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

Chapter 7


Luh Sutari

Plaiting stories

Ni Luh Sutari is around 60. Her wrinkled fingers skillfully plait young coconut palms. She makes squares that will be used for religious offerings called canang that hold flowers, incense and other things. At a glance you would not think her any different from other Balinese women her age. She makes dozens, even hundreds of canang for family offerings and ceremonies; cooks, tidies the house and looks after her grandchild. The activities of her husband, Wayan Partha, might be considered a little more unusual. He makes herbal potions for his alternative medicine and acupuncture practice. Something you would never guess from a brief meeting with Ni Luh Sutari is the memories she keeps of a series of tragic events she experienced more than fifty years ago. Hers is just one of thousands of heartbreaking stories from the time when Bali was in the grip of the darkness of the political turbulence of 1965. This was when there were massacres of tens of thousands of people considered to be sympathisers or supporters of the Indonesian Communist Party, including her oldest brother and other relatives.

Sutari managed to survive. But her life subsequent to the six years that immediately followed the terrifying event is like the second act in a tragedy which remains close to her and has left a lasting impression. It is like an ongoing nightmare, but one that really happened.

While plaiting the offerings, Sutari tells her story, every now and then massaging her leg which hurts because she fell near the house altar. She tells her story of the past, but every now and then jumps to the present. Her voice is quiet, almost a whisper, but full of emotion, and every now and then she chuckles. Her fingers continue to plait the young bamboo leaves, and it is as though she is plaiting her memories of the past, one by one.

Ni Luh Sutari was born to a farming family in Blahbatuh, Giyanar. She was the seventh of eleven children. Two older siblings died as babies. Back then, her parents were relatively progressive in their ways, and sent their children to school. Her oldest brother, who was later murdered in 1965, even became a primary school teacher. Sutari herself, or Tari as she was known, did not manage to finish junior high school. ‘I was at junior high school but could not continue because I was afraid with all the taunting …’ To Sutari and others labelled ‘red’, this was more than just teasing. The verbal attack was a kind of terror that resulted in a profound psychological trauma for those who survived. Sometimes the taunts would be accompanied by physical violence, like being chased, tortured or killed.

Sutari was indeed raised in a ‘red’ family, a label used at the time for people with ‘leftist’ leanings. The dichotomy of ‘right’ and ‘left’ ideologies was not something that young Sutari understood. What she, and the majority of Balinese understood at the time was that ‘red’ meant you were a Communist Party (PKI) sympathiser and ‘black’ meant you sympathised with the Indonesian National Party (PNI). These were the two largest political parties in Bali in the early 1960s. Her oldest brother, who was a teacher, was one of the Communist Party figures in their village. Her older sister was a member of Gerwani [Indonesian Women’s Movement] and her husband was a leader in the Barisan Tani Indonesia [Indonesian Peasants Front].

The political climate at the time encouraged everyone to choose a political party and affiliation. ‘If you didn’t choose one, you were considered wishy-washy’, she said, chuckling. Even in the first year of junior high school, almost all the students would join a student organisation that was associated with a political party. And Sutari did too. But she did something unusual. She wanted to be different to her older brothers and sisters who were all ‘red’, and so she decided to join the student organisation that leaned towards the National Party, namely the GSNI (Gerakan Siswa Nasional Indonesia, Indonesian National High School Students Movement). ‘I joined the GSNI because I wanted to be different. My sister Runi was already in Gerwani, she was even a leader …’ Sutari said, referring to her elder sister Wayan Mandra. It turned out that her father and her siblings respected her choice. The choice of different political affiliations never caused any problems in the family. The house was always busy with meetings and choirs, and even though Sutari did not join in, she enjoyed the sense of community and family.

After the events of 30 September 1965, the current of political turbulence spread like a huge wave that engulfed every corner, including the island of Bali. To Balinese who had some political awareness, the tensions and competition between political parties could not be avoided, it was absolutely everywhere. This time, the turbulence was like lighting the fuse of a huge bomb that exploded in the middle of society and totally destroyed the existing order, right to the villages. Victims fell who had no connection at all to that political conflict.

So it was in Sutari’s normally quiet neighbourhood. Around mid-December 1965, people started pelting with stones the houses in the village of people considered to be ‘red’, or setting them on fire. Like the mass extermination of rats in the rice fields, people began to hunt, beat and kill those people considered to be Communist Party members or sympathisers. Some people were dragged from their homes, paraded around and then taken to the village graveyard. Before their death, they had a chance to see the hole dug for their mass grave. About 14 people died in her neighbourhood (banjar). Among them were two of Sutari’s cousins who were murdered at the onset of the chaos.

Sutari never knew who the people doing the burning, hunting and torture that happened almost every night, were. Some of them were a gang, dressed all in black and carrying short swords. They were called tameng. Sometimes, they were neighbours, friends, even close relatives, or people no one knew and no one knew where they came from. ‘The ones who came to my house were wearing army camouflage, and they carried guns’, Sutari recalled.

While this tragedy was going on in her village, Sutari was facing terror and pressure at school. She was tagged ‘red’ like her older brother and sister, and taunted by friends and even people in the street she did not know. They did not care that Sutari was a member of GSNI. Although she had been a member of this organisation for three months, she had not yet been recorded in the files, but had been an extremely active and enthusiastic participant in their activities and meetings. Sutari guessed that someone had told people that her brother was the Communist Party leader in Blahbatuh. Luckily for Sutari, a geometry teacher at the school defended her. ‘Leave her alone, she is one of us, she is a member of GSNI’, she said. ‘I was afraid to go home to Tojan’, Sutari explained. ‘I did not want to continue school, and that is why I never finished junior high school’. She left the home of her relative where she was boarding while attending school in Denpasar and went back to the village, a 30 kilometre journey, getting a ride on a truck that stopped on the street.

Sutari arrived back home in her village. The situation was still chaotic. Her father, Ketut Liku, was afraid that his house would be torched. So he put a bed at his neighbour’s place so there would be a place for Sutari and the other children to sleep if their house was set on fire. He did not realise that this move would have unfortunate consequences.

A relative told one of those guys wearing army camouflage that father had stored a bed. They came and questioned Father as to why he had done that, and he said it was so his children would have somewhere to sleep if the house was set on fire.

This answer infuriated the guy in army drills, and Father was beaten unconscious. Sutari clearly remembers how her father was prodded with a rifle butt and made to get up, staggering. It was the children’s innocence that saved the day. Seeing the four children cowering with fear on the bed, they did not set fire to Ketut Liku’s house.

However, Sutari’s older brother and sister were not so lucky. Her sister, Made Seruni, escaped murder because she was pregnant with her first child. But her husband, Komang Sarjana, was arrested and taken away by closed truck. According to stories in the village, he was taken to the area of Masceti beach and murdered there. As for Wayan Mandra, Sutari’s oldest brother, he was killed at Padang Bai.

Even after things started going crazy at home, my brother managed to come home from Padang Bai where he was teaching. When I asked him, he said he was safe because his friend had given him the buffalo symbol [of the PNI. Trs]. Wayan Mandra had requested some kind of travel document to return to Padang Bai, from a friend of his, Tama, who was village head at the time. Tama said to him ‘I haven’t got a travel permit, but I have a death permit’.

Without paying much attention to this, Wayan Mandra left the village and returned to Padang Bai.

Ketut Liku got the story of what happened next to his son from a young girl who said she witnessed what happened to Mandra. A few days after Wayan Mandra arrived at Padang Bai, Tama and another man came to pick him up saying that they had to take him back to the village for his safety. Without being in the least suspicious, Wayan Mandra went along. It was on that journey that he was murdered.

In less than four months, Sutari had lost two members of her family and four relatives in the tragedy that took place from late 1965. But it was her father who felt the greatest loss in the death of Wayan Mandra, his eldest son in whom he had such pride, a clever young man who was such an example to his younger siblings, to his father and to those around him. He was the hope of the family. To make it worse, the death of his oldest son was the result of the treachery of one of his own friends.

Ketut Liku’s sadness led to deep depression. When Sutari told of her father’s pain at the death of his son, she was moved with emotion.

Father would often lose his senses, and ask himself why wasn’t it him who died, why was it Wayan Mandra who was still young and clever … and he would go on and on like this …

Sutari said, her eyes welling with tears. It is not clear whether Ketut Liku even realised that after the death of his oldest child and after the terrifying chaos subsided, his daughter Ni Luh Sutari still had to live under the dark shadow of the 1965 tragedy. Her subsequent suffering took the form of her marriage to one of the paramilitary tameng. The tragedy was nowhere near over for Sutari.

Less than six years after the events of December 1965, a relative introduced her to Darmawan who came from Blangsinga. From the outset, Sutari knew that Darmawan was a tameng. But he was the one she ended up marrying in 1971 when she was just 18. Her father never agreed to the marriage. Ketut Liku reminded his daughter about her brother’s murder. ‘If you want to marry, then marry someone following the same path of struggle as us, not a tameng. Remember, your brother followed this path until his death.’ But Sutari was stubborn and remained firm in her decision. Apart from thinking that if she married Darmawan she would be safe and life would be calm, she had also fallen in love with him.

So she married without her father’s blessing. It was an older brother – the third child in the family – who represented his father at the wedding. Darmawan then immediately took Sutari with him to Lombok. Over the next three years, Sutari’s life with Darmawan made her realise that her father’s fear and worry were right. Her husband liked gambling and womanising. He was once surrounded by an army platoon because he had been having an affair with the one of the soldier’s wives. When he lost at gambling, it was always Sutari who was the target of his anger. He would beat her and drag her around. Once he threw a machete at her, but luckily Sutari ducked and the machete hit a cupboard.

But what hurt Sutari the most was her husband’s verbal abuse. ‘You’re just Gerwani, and I could kill you right now …!’ This is one threat of his she remembers. Darmawan would always bring up the fact that Sutari could not have children, even though she had been pregnant a few times and suffered miscarriages. She wasn’t sure whether it was the way her husband treated her that caused the miscarriages. She asked her husband for a divorce many times, but could never understand and still can’t, why he threatened to kill himself if Sutari left him. Her haunting thoughts about this bloodthirsty former tameng who had killed many people and could at any time even kill his own wife, made her determined to find a way to leave Lombok as soon as she could.

Eventually, after three years suffering her husband’s abuse, Sutari got the courage to ask Darmawan’s permission for her to go home to Bali, saying she had to attend the commemorative cremation ceremony of her brother, Wayan Mandra. He refused at first, but finally allowed her to go. When Ketut Liku saw his daughter return home, he was both moved and anxious. He felt that Sutari was still too young to understand what she was going through. His greatest worry was that his daughter would agree to go back if Darmawan came to Bali to get her.

As it turned out Ketut Liku did not have to worry. Sutari never returned to Lombok. She decided to sell tomatoes and eggs and to take a sewing course in Denpasar. Darmawan never came to look for her. Sutari’s courage grew as time went on. In July 1975, she decided to divorce Darmawan. This was a brave decision, and also ended her nightmare of being trapped in the dark shadows of a political tragedy, years after that tragedy had occurred. Actually she had been very young at the time and did not ever really understand what was going on, and was certainly not involved in any political conflict. To her, the cruelty was not directed to affiliation with any political parties or ideology. She was not ‘red’, yet could not free herself of the tragedy.

Meeting Wayan Partha, her current husband, is the part of the story that makes Sutari smile. At the time, her father was suffering back pain, was stooped over and could not walk. Wayan Susila, a relative from the village who had been a political prisoner in 1968 in Pekambingan prison, introduced Wayan Partha to Sutari’s family as an expert in acupuncture, and also as a friend he got to know in prison. He was imprisoned because in his youth he had been a member of IPPI (Ikatan Pemuda dan Pelajar Indonesia, League of Indonesian Youth and Students). He acquired his skill in acupuncture while he was in prison. Many people testified to the results of his treatment, especially his fellow inmates, and he was often asked to treat family members of the military or prison guards, without any payment of course.

When he got out of prison in 1978, he worked for a while at a travel agency. When he met Sutari, he was already 30. ‘I thought he must have a wife, and at least two children. I blushed when he said he was still a bachelor’, Sutari recounted, with a chuckle and a blush in her cheeks.

Ketut Liku’s back pain vanished after a few treatments. Wayan Partha and Sutari became friends, and they ended up getting married in 1978. This time, Ketut Liku gave his blessing and was happy to have a son-in-law who he saw as being on the same path of struggle as himself. ‘Partha knew everything about my past and even when I said I probably could not have children, he did not mind’, Sutari said.

Sutari finds it hard not to be impressed by Wayan Partha. He is very artistic, and made an embossed painting of the island of Bali which still hangs in a prominent travel agency office in Bali. His revolutionary spirit has never flagged, even though he spent time behind bars. In the 1990s, he was a member of the personnel staff of a five star hotel in Bali. He managed to get the hotel staff to form a union. Now, in his retirement he has decided to devote himself to acupuncture. This gives him many opportunities to help people in need.

Wayang Partha and Ni Luh Sutari are two people drawn together by similar history. This is not a past anyone wants to remember, but it makes them able to accept one another as they are. Wayan Partha has also been able to slowly heal Sutari’s past trauma, which still at times plagues her physically and psychologically. Her father’s deep sorrow at the death of his son and her own bitter past with her first husband, still often give her nightmares.

These days, Ni Luh Sutari and her husband live right beside his family in Denpasar. They live in a typical Balinese compound with various buildings for different households. They adopted one of Wayan Partha’s nephews, and from him they have a grand-daughter who they are extremely fond of. Whereas many former political prisoners later had to cope with discrimination from their families, Wayang Partha and Ni Luh Sutari are probably among the lucky ones in that many of their family were also ‘red’.

No one in the family or among our neighbours ever directly drags up our past, but many people know about it, because every time there was an election, we had to attend a ‘Santiaji’ or propaganda course, and we were ordered to join Golkar … I don’t know what they say behind our backs …

There are many things Sutari wants to talk about. She meets some friends now and then who have gone through similar things, or her husband’s friends from prison, and these are times when she can talk about her difficult memories. But there are some memories that she stores tightly, that appear now and then in her dreams about her father, or in her tearless sobs.

As Sutari finished telling her story, she looked out of the large window in the sitting room and saw her husband Wayan Partha moving from the pavilion used for family ceremonies, in the part of the compound planted with shrubs and flowers. He was coming over to do some acupuncture on Sutari’s leg. Smiling and moving her painful leg, Sutari whispered, ‘since I married Partha, I have stayed right here, and never wanted to go anywhere else’.

Now in her sixties, Luh Sutari continues to plait young coconut leaves. When she tells the chapters of her story it is as though she is weaving together the fronds of memory. She is weaving a tray, a place where she arranges her prayers for old age and her hopes for the future generation; including her hope that what she experienced in the past will never happen again, to anyone.

Interviewer and transcriber: Roro Sawita.

Writer: Roro Sawita.

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

   by Putu Oka Sukanta