'Writing is courageous,' ASEAN Literary Festival, Jakarta 7 March 2016. (Photo: Ania Anderst.)

'Writing is courageous,' ASEAN Literary Festival, Jakarta 7 March 2016. (Photo: Ania Anderst.)

The annual ASEAN Literary Festival was recently held in Jakarta, Indonesia, for the third year running. 

Book lovers descended on the city for poetry performances, workshops and discussions on everything from censorship, sexuality and freedom.

Nicole Curby has more from the Indonesian capital.

Jose Ramos Horta, the former independence leader and president of East Timor officially opened the ASEAN literary festival in Jakarta. 

He commented on the importance of freedom of expression saying that, “peace is broken when freedom is denied to people, whether to a nation as a whole, or a particular ethnic or religious group.”

With controversial issues scheduled for discussion at the event, Horta’s opening remarks rang true.

Amid threats of censorship from authorities, sparked by planned talks on sexuality and the massacres of 1965, festival director Okky Madasari was adamant the events would go ahead, stating,

“[The] ASEAN literary festival stands against all kinds of censorship, and that’s why we decide to continue the program. No matter what, we will continue the program regardless!”

It’s not the first time there has been some resistance to open discussion here in Indonesia.

At the Ubud Writer’s Festival in Bali late last year, authorities shut down several planned discussions on the events of 1965, when at least half a million suspected communists were slaughtered – it’s a deeply sensitive topic in Indonesia.  

Author Leila Chudori maintained that the subject has be approached seriously, commenting, 

“There has to be a truth telling, there has to be investigation, there has to be an apology from the state, and in the end there has to be a reconciliation. But think that we really, really have to go through all of the steps that people need to, because otherwise the impunity in this country will never end.”


While demonstrators did gather outside the venue on opening day, forcing one workshop to move to a secret location, the ASEAN literary event didn’t shy away from sensitive political issues, including religious radicalism and LGBT rights.

Just days after the Indonesian government signaled that further executions would go ahead the use of capital punishment also came under scrutiny.  

Indonesia was widely condemned by the international community last year, after it executed 14 prisoners, including two Australian men, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.

Julian McMahon, who represented the so-called Bali Nine duo, spoke about the politically charged dynamic of the death penalty.

“The legal system works to an extent, but the question to kill or not, ultimately is a political question. I was very upset to learn that there might be more executions. It certainly hasn’t happened yet, and hopefully the way it is sorted out in Indonesia won’t lead to more deaths.”

Talking all things literary, writers from across the archipelago also expressed concerns about the quality of education in Indonesia and ways to combat low literacy rates. 

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the reading ability of Indonesian students rates remarkably low – ranking 60 out of 65 countries surveyed by the Program for International Student’s Assessment.

In the age of all things digital, Leila Chudori said she remains hopeful the online revolution is a good thing for literature, and writers and readers.

“I know there is a session in this festival talking about Indonesia; the people have a very low interest in reading. That is so true, and that is very sad. But I want to be positive. Since there is the internet revolution, there are blogs, a lot of people think that writing is cool, and being read is cool. So there are more writers since the internet revolution, and therefore more readership.” 

Chudori believes that the internet has changed the habit of reading in Indonesia. 


For Malaysian poet and educator Illye Sumanto, literature should be something that is accessible to everyone. 

As a teacher, she urged children to connect with language, and write their own poetry, stating,

“We want to humanize literacy. Language learning is very functional in Malaysia. But poetry can change that.”

Sumanto believes that writing poetry can open up the confidence and creativity of students. 

Meanwhile, the competition is on to host the next ASEAN literary festival. For the last three years the event has been held in the Indonesian capital.

But independence leader Jose Ramos Horta is, of course, lobbying hard for East Timor. 

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