Mon, 12 Jun 2000

Whose probation?

I read with dismay that Nano Riantiarno has been sentenced to five months' probation for his work as an editor at Matra. It seems that someone (it is never stated who) was offended by photos of comely women on the covers of successive issues of the magazine and that same someone decided that, in the name of "the norms of decency", another someone, namely Nano, had to be held accountable.

I won't even begin to ask about how a judiciary that for decades overlooked corruption in high places (and still is loathe to look too far into that mire) and ignored the slaughter of its own citizens feels itself up to the task of deciding what common decency is. I won't ask those on the bench how they could even talk about sentencing someone for going against "norms of decency" via photos when the men who raped Indonesian women and shot Indonesian students have never been found, much less sentenced. No I will not ask those proud judges: I don't want to know their "norms of decency".

But I do want to know from other Indonesians: What's happening? Just a year ago, you brought the traffic in all of Jakarta to a halt, reveling in your nation's newly won, and richly deserved, democracy. Now, less than a year later, the public sits back while one of its foremost playwrights is sentenced. Where is the outrage?

I first met Riantiarno a decade ago, when he and the actors of Teater Koma were rehearsing Suksesi (Succession) their bravery? The play, loosely based on Shakespeare's King Lear, took place in a city that very much resembled Soeharto's Jakarta. The evil daughters of the King were scheming, money-grubbing bubbleheads, as were their ladies-in-waiting (one, I remember fondly, complained that she had "only one baby Benz".) As for the King ... Let's just say that the parallels were such that the play opened to a packed house and was immediately closed down by the real King's men. A loyal public left flowers and notes of support on the gate in front of Riantiarno's studio; the silence of Indonesia's other playwrights, however, was deafening and damning of those timid literati.

Now, Nano's at it again, stretching the boundaries. Perhaps there are flowers on his door again. But where are his peers? Are they defending him or are they once again literati in hiding? When the judge handed down Nano's probation, he no doubt thought he was "suspending the sentence of a convicted offender and giving him freedom during good behavior under the supervision of a probation officer". That is the second definition, according to Webster's Ninth.

I think, in fact, the good judge -- and every other Indonesian -- should look instead at the first definition of probation: "Critical examination and evaluation." Nano's conviction cries out for a critical examination and evaluation of just what democracy means in Indonesia. His probation demands a critical examination of whether, indeed, Indonesia does have true freedom of speech, or whether that freedom is only for "special people", as it was in the old days. It asks each and every citizen to evaluate whether he or she is ready to stand up for freedom of speech -- even when the speech runs contrary to one's own personal convictions.

Indonesia has emerged from a long, dark winter of discontent, when "King" Soeharto and his henchmen would brook no dissent. Editors, and all others who care about the freedoms they so recently wrested from that darkness must now critically examine their own commitment to democracy and, having done so, cry out against the judge's decision. The probation is not Nano's: The probation is the nation's.


New York, N.Y.