Tan Malaka: Protecting Freedom of Expression

Tan Malaka Protecting freedom of expression

Faiza Mardzoeki
“I smell the sweet aroma of the blood of revolution that will bring death, and honor.”

This is a sentence from the Tan Malaka monolog performed, finally, by experienced actor Joind Bayuwinanda at the Indonesian French Institute ( IFI ) in Bandung, West Java, on March 24. The monolog was produced by Mainteater Bandung and the script written by poet and essayist Ahda Imran. It was directed by Wawan Sofwan.

The two performances on one of the country’s main leftist thinkers were watched by about 500 people, mainly youths.

A day before, a group calling itself the Anti-Communist Society ( MAK ) demanded that the performance be canceled because it contained communist or leftist ideas. The group forced its way into the IFI shouting, “Crush communists!” An argument broke out between them and the producers. Out of concern for everyone’s safety, the producers and the IFI announced the cancellation of the performance. The production went ahead the next day thanks to intervention by Bandung Mayor Ridwan Kamil.

He assured that there would be extra police protection for the performance. He also told the media that he had summoned members of MAK and advised them that they should communicate their feelings in a more constructive manner. It was initially reported that the mayor would attend the performance.

It was a challenging performance in which the audience had to patiently digest the complex thoughts of Tan Malaka presented over 90 minutes in soliloquies.

There was his constant restlessness over the revolution and his disappointment with national leaders for what he saw as their compromise and distance from the masses.

There was his own internal restlessness and his experience of repeated imprisonment, his constant need for disguise and his change of name as he shifted from country to country while being accused of betraying the revolution.

While he felt that he had given all to the revolution, had submerged himself in it, he had been left behind by history.

The stage was minimalist with three benches used as chairs and table, one glass and an old battered suitcase. Joind was somewhat able to bring the written thoughts of Tan to life for the audience, quite a challenge for a figure who is remote from public consciousness.

Those who have read Tan Malaka might have found listening to the monolog dry, weak in imagination and interpretation. Yet for those not so familiar with Tan’s thoughts, though requiring patience and resilience, they could likely enjoy and appreciate the performance, which revealed a figure they had scarcely known while in school or from official history.

There were no grounds at all for banning this play. That it was based on a controversial figure seen as a communist, well that is a part of the reality that formed Indonesia. First president Sukarno declared Tan Malaka a national hero back in 1963.

Why be afraid of history? Indonesia is now creating a new reality. There is no need to be afraid of the past that formed us; indeed we need to know our history to learn from it.

When Mayor Ridwan “saved” the performance it was not a heroic act. It was a necessary measure expected of any official who serves the people and protects their constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression.

This gesture did enable the play to go ahead and indicates how the recent spate of harassment toward intellectual and artistic activities could easily be stopped if other officials actually carried out their responsibilities.

Such harassment has been increasing. Among such cases was the harassment of those attending a meeting of victims of the 1965 violence in Bukittinggi, West Sumatra, in February 2015 and in Salatiga, Central Jakarta, last August; of people attending several discussions on Yogyakarta campuses; the deportation of a son of a 1965 victim, Tom Ilyas, in December; the forced cancellation of sessions on 1965 at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in October and the banning of theater readings on 1965 at Taman Ismail Jakarta ( TIM ), also in December.

This year, there has been the harassment of the PeaceWomen across the Globe documentary team in Padang Pariaman, West Sumatra.

Most recently there was refusal of TIM, after pressure from the police, to provide a venue for the Belok Kiri ( Turn Left ) Festival and then the pressure on the Goethe Institute to cancel the screening of a new film by Rahung Nasution, Pulau Buru, Tanah Air Beta , a documentary about the island where political prisoners were held.

There has also been the harassment and official encouragement of discrimination against minority groups such as the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender ( LGBT ) community and religious minority groups.

If these bans and harassment continue, it could result in society going backward. What Indonesians struggled for during the 1945 revolution, the 1998 reform period and the openness and freedom that people hoped for with an elected civilian president will all come to nothing.

The nation’s ability to think critically and to be creative will be stymied if people’s right to think and produce, and express themselves, cannot be guaranteed.

Elected officials should fulfill their responsibilities in this realm and ensure that freedom.


The writer is a playwright, a theater producer and the director of Institut Ungu ( Purple Institute, Women’s Art and Cultural Space ).