Posted by: Fadjar Thufail | August 6, 2006

Obituary for Daniel Lev

Dan Lev and Me I first met Dan Lev at a conference on Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Oregon in 1999. There he was in the audience, listening attentively as I presented my paper on the 1998 political transformation in Indonesia. Despite the embarrassing paper, Pak Dan paid serious attention and threw critical questions. I recall having a heated exchange with him over the significance of history in shaping political processes. Pak Dan insisted that what happened in 1998 took roots in the 1959 Presidential Decree that curtailed democratic experiment and brought the country under direct military rule. On the other hand, I argued that the 1998 political change should be analyzed as an independent process having its own historical contingency. We never came to an agreement.

In 2001, on the way home from Belfast, I stopped by in London to attend the EuroSEAS Conference. While waiting for a friend outside the SOAS, I came across Pak Dan. Greeting him, I asked whether he still remembered me and, to my surprise, he did. Perhaps he recalled a stubborn young student who dared to challenge him and pretended to know about the political history of 1950s Indonesia, the topic that had preoccupied him for more than three decades. My second encounter with Pak Dan lasted not more than 10 minutes.

Three years had passed when I met Pak Dan again. I had just been awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship from the University of Washington-Seattle. The fellowship program allowed me to spend one academic year at the university’s Simpson Humanities Center. When the Center for Southeast Asian Studies held a reception to welcome me, Pak Dan came with Ibu Arlene. His sharp memory still recalled our brief meeting in London. Upon learning I was writing a dissertation on the May 1998 riots, he showed his interest in the topic and offered me right away any assistance I might need. During one-year stay in Seattle, we often met over lunch and coffee to talk about the riots, history, and the contemporary political development in Indonesia.

I was soon immersed in Pak Dan’s fascination on the period of 1950s Indonesia and began to see what he meant when he commented on my paper several years ago. As he laid out clearly in his celebrated book “Transition to Guided Democracy,” the lively democratic experiments in the 1950s could have provided the country with much needed institutional supports for moving toward democratization. For Pak Dan, the Presidential Decree that reintroduced the 1945 Basic Constitution was a set back, and the fact that the New Order regime denounced the political history of 1950s had saddened him. He often complained how younger Indonesians had never seen or read the 1950 Transitional Constitution, the constitution that he saw as more democratic than the 1945 Basic Constitution. Pak Dan had opened up a new vista on the significance of the period of 1950s, not only in legal sphere as elaborated by Adnan Buyung Nasution’s dissertation, but also in political sphere. The period of 1950s was the period of “rational transaction” (I’m using Jurgen Habermas’s term) in which different ideas of the state and the nation were debated in public.

Pak Dan always encouraged me to look at the 1950s with a different vantage point. As an anthropologist with strong interest in history, I found Pak Dan’s invitation compelling. I begin to see that the period of 1950s was actually the period of “multicultural Indonesia,” and the founding fathers clearly conceived multiculturalism as part of the democratic project of the newly created Indonesia. At that crucial post-Independence time, different religious groups, ethnic affiliations, and ideological convictions enjoyed the same rights to establish political parties or organizations. For anthropology, the period of 1950s offers a valuable resource to shed light on the history of Indonesian multiculturalism. Pak Dan has left us, younger generation of Indonesian scholars, with an important task to redeem the historical significance of 1950s Indonesia from an ideological abuse that the New Order regime has committed, claiming that the period of 1950-1959 was no more than a “liberal aberration” from the ideal concept of Indonesian unity.

When in February 2006 Pak Dan told me over the phone that the doctor had diagnosed him with lung cancer and he would undergo painful chemotherapy, I realized the time had arrived for us, the young generation, to take the important work over. Now I wish the summer breeze could send my words to him, assuring him that his legacy would not remain unfulfilled.

Selamat jalan Pak Dan… Semoga Tuhan selalu menemanimu dan memberimu kedamaian abadi..



  1. You are very welcome Claire.. He was a great person, and I am only one among many Indonesian people who owe him.. Please send my warm regards to Ibu Arlene..

  2. Thank you for this kind obituary. I just found it by accident. My father would have been so happy to know that he had a positive influence on the development of your ideas, as I am sure you had on the development of his thinking. Thank you, Claire Lev Murata

  3. Wah.. I’m flattered.. hehehe.. Yang jelas memang perlu ada “overhaul” penulisan sejarah Indonesia. Tugas kita semua lah untuk membuat historiografi Indonesia mejadi lebih kritis..

  4. Djar, mas St Sunardi menyebut nama sampeyan sebagai salah satu perintis historiografi baru di Indonesia lho! OK selamat melanjutkan semangat Pak Dan.

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