BOOK REVIEW / Imperial mincemeat: An Empire of the East - Norman Lewis: Jonathan Cape, pounds 14.99

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
When this newspaper came to life in 1986, it set about reporting news from countries its editors thought were important but generally overlooked. Indonesia was always given as the example, hence the emergence of what came to be known in City Road as the 'Indonesia Principle'. It was a good idea: it meant that obscure places did not escape the public gaze. Indonesia, after all, is obscure, but it shouldn't be. It sits strategically astride the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the world's largest Muslim state, a top petroleum producer, rich in minerals, the biggest population mass in South-east Asia (200 million people from 300 ethnic groups) and a nation that spreads from the south-western tip of Thailand nearly 3,000 miles east to the Coral Sea beside Queensland. It is a rich, regional superpower.

It is not necessarily the fault of journalists if Indonesia is ignored. Its rulers, civilian and military, have made and still do make it their business to keep nosey foreigners from the country, for there is a lot to hide. It is, for example, more difficult for a Western reporter to be accredited to the government in Jakarta than it is in Peking.

From time to time the sheer brutality of the government's behaviour breaks the cocoon of silence that envelops Indonesia and briefly catches the world's attention. As quickly as the curtain is opened it is pulled closed. And Indonesia's apologists in the West - Britain, the United States, France, Germany and Japan - all greedy to trade and to tap into the country's vast resources, look the other way and say nothing. For a country whose human rights record over the years is as low as Burma's, where army-encouraged massacres in the 1960s pre-dated the Khmer Rouge slaughter in Cambodia 10 years later, where civilians have been used periodically as human shields in military operations, where torture and rape are commonplace means of repression, Indonesia, surprisingly, has got off lightly indeed. It has always amazed me that this should be so.

Norman Lewis has gone to Indonesia and in this book has told us about the dark side of the country far removed from a tourist's view of lush rice terraces, tinkling bells and sarong-clad women. It is a powerful work, made brilliant by its simplicity. Apart from the island of Bali he takes us to the most obscure parts of Indonesia, the northern tip of Sumatra, East Timor and the highlands of Irian Jaya, areas where the locals have rebelled or are still rebelling.

As the title of the book makes clear, Indonesia is not really a country, it is an empire; an empire of many different peoples dominated and sat upon by the Javanese, who in turn were sat upon by the Dutch for more than 300 years. Throughout the archipelago the Javanese have imposed their authority, settling (transmigration is the euphemistic term) in other people's islands, savaging their landscape and imposing a cultural and social sameness. Local traditions, Lewis reports, have been allowed to survive in modified form only when they are believed valuable for the tourist industry. If not they are proscribed. Anyone who resists this advance is crushed mercilessly. Java's imperialism is total - physical, cultural and linguistic. The ultimate aim is a pacified, dull, subservient population that unquestionally accepts Jakarta's, and that means the army's, authority and view of the world.

I have often wondered why two peoples, Khmer and Javanese, both charming on the surface and who built Buddhism's greatest monuments - Angkor in Cambodia and Borabudur in Java - can descend so rapidly into aggressive, mindless violence and brutality. Perhaps a historian has the answer.

There is something sinister about Indonesia which comes across in each chapter. Travelling with Lewis over the rutted and silent roads of North Sumatra through Aceh, its tropical rain forest decimated, you expect at every bend to meet a band of armed insurgents. In Bali, he hears from his driver that during the great anti-Communist slaughter after the downfall of President Sokarno villagers were turned against each other and told if they didn't kill first they would die. In East Timor, he wanders through a territory made empty by invasion, genocide and starvation. He finds young men ill-fed yet strangely energetic, and is told that after four years in a coffin-like jail all they want to do when they are freed is run around. In former Dutch New Guinea, now Irian Jaya, which Indonesia took over in a ridiculously rigged 'referendum' - the panel of voters was chosen by the Indonesia army - he wanders through the highlands where a sophisticated tribal society is being turned upside down. The only joy here is that Javanese don't like being far from home, so the authority of Jakarta in many places is weak.

Lewis's strength is that he appears not to take sides. Of course he does really, but he is far too subtle to plug a cause. He presents himself as a picture of innocence and recites only what he hears and sees. Because of this restraint you believe him and the impact is much greater than some hysterical and emotional appeal. I finished the book with all my prejudices strengthened, and there are some splendidly funny moments in it too. On the other hand I'm sure the Indonesian government thought they probably got a fair deal. That's why he's so good. You read what you will in Norman Lewis. You think he's your man.