Arief Budiman (1941-2020): liberated intellectual in authoritarian times

Arief Budiman (1941-2020): liberated intellectual in authoritarian times

When I last met him, in his stylish bamboo-walled house in Salatiga in April last year, I thanked him for what he had done for me. Arief looked puzzled. “You taught me politics,” I said. Then he smiled. My hair had grown white. His body, eleven years older than mine, was wasted by Parkinsons. We both remembered those golden years in the late 1980s, the height of the authoritarian New Order, when politics really seemed to matter.

I had come to Salatiga from Australia in 1984. He had arrived only a couple of years earlier, from Jakarta, still fresh from sociology studies in the US. His lovely and beloved wife S. Leila Chairani wrote a popular psychological advice column in the national daily Kompas. Salatiga was a cool, sleepy Central Javanese town on the lower slopes of the dormant volcano Merbabu. Horse-drawn two-wheelers called dokar (dog-cart) still supplied much of local public transport. The main institutions in town were a military base, a huge vegetable market, our private university Satya Wacana, and more churches than mosques.

Arief and Leila built a large, breezy house near the campus. Their remarkable priest-novelist-architect-social activist friend YB Mangunwijaya designed it. Students and foreign academics came there for discussions about politics. Honking geese guarded against intruders – the military at times posted observers outside. I only ever saw Arief riding around town on a Vespa.

Yet somehow this small-town life was visible all over Indonesia. Even years later, if I told a Jakarta taxi driver I used to teach at Satya Wacana, their face would light up: “Arief Budiman, very good!” They all seemed to know Satya Wacana Christian University booted him out under military pressure (that was in 1994). They all knew he had protested against Suharto (in the late 1960s and early 1970s).

Indonesia had no shortage of sociologists in the 1980s. Most were “professionals” (to use a phrase of the American sociologist Michael Burawoy). They taught public administration classes on campus. Or they were “policy” sociologists, consulting on government development plans. Arief was one of the few “public” sociologists. Widely read magazines published interviews he gave based on the sociology he knew. He wrote accessible books for a broad audience. In these books was bohemian poet Chairil Anwar, women and the division of labour, developmentalism and humanism, and (later) “bureaucratic capitalism,” North-South dependency, and the democratic socialism of Chile´s Allende. All completely secular, by the way, despite his university´s name.

Academics around the world commonly held left-wing perspectives in the 1980s. But in Indonesia they were forbidden from expressing such views outside the campus. Arief was one of the few who did anyway. It helped that the Indonesian public has never been anti-intellectual. And that socialist ideas had been fundamental to public life from the 1945 Revolution until the mid-1960s – then still in living memory for many. People were intrigued that Arief spoke to the New Order as if he were a defector. He had been an anti-Sukarno demonstrator in 1966, riding around on military trucks. Now he openly regretted his naivety then.

The military did not have it all their way, even in the 1980s. Or perhaps, as Graham Greene would have said, intellectuals were not in the “torturable class.” I attended a huge public lecture at Satya Wacana once given by General (retired) Soemitro. He was known as Soemitro Gendut (Fat Soemitro) to distinguish him from another New Order official of the same name. Suharto had sacked him after he had failed to control anti-government protests in Jakarta in 1974. “I lost my job due to Arief Budiman,” he laughed. The hall laughed thunderously with him, as if to say, “Suharto can sack who he likes but we the people are with Arief.” I do believe Arief quietly maintained a number of senior military contacts from 1965. He never criticised them too harshly.

At the same time, a little private university in a vegetable marketing town—though mostly out of sight—was not in a strong position to resist concerted military pressure. In the early 1990s a new military area commander for Central Java, Major-General Erwin Suyono, asked the new rector of Satya Wacana to do something about his critical public intellectuals. That is when Arief lost his job. Ariel Heryanto and George Aditjondro soon followed. All three ended up enriching academic life in Australia. (The Satya Wacana University board later apologised to Arief in Melbourne for the hurt it had caused him.)

I came to Satya Wacana a physicist; I left it determined to retrain as a social scientist with a zeal for Indonesian human rights. Asia politicised me, and Arief Budiman perhaps more than any other person. He did that for a new generation of activists. We sat around on the floor with sweet black tea and fried cassava at a little discussion club he inspired called Yayasan Geni. We all felt we could change the world, if only the world would read more Marx. These were not golden years for the victims of Suharto´s militarised developmentalism, but for those critical students, they were. Later, when millions of demonstrators brought an end to the New Order, some of Yayasan Geni´s members really did go on to change the world for the better. Arief, in Melbourne, stood behind them. In an interview he gave in May 1998, he said People Power had created a new political reality. Unlike his own student generation in 1966, they had done it without the help of the military.  

Gerry van Klinken is honorary research fellow at the University of Queensland, the University of Amsterdam, and the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies KITLV.

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