Book review: Important, but best to read with prior knowledge about Indonesia

“Indonesia: Archipelago of Fear” by Andre Vltchek

This book reads like a John Pilger or Naomi Klein book, written by an investigative journalist who are personal friends with the likes of Noam Chomsky and Eduardo Galeano, and who has travelled to 145 countries covering numerous wars and conflicts. Passionate, brutally honest, and bitter at times; I can’t think of another way to describe Andre Vltchek rather than an “angry John Pilger.”

To write this book, Vltchek seems to have spoken with all the right scholars, historians and leaders. This including the late former Indonesian president Gus Dur, several ministers and ex-ministers, the late author Pramoedya Ananta Toer and scholars from other countries such as British anthropologist Andrew Beatty from Cambridge University, not to mention the numerous Indonesian historians and frustrated journalists that seems to finally have a proper platform to express their thoughts.

The book provides the same historical background of Indonesia as a “model pupil” and the blueprint for US plunders throughout the world that are inline with what John Pilger, Naomi Klein and John Perkins wrote, but he dig much deeper and understandably paints a more detailed picture about Indonesia (as the main focus of the book) than the 3 authors. He went even further than any other books I know on the “extreme capitalism” installed in Indonesia, discussing at length the Indonesian brand of “law and justice”, the state of the “independent” media, and even analysing the many hot stories happening in Indonesia for the past decades, from Edy Tansil to Lapindo mudflow to Cikeusik massacre. And all are neatly discussed under several sub-headings.

However, his portrayal of Indonesia is so negative and so one-sided (it’s a messed-up place with no hope!), sometimes it gets very insulting and makes me wonder how he differentiate hard facts with his own negative opinion, and where he draw the line between telling the truth and just being plain obnoxious? For example, in numerous occasions he portray the Indonesian word “bule” as a highly offensive word towards white people (equal to n**ger), and goes to length to show that he’s offended, while in reality the word is only a generalisation to describe white people regardless of nationality.

Furthermore, he dedicate 1 full chapter on Islam in Indonesia by focusing on the rise of extremists, which is solid, but he then declared that secularism has died in Indonesia and implies that religious harmony is no longer exist, as if the state of religious conflict in Indonesia is like in Nigeria or Northern Ireland, which is far from the truth. He also criticise Indonesia as not having a culture, whilst failing to mention the fact that Indonesia is home to 300 ethnic groups and up to 742 languages that are VERY rich with cultures.

Nevertheless, in the end of the day after I put down the book, the amount of truth that I have learned from it can somewhat make up for the negative stereotype written by Vltchek. All in all, read this book with careful discretion, best to read it with prior knowledge of what the beautiful country is all about and then proceeds to read the dark version of Indonesia that Vltchek has uncovered. It is the kind of reality check that Indonesians urgently need to know, which makes it the best book I’ve ever read about the truth of the country (though the selection is very limited). No wonder they don’t sell it here in Indonesia.

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