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

Chapter 10


Life in painting

The young man called his painting ‘The Ship of Indonesia’s Armed Struggle’. He executed it with pen strokes, inspired by German painting. He wanted to give it to the Republic of Indonesia’s leader who was coming to Takengon, Aceh. He had heard that some Indonesian leaders were going to deliver speeches in the square, so he found time to do the painting.

It was 1948, and Indonesia, including East Sumatra except Aceh, had been retaken after World War II by the Dutch and the Allies. The Dutch had arrested the Indonesian leaders. President Soekarno, Sutan Sjahrir and Haji Agus Salim had been exiled to Brastagi. The Vice President, Mohammad Hatta, together with Mohammad Roem, Ali Sastroamidjojo, AG Pringgodigdo, Assaat, Air Commodore Suryadarma and other senior officials had been exiled to Bangka Island. To safeguard against a vacuum of power, Soekarno had appointed Sjafruddin Prawiranegara as acting president and a few ministers to establish the Emergency Government of the Republic of Indonesia (PDRI, Pemerintahan Darurat Republik Indonesia) with its capital in Bukit Tinggi.

The Dutch spread propaganda that the leaders of the Republic had been arrested and therefore the State of the Republic of Indonesia was null and void and the entire region of the Republic was now under Dutch control. In the areas not under Dutch control, Indonesian leaders made counter propaganda that the Republic of Indonesia had not been defeated. Meanwhile in Takengon in central Aceh, a radio station for the armed struggle called ‘Rimba Raya’ (Glorious Jungle) was established to keep the spirit of nationalism alive in Aceh. Through this radio station, and their outdoor speeches, the Indonesian leaders wanted to spread the word that the Republic of Indonesia was still standing, that Indonesian independence had to be upheld, and that maintaining independence was something that not only the leaders had to strive for, but the people too.

He rolled up the painting neatly and managed to give it to Ir. A Kapau Gani, one of the ministers, while travelling with the group from Takengon to Bukit Tinggi. The artist was Permadi Liosta. He believed that a person could demonstrate his sense and spirit of nationalism not only by taking up arms to drive out the colonisers, but also through art. Permadi Liosta’s love of art later became brushes and paint that created shape, colour and paintings on the canvas of his life. Despite all that was painted on that canvas, he remains steadfast in his belief that art is beautiful.

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Permadi Liosta was born in Takengon, Aceh on 25 November 1930, the third of five children. He was raised in a Gayo farming family. His family owned some rice fields and other dry fields, typical of small-scale farmers who Soekarno called Marhaen, after a farmer with that name he met in West Java.

Permadi is an unpretentious person and likes to joke. His memory is extremely sharp for someone 80 years of age. He told his life story with a calm expression and intonation, never with outbursts of revenge, never appearing as someone who was in Salemba prison and experienced the wild jungle of Buru Island for eleven years. He is someone the Javanese would call legawa, or sincere. Seeing him reminded me of something I once heard an artist say, ‘art refines behaviour, refines sensitivity, refines thought, and refines reason.’ Maybe it is indeed art that has made him make peace with his past. He chose art as his life path, and he has never regretted that choice. He can say wisely, ‘I consider all that happened as the history of my life.’

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Permadi Liosta’s life story begins with his love of art. It was because of art that he decided to travel to Java and study visual art, was entrusted with helping with the establishment of Lekra, (the Institute of People’s Culture) in Bali, and represented Indonesia at exhibitions in Europe, until eventually the New Order regime suppressed his creativity in Salemba prison and in the prison camp on Buru Island. Permadi Liosta’s interest in painting began at primary school. His talent was honed further when he continued his education at high school (Perguruan Pusat Murid, PPM) at Takengon. This was when he made the painting ‘The Ship of Indonesia’s Armed Struggle’. His passion for study led to his decision to go to the People’s University of North Sumatra (Universitas Rakyat Sumatera Utara) at Tapanuli.

Together with six friends, each bearing one kerosene tin full of rice, he trekked through the jungle for one month. They often had to shelter from the rain under makeshift tents made with banana leaves, and hide whenever there was a Dutch army patrol. When they arrived in Tapanuli, the situation was not promising. The college had been burnt down by the Dutch. Another college had been built in the Aceh jungle, but this suffered the same fate as the Tapanuli one. It was bombed by the Dutch, and all that remained were blackboards and the flag. The college then had to move to the banks of the Alas River in Gayo territory, Aceh. When Permadi completed his studies at university, he returned to Takengon and joined the revolutionary army. He was given duties on the front in the Pangkalan Berandan area to chase out the Dutch who were trying to control Aceh. Permadi became war correspondent sending news of the fighting to Langsa to be forwarded to newspapers in Banda Aceh.

When his soldier days ended, Permadi wanted to go to Java for further study. His high school teachers had instilled in him the need to ‘be independent’. So he and a friend started to save money by planting crops and doing odd jobs to get the money to go to Java. But it turned out they had only enough to get as far as Medan. When they got there, they had to work again to save some more. Permadi worked at a printing house, on construction sites, and made posters. Then one day he read a magazine. He saw a picture of Hendra Gunawan from the Pelukis Rakyat (Artists of the People) group in Yogyakarta painting a huge work, so large that Hendra himself was dwarfed by it. Permadi was seized with fervour, and could no longer rein in his desire to become an artist. So he wrote to Hendra Gunawan,

Pak Hendra, I want to be a painter. I want to join Pelukis Rakyat and come to Yogya. But I have nothing other than my fierce desire to become an artist.

Hendra wrote in reply, ‘Come to Pelukis Rakyat right away.’

So after he got his pay and sold his bicycle, Permadi and his friends went to Jakarta on their way to Yogyakarta. But they ran out of money. They did not have enough to get to Yogyakarta. Luckily, they could stay in Jakarta at the house of Hasan Gayo, a former freedom fighter who was also from Gayo. It seemed as though their meeting with Hendra was just awaiting the right moment. They had not realised that Hendra was a friend of Hasan Gayo, until one day Hendra arrived at Hasan Gayo’s house.

‘Here they are, these village kids who want to go to Yogya. They want to study,’ Hasan Gayo told Hendra.

Permadi fronted up to Hendra. ‘We’ve got no money. We can’t get to Yogya. We’re flat broke.’ And they did not want to ask Hasan Gayo for money because this went against their principle of being ‘independent’.

But sure enough, the next day someone came to take Permadi and his friends to Yogya. Permadi was impatient to join the Pelukis Rakyat group and study with them. Until now, he had felt confident enough to call himself an artist, but when he saw how amazing the artists at Pelukis Rakyat were, he realised that becoming an artist is a long process and hard work.

The Pelukis Rakyat studio was a place where painters and sculptors gathered. They came from various backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, affiliations and ideologies. The studio was established in 1947 by the artists Affandi and Hendra Gunawan who had for many years been involved with arts organisations like SIM (Seniman Indonesia Muda, Young Indonesian Artists) in Yogyakarta. At Pelukis Rakyat, everyone studied together and many artists lived at the studio. There was a large hall and two big bedrooms. Hendra Gunawan and his family occupied one of the bedrooms. During the day, the hall was used as a workshop where the artists created and studied painting or sculpture. At night, mattresses would be arranged in rows in the hall and the spare bedroom, for the artists staying there to sleep. It was at the Pelukis Rakyat studio that Permadi met the top painters and visual artists of the time, like Affandi, Hendra Gunawan, Edi Sunarso and Trubus. And this was also where he learnt the philosophy, ‘Art for the People’.

‘Art for the People’ was people-focused art. It was a philosophy that developed alongside the political ideology of the time that tended to be socialist and realist, so Pelukis Rakyat artists adopted themes of the people as objects of their work. By familiarising himself with ‘Art for the People’, Permadi was introduced to the true experience of painting. He went to the sites of his paintings. He carried his canvas and brushes on the roadside, to the market, to the rice fields, to the mountains; he painted the farmers harvesting rice, and various expressions of ordinary people. His painting skills were sharpened, and he learned sculpture too.

In the early 1950s, President Soekarno asked for statues to be made for commemorative monuments in Indonesia’s large towns. Some of these statues and monuments were made by sculptors at Pelukis Rakyat. Permadi himself got a commission through Pelukis Rakyat to make a carved panel for the Military Corps Police (CPM, Corps Polisi Militer) in Jakarta. By this time, Permadi’s paintings were in demand and sold at exhibitions. His achievements and hard work were recognised when in 1954 he was commissioned to make the statue with the symbol of Airlangga University.

Initially, Hendra Gunawan was going to make the statue, but Hendra gave the project to Permadi. The statue, which became the symbol of Airlangga University, was a replica of the statue of Airlangga, the King of Kahuripan, depicted as the figure of Visnu mounted on the Garuda bird, with a dragon snake grasping the Garuda’s claw. In the same year, on 10 November 1954, Hero’s Day, Permadi attended the official opening of Airlangga University, opened by President Soekarno. The huge four metre high statue was covered with a yellow and blue cloth. The cloth was then drawn aside to symbolise the official opening, and the statue has remained there to this day, in the grounds in front of the Faculty of Medicine at Airlangga University.

After the Airlangga statue project, Permadi got more commissions, including a carved pane, for the Madiun Council offices. This project went well, but Permadi’s health declined. He went to the Bethesda Hospital in Yogyakarta for a check-up and a black shadow was diagnosed on his lungs. After a week in hospital, he went to the sanatorium in Pakem, near Kaliurang. There he befriended a Dutch doctor. With the help of this doctor and the International Union of Students (IUS), he was recommended for treatment in Beijing. Permadi went to China together with four other Indonesian students. After six months of treatment there, he returned to Yogya, and went back to Pelukis Rakyat. Soon after, he decided to move to Bali. And it was in Bali that he got to know Balinese artists and went on to establish Lekra (The Institute of People’s Culture) in Bali.

Permadi arrived in Denpasar, Bali, together with Fajar Sidik, a lecturer from the Indonesian Arts Academy in Yogyakarta (ASRI, Akademi Seni Rupa Indonesia) who was also active in Pelukis Rakyat in the late 1950s. At that time, Lekra was still just an embryo in Bali, but its rival organisation, the Institute of National Culture (LKN, Lembaga Kebudayaan Nasional) had already been established with Raka Sandtri as its head.

Balinese artists who knew that Permadi was from Pelukis Rakyat in Yogya, asked him to establish and lead Lekra in Bali. Permadi rejected the idea of being its head, but he agreed to help establish Lekra in Bali. He asked for a Balinese to be chosen at its head. So Rika, a Balinese from Singaraja who had just finished his studies at the Arts Academy in Yogya was made head. Permadi himself became head of the visual arts section.

Lekra developed quickly in Bali. Many Balinese artists joined. There was competition in the arts world between Lekra and LKN as the two major forces in the arts in Bali at the time. Permadi says that Lekra was more active in the arts world there, one reason being that the Governor of Bali at the time, Suteja, prioritised Lekra. As Governor, he commissioned many arts performances by Lekra artists. On the other hand, LKN did not have close relations with the Governor of Bali. The Lekra artists were also often invited to formal state occasions and to greet visiting international guests, at the invitation of President Soekarno and the Minister of Culture at the time.

In early 1960, President Soekarno invited Lekra to mount an exhibition of paintings in East Germany, Hungary and Bulgaria. Permadi was called to Jakarta to accept the mission of curating the exhibition. He set about the task of gathering paintings to be taken. He asked the advice of Affandi, his senior at Pelukis Rakyat.

‘Pak Affandi, the central Lekra committee has appointed me to take an exhibition to Europe. I am terrified. What should I do?’

Affandi, who had a lot of experience mounting exhibitions abroad, understood Permadi’s anxiety. ‘I am sure you are quite capable of doing this, Permadi’, he said.

Then he gave some advice.

One thing I would say is that over there do not link art and politics. Keep them separate. If it is paintings, keep it at that, if it is art, keep it at that, there’s no need to muddle them with politics. But if you feel capable of linking art and politics, then that’s okay too.

Permadi left for Europe with Rustamaji, a Lekra artist from Surabaya. They went to East Berlin. The exhibition at the national gallery in a baroque architecture building in the east of the city was opened by the Vice Prime Minister of East Germany, who gave a speech. As leader of the Indonesian exhibition, Permadi gave a speech in reply. Permadi remembers this moment as one that stirred his sense of nationalism. His friend Rustamaji was also moved to see Permadi on the podium, under spotlights, the bulbs of the journalists’ cameras flashing, and the event broadcast on German television. After Permadi’s speech, even before he got off the podium, Rustamaji came up to hug him, his face beaming.

During the exhibition, Permadi had many discussions with the German curator. Many German artists came along, especially painters and academics.

‘Where is the Indonesian element here?’ a German artist asked indignantly.

Permadi replied, ‘well, what about these German paintings here, where is the German element? This is European. French and Italian paintings are like this too.’

Permadi showed the artists a book with reproductions of Balinese paintings. He had brought copies of the book to give out to artists in Europe.

‘This is like Rousseau’s paintings!’ one of the German artists said. Permadi pointed to a picture of a very traditional Balinese painting from Klungkung.

Now how can this be like Rousseau? Tell me, when was Rousseau born? Just look at the colours of the Balinese painting – it is clearly very old. In Indonesia, we have many styles of painting. Java, Batak, Irian, Bali – every area has its painting. What we have brought here for this exhibition are paintings that depict contemporary national life. Right now, this depicts what it is like in Indonesia. Just like in Germany, people are demanding their rights …

Permadi was proud of himself for giving such a diplomatic answer.

Apart from the exhibition, Permadi was also invited to participate in discussions and to give a painting demonstration at the arts academy in [East] Berlin. He gave the demonstration together with a lecturer, and there was a model for life painting. This is where he discovered a difference between German and Indonesian painting of the time. The German teacher painted extremely carefully and in great detail, so that his painting was like a life portrait. ‘What is art?’ Permadi then asked the academics and students. Permadi’s painting was praised as a work of high art. Unlike European paintings that were executed with a brush, Indonesian painters like Affandi, Hendra Gunawan and Permadi often used their palette knives. The unique impression this produced, combined with the realism that Indonesian artists pursued, made Indonesian paintings much appreciated in Europe.

The exhibition that Permadi organised in Europe went off well. Many artists, critics and ordinary people came to see the Indonesian paintings. Soon after Permadi returned to Indonesia, he joined the committee organising the Asia Africa Film Festival in Jakarta for the 10th anniversary of the [1955] Asia Africa Conference.

The Governor of Bali put Permadi in charge of the performances during the Asia Africa Film Festival. Many Balinese artists were on the organising committee, but it seemed that artists from LKN (Lembaga Kebudayaan Nasional, the Institute of National Culture) did not want to participate. So the Lekra artists were very much involved in the activities taking place during the film festival.

When the film festival was over, Permadi and Bachtiar Siagian, an artist from the central Lekra branch, went to Klungkung together to take photographs and make a film about the lives of Klungkung fishermen. They had to spend a night in Klungkung. Rumours circulated about an underground political movement. It was said that Permadi and Bachtiar were in Klungkung waiting for a ship from China which was coming with guns. Permadi and Bachtiar heard about the rumour from a friend. The friend told them to return to Denpasar as soon as possible because the situation in Bali was heating up.

When they got back to Denpasar, Bachtiar said he wanted to return to Jakarta immediately. He planned to give his rolls of documentary film together with the films he had shown at the Asia Africa Film Festival to a Japanese friend for safekeeping. Permadi and Bachtiar parted ways in Denpasar.

On 1 October 1965 at seven in the morning, Permadi was at home in Denpasar and had just woken up. Still sleepy, he was lying in bed and used his toe to turn the radio on. The news he then heard was that the Revolutionary Council led by Lieutenant Colonel Untung controlled Jakarta, and had rescued President Soekarno from an attempted coup d’etat by the Council of Generals. Hearing this news, Permadi rushed to the home of the Governor Suteja. The Governor said, ‘ahh, let’s just wait for the command from President Soekarno.’ The critical situation in Jakarta had not yet spread to Bali.

By around the beginning of the next month, November, there were stories about killings going on in Banyuwangi. And then the slaughter came to Bali, first of all in Negara, then Buleleng. The people of Denpasar still had a period of calm, until there was an announcement saying that everyone had to remain in their own place of residence, and it was forbidden to sleep anywhere other than your own house, or to receive any guests to stay overnight. It was unclear where this announcement came from. The situation in Denpasar began to be chaotic and the only thing people could do was believe they had to obey this announcement.

Walls of houses were painted with signs of political parties. If the people living there were members of the National Party, then ‘PNI’ was scrawled, and if they were members of the Communist Party, then it was ‘PKI’. In early December 1965, the army para command regiment (RPKAD: Resimen Para-Komando Angkatan Darat) arrived in Denpasar. Arrests started. Some people were thrown into prison, others were taken out of prison to be executed somewhere else, and many others were just killed in front of their houses, or on the side of the road.

What happened to one of Permadi’s friends, Gde Mangku, a Lekra poet from Bali, is a distressing story. Permadi’s house in Denpasar was often a gathering place for Lekra artists. The day the announcement appeared, Gde Mangku was at Permadi’s place. Gde Mangku quickly returned to the place he rented, because he remembered that his mother was alone at home. That very night, not long after he got home, a gang came to get him. Gde Mangku was taken to the area of Kapal and executed. Permadi asked many of his friends about Gde Mangku until he finally got an explanation about what had happened. The son of the landlord was at the place the incident took place, acting as secretary to an officer who had forced him to come to the execution site. He saw Gde Mangku ordered to stand facing the grave which the military had ordered the locals to dig. Before he was shot, Gde Mangku made his last request. Then he sat in prayer position and prayed to God for the safety of his mother. Gde Mangku was then shot and his body fell into the hole. His fate was so sad. One by one, Lekra artists were hunted down and murdered. Permadi was sure that he would be targeted soon enough. His position as one of the high Lekra officials in Bali meant it was impossible for him not to be known to the mob and to the military.

People whose houses had been smeared with ‘PKI’ were murdered and their houses burnt to the ground. People of Chinese descent experienced the same thing. Permadi’s neighbours were beginning to disappear or be killed. A student from Gayo who was studying in Bali advised him, ‘Brother, you must leave Bali. Everyone, especially the leadership, will be killed. That’s for sure.’

Every morning Permadi woke up with his hand at his throat, giving thanks that he was still alive. He could not bear to just stay at home. He was prepared for the worst. He often went out of the house on his bicycle. He went to the market to buy food, while killing and burning was going on along the road. There was no one that he recognised. They were people from Bali – but who knows where they were from – carrying knives, wood, cudgels. Sometimes you would hear screams of pain, or yells to burn, to kill. When the road was full of people, he would get off his bike and wheel his bicycle through the crowd. In the midst of the chaos, no one recognised him.

But the time came for a gang in black and with black headbands to come to Permadi’s house. That morning, Permadi was preparing his canvas and painting equipment. He was going to paint in front of his house. He had not yet sat down to paint when he saw a gang of about hundred people in the alley, some of them coming towards his house. His landlord was terrified and from the corner of the house he called out, ‘Permadi! You’re going to die, Permadi!’ But Permadi himself felt calm. Incredibly calm. One of the black headbands came up,

‘Are you Permadi? Permadi Liosta?’ Asked the gang leader.

‘Yes, that’s me’, Permadi replied.

‘You’re the head of Lekra?’

‘I am not the head of Lekra, but I am head of the visual arts section of Lekra. There is a head of Lekra, but that is not me’, Permadi answered calmly.

‘Well we’ve come to do a search!’

‘Please do’ Permadi said. Then the gang went inside and ransacked his room, the kitchen, and then climbed up on the roof. They were there for about an hour searching Permadi and ransacking the house.

‘Have you found anything?’ asked the gang leader, speaking Balinese.

‘No, nothing here’, came the reply in Balinese from within. Permadi had no idea what they were looking for. Guns perhaps, who knows. Then the gang leader ordered his men to come outside and gather in the yard.

‘We apologise if we treated you roughly’, the gang leader said.

‘That’s alright. Thank you’, Permadi replied. Then the gang left his house.

After this incident, Permadi felt the situation was increasingly unsafe. The Governor of Bali, Suteja, had already left Bali at President Soekarno’s orders. Permadi heard that another Lekra artist, Raka Suasta, had been put into prison, and others had escaped by going into churches, or had secretly left Bali. The situation in Denpasar was extremely tense. The student from Gayo advised Permadi to go to Java as soon as possible.

‘Go to Java, brother. You need to have travel papers. I know a policeman. I’ll organise it’, he said.

The relationship between Permadi and the student from Gayo (who was also an activist in HMI, the Association of Muslim University Students) was like uncle and nephew. The student would often ask Permadi’s help in doing his assignments, and his lecturer was one of Permadi’s friends from the Association of Indonesian Graduates (HSI, Himpunan Sarjana Indonesia). The student was worried about Permadi’s safety and invited Permadi to go and stay with him while waiting for the travel documents from the police. He lived near the police station where people said to be political prisoners were being held. The student’s room was right next to the prison wall. Through the ventilation hole, Permadi could clearly see the trucks taking the prisoners out of the prison. The truck had two large headlights, and small tail lights. The prisoners were pushed on to the truck where they sat crowded together. Every night between eleven and midnight, trucks full of prisoners would go out escorted by two jeeps in front and a tank behind. No one knew where the prisoners were taken. Some said to Kapal or perhaps other places.

Permadi stayed at the Gayo student’s place for a week. As soon as he had the travel papers in his hands, he left Denpasar. He did not have much money, but gave his clothes, some jackets and a few other things to the Gayo student. The student gave Permadi some money for the trip. At four in the morning, the student took Permadi to the bus station by bicycle. They said their goodbyes and Permadi got on the bus.

On the way out of Denpasar, Permadi pretended to sleep so he could cover his face. He saw many terrifying scenes as the bus went through Tabanan, Gilimanuk and Banyuwangi. There were mobs yelling, fires here and there, piles of corpses, and even bodies hanging beside the road. Before all this tumult in Bali, Permadi had thought that this island was truly heaven on earth. Peaceful, calm, its people gentle and friendly and accepting of newcomers with open arms. How different now were the expressions on the faces of the people he saw surrounding the houses, or those on the roadside chasing and killing their own people, fellow Balinese.

At the Surabaya railway station, the train for Jakarta was about to leave. Permadi ran and jumped into the carriage just in time. He bought a ticket on the train. He remembers that it was 13 December 1965, and Soeharto had just revalued the rupiah (1000 rupiah became 1 rupiah).

When he got to Jakarta, Permadi went to stay with a relative. Unlike Bali, the situation in Jakarta at the end of 1965 was safe and quiet, there were no arrests. Permadi started painting again to earn money. Then there was a ban on the publishing or sale of any works by Lekra artists. Books and paintings were burnt. Luckily, Permadi was still on good terms with gallery owners like Adi Prana, so he could store his paintings there and get some money. Now he did a different technique, using a brush for painting and no longer the palette knife. He was no longer painting with his former idealism. His paintings were now done to order, with commercial themes according to the market.

But it was difficult to keep calm. Permadi was sure that at a certain time, sure enough something would happen. More than two years after the events of December 1965 in Denpasar, news went around of arrests of people accused of being involved with the September 1965 incident. These included people accused of being involved with the Communist Party and organisations affiliated with the Communist Party, or just people who had attended Communist Party activities and events, or people of Chinese descent. They were being arrested at home, on the streets and at their place of work. Those already arrested were being forced to mention names of friends or relatives who were often with them and at the same activities. At the very least, they had to give three or four names, the more the better.

It was in mid-1968, at midnight. A group of people in black jackets surrounded Permadi’s house. They were called ‘Kalong’ (bats). One of them shouted outside the house.

‘Permadi! Permadi!’ Permadi came outside. ‘Excuse me, are you Permadi?’ asked the bat.

‘Yes I am’, Permadi answered calmly. He knew he was going to be ‘taken’. The day before, someone he had once known from Kramat 81, the Central Committee of the Communist Party, had been spying on him. Permadi had seen him drinking coffee at the market near his house. Permadi knew he had come there to point out where Permadi lived.

The bat came up. ‘You must come along with us. This is for interrogation purposes.’

‘Alright’, Permadi said. Then he got his clothes together. Unfortunately, Permadi’s nephew who had just graduated from high school and recently arrived from Aceh was also taken.

When they got to the District Military Command (Kodim), Permadi and his nephew were interrogated. Luckily, Permadi’s nephew was released a month later because he knew nothing at all about the events of 1965.

The interrogators used all kinds of methods to make the prisoners admit to involvement with the 1965 incident, or to admit to being Communist Party members. The prisoners were abused, hit, kicked, struck with barbed whips, and given electric shocks. When they could not come up with names of friends, they would be tortured some more. Permadi remembered a particularly cruel interrogator, a young man from a youth organisation, who interrogated him and forced him to give addresses of Lekra people he knew. The interrogator would mention many names of Lekra artists, but Permadi could not say where they were.

‘How would I know? I have been living in Yogya and Bali. I know the names of friends in Jakarta, but I have no idea where they are! He was almost given electric shocks.

Permadi was more fortunate than many of his friends. He only suffered blows. His friend Martian had to crawl on his hands and knees out of the interrogation room, his leg crushed because he did not want to admit that he knew Permadi. Permadi himself managed to avoid ‘dragging’ his friends to prison, because many of them and the Lekra painters had already died in Bali, or he had no idea where they were or what their situation was now. Permadi was held for a few months at the District Regional Command in Jakarta, the headquarters of the ‘Operation Kalong’. Then he was moved to Salemba prison. He was held there for two years along with thousands of other detainees without any court process whatsoever.

There was one occasion when Permadi was summoned by the Commander of Salemba Prison, Sanigonjo. He was accused of being an escapee from a communist-affiliated organisation in Bali. They had the idea that the Communist Party and its affiliated organisations had all been ‘pulled out by the roots’ in Bali, so they were surprised to find that Permadi, a high ranking Lekra official there, had escaped. Permadi himself thought the same thing – to this day he is thankful that he managed to escape what happened in Bali.

‘This is him. Permadi’, Sanigonjo’s staff said.

Then Sanigonjo himself questioned Permadi about why and how he had left Bali.

‘I am not an escapee’, Permadi said. ‘I could not live in Bali. Back then, Bali was chaotic, there were no tourists, and I couldn’t live. Who could I ask for money to buy food? So I went to Jakarta. Things were clear there, because I had travel papers.’

Permadi was soon returned to his cell.

In 1971, some of the prisoners were taken to Buru Island and others to Tangerang prison. Permadi was one of the thousands taken by boat to Buru. Before they were transported there, every prisoner was given a shirt and trousers clearly marked with their prison number, and a coolie hat made of palm leaf. The boat left from Tanjung Priok harbour in Jakarta and arrived in Namlea about eight days later. The official name of Buru island at that time was ‘Buru Humanitarian and Location Utilisation Project’ (Proyek Kemanusiaan Tefaat Buru). It was intended as a place to prepare and ‘resocialise’ the political prisoners before they returned to society after their period of detention. The other name was Badan Pelaksana Rehabilitasi Pulau Buru (Body for the Administration of Buru Resettlement and Rehabilitation), known by the acronym Bapreru. But the more familiar name was ‘Inrehab’, which was short for Instalasi Rehabilitasi (Rehabilitation Installation). Obviously the name had no relation to rehabilitation. Upon release, political prisoners had to have the symbol ‘ET’ for ‘former political prisoner’ stamped on their identity cards. This continued until the Minister for Security, Soesilo Soedarman, rescinded the regulation on 18 August 1995. Even then, the rescinding order was not applied evenly over Indonesia.

Soeharto copied the colonial and fascist model for the ‘Rehabilitation Installations’. Just as in Dutch colonial times and during the Japanese occupation, the people considered enemies to be defeated, had their freedom taken away, were sent mad, or died in exile. The total number of prisoners taken to Buru was about 13,500, over a few stages.

The island of Buru is about 9,500 square kilometres in area, or about one and a half times the island of Bali. Its capital is Namlea. At that time, Buru was still part of the regency of Central Maluku. The prison camp at Buru was made up of 21 units, with each unit containing at least 500 prisoners. Each unit comprised barracks that were surrounded by barbed wire and closely guarded by young soldiers. The young soldiers were brought in from the Maluku area. The units were separated from each other by a distance of a few kilometres, with long grass, rivers or wild jungle.

The basic principle of the camp was that every prisoner had to be self-sufficient. Prisoners were given hoes, machetes, seeds and some basic crops, dried salted fish, sugar and rice. They were supposed to produce their own food in three months. So they had to clear the land for rice paddies and fields. The guards monitored their hours of work, waking and sleeping. In the initial stages when clearing the land, the prisoners worked themselves to the bone, from early morning until night. The guards in the barracks had fierce expressions, quite in contrast to their young years. Most of them were only in their teens or early twenties. But they had no problems hitting prisoners they saw chatting during work hours.

This cruelty was particularly true of the early period of detention on Buru. Prisoners were automatically denied books, paper and writing implements. They had to work, farm, plant and raise animals, and were not permitted to pursue any former occupation. Each unit also had spiritual advisors, including Muslim, Protestant and Catholic, to watch over the spiritual and psychological state of the prisoners. While Permadi was in Buru, he was in unit 12, barracks number 2, together with about 50 others. He was not shocked to see the jungles of Buru. He could remember the jungles of the interior of Aceh when he was young, which were as dense as this. Some things that other prisoners found difficult were relatively easy for him. He was used to hoeing, sawing wood and cutting through the undergrowth with a machete.

Because the prisoners felt they were sharing the same fate, a sense of solidarity was built between them, not only between inmates of one unit but between neighbouring units. Often prisoners planting cassava, bananas and peanuts would walk through his unit’s work area. This was to make work easier for them, and so they could get some food from the existing crops. Permadi recalled:

It was as though we had our own unspoken vow to watch out for ourselves, to watch out and help our friends, and to do as much as we could to keep alive. If we had to plant bananas, cassava and coffee, we could plant as much as we could wherever we could. The important thing was to eat. We could often plant beyond another unit. But then our friends from another unit would sometimes carry water in kettles, and hide it under the plants. When we went past we would see a glass on top of the kettle. Someone might boil up cassava and leave it beside the path. We would understand that these things had been left on purpose for us to eat and drink. But we had to keep it hidden from the soldiers. If they found out, they would beat us … There was strong solidarity between friends. And everyone was certain that there would come a time when we would return [leave Buru].

The parish in Namlea helped a lot by supplying medicine. Often Permadi and some other prisoners were sent as a company to pick up army supplies or sacks of rice in Namlea, and then had to carry them on their shoulders along the paths through the jungle. In Namlea, people in the Presbytery would ask whether any of the prisoners were sick and needed medicine. This was Permadi’s opportunity to get medicine for friends who were ill.

Unlike the solidarity between the inmates or the sympathy of the church people, the army often abused its powers over the prisoners. Often the unit commanders or the camp commanders going home to Java on leave would demand ‘gifts’. Sometimes they would ask the prisoners to get them endangered birds, or a few sacks of their produce, or they would ask the prisoners to saw a few cubic meters of wood to take. There were many opportunities for self-enrichment, and it was accepted practice for the unit commanders to ask prisoners in their units to go into the jungle, fell some trees, then float the logs to Namlea down the Wai Apu River. In Namlea there was a thriving black market dealing in stolen goods. The proceeds went to the camp bosses of course.

In April 1976, Permadi and some other prisoners were moved from the unit to the Camp Command (Mako). There they were placed in one barracks. There was a special barracks for graduates, doctors, and artists. Permadi was put in a barracks with about 20 other people including the Lekra writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the actor and director Basuki Effendi, the painters J. Gultom and Isa Hasanda, and the sculptor Supeno. The camp commander relieved these prisoners from farming duties, and allowed them to pursue their different crafts. These political prisoners got special treatment and were like shop window displays. Indonesia, which was in the process of ‘trying’ thousands of political prisoners in this Buru ‘rehabilitation’ camp, invited international journalists and organisations like the International Red Cross and Amnesty International to visit. The prisoners were out clearing the jungle or hoeing the fields, bathed in sweat, but the visitors were treated to scenes of political prisoners free to write creatively, paint and sculpt, so that it appeared as though the camp was a true humanitarian project that did not inhibit the freedom its prisoners to create.

From the time he moved, Permadi began to pursue painting again, after five years of being prevented from touching anything to do with art. He and six other painters were given painting equipment. Their paintings were often exhibited when journalists, organisations or international bodies visited. It was a simple gallery. Permadi often got orders from the camp officials for paintings. Once the Camp Commander asked him to make a painting of the seven nymphs (from the Jaka Tarub legend), but wearing bikinis rather than their usual nymph robes. Who knows what was in the Commander’s head, but this was certainly not the only time Permadi got rather ‘strange’ requests. In the same camp, Pramoedya Ananta Toer produced his writings like Nyanyian Sunyi Seorang Bisu (Mute’s Soliloquy) and the Buru tetralogy. Pramoedya was even given his own room to make it easier for him to write. Or maybe this was the way the Camp Commander could keep close watch over Pram’s work.

Permadi was also often interviewed during these visits. As best he could, in his English, he would translate the answers by the other painters to questions. At these times, Pramoedya Ananta Toer was always separated. Unlike Permadi and other political prisoners, who would always give the ‘right’ answers, Pram would always explode in protest at the injustice of his situation and that of the other prisoners.

‘How can anyone live here! This is not a place for farming! This is jungle!’ Pram would say.

There was one occasion when Permadi was brought to face the Camp Commander and almost put into a cell. The Red Cross had interviewed Permadi, and Permadi was accused of saying in the interview that the Camp Commander was exploiting the artists. Luckily, at that time there was an American-born doctor working there. He explained to the Commander that he had been present when Permadi was interviewed. And the doctor knew exactly what Permadi had said. So the slander was proven wrong, and Permadi escaped punishment.

It was difficult to keep one’s sanity as a detainee on Buru Island. Thousands of political prisoners were not as fortunate as Permadi or Pramoedya Ananta Toer who had the freedom to create. Being moved to Camp Command and being able to do creative work kept up their intellectual and artistic spirits. But thousands of other prisoners suffered deep depression. Actually, not just the prisoners, but the army and even the high ranking officials were under severe mental tension. The difference was that the army had many ways to escape these tensions. Many of them had girlfriends or ‘second wives’ in Namlea.

There were a few soldiers and officials who were kind to the prisoners. Towards the end of the rehabilitation camp, there was a nice Camp Commander who brought a small television to the Camp Command, having first got approval from headquarters, and not long after that, every unit had a small television. The prisoners were also permitted to watch simple performances like dangdut music or traditional drama (wayang wong) performed by the prisoners themselves with young men playing the female roles. Permadi remembers in particular when there was a Camp Commander who liked to joke, and who was close to the painters.

‘What’s going on, Sir, with our friends here getting beaten up and so on?’ Permadi protested to him.

‘Well, don’t become a political prisoner then,’ the Commander joked, ‘that’s usually what happens to them …’

Permadi was in the Buru Rehabilitation camp for nine years in all. He was repatriated to Java in 1980, which was the last year of the releases from Buru. When he got to Jakarta, he went to the house of a relative. As a former political prisoner, he had to report every few days to the authorities. Permadi began to re-establish his life the only way he could, namely by painting. He went to the galleries where he had exhibited his paintings before he was arrested. He went to Adi Prana’s place, in Bargas. He had earned a small amount of money from paintings that had been sold while he was in prison, but the money now, a decade later, was worth virtually nothing. Permadi went to collect the money, anyway, as it was his right. He recalled this time of collecting money, bit by bit:

The gallery owner did not give me cash, he told me to get the money at the bank. I once went to Manhattan Bank, another time to Bank America. I would be picking up just 25,000 rupiah [approximately $10 in 1980, trs.] or 50,000 rupiah [$20] and for this I had to show my identity card or other documents. Sometimes people in the bank laughed at me, coming to collect such a tiny sum. But I went and collected every single bit. And then I started painting again.

Permadi worked hard, painting once more. It was like when he first went to Bali, before he was arrested, he painted to order. Adi Prana, a gallery owner and architect, often came to Permadi’s house to show him photos of houses, so that Permadi could make pictures on predetermined themes and in certain colours.

‘Could you make a painting of people harvesting rice? The room for it is green like this … so the rice fields must blend in’, Adi Prana would request.

Permadi knew all about the market. The market wanted commercial paintings. This was far from the ideology of realistic art that he had followed. Now the yellow rice fields at harvest time were made green because that was what the buyer ordered.

In 1982, while still in Jakarta, Permadi met Siti Bendara, the woman who later became his wife. By now, his mother and his friends were urging him to marry. Siti Bendara’s family knew Permadi’s story and his status as a former political prisoner. Soon after, Permadi married Siti Bendara.

A year later, in 1983, Permadi bought some land in the area of Jagakarsa in South Jakarta and built a house where he lives to this day. He continued to paint on commission for galleries. He was often criticised by his artist friends, ‘Adi Prana is using you. You are being exploited!’ But he didn’t pay much notice. Permadi sees that God has given him a second chance at life after he escaped death in Bali. So after his imprisonment, he is prepared to do anything at all. To remain faithful to his calling as a painter, Permadi had to adapt to the commercial market and make paintings that people like and will buy. He is no longer as idealistic as he used to be with his palette knife. It was enough for him and his wife to live without depending on others.

Over the last decade, Permadi has been in exhibitions with other Lekra artists, and has had single-man shows. His paintings have sold well, and he has become more well-known. So now he does not need to sell his paintings through Adi Prana. Buyers come to his house which doubles as his gallery.

His former artist friends from prison days sometimes come to his house, just to visit, check on the news, and tell stories. Many of Permadi’s friends are not as lucky as he is. Some of them are no longer able to work because they are still haunted by feelings of wrong-doing, or from fear and terror of the past. Permadi, though, has been able to rediscover art as his life’s path. Permadi and Siti Bendara did not have any children. Permadi’s wife had three miscarriages. Permadi’s friends used to say, ‘ah, you need to take another wife’. But Permadi saw this as his destiny. It is his destiny not to have children.

He once went back to Takengon in Aceh, to meet his relatives still living there and to reminisce about his childhood. He settled matters to do with his inheritance from his parents. As he has no descendants himself, he gave his land to another family to be shared in a fair way.

Permadi lost his wife Siti Bendara in May 2008 after she had been treated in the Cipto Mangunkusumo hospital. Many of his Lekra colleagues came to pay their last respects. Permadi remembers that [the actress and TV presenter, trs.] Rieke Dyah Pitaloka came to the hospital. She wept and embraced Permadi. Not long after this she bought one of his paintings for 15 million rupiah (approx. USD 1500) to help him out as he had many costs to meet.

*   *   *   *

Permadi’s status as a former political prisoner has not isolated him from society. His neighbours call him with the affectionate Gayo title ‘Awan’, meaning ‘grandfather’. Probably many people are totally unaware of Permadi’s status, but the local authorities know it of course. However, they treat him no differently to other people. They often ask him to talk about his experiences, especially when he was in Bali and on Buru Island.

Permadi now lives alone. His grand nephews and nieces live nearby and visit every day to help out with the housework, cook, chat and watch television. His nephews and nieces and their children, and his close Lekra friends often help him out and bring him things. He has not painted now for the past two years. After the death of his wife, his paintings no longer sold, he himself has no idea why, for when his wife was still alive many people used to come to his house to buy paintings directly from him.

‘Does he miss painting?’

Permadi answered,

Right now, I do have some desire to paint a bit, but I am waiting until this urge matures. It won’t be tomorrow. I am tired. I don’t have the strength. I find it difficult just to get my body to move. It’s my health problems these days.

*   *   *   *

Permadi Liosta considers everything he has experienced as part of the story of his life. He accepts all of his past. He does not have any regret for choosing to love art. This love brought him a wealth of experiences. Once he wanted to travel the world. Having been to Europe and China, he wanted to see America. But this did not happen because the political situation led him into prison and to be exiled on Buru Island. He is not vocal like his friends in demanding justice and rehabilitation. To him, it is enough to spend his old age in peace, every now and then remembering his past and laughing about it, and telling his experiences for the study of art, culture and history.

Interviewers and transcribers: Amangku Bhumi, Puti Yassmina.

Writer: Amangku Bhumi.

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