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Breaking the Silence: Survivors Speak about 1965–66 Violence in Indonesia

Chapter 1


Asman Yodjodolo

Never-ending struggle

A person of dignity is someone emulated for their attitudes and their deeds, not someone smothered with esteem and praise for their sweet talk. Asman Yodjodolo has upheld this belief throughout his fight for liberation of his fundamental rights, as a person and as a citizen, from narrow-minded culture, politics and power. And this is what he has continued to fight for in his days living with the stigma of being an ‘ex political prisoner’.

I was born to a normal kind of family, there was nothing unusual about us, you know, we were just like most kampung (neighbourhood) families. When I went to primary school which was called SR (peoples’ school, sekolah rakyat) back then, I went to live with my grandmother in Tawaeli, Central Sulawesi. My parents stayed on in Tomoe, because it turned out that my grandmother was unusual, she loved me more than my mother did. So that was my life, with a grandmother loving me more than my mother, and I went to school here in Tawaeli.

In 1957, Asman finished primary school. He worked hard so he could further his schooling. He went to the junior high school (SMP) at Donggala and graduated in 1960. Still not wanting to end his education, he went on to the senior high school for training teachers (Sekolah Guru Atas, SGA) and graduated in 1964. He was then qualified to teach in junior high school.

Asman was a high-achieving student. He considered poverty as no reason to be lazy, let alone to squander opportunities. Nonetheless, like many other youth, Asman liked to fool around. The difference with him, though, was that when he played up, he stood out compared to his friends. ‘At school, I was one of the naughty ones, stubborn, and opposing the teachers’, Asman explained.

Punishment at school back then was much worse than today. For instance, I got punished for making a noise when the school next door was in session. The headmaster told me to go outside and hammer a plank of hardwood. I was not allowed to stop for the entire lesson time. Back then, headmasters did not have classes of their own to teach, they only did relief teaching. So he kept checking to make sure I did not stop. After a while, I threw the hammer up on the roof. And sure enough, out he came, ‘who threw that …? It turned out he had been watching through a hole in the wall. When I threw the hammer away again, out he came, very angry. I was called into the office. He went to hit me with his bag, but because I ducked, the bag hit a pole and the strap broke. He got even madder. But something positive came out of all that, because from that point on I was branded as extremely naughty, so I was even more singled out. Before that, I always sat at the back of the class, but now I had to sit in the front. No one wanted to sit in the front, probably because they were afraid of being near the teacher. So it was a punishment, but it was a good one, because I was then able to focus on learning, whereas before when I was at the back I would just annoy my friends. I was also one of the high achievers at school. But if the teacher said something I did not agree with, I would speak up.

No rest

Higher education has never been easy, and this was particularly the case back then. Even though Indonesia was independent, there was still political wrangling going on in the elite halls of power. At the same time, the standard of life of the people was far from being equally distributed. The young Asman experienced this. Asman’s school was high in the hills, far from his house. He boarded together with six girls and five other boys, which meant he faced constant difficulties. However, this did not make him give up. Rather, he strengthened his resolve to be determined and never give up. He had to become his own leader and determine his own future.

While he was at senior high school, Asman worked at odd jobs. He was living with five other boys and six girls at the house of Aunty Ratu who they called Pue Ratu. Early in the morning they would all be awoken to do their chores. The girls had to make cakes and the boys had to look for firewood. Asman and Sukiman, who were younger than the other boys, were given the job of selling cakes.

Asman and Sukiman had to sell the cakes before they went to school. All the cakes would be put on a big tray. There would be pancakes, Ambon sticky rice-flour cakes, palm sugar biscuits and all kinds of other things. Asman and Sukiman would divide up the route to sell the cakes. ‘I used to go towards Jembatan Merah (Red Bridge) and Sukiman towards Jembatan Guntur (Thunder Bridge), lugging this stuff all the way …’ Asman said, recalling the hard times in his youth.

Because they had to sell all the cakes before they went to school, they were often late. And so, yet again, he was branded as a naughty kid. ‘Once I arrived late, and I was sitting right in the front row, near the window. The window did not have any bars, just shutters that were open. So I jumped in from the side, right on top of my desk.’

‘What on earth do you think you are doing, coming in through the window’, the teacher asked, angrily.

‘The door was locked, but the window was open. So I came in through the window’, I replied.

Even though he was branded as a troublemaker, Asman never considered this to be something that would prevent him achieving his ideals. Quite the opposite, he was even more determined to be the best. He wanted people to see him in an unbiased way, not forever looking at his ‘bad behaviour’ or his rebelliousness, but also to note his actions and achievements. And this came about. Even though Asman was always acting up with the other five members of his gang and being reprimanded by the headmaster, he was the one chosen to be the head of the Union of SGA students (PP SGA, Persatuan Pelajar SGA).

When he was chosen as head of PPSGA, Asman was just starting his second year of senior high school. The PPSGA, like the Inter High School Organisation (Organisasi Siswa Intra Sekolah, OSIS), was responsible for facilities at the school like musical instruments, library books and all school equipment, from desks and cupboards to chairs. Apart from that, and more important, Asman was responsible for the running of all school activities, like inter-school competitions, celebration of national days and even Saturday athletics. On Saturdays, there were no classes. The whole day was spent with arts activities and other relaxed activities like baking cakes, or making corn porridge or green bean porridge to eat together. The girls did the cooking while the boys made crafts and other things. ‘The role of the PP was really important, and the teachers did not interfere’, Asman pointed out.

Recalling his senior high school days, Asman now feels extremely grateful to the teacher who first punished him. Only later did he realise that the headmaster at SGA had chosen him as head of PPSGA so that he would stop misbehaving, because he would be watched and would become an example to other students. So he thinks that the headmaster and other teachers wanted him to stop his troublemaking. But at the same time, being chosen as head of PPSGA gave Asman a strong foundation for his leadership in times ahead.

No going back

To become a leader is to become someone who has to know their goal, walk towards that goal, and bring it about. This is why only a handful of people are able to assume the authority of leadership. However, leadership is not only about becoming the ruler of a country or being in high levels of power. To be a leader of oneself is no easy task. This is what Asman found. As head of the PPSGA, Asman always demonstrated ideals of leadership in front of his colleagues and teachers. He maintained high levels of discipline in everything he did. Even though there were times when many did not agree with Asman’s assertiveness, in the end he could often prove that his ‘irritating way’ was how a leader should act and maintain his idealism.

Once, something happened. When exams were over, the third year students planned to go on an excursion to Tanung Karang using funds from the Students’ Union. When Asman checked with the treasurer, it turned out that the sports teacher, Pak Mudoko, had taken the funds. The next day, with the permission of the headmaster, Asman called Pak Mudoko. He asked for an explanation about the missing funds, because they had been used without notification and without prior agreement, and this was against the rules. When Pak Mudoko was asked to repay the funds, he explained that he could not do so because his salary was only just enough to support his family. In the end, the issue was settled amicably with Pak Mudoko apologising. From then on, Asman was known as someone who was extremely strict on discipline, so his colleagues were in awe of him and the teachers paid him more attention.

Throughout the time of his leadership, Asman truly made the PPSGA productive as a place for creativity and expression, to raise the potential of his colleagues. He asked the students to come after school, every afternoon at four.

Every afternoon after school I ordered friends to come from four o’clock onwards. There was music, singing, and drama practice, watering the flowers and digging, and they all came, because they also got pressure from home. So you could call our school a model school, because the school yard was good, we had a school garden, a library, and complete arts equipment. I took this opportunity, seeing as my idealism was so strong, to make an organisation called IPAS (Ikatan Pelajar Anak Seberang, League of students from over the water).

Asman formed IPAS at a time when his leadership momentum was at its peak. The membership of the league was made up of students who came from ‘across the water’ in Donggala. Their first agenda was to go on an excursion to Tompe, Asman’s home kampung, by motor boat. It turned out that more than one hundred people registered to come, from all over. Asman had not anticipated the students’ enthusiasm.

Asman was meticulous in the way he organised this first excursion. He brought along three drama scripts for them to perform, which he had written himself, and also a girl school band. ‘I didn’t have any idea about music, but I asked someone talented to train them’, Asman explained. There was a junior high school teacher who came along from Tambu, from a different school. Once they got to Tompe, the group led by Asman met the district head, the head of police, and the local military head. Then they borrowed the primary school building at Tanjung Padang to perform their drama.

Crowds came to watch. For three nights in a row, the Tanjung Pandang school was completely full, and the tickets were sold out. Not only that, excursion activities got livelier still with competitions like badminton, soccer, volley-ball and table tennis. During the stay at Tompe, the group Asman had brought over not only had fun, they also showed the local people local art forms so that the coming generation and the people of Tompe and its environs would not neglect their cultural heritage.

Asman’s leadership skills were truly proven during this excursion. He was the main person responsible for the group and everything went smoothly. He managed to fund the excursion from the ticket sales and also from the sales of flower garlands the girls made, which were put around people’s necks in return for a donation. When the motor boat to take them back did not arrive on time, Asman used the time to write yet another drama for them to perform, so that at least the ticket proceeds could cover the cost of their extra stay. He would never give up when confronted with any situation. And it was not just himself he was thinking about. There were many people depending on him and he could not let them down.

Service to the motherland

The Tompe excursion unified the people and school students through the arts. This was the very first time that the momonte dance was performed. Asman studied the dance himself with Hasan Baswan. Back then, the dance was not like it is now, danced only by girls. At that time, boys danced it too. The momonte dance made SGA school stand out as innovative and always seeking new developments, compared to other local schools like SMEA, SMI and SGB.

‘I had a girlfriend at the time … so I taught her the momonte dance, and then she taught others’, Asman said cheerfully. He also recalled that he actually had two girlfriends then, and they both trained other dancers. From then on, the money earned from dancing was put towards the cost of fixing run-down schools, or given to some local officials. So, even though he was known for being firm, Asman also had a soft side. The way he sees it, anything done without a clean heart will end up bad. This was the principle he applied as leader.

Under Asman’s leadership, IPAS became the pillar of the school’s progress. Asman went on to make the IPAS a co-operative, with himself as head. The first step was to draw up the by-laws and the budget. The co-operative turned out to be a great success. All the students’ needs were met and costs were kept down, from writing materials to daily essentials. Asman was a proven hard worker. He performed all his duties with full responsibility. He did this because he did not want the students who would later continue what he had built on such strong foundations, to be unable to continue and develop it further. He wanted to give an example and to pass on to them something they could emulate. This is why he was so diligent about preparing everything well, before he himself would eventually step down and be replaced by new leadership.

However, before this came about, the SGA buildings caught fire, and the school had to move to Palu. Luckily, the co-op that Asman led managed to keep going because the goods sold at the co-op were stored at the shop and collected only when needed. ‘It (the cooperative) was okay because the office was me; it went where I went. It was all in my head’, Asman explained.

In Palu, Asman’s organisational network extended further. He was approached by a board member of IPPI (Ikatan Pemuda Pelajar Indonesia, League of Indonesian Youth).

I don’t know why. Perhaps he had talked to someone outside. He came to school and introduced himself, saying he was a high school student from Menado. We talked at school for a long time. He told me that they wanted to make a branch of IPPI at Donggala. What was IPPI, I asked? He explained. But he wondered how to invite all the schools here, and who should be on the board when it was set up – these were the people who should be invited, and this is what should be in the invitation. I helped him make the invitation and I asked friends to help distribute them. So, a few days later there was an IPPI meeting at SGA. I asked the headmaster’s permission for us to use the school for the meeting. We then chose the board; I was the chairman and Markus was the secretary.

Asman was very excited when describing his experience. The secretary, Markus, was a young man of mixed Indonesian-German blood who could touch-type.

‘You see, when I form an organisation I work non-stop. I do not want anything to fail’, said Asman. He began to draw up a work plan for the IPPI. The first program was introducing the IPPI to all schools. And, once again, it was Asman who was responsible for this as the speaker. ‘Until I graduated, I always cared for students if I could, because students are the embryo of the nation. These days, they would say they carry the relay baton’. Very soon, IPPI was formed at every school he visited.

However, things did not go exactly according to his hopes. When forming the Donggala branch of IPPI, Asman faced problems with Kisman who planned to form a GSNI branch (a Gerakan Siswa Nasional Indonesia, Indonesian National High school Students Movement branch). This was the Student’s movement under the umbrella of the Indonesia National Party (PNI), and Kisman was the local student head of PNI.

In 1964, IPPI had branches everywhere in Central Sulawesi except for Donggala, and at the IPPI conference held in Menado, Asman was chosen as the head of IPPI for Central Sulawesi. This was then ratified in Jakarta. Asman, along with Markus, Maspa, and around ten others from the Donggala regency, went to Jakarta for a conference in 1964. Something happened there that Asman would always remember. At the time, Asman’s group was accommodated at the Secretariat office, whereas all the other invitees were put up at a hotel. Needless to say, Asman felt annoyed at this different treatment, especially because it was so noisy at the secretariat that it was impossible to rest. But he remained patient, until one night a dispute broke out between the groups from Toli-toli and Bolaan Mongondo about where the provincial capital should be. ‘Ah, this was my chance to be an arbitrator’, Asman recounted.

The students from Poso thought that Poso should be the provincial capital, arguing for Poso’s long history in Indonesia’s struggle for independence. But the argument put forth by Asman’s group who supported Palu as the provincial capital was that the existing relationship of Sulawesi provinces to the national level was geographically determined. Furthermore, large ships could enter the Pantoloan harbour in Palu from the regional governments in both western and eastern Indonesia, and Poso was also accessible from Palu by land.

When he returned from his installation as the head of IPPI for Central Sulawesi, Asman immediately went to see the governor, Datuk Maso Basanankuning. He introduced himself in his new role. Apart from the governor, there was the Youth Front (Front Pemuda) and the National Front (Front Nasional). ‘And there was I, representing the Youth Front’, Asman said, proudly.

Under Asman’s leadership, IPPI’s membership in Central Sulawesi rose to around 60,000. Other organisations found it difficult to expand, because IPPI continued to expand at the provincial, regency and national levels. Asman never tired of promoting his organisation.

Asman’s ideals of developing education in his town once he graduated turned out to be not as easy to achieve as he had thought. It was impossible to ignore that his competence leading a few organisations and his proven success in promoting them made him sought after as a teacher at many schools. But what could he do? He was too busy with the organisations. This was where his dedication and loyalty lay. On top of this, he still had not found the right person to replace him and continue the organisations he led. This was despite the fact that all the official paperwork for his teaching position was complete, and he had even been asked directly by the head of the Directorate of Education.

Asman was well aware that he could not go on running this organisation forever. On the other hand, he also hoped that whoever replaced him would continue with fervour what he had built. He saw that organisations were also a medium where he could realise his nationalistic concerns, for the country and nation he loved. Therefore, he had to be extremely careful about choosing people whose capability could be relied upon. He preferred to select people directly rather than run conferences. ‘Conferences don’t necessarily produce anything worthwhile, because there is always jockeying for positions going on, and not a healthy process of selection, so they can end up making bad decisions’, Asman argued.

And, sure enough, the people Asman selected did carry out their mandate, just as he had hoped. For example, when one of the treasurers at IPPI contacted Asman to ask about the allocation of IPAS funds collected after Asman had graduated from school, Asman replied, ‘If you agree, I suggest you give the money to those who need it, to an orphanage or an old people’s home in Palu.’ One month later, the treasurer sent a letter saying that the funds had been distributed as he had suggested. So even when Asman was no longer holding that position of leadership, the people were still loyal to him.

When he finished school, Asman began teaching. As a teacher, he wanted to develop education in Tompe, his birthplace. This meant he had to lead the IPPI long-distance. Even so, the wings of his leadership spread further. Officials in Tompe asked him to form an arts organisation charged with researching Kaili arts and culture.

The person who asked me to do this was Pak Sompa Yusuf, the deputy camat (sub-regent). He later moved to the office of the bupati (regent), went back to study, and ended up as head of Bapeda (regional development office) and then to Communications. After he asked me to take charge of developing Kaili culture, we sent out invitations to all teachers, local figureheads, prominent women, youth and traditional leaders. We discussed the aims of the organisation, namely to research Kaili customs. For instance, at that time the Raego dance from Poso was often performed. It resembled the Dero dance for harvest celebrations. Then there was dadendate and many others still to be researched. In the research program for Kaili culture, we held many discussions with the elders, and would then write up the notes, for instance what the moraego meant, the shape of the dance, whether it was dance or song and what its message was.

In this new organisation, named Andolia, Asman concentrated on instilling the principle of working with enthusiasm. He did not want any organisation he led, and which had noble aims for the nation, to be misused for unilateral interests. ‘I told them, we must never be ashamed of our organisation, because we are all public figures and teachers’, Asman said, recalling his words of advice. He scheduled visits by heads of schools to different villages to promote Kaili culture in all levels of society. After their visits, they would write a report.

Everything went according to plan, until the 1965 incident. Before this, Asman had warned members about the possibility of the Andolia organisation being linked to the political organisations, which that year, were in a frenzy of conflict. But Asman and his colleagues did not hesitate, because from the very beginning when Andolia was formed, they had all agreed on a single purpose, namely to research Kaili culture, and there was no link to any political organisation whatsoever. It was active solely in the arts, and had no leanings at all other than being motivated by the desire to enrich the young generation of the nation with the wealth of the arts and culture of their homeland.

One year later, in 1966, Asman got a visit from Muhsen who brought with him a squad of KAPPI (Kesatuan Aksi Pemuda Pelajar Indonesia, Indonesian Youth and High school Student Action Union) and KAMI (Kesatuan Aksi Mahasiswa Indonesia, Indonesian Student Action Union) members and police, to arrest him.

Shortly after the police took him to Donggala, he was forced to sign a ‘confession’ that stated he had received weapons for his own use when needed. If he refused to ‘confess’ he had to be prepared for torture sessions. Asman says that when he was arrested, he was head of IPPI and had no affiliation with in the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). He knew the Communist Party well, because he was friends with Abdul Rahman Dg Maselo, the Communist Party Number One in Central Sulawesi. Apart from the fact that they came from the same kampung, Asman had family ties to him. Asman explained,

So how could I not know Abdul Rahman, and how could I not know the Communist Party? The Communist Party was the one that was extremely progressive. Its leadership was impressive, multi-talented, skilled at the arts, Qu’ranic recitation, oration, volleyball, guitar-playing, singing, and they were good looking too.

His relationship with Abdul Rahman Dg Maselo became more intense through their meetings in the Front. Asman was in the Youth Front (Front Pemuda) and Abdul Rahman was the National Front (Front Nasional). However, their meetings were not for Party matters, so Asman was shocked when he was arrested and accused of being involved in an ‘outlawed movement’.

From love on location to true love

Asman’s days of detention were spent doing forced labour, moving from one place to the next. He and other political detainees were all put to work without pay. Because he was constantly being moved from one work site to another, Asman’s family rarely visited him. So he often felt terribly alone. Even so, he regained his spirit to fight and survive when he was together with other detainees who shared the same fate. He seemed to regain his enthusiasm for life. The detainees used to encourage and support one another to keep going so that later they could prove they were not the dangerous enemy or the destroyers of the nation they loved.

On the other hand, as a man, Asman’s loneliness often arose because he had no special person near who would give him love and attention. But even in times of loneliness, he did not seek out someone special, but rather gave out love to those who came to him. For he was well aware of the cycle of life he was going through. He was a prisoner, and more than that, a political prisoner, with absolutely no certainty about when he would be released. He would therefore be just a disappointment to anyone who took him on as husband for a shared planned future, and this would go against all the principles of leadership he had held thus far.

Asman told an interesting love story. ‘Actually, when I was detained, many women were interested in me. I was surprised, ha ha …’ He told of his love for a young Masaingi girl called Lina Momi, a story full of twists and turns. The story began with their decision to run away to Kalimantan together without any money, and went on to the difficulties of maintaining the relationship once Asman was in prison.

I was not a criminal, I was a political prisoner. I did not know when I would be free, because there was no trial. I also could not forbid her from accepting another proposal, because that was her right.

One year later, his sweetheart Lina married a university lecturer.

No matter where Asman went to do forced labour, he always got involved in some ‘love on location’, as the young people call it today. For instance, when he was doing forced labour in Donggala at the housing complex for customs officials, he met a young woman of mixed Bugis-Kaili descent, the daughter of a neighbour who used to cook for the workers. Her name was Nur. And there was another woman of mixed Kaili-Bugis descent who was also interested in Asman. When he had to go back into prison, both these girls wanted to go with him. Asman prevented them, of course.

When Asman had to do forced labour at Soulowe, it was a different story again. He had a love affair with a woman called Rusia who, it turned out, was already engaged to an old wealthy widower with five children. This time, their love affair was risky, from secret meetings outside the prison through to being made to recompense the groom’s wedding expenses because the girl decided to call off the wedding. Asman was sentenced by the local traditional head to pay damages of one cow, two sacks of rice and some hundreds of thousands of rupiah. The traditional court met three times, and in the end Asman was let off the fine as long as he married the girl. ‘I promised the court that I would come back for her two months after I was released, at the very latest’, Asman said.

However, as things turned out, Asman did not end up with Rusia. His family married him off to a woman who was connected to the family. Her name was Sena, and she became his life-long love.

Fighting for the spirit to live

In any journey, people will come across steep paths that they must cross to reach their goal. So too with the journey of life. There are many unforeseen circumstances that must be endured to reach the goal of life. They are there as a forge to make you stronger in the fight for a good outcome at every stage of life’s journey. In Asman’s life, he has had to go through many ups and downs. He has had to accept many life lessons, including when he had to undergo punishment without any due legal process because of the accusation that he was involved with the Communist Party.

‘I explained to them. Over and over again when I was interrogated at Laksusda, Terperda and Sapujagad, I told them’, Asman said, heatedly.

I had told them that IPPI was not an organisation linked to any political party or branch or anything, nor did any of its activities give preference to any party. Its activities were aimed solely at high school students. So, if there was anything associated with IPPI, I was involved with it. And I certainly never told them when you are adult you should join the Communist Party. Never!

As leader, Asman’s role was overall supervision. He was responsible for everything that emerged from his ideas for the organisation. He refused to become the type of leader who just sat back and enjoyed power but did not have the courage to stand on the front line when his organisation faced problems.

He accepted all torture and punishment with a generous heart. Deep in his heart he believed that through IPPI he was fighting for his ideals to produce students who were not only well educated, but also appreciated the arts and culture of their own country as an asset and force on an international scale. He never for one moment thought there would come a time when he would be turned into a sworn enemy of the nation he had defended and fought for all his life. Even so, he did not want to turn into a citizen who betrayed his commitment to love his country, body and soul.

And so he continued to fight for the truth he held so strongly. This included convincing his family that as an individual he had never been linked to the Communist Party, and, as leader, he testified that the IPPI he had led was solely a social organisation whose mission was to develop the potential of Indonesian youth. ‘I did not budge, even when I was being examined by the special interrogators in the office of the Military Police (CPM). I did not budge when Captain Sarwan was yelling at me’, Asman recalled, his eyes flaring.

After his arrest, Asman was processed at Donggala. His first interrogation at the hands of Muhsen drew blood. But Asman remained steadfast, and Muhsen couldn’t do a thing. Things improved for Asman when the Commander, who had been listening from behind the wall of the interrogation room, came in and ordered Muhsen out. The Commander treated him well. The next day another interrogator from Toraja called Piter Lobo took his turn.

‘Sir, if you want to interrogate me, interrogate me. If you want to beat me up, don’t interrogate me. If you want interrogation, stop the beatings,’ Asman said before the interrogation began.

Asman had to answer some formalities, sign an interrogation report called a BAP (Berkas Acara Pemeriksaan) and was then moved to police headquarters. On the way, Muhsen almost killed him, but once again Asman was lucky to escape.

At the police headquarters, Asman met Lieutenant Semen, head of intelligence (Kasi 1, Kepala Seksi Satu), who he knew well from his IPPI work, because Lt Semen was the person he always had to report to. So Asman’s cell was furnished with a mat and pillows at Lt Semen’s order. And he said, ‘there’s no need to lock this cell. I know this guy, he’s not going to run away.’ Asman was very surprised at this treatment, as most people were terrified to admit to any acquaintance with people said to be connected to the Communist Party, and he was extremely grateful for his kindness.

After a month at police headquarters, Asman was moved to Maesa prison. There it was just one torture session after another from the Eastern Indonesia ‘Sapujagad’ (‘sweep the world’) team under the command of Kris Montolalu, and Asman could do nothing about it. However, he was at least able to meet up with his friends. When they were together, for a moment at least, the spiritual and physical pain could be forgotten, through sharing stories of suffering, including their stories of forced labour.

When he was in prison, Asman always wanted to meet Abdul Rahman Dg Maselo, but his request was never granted. He really wanted to know how he was and where he ended up, because there were many wild stories going around about him. He had been renowned as ‘lion of the podium’. Some said he had been murdered, some that he had been sent abroad and some that he was in hiding.

Asman and his friends never stayed within the prison for an entire year at a time, except at special times, for instance when there was the national election. Usually, they were in prison for one month, then for the next few months sent out to work without pay building roads, bridges, canals; and to various places, like the police headquarters offices, Manggala Sakti, the aula of the 711 Battalion, and also houses at the police housing complex.

Most of the prisoners’ forced labour was for army projects. When they had to carry out government programs, the army had its own ‘Construction Company’ (Kompi Seni Bangunan) which was a kind of contractor, and it was the political prisoners like Asman and his friends who carried out the construction projects of both the military and the government. ‘We were given just two meals a day – no breakfast’, Asman said, with a sigh.

‘We worked like animals, with no pay. If they said “plough”, we ploughed’, Asman said. He was disillusioned with a government that could not distinguish between right and wrong. But he never felt ashamed of his own fate. All he thought about was staying alive.

Doing forced labour did not make Asman give in. Together with some other detainees, he found other ways to make some money. For instance, when they were working in coffee plantations, they would go into the forest after a full day’s work to find rattan they could use to make carpet beaters, or rope, or anything at all that could be sold. And when they were working in kampungs, they would earn a bit of money doing odd jobs like repairing tables, chairs, beds and so on.

Asman struggled not only with the forced labour. There were also the holiday times of Idul Fitri and Christmas. These were times when the prisoners should be together with their families, but they were all cooped up in prison. And in the camps, the prisoners were not even allowed to gather together freely, let alone celebrate their religious holidays.

All the political prisoners, whether members of the Communist Party or not, got the same punishment. This went from electric shocks, being whipped, through to being flogged to death. All were tortured without any process of proof according to the law.

Experiencing all this, Asman surrendered his fate to God, not because he gave up or was guilty of the accusations against him, but because he knew he had to survive in order to prove that all the accusations against him were untrue; that he was a citizen who loved his country and wanted to give it his best by participating in social organisations that developed the potential of youth as the next generation in Indonesia’s unfolding history.

Never cease!

After his release in 1979, Asman’s struggle did not cease, it became stronger. He felt he had to straighten out his own life and the history of the nation. He has managed to survive to the present just so he can set the record straight.

Obviously, after all the years of detention, Asman lost sources of livelihood that could support him after his release. Asman said with resignation,

During detention, our strength was sucked dry, and now the only work available is heavy labour. But we are old now, and no longer strong. So all we can do is run little stalls selling things, like this one. Unless you have capital …

Fortunately, his family always encouraged him to keep on going. After his release, his family never treated him any differently from the others. Moreover, his own children have been able to walk tall without being ashamed of being ‘communist kids’.

This is all because both when Asman was free and when he was in detention, he always maintained good relations with people around him and used his leadership talents as much as he could. The reception he received after his release reinvigorated his enthusiasm for leadership and he returned to organisational activities. Asman was often invited as a prominent figure to discussions about social problems. Now no longer involved in prison affairs, he became involved with the management of the elderly in North Palu kecamatan (district), as secretary.

Asman is still a formidable figure. Not because of his former ‘communist’ affiliations or such, but because of his strictness and high standards of discipline. Even during his ten years in prison, he uncovered many cases of corruption of funds that were supposed to be directed to village development. Asman once questioned a mining project because of the bad effects for society. Representing the people of North Palu, Asman opened the meeting with the members of the regional parliament and the head of the Directorate of Mining. Clearly, the people greatly respected Asman’s leadership skills, and there was no reference made to his past.

Asman has never regretted his life experience as a political detainee. To him, a leader has to learn from every tide in life and through this develop skills in strong leadership, which will eventually be of great use in guiding the next generation. The fight to regain self-respect requires firm resolve. Asman reflected,

The infringement of human rights that was inflicted upon us is now common knowledge in the world. Why don’t we take advantage of this? If we fail at first, we must try again. Because we ourselves want to get rid of that stigma that was hung around our necks for so long.

Whenever he recalls how he and other detainees managed to survive loneliness, sickness, disappointment and the crushing of their fundamental rights, Asman remembers how they would pass long nights after an exhausting day’s work by telling stories about anything at all; about the families they had left behind, about how they could meet daily needs, and whether they would ever again live as they did before the 1965 incident. And at other times, when they were bored, Asman and the other prisoners would hold a story-telling competition. The one who told the best tale was given a prize by the other inmates. ‘There was one person who was a fantastic storyteller, but he has died now. His name was Aminudin Lajamana’ Asman reminisced.

They would make up stories about anything. It might be a story from the village, or something made up. The most important thing was that the story had to have an element of struggle in it, so the detainees would keep alive their spirit of struggle. And the story that won, and was the most impressive, was the story about the murrel fish and the rat.

Once upon a time, in a big river, there was a block of wood that protruded into the river. In that block of wood was a rats nest, with a young female rat who was just coming of age. One day, a murrel fish was playing around in the river and his gaze was struck by this female rat perched on the block of wood. From then on, the murrel fish often went ashore to visit the rat.

And the rat also regularly visited the fish in the water. One day, the rat told her parents that she wanted to marry the fish. Now of course this was impossible. But the rat would not budge, and almost died underwater. When she met the fish, she told him she would revive if he found her a chicken egg. The fish had to go on land to look for an egg. When he saw a man drawing water with a bamboo bucket, the fish jumped into it.

Upon arriving at the man’s house, the fish seized the moment when the water was being poured from the bucket into a tank, to jump down, take an egg, swallow it and jump back into the bamboo bucket. When the man went back to the river, the fish was reunited with the rat and gave his sweetheart the chicken egg.

On another day, the story had the situation reversed. The fish got extremely ill because he was almost eaten by the man when he went to get the chicken egg. The only thing that would save the fish was crocodile liver. So the rat had to go to the river mouth and climb a coconut tree. The rat gnawed the coconut until it fell into the river and into the crocodile’s mouth. The fish was inside the coconut, and from there he was able to take the crocodile’s liver and get out of the crocodile when it vomited up the coconut.

The struggle of the fish to save the rat, and the rat’s suffering to heal the fish became symbols that nothing is impossible if we work hard to bring it about. With spirit-rousing stories like this, Asman and the other political prisoners found a sense of freedom even though they were confined in a big, damp, dirty shed. They tried hard, using every means they could, including entertaining themselves with storytelling, to relieve the things that gnawed away at their spirits: bitterness, exasperation, sickness and the cruelty they experienced as detainees of New Order politics.

Asman remembers something Gertrude Hartman said in the introduction to her book Builders of the Old World (1959), namely that spreading facts and ideas through books, magazines and newspapers is one of the strongest ways to learn the truth of what is going on in the world. We have to know the truth, and the truth will make us free.

Asman personally expresses the misery and incalculable suffering of his friends and all political prisoners; namely that they are free only in the sense of being released from prison yet actually, because of discriminative practices, real liberty and good fortune have never come their way.

From his youth through to his elderly years, Asman has never ceased his fight to realise the potential of the young generation.

I am old now. It’s enough. If there are young people around who don’t know anything, well just send them over to me and I will teach them. Tawaeli here is one of the areas with the highest number of university graduates, but why aren’t they used?

Asman has also spearheaded the supply of free medicines to the aged in North Palu, every Thursday. He concluded the story with his enduring sense of hope:

It’s enough for just my friends and I to feel what we feel. What I hope is that what we went through can motivate us and support us in the fight to reveal the past infringements of human rights.

Interviewer: Nurlaela AK Lamasitudju.

Writer: Fati Soewandi.

Breaking the Silence: Survivors Speak about 1965–66 Violence in Indonesia

   by Putu Oka Sukanta