Institute’s 50 World Press Freedom Heroes of the past 50 years. He died in 2004. Further information is available at Wikipedia, and from The Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation.

Lubis appears to have kept a diary during some of his prison periods. In 1980, Sinar Harapan published Catatan Subversif (Subversive Notes) which is said to be a diary of his time in prison in the late 1950s and 1960s. For a bit more about this, see C. W. Watson’s Of self and injustice: autobiography and repression in modern Indonesia which can be read at Googlebooks.

Then, in 2008, Yayasan Obor Indonesia published a diary that Lubis had written during his detention in 1975 - Nirbaya: catatan harian Mochtar Lubis dalam penjara Orde Baru (Nirbaya, Diary of Mochtar Lubis in a New Order Prison). Some parts of the book - in Indonesian - can be read online at Googlebooks, but a few extracts translated to English can be found in a Jakarta Post article. ‘The late Mochtar Lubis,’ the article states, ‘is arguably Indonesia’s best known, internationally acclaimed newspaperman and veteran political prisoner of two presidents. [His] diary is a sharp, open rebuke to Indonesia’s legal system.’

10 February 1975
‘Food rations at Nirbaya are no better than during the Old Order [Suharto was the Old Order, Sukarno was the New Order]. The rations for the Gestapu/PKI detainees [those allegedly involved in the abortive coup of October 1965] are worse. Hariman and I still get one piece of scrambled egg for lunch, and once in a while a perkedel [potato-based dumpling] in the morning or in the evening, with some cooked vegetables. But the Gestapu/PKI prisoners get only one piece of tempeh [fermented soybean cake] or bean curd with vegetables morning, noon and night.’

19 March 1975
‘They have been held for too long without any trial. This is not good for the soul of Indonesia.’ [When Lubis was released, in May 1975, he lamented that he was freed sooner than the others, who had been in custody for more than nine years.]

22 March 1975
[Of the pride in his wife for staying calm.] ‘I want you to be like that always. Do not worry about me. If you are strong, I will be strong too. I get my strength from you, and hope you will get strength from me. . . Thank you for your flowers. Each time I look at them I see your love in them.’

14 April 1975
‘Many detainees were held for months, and in some cases for years, before they were brought to trial. Judges tended to sentence them according to the existing length of their detention. This situation shakes confidence in the rule of law.’

‘This is a good read for younger Indonesians,’ The Djakarta Post concludes about the book, ‘to learn about the untold chapters of the Soeharto years and of the character of one man in facing the trials of that period.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 7 March 2012.

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