Jakarta, Indonesia -- Until a literary award spoiled the fun, Indonesia's 50th-birthday party was going beautifully. Schoolchildren were marching. Political prisoners were released. Prostitutes got a three-day vacation. Shoppers scored bargains when the government jawboned merchants into cutting prices. Even a little cautious, but constructive, political criticism was allowed.
Then the Manila-based Magsaysay Foundation decided to honor Pramoedya Ananta Toer, a grand old man who has been in trouble with one set of authorities or another for more than 50 years -- that is, for longer than Indonesia has been a nation.
The award tore some scabs off Indonesia's carefully cultivated social harmony. For 30 years, this archipelago of 13,000 islands, home to 190 million people -- the world's fourth-largest population, after China, India and the United States -- has been one of the world's quietest countries. But 30 years ago, it was one of the most turbulent -- and the past, as William Faulkner said, is never really past.
The convulsion that ripped Indonesia 30 years ago was dramatized in a movie starring Mel Gibson, "The Year of Living Dangerously." During those months, as many as half a million people were murdered. Roving death squads slaughtered whole villages, ostensibly because they harbored Communists.
The killing was touched off by an apparent coup attempt on the night of Sept. 30, 1965. Seven top military leaders were kidnapped and murdered. The army officers who quickly seized control blamed Indonesia's large and powerful Communist Party.
Unclear to this day is the role of Sukarno, the country's charismatic independence leader. Officially, he remains a national hero; Jakarta's airport is named for him. But amid rumors that he might have given at least tacit backing to the leftists, Sukarno was shouldered aside within a year.
Indonesia has been governed since by Suharto, a former army general. His rule has been authoritarian, but generally effective. Literacy and personal income have risen, and infant mortality has dropped. Economic growth averages 7 percent, year after year. With an average per-capita income of $885, about the same as Egypt's, Indonesia is still a Third World country, but one where life is improving for most people. Last month's independence celebration, heralding the end of 300 years of Dutch colonial rule, was designed to celebrate that progress -- and also, as the Suharto era moves into its autumn, to begin the healing of the wounds of its 30-years-ago springtime.
In 1965, Subandrio was Indonesia's foreign minister, a diplomat who hobnobbed with such Cold War superstars as Andrei Gromyko and Chou En-lai. The U.S. secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, acidly called Subandrio "the most eloquent spokesman of the double standard" of Third World neutrality. After the 1965 coup attempt, he was jailed for alleged complicity.
Three weeks ago, on the day before the independence celebration, Subandrio, now 81, was freed from prison, along with two other former high-ranking figures.
In addition, the government canceled the "ET" identity-card designation used to monitor more than a million persons suspected of harboring leftist sympathies. "ET" -- from the Indonesian words for "ex-political detainee" -- was like a scarlet letter or the mark of Cain, an external sign of past sins that made it difficult for the "ETs" to get jobs or rent apartments.
But the government isn't letting down its guard. "The scrapping of the ET code is not a step backward," said Susila Sudarman, coordinating minister for political affairs and security. "Everyone will still be watching them, the government and the people. . . . We will always be watching out against the latent danger of communism."
The Magsaysay literature prize, named for a former Philippine president, is considered the Asian equivalent of the Nobel, and many writers and artists circulated a statement saying that they were proud when it was awarded to Mr. Pramoedya. But others are not yet ready to forgive and forget. A group of 26 intellectuals formally protested the award on the grounds that in the 1960s Mr. Pramoedya was a leftist cultural bully who conducted "witch hunts" against other writers.
One of the protesters, Mochtar Lubis, a former Magsaysay laureate, was so outraged that he traveled to Manila to return the gold medallion he won in 1958. He handed back $1,000, too, and said it was a down payment toward the return of his entire prize money, $5,000.
One of Mr. Pramoedya's novels obtainable in English is "The Girl from the Coast." In style and theme it is similar to the "socialist realist" fiction that used to be published in the Soviet Union. The setting moves back and forth between a fishing village and an aristocrat's palace. Mr. Pramoedya develops interesting and lively characters in both settings, and his writing is light and swift-moving.
But the story is not subtle. The fisherfolk are all gladsome, honest and team-oriented (even the ne'er-do-well, who reforms), with a true religion of living in harmony with nature. The aristocrats are all joyless, corrupt and selfish (except the one who chooses to marry a fisherman), with a hypocritical religion of mechanical prayers and sterile book-learning.
"Surreptitious Marxism" has gotten Mr. Pramoedya's works banned in his homeland, but the derogation of religion is perhaps equally offensive in Indonesia. Belief in God is one of the five points in the country's official "Pancasila" ideology. (The others are nationalism, humanism, social justice and democracy through consensus.) Officially, the state is tolerant of all religions, so long as everyone has one, but 88 percent of Indonesians are Muslim, and Christian missionaries increasingly find that they cannot get their visas renewed.
As for Mr. Pramoedya, he too is unready to forgive and forget. He says human rights were better respected by the Dutch colonizers than by the present government. When political amnesties were announced for the 50th-anniversary celebration, he responded, "It is I who should give them an amnesty."
Mr. Pramoedya spent 14 years in jail until 1979, and he still is barred from leaving Indonesia. His wife went to Manila to accept his Magsaysay prize last week.
The author continues to work on an encyclopedia of Indonesia. It is an eight-year project that has been stalled lately by lack of money and research assistance. Since it won't be approved for publication, there would be little reason for hurry, except that Mr. Pramoedya is now past 70. The Magsaysay prize brings a purse of $50,000. "If someone helps me," Mr. Pramoedya said, "the books may be finished in the next five years."
Someone must have given a lot of help to get thousands of racks of little light bulbs mounted and glowing for the independence celebration. Identical arcades of red and white lights like Christmas decorations lined the streets in villages and towns throughout Indonesia. It was an impressively coordinated show -- but nobody was claiming credit.
The Jakarta Post described a fruitless search for the government official or department responsible for the display. "In a typically Indonesian way," the newspaper editorialized, "no one seems to know where the original instruction to install these decorative lights came from." The national organizer of the anniversary celebration denied that his team had anything to do with it.
Organized patriotism also got houses and store fronts repainted. In some areas the authorities decreed yellow for the repainting, symbolizing the golden anniversary of Indonesia. Yellow, as it happens, also symbolizes Golkar, the ruling political coalition. But where this bid to identify national unity with partisanship might cause offense, nobody insisted. Thus in Yogyakarta, where there are several major universities and thousands of high-spirited students, buildings were brightened in a safe and neutral white.
Nationalist fervor also required the dismantling, repainting or covering with white drapery of signs in English. Jakarta deployed a 213-person "public order" squad, according to a city spokesman, to "promote the proper use of language."
The team identified about 580 offensive signs -- not many for a city of 8 million people. As the great holiday approached, columns of arm-swinging youth, graded like eggs from tallest to smallest, tied up Indonesia's traffic in practice marches through streets and highways. The best units, representing schools, sports teams and Scout organizations, won the right to march in the Aug. 17 parades.
Indonesian traffic is chaotic at best, because so many types of conveyances share the two-lane, shoulderless roads: bicycles, motorbikes, horse carts, pedicabs, buses, cars, trucks. Staying in lane is impossible, unless all traffic is to move at a horse's plodding pace, so motorcycles tend to ride the center stripe, and automobiles to weave back and forth. Of all the elements on the streets, only the student marchers showed some discipline.
It was a near thing, but Indonesia scored a high-tech triumph to dedicate to the golden anniversary. The N-250, a 70-seat, turbo-prop commuter aircraft, made its maiden flight.
Three days earlier, it had broken a generator shaft while taxiing. But on Demonstration Day, with President Suharto and other top TC officials looking on, the plane performed flawlessly. B. J. Habibie, the minister of research and technology, was so thrilled that he called for Aug. 10 to be celebrated forevermore as National Technology Awakening Day.
The N-250 is entirely Indonesian-designed and -built, and is the only airplane of its type to employ fly-by-wire technology. Mr. Habibie hopes to use it to launch an airplane industry that will sell to the world. He points out that Indonesia needs to sell only 259 N-250s to break even on the project, and 192 have been ordered already.
But they have been ordered by Indonesia's domestic airlines, meaning that the plane's half-billion-dollar development cost is being repaid mostly by shifting money from one pocket to another. Mr. Habibie, however, has signed a deal to set up an assembly plant for the N-250 in Mobile, Ala. He hopes thus to win certification by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and entree to world markets.
The flight of the N-250 -- nicknamed Gatot Kaca, after a character in a shadow-puppet epic -- represents a victory for Indonesia's "high-tech" faction. Development so far has followed low-tech strategy, based on natural resources (Indonesia is a ,, major oil producer) and cheap labor. Many hands working at low wages enable Indonesia to make clothing and other products to sell to developed countries.
Mr. Habibie and others argue that the time has now come for Indonesia to cross over to high-tech industries. Other economists, supported by the World Bank, disagree. They say Indonesia should stick with the strategy that has been successful so far.
It's an argument whose outcome may be determined by the eventual succession to President Suharto, now 74. His sixth five-year term ends in 1998. Perhaps he will continue in office, or perhaps, like Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore and Deng Xiaoping in China, he will give up day-to-day governing and ascend to elder statesmanhood.
Some political observers seem to think the latter is at least a possibility. The anniversary celebrations have seen a series of seminars and think-tank discussions on Indonesia's future. Some the discussions come as close as they discreetly may in an authoritarian country to acknowledging that the Old Man won't be around forever.
"Chaos after 1998 Ruled Out," said a headline summarizing one such presentation -- comforting news, if trustworthy. "Political Power Must Be Limited," said another on the future role of the head of state. An army spokesman told another panel that the army should not let its interests become too closely tied to any one politician. If -- or when -- Mr. Suharto leaves the scene, at least one Western scientist will be sorry to see him go. This man, who has lived in Indonesia for 15 years, calls the president "the cleverest political leader in the world."
The Westerner thinks only an authoritarian leader can hold together a nation of so many disparate interests and entities. President Suharto "has played the Muslims beautifully," he says, winning Islamic support while checking any incipient fundamentalist bids for power.
The president has rewarded his own -- family members and cronies are said to control 15 percent of the economy. A son built a $1.4 billion business empire with a government-granted monopoly on plastics imports. Another monopolizes the cloves that are used in cigarettes. A daughter, Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana, runs a conglomerate with a hand in industries from medical technology to toll roads.
But that's the point, says the Western scientist. Instead of looting the treasury and stashing its wealth in some offshore bank account, Mr. Suharto's family has plowed it back into the country.
President Suharto and his predecessor, Sukarno, had very different personal styles. Mr. Suharto has kept Indonesia off the world stage and enjoyed quiet support from the United States, while Sukarno played a noisy nonaligned role in the Cold War.
But both men, in their different ways, saw governing Indonesia as a continuous process of satisfying disparate elements. Sukarno once said:
"I have made myself the meeting place of all trends and ideologies. I have blended, blended and blended them until finally they became the present Sukarno."
Yet he was not simply defined by the latest polls. He called his system "Guided Democracy." "The key ingredient," he said, "is leadership. The Guider . . . incorporates a spoonful of so-and-so's opinions with a -- of such-and-such, always taking care to incorporate a soupcon of the opposition. Then he cooks it and serves his final summation with 'OK, now, my dear brothers, it is like this and I hope you agree.' . . . It's still democratic because everyone has given his comment."
"Comment," but not necessarily consent. Sukarno finally fell off his tightrope and Indonesia is still haunted by the trauma of his fall. President Suharto has survived longer and given his people a quieter life. The colored lights that bloomed all over Indonesia last month reflected his determination to impose a sense of nationhood on Indonesia.
Only when he is no longer able to impose his will can his success be judged.
Hal Piper edits The Baltimore Sun's Opinion-Commentary page.