Wed, 09 Mar 2005

Bringing 'Das Kapital' to Indonesia

Evi Mariani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

One cold night in 1979, 41 political prisoners from a Buru Island penitentiary disembarked from a ship north of Madura.

Among these was "prisoner number 001", Oey Hay Djun, a former legislator from the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), and "prisoner number 007", Pramoedya Ananta Toer.

Those 41 were the last batch of hundreds of Buru prisoners released by the New Order regime, held the longest because they were considered the most defiant.

Now, 26 years later, at the venerable age of 76, Oey does not seem like a man who spent 14 years in jail under Soeharto and even longer ostracized from political life.

Jail, he said, did not kill his spirit or make him denounce his ideology.

Working more than eight hours a day for almost a year, Oey recently finished a formidable, 1000-page translation of the first volume of Karl Marx's magnum opus, the three-volume Das Kapital.

The Indonesian translation of the first volume was issued in February this year, 138 years after the original was published in German in 1867.

"Currently, I'm working on the second volume. This time it's 600 pages. I hope it can be published next year," Oey told The Jakarta Post at his house in Cibubur, East Jakarta, where he lives with his wife, Jane Luyke, and several pet dogs.

"Reading Kapital is a complicated task. However, the book is beautiful," he said, adding that he had never thoroughly read the work until he translated it.

He did not work on Marx's masterpiece for the money, as he was paid less than Rp 10,000 (US$1.10) per page.

"It doesn't matter: I liked translating it," he said. "I have wanted to do this since I was 35 years old."

Since his release from Buru, he has translated 22 books from English into Indonesian, of which 12 have been published.

He translation of Human Phenomenon by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, was published during his detention in Buru.

Another published translation was that of W. Wertheim's 670- page High Wave of Emancipation, in which Oey used the pseudonym Ira Iramanto.

"Ira Iramanto is my homage to Njoto, who wrote poems using the pseudonym Iramani," Oey said, referring to Njoto, the chief editor of the PKI newspaper Harian Rakjat.

"Oey's spirit is admirable. He never stops working," Benny G. Setiono, chairman of the Chinese-Indonesian Association (INTI), said.

"Although he is quite old, it seems like he never feels old," he said. "He is a man of integrity, of principles. And he is undaunted."

Benny said he admired Oey for always keeping up with current affairs.

"He often comes to INTI meetings. He doesn't talk much at the meetings, but younger INTI members respect him," Benny said, adding that differing political beliefs were never a problem between them.

Born in Malang, East Java, on April 18, 1929, said, Oey joined the PKI at 25 after he clinched a seat in the House of Representatives for the party, which polled in fourth place, gaining 16.4 percent of the total vote in the first election in 1955.

"I was candidate number 39 in Central Java," he said. "But I was not a PKI member yet at that time."

"A number of PKI officials approached me to be one of the candidates. I was a chairman of a cigarette industry association and the PKI thought they needed a representative from the business world," Oey, who was

However, his first encounter with socialism happened long before he became a party member. At the age of 15 he read a Dutch translation of Hell by Henri Barbusse, a noted pacifist and later a communist.

At that age he had already left school, his studies at the Hollandsch Chinese School cut short because of the Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1945.

"My mother had a grocery store so I helped her to watch over it, but sometimes I sneaked out to go to a library," Oey said.

In the cool town of Malang during the 1940s, there was bookstore-cum-library owned and managed by the late ARC Salim, the younger brother of the late Agus Salim, a national hero, a self-educated diplomat and a noted Muslim leader.

"His library had a great collection of books in Indonesian and Dutch. Later, because I spent a lot of time reading there, ARC Salim approached me and recommended what books I should read," he said.

"Emil Zola's and Barbusse's books were his recommendations," he said.

"I was really lucky to have the acquaintance of such an intellectual and kind person," he said.

Later, he met other intellectuals and leaders who taught him a lot of things. Siauw Giok Tjan, a noted community leader and a journalist who founded the newspaper Sunday Courier, were among Oey's "teachers".

Apart from books, he also learned from organizations like the Chinese-Indonesian Youth group.

His activities in organizations attracted some PKI talent scouts, who offered him the chance to take a short course on dialectical materialism. After finishing the course he took up another offer to join the Marx House study group for four months.

Although his involvement with the PKI resulted in his imprisonment, he does not regret his past or his chosen ideology.

"One thing I regret is the fact that I was a coward. Even though I could see that some PKI leaders were wrong, I did not say a thing because I was afraid I would be fired," he said. "I guess I was already too comfortable with my position and prominence as a legislator."

"For me, what Sukarno said about the cause of the (Sept. 30, 1965) coup was correct: 'It was caused by some overindulgent PKI leaders, internal friction inside the Army, and a CIA-engineered plot'," he said. "I believe Sukarno's analysis was true."

While many political commentators see communism as a spent force nowadays, Oey disagrees.

"The Soviet Union was bankrupt -- not communism," Oey said.

"I still believe a popular movement will prevail some day through the organization of workers and peasants," he said.

"But, as Pramoedya puts it, we (the older generation) are finished, we are the failed generation. Let the younger generation continue the struggle," he said.