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Sunday, Jan. 8, 2006

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Unsparing view of Indonesia past


IN THE TIME OF MADNESS by Richard Lloyd Parry. London: Jonathan Cape, 2005, 315 pp., £12.99 (paper).

This firsthand account of fin de siecle Indonesia, an era of widespread chaos and violence, takes us into the heart of darkness, searing our consciousness with images of deprivation, fear and mayhem untethered. The Tokyo-based author, Richard Lloyd Parry, drawn to the gore but ignorant of the country, seems poised to update "Scoop," the classic Evelyn Waugh satire on foreign correspondents.

Having studied Indonesia since the mid-1970s, and lived and researched there at times in the '80s and '90s, I began reading this book with more than a fair share of skepticism. I am happy to report that it is well worth reading, for it provokes us to think about the thin cocoon that insulates us from the brutal realities that cut a swath through this sprawling archipelago and helps us understand some of the chilling legacies that haunt contemporary Indonesia.

The author seeks to shock the readers with his graphic accounts of grisly killings and the worst that humanity is capable of. He succeeds, and then some. At times he goes overboard with the tabloid approach and veers dangerously close to Orientalist caricatures, but his story is so grimly powerful that such infelicities are a minor irritant. We are gazing through the eyes of a newcomer prepared neither by experience nor by training to give us much perspective on what he encounters. His reportage succeeds because of its immediacy and the loss of innocence he shares so intimately with the reader.

We gape at the beheadings and cannibalism, the wanton destruction, hardly believing that such things still happen and that they happen because otherwise normal people suddenly draw on what lurks in our primordial being. His nightmares become ours and, like him, we shudder.

Perhaps we do not share his disappointment at not finding a severed head; nor would many find titillating the asides about the sexual techniques of Madurese women critical to the narrative. But his colorful descriptions and artful digressions make this vivid reading. Lloyd Parry helps us imagine the dusty roads, fetid jungles, stench of rotting corpses, gangs of marauding young men and the helplessness of abject poverty. Through him we understand the very banality of the madness.

He confides that the sated cannibals he met seemed happy rather than angry, observing that there "couldn't be any doubt that this was evil in its most bestial form. But these were not evil people, and this was not an evil place."

We have ringside seats for the collapse of the New Order authoritarian regime led by President Suharto from 1966 until his demise in 1998. We are with the demonstrators and given peeks behind the scenes at the actors in this drama. "It was an extraordinary, unclassifiable spectacle, a political protest, a pillage and an ethnic pogrom. Has anything like it been seen in modern peacetime -- a capital sacked by its own people, and the jailers turned liberators?

Suddenly the "police and the army, who had killed demonstrating students . . . were inviting them into the parliament to press the case for Suharto's resignation." Certainly there are more probing and inspired interpretations of Suharto's denouement, but none convey the swirling confusion and mood with such verve.

Lloyd Parry is disarmingly honest about his emotions and can hardly be accused of serving up a flattering self-portrait. He tells us that he takes grim satisfaction at witnessing the horrors at close hand partly because he felt courageous in doing so. Later, in East Timor, where he could not witness events on his own terms, he discovers what fear is, and what it feels like to fail the test.

The final section on East Timor's struggle for independence is easily the best and most riveting. We learn about the plight of the Timorese under Indonesian occupation and how so many showed courage and determination to see it ended.

Inexplicably, B.J. Habibie, Suharto's hapless successor, made an impromptu decision allowing self-determination for the East Timorese. In 1999, the United Nations arrived, held a ballot and nearly 98.6 percent of the people braved death to vote overwhelmingly for independence. This was real courage. But the Indonesians proved to be poor losers, and the militias they armed laid waste to a country that had so little.

The U.N. could not protect the people nor its own staff from reprisals. Lloyd Parry describes the marauding militias as a "cartoonish array of slavering degenerates," "Third World Hell's Angels," "grubby, tawdry and smelly" with guns. No qualms but a license to kill. As the slaughter spread, Lloyd Parry and other foreigners took refuge with the U.N. As the macabre hyenas leered and brandished their weapons outside, "Law, reason, pity, civilization had shrunk to the breadth of the UN compound." The imminence of death brought fear and the sensible decision to evacuate -- a choice that still haunts the author, a choice any reader would have made.

And what became of those who meticulously planned the carnage and their henchmen? Nothing.

Jeff Kingston teaches history at Temple University Japan.


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