Sun, 06 Mar 2005


From independence to republic: One woman's chronicle

Doug Anthony, Contributor, Jakarta

An Endless Journey: Reflections of an Indonesian Journalist
Herawati Diah
Equinox Publishing
304 pp

In her newly translated autobiography, Herawati Diah, journalist, businesswoman and the wife of a former minister, charts her 87- year odyssey through a changing Indonesia.

She has been a pioneer of sorts: the first woman to study at Columbia University in New York, and one of Indonesia's first woman journalists and newspaper editors.

Endless Journey records her lucid observations from a childhood on the island of Belitung, off Sumatra, through to the heady years of Reformasi.

Like much of Jakarta's aristocratic elite, Herawati seemed at her most passionate during the privations of the early years of an independent Indonesia, from 1945 until the mid-1950s. As she and her husband grew in power and status, radicalism gave way to comfort and respectability.

The gems in the book are her anecdotes of colonial Indonesia, the Japanese occupation, the independence war and the first years of the nascent Republic. The description of Jakarta as a wartime garrison town, strafed with Dutch secret police, makes for lively reading.

Perhaps few readers, even now, will welcome accounts of arisan -- informal social get-togethers, mostly held among women -- with Tien Soeharto, the late wife of former president Soeharto.

In the first chapter, Herawati recounts childhood memories of life in a port town on Belitung. Her mother, devoted to advancing her family's fortunes in life, rigorously trained the children in the mores and customs of the Dutch colonizers, including their language and education. This also brought the young Herawati headlong into confrontation with colonial racism; one Dutch teacher told her that islanders or natives couldn't study Latin because of their inferior brains.

In the 1930s, her mother sent her to study in the United States, and Herawati became the first Indonesian woman to study at Columbia University.

Upon her return, she had become an unwitting celebrity, and as she pulled into Gambir station, a gamelan orchestra chimed in her honor.

Thus begins the period that makes the most interesting reading: The Japanese occupation and early years of the Indonesian Revolution.

The well-spoken Herawati is press-ganged into working for a news agency that produces pro-Japanese propaganda. She marries a firebrand journalist and joins him on the staff of Merdeka, a nationalist newspaper. They are harassed by both Dutch and Japanese intelligence agents, and are present at the declaration of independence on Aug. 17, 1945.

At first, Herawati's reporter's notebook, even when she is serving as a protocol officer, serves her well.

She recalls the pro-Dutch American consul who accused the Indonesian independence fighters of "terrorism". Some of these so-called terrorists take on Japanese soldiers armed only with machetes and bamboo spears. One Merdeka bicycle courier has to dodge bullets while delivering president Sukarno's copy of the paper. And in 1954, Herawati goes on to help found the independent republic's first English-language daily, the Indonesian Observer (which closed in June 2001).

Throughout it all, Herawati seems determined to uphold the values and behavior of traditional womanhood: "At the very least, a woman could not leave the femininity behind in carrying out her assignments," she writes. "I didn't have to be masculine in my attitude when it came to my profession."

For their Generation of 1945 sacrifices, the couple is rewarded well. Both presidents Sukarno and Soeharto appoint Herawati husband to ambassadorial posts, which raises her status to that of an Ibu of power.

From churning out stories -- with a baby in tow -- in the underground nationalist press in Solo during the independence war, she turns to organizing charities with the likes of Ibu Tien. In the 1970s, Herawati adds the role of businesswoman to her resume, moving into hotel management.

Somewhere along the way, her journalistic impulses seem to have deserted her. For example, after an encounter with Imelda Marcos, possibly the biggest kleptocrat in modern Asian history, Herawati notes that "she was a diligent collector of porcelain".

On a visit to Irian Jaya, now called Papua, she describes the province's 1.2 million people as "people who come from another country", adding that "we may call them primitive because they don't need clothing."

Of East Timor's bloody path to independence, she writes that "It is not necessary to dwell on the human rights issues that arose when the Indonesian army was told to maintain peace and order in East Timor during the referendum."

Perhaps some of her Dutch women journalist friends felt the same way about the writings of Merdeka in a different era.