A Study in Nuance
Fulbright was really the launch pad for getting to know Indonesia well. In 1984 I knew the language, and I had some understanding of Indonesia, but to spend a year in depth on my own was really important. And in both cases, particularly in Tasikmalaya where I didn’t interact with other foreigners for months at a time, it was a complete immersion experience. That together with the graduate study and the trips back since then have given me an ability to analyze what’s going on in Indonesia that has been very important in my law career and now in my human rights career.
One of my most important relationships was with the novelist and journalist Satyagraha Hoerip. I was immediately treated as a member of his family, and this is something I saw again and again in many different places I went in Indonesia. Until his death in 1998, I stayed at his house often, at the old journalists’ complex in East Jakarta. The historian Ong Hok Ham lived nearby and I would sometimes see him or other writers and artists staying with Hoerip.
My first Fulbright led me to go on to pursue a master’s degree at Cornell, where they had a thriving Modern Indonesia Project and Southeast Asia Program. I spent from 1986 to 1990 there studying under people like Benedict Anderson, James Siegel, and the Japanese historian Takashi Shiraishi. I consider that the best education I got anywhere.
In the end, I went to law school, but the Indonesia experience kept coming back. Just before law school I spoke on a panel on Islam in contemporary Indonesia at the Library of Congress, and one of my co-panelists was Sidney Jones, Asia director at Human Rights Watch and a true Indonesia-phile at heart. When I went to law school in New York I volunteered with her on Indonesia projects, and that experience, after clerking for a Federal appeals court judge and working at a Wall Street firm, led me to human rights work.
I was hired by Human Rights Watch in 1997 to run a one-person academic freedom project, and, not surprisingly, I chose Indonesia for my first major project. This was the Suharto era, and there was still this mandatory indoctrination of new students, arrests of critical academics, and widespread censorship of books and student organizations and magazines. And then the financial crisis hit and the protests started happening on campuses across the country. So the timing in a way couldn’t have been better. I was studying the campuses at a time when you had protests happening on 50 campuses on a single day, hundreds of protests every week, which culminated in Suharto stepping down in 1998. I published a short book on the topic, subtitled Dismantling Suharto-Era Barriers.
And because of the Fulbright I didn’t feel like I was outside banging on the door in doing my human rights work. I had a more nuanced understanding of the country, of the many developments that took place in the latter years of the Suharto era. It wasn’t one day, repression, and the next day, liberation. There was a lot happening through the 1990s that I was able to see and understand thanks to that in-depth experience that the Fulbright allowed.
Last Updated: Jun 3, 2019 @ 3:29 pm
This article appears from the book of Across the Archipelago, from Sea to Shining Sea Commemorating the 60/20 Anniversary of Fulbright and AMINEF (Page 130– 132) published in 2012.
Translator: Sagita Adesywi and Piet Hendrardjo.
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