Indonesian Magazine Editor Turns the Pages of History to Deepen Insight

Historia’s founder and chief editor Bonnie Triyana hopes the issues raised will lead to a deeper understanding of Indonesia’s past. (Photo courtesy of historia.co.id)

Bonnie Triyana was buying men’s magazines for his friends back home while attending a conference in Brazil eight years ago when he realized he had better buy a more respectable publication to put atop the pile.

That turned out to be Istoria, a Brazilian magazine on popular history.

Though Bonnie could hardly read Portuguese, the pictures and graphics told a vivid story of war and conflict.

For the avid history buff, it sparked a dream to create something similar for Indonesians.

Last April, Historia, the first Indonesian popular history magazine, was born.

Bonnie, 33, its founder and chief editor, hopes the issues it raises will spark a deeper understanding of his country’s rich but checkered past.

The monthly magazine comes at a time when many Indonesians are keen to learn more about history. It also organizes regular discussions and film screenings.

“In Indonesia, the version of the government has been the only truth, but this is not the case,” says Bonnie, in an interview at Historia’s office in Jakarta.

“Many also long for the past today. But the past was not always great.”

Although Indonesia has seen a dramatic political opening-up since the fall of strongman Suharto 15 years ago, history textbooks and TV documentaries are still fairly one-sided. And that can be hard to change.

For example, last year, the national human rights commission — for the first time — declared the 1965 mass killings of hundreds of thousands of suspected communists towards the end of Sukarno’s reign to be a gross state-sponsored human rights violation.

It recommended that the government set up a committee for truth and reconciliation and apologize to victims’ families and survivors.

Top officials shot it down, saying that while there were victims, Indonesia would not be where it is today without the crackdown.

Bonnie hopes efforts like his can help Southeast Asia’s largest country one day come to terms with a more honest and balanced assessment of its past.

Born in Rangkasbitung, Banten, Bonnie lived in Sumatra in his younger days as his father was a plantation manager there.

His decision to study history at university was partly inspired by newspaper articles about a farmers’ rebellion in Banten in 1888. He graduated from Diponegoro University in Semarang in 2003.

As a student, he and several friends formed a history discussion group, inviting former communists and victims to campus to discuss the events of 1965.

“After Suharto fell, we felt it was our job to bring these people back into the public eye,” he said.

“We just wanted to present a history that had hitherto been hidden.”

Bonnie, who is married to a former journalist and has a five-year-old daughter, worked as a journalist for seven years while looking for investors.

By April 2010, he had raised enough to rent office space from a friend and assemble a website called Historia.

On the first day, it got 5,000 hits. As its popularity grew, Bonnie got to know political observer and then lawmaker Jeffrie Geovanie, who threw his financial support behind a monthly print edition.

They printed 7,000 copies for their launch edition, and before long, picked up regular subscribers. The magazine is not profitable yet, but advertising is picking up,  Bonnie said.

A typical issue seeks to stay close to the news: When a spate of intolerance against Shi’ite Muslims erupted last year, Historia explored the history of Shi’ites and their contributions to the region.

Its December and February editions had packages on the history of Christianity and on the Chinese in Indonesia.

Bonnie is also looking at featuring conflicting claims and the Sulu Sultanate — amid ongoing developments in Sabah — for an upcoming edition.

He is against the use of history by some politicians who romanticize Indonesia’s past, like the Majapahit empire, to talk about recreating a powerful Indonesia.

“Not only is such talk inaccurate, it is dangerous,” he said.

“It’s like how Hitler thought of Germany as the Third Reich. This has the potential to make us fascist.”

“Majapahit succeeded because it fought and conquered, but it did not care whether people went hungry or were poor. Today, countries do well by greater interaction with other countries, not the Majapahit way,” he added.

Bonnie hopes to put out an English-language edition before long that will be the first Southeast Asian history magazine.

“Asean is talking about becoming an integrated community, and this is something we can look to the past for background on,” he said, noting that the region has had much in common, from food to clothing.

“History is like a rear-view mirror. You don’t need to keep looking but from time to time, you need to check back.”

Reprinted courtesy of The Straits Times