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Truth Will Out: Indonesian Accounts of the 1965 Mass Violence

Let’s leave the gloomy picture of our nation at that

Agatha Sumarni (not her real name) comes from Yogyakarta, Indonesia. After she graduated from the high school for teacher training (SPG, Sekolah Pendidikan Guru) she went on to the state tertiary teacher’s training college (IKIP, Institut Keguruan dan Ilmu Pendidikan) in Yogyakarta. Off campus she was active in various youth activities like IPPI (League of Indonesian Youth and Students) and PMKRI (Indonesian Catholic Students Association).

Sumarni is one of the figures in the documentary ‘Perempuan Yang Tertuduh’ (Accused Women) by Putu Oka Sukanta. In this film she speaks plainly about many things she experienced. She then analyses and interprets her experiences, in order to present some hope from her bitter experience as a victim of the injustice of her nation.

Before the 1965 tragedy happened, I was a member of IPPI (Ikatan Pemuda Pelajar Indonesia, the League of Indonesian Youth and Students) a youth organization in Indonesia in President Sukarno’s time. After I finished high school (a high school for future teachers), I continued my studies at the Teachers’ College (IKIP) in Yogyakarta. As an extracurricular activity I joined PMKRI (Perhimpunan Mahasiswa Katolik Republik Indonesia, the Indonesian Catholic Students’ Association). In December 1965 I was forcibly arrested and taken to the Cebongan military camp in Yogyakarta. I was detained there for about four months, accused of being a member of Gerwani, the Indonesian Women’s Movement. They said that every Gerwani member had a tattoo on their thighs. But it turned out that their accusation against me was without proof. I was released. I was even given an official certificate of release.

You can only dream

After I was released, I returned to my studies and looked for work. Thanks to God, I was accepted as a primary school teacher. At the time I felt happy because no matter how exhausted I was I still managed to divide my time between study and work. This was possible, among other things, because of the understanding and mutual help of my teaching colleagues and fellow students. They generously helped me. If there was a conflict in my teaching and lecture schedules, they helped me find a way around it.

But, there you go, after just on two years, suddenly all this changed. In 1968 I was yet again forcibly taken away. I was picked up at around 2 in the morning at the place where I boarded. I felt shocked and confused of course. They asked me about someone I did not know. Because I said I did not know, and I truly did not know, they tortured me. Strangely, the reason they gave for arresting me this time was precisely because of that official certificate of release when I had been wrongly arrested the first time.

I was beaten and stripped naked. My pubic hair and the hair on my head were burnt. All I could do was scream and call upon the name of God. Then I was taken to the Military Police Corps. There I was put in a cell. I was handcuffed. I was together with male detainees who were there before me. Every time they interrogated me they always had some new people for me to see. They always asked me whether I knew those people or not. Of course I said I didn’t because indeed I did not know them.

How could I have known them, when I knew nothing at all about political movements, let alone what they called ‘political guerillas’. Back then, just teaching, studying and caring for my younger brothers and sisters was difficult enough. How could I have been involved in political activities? Particularly when back then I had to send food to my father, because my father had been detained. All these activities truly utterly exhausted me.

I was often interrogated and often stripped naked. I was once made to sit in the lap of a male political prisoner. While naked, I was held and ordered to kiss the penises of all the officers interrogating me. Then I was stripped naked to be trampled on and my head shaved. I often passed out. Suddenly I would find myself back in the cell. For eight months I was traumatized. Even so, because of the advice and healing of the other female political prisoners, I survived.

I learned that this was the fate of a political prisoner. It was only by the grace of God that I got the strength to go through this incredibly cruel and inhumane life. Even though the people acting with this inhumane cruelty were the same ones bragging about being ‘Pancasila’ist, or religious, or moral people. But truly, were they really upholding moral and religious values? If so, then why were these officials so morally perverted? Why did they hunger and thirst so for the blood of innocent people? I find it difficult to understand why my own people can be like this.

I used to feel proud of the nation of Indonesia and my fellow countrymen as harmonious, peaceful, and loving liberty. Because I was born during the time of our revolutionary fight for independence, planted deep within me was the sense of defending the nation. I was a strong admirer of Sukarno who always urged the youth; ‘Become cadres of the nation!’ ‘Don’t be soya-bean cake youth!’ Hold up your ideals as high as the sky!’ or ‘In your hands lies the glory of your country that is gemah ripah loh jinawi subur kang sarwo tinandur, murah kang sarwo tinuku!’69

Back then our nation never went cap-in-hand. We were a nation that stood on our own two feet, we were against colonialism and against all forms of exploitation, whether that be exploitatation by capitalists, imperialists, or neocolonialists and their cronies.

It is such a shame that those ideals are now just historical mementoes. And a history that has been misdirected, at that. Meanwhile my nation has gone backwards in so many respects. Independence has become so distant from the life of ordinary people. Probably the authorities can still talk about what independence is. But ordinary people like me can only dream. And probably dreams of independence will be realized in this land of ours only if I live another hundred years.

Want to laugh

When I was a political prisoner, I was moved five times. In 1971 I was moved to Semarang, Central Java. Not long after that I was moved to Plantungan prison, not far from Semarang.70 I was detained there for a year. From Plantungan I was moved once more, to Bulu prison in Semarang. Like Plantungan, this was a prison specially for women. There were 44 others who were moved with me from Plantungan to Bulu prison. According to the authorities, the reason for the move was because all 45 of us ‘were beyond hope of improvement’.

Speaking of ‘improvement’, actually who was it who needed to improve others and who needed to be improved, when the military officers there had illicit sex so there were many fatherless babies born in Plantungan. It’s true that at Plantungan there weren’t any forced examinations using violence or physical torture, but that does not mean that there were not offences in the form of psychological ones. For instance, we had to admit to something we had never done. Or for their sake we would testify about things we had never actually seen. So it is fitting for Plantungan to be called the ‘Buru island’ of female political prisoners. Is there any prison that makes prisoners feel calm, comfortable, and peaceful? Maybe only in soap operas on TV.

Bulu prison in Semarang was a women’s prison and most of the guards were women. This had its positive side, of course. There was no more rape by male military personnel, and we heaved a sigh of relief. We were free of the fear of getting pregnant. But there was one thing that was still obligatory in Bulu prison, and that was ‘Santiaji’. This was the name for the indoctrination sessions. We had to listen to lectures that were varied and creative, but the basic message was a kind of exhortation to ‘repent our lives as rebels, prostitutes, atheists and home destroyers.’ When we listened to this kind of message we thought it funny, and really wanted to laugh out loud. But how could we possibly laugh? The most we could do was inwardly laugh. That’s the authorities for you! All they could do was talk. And they didn’t even have to pay to talk about this stuff. They actually got paid for it!

Stirrings of freedom

Fortunately, at one time there was a team from Amnesty International. Most members of the team asked questions in foreign languages. And the women who spoke foreign languages were allowed to answer in those languages. Some spoke German, some Dutch, English, French and so forth. Among the political prisoners there were some who spoke Japanese and Russian. But not a single prison officer spoke a foreign language. So they didn’t know that we were telling that Amnesty International team all the secrets about how the officers had treated us in Plantungan prison. We said that all the prisoners, from the old to the young, had received their share of suffering.

As a result of our talks with the team, it became known that we had suffered inhumane treatment. In the eyes of the authorities it was as though we were worse than rubbish that can be recycled or turned into fertiliser once it has gone bad. We were seen as a sickness that kills, that spreads like a virus which is extremely dangerous to the nation. The reason we were treated like this is that these women were accused of being ‘communist’. Even though we had no idea how we could be declared communist, considering the majority of us had no idea at all of the ‘A-B-C’ of politics.

We were accused of being communist, but none of us, at least certainly not me, had ever read Karl Marx. But [President] Soeharto had succeeded brilliantly in sticking in his tiger claws and brainwashing Indonesia, so that Indonesia became a fearful nation, a begging nation, cowardly, hypocritical and without dignity. Basically, do anything you want as long as Bapak is happy. Soeharto was afraid that the people would become clever, intelligent and critical. Why – because if the people became clever, intelligent and critical, not to mention brave, well that would be dangerous for the power he was building. Not long after the visit by the Amnesty International team, the female political prisoners started to be released. I was released on 27 September 1978.

Admitting a mistake

After I was released, I married and had two children. The eldest is a girl and the youngest a boy. I lived my life as befits a former political prisoner with challenging social conditions. How else could it be? I had to bear that stigma that is so dark, so tightly ingrained in people’s thinking, namely the stigma as an ex-political prisoner.

That is my life. I have to live in social conditions that structurally give no space to former political prisoners. Even so, I have to remain optimistic. God is all loving to every one of His creatures. That is why I will be given solutions in whatever situation.

Now there is no need in crying over my life. Now is not the time to sit twiddling my thumbs, but to work and work. I began by opening a stall using as capital money from all the jewellery my younger sisters had given me. I even used my wedding ring. And through God’s grace my business was successful and my husband’s too. Whatever I do, it is in order to retrieve life.

I have been preparing my children from early on. I have taught them how to face life. I sell cakes and fried food. Once I got enough capital, I began to take orders for traditional medicine. Besides selling basic necessities at my stall, I tried out selling kerosene. I do various things at once while also teaching my children, who are still relatively young, not to be afraid of hard work. I teach them that hard work is what pays for their education. I pay them, and with that payment I make them take English lessons so that they will not end up stupid like their parents.

There are various comments from the neighbours. I am said to be pushy, not caring enough of my children, and so on. But who gives a damn.

Luckily, my children are aware of their position as coming from a family of ex political prisoners. They have to fight for their future. To them, all work is noble before God. They are not ashamed to be little delivery-boys carrying kerosene, sugar and so on, to help their parents.

Of course I have had to keep my nose to the grindstone night and day to get this far. It might be rain, lightning or whatever, but the kerosene deliveries still have to be made. Through the grace of God everything has gone smoothly. I remember the saying; after rain comes the sunshine. Everything used to be so hard, but now it all goes well.

So, now that my children are beginning to have their own lives, I have begun to think, why should I remain silent. I have begun to think about those people whose fate was like mine, those people who were cast aside as I was. I decided to start talking about the lies that have led this country down the wrong path. I want to do this so that the evil done by my people to their own people will not happen again in times to come.

That’s enough of the dark picture of Indonesians and beloved Indonesia in times past. I want to see this beloved earth peaceful and prosperous, where law is upheld and justice is real. I want to see all the children of this nation become clever and dignified. I am aware that this is not easy to bring about, but I see it as a necessity.

The screams of the enshackled are always shrill to the ear. The stand I take and my wishes inspire both pro and contra responses, but I see this as something normal. Difference is necessary. Everything needs time, and doesn’t have to be forced. Let the water keep flowing.

Now, realistically and honestly, my nation does not want to admit that it once made a mistake. And even less think about apologizing and restoring to the victims their rights that were seized for decades. The authorities will never renounce their arrogance. Particularly voluntarily. Only Jesus can humble and sacrifice Himself for sinners. But that was Jesus, God. The nation’s leaders and government officials are people who are weak and easily enslaved by devils who declare their presence with greed and rapaciousness.

Keep on hoping

I hope the international community can lessen the burden of the victims of the 1965 tragedy in Indonesia both financially and spiritually. Those of us now over 60 need financial help. So what if people see me as someone out there begging. I am not ashamed on behalf of my brothers and sisters whose lives have been made a misery by the leaders of this country.

And so, with their children and grandchildren they need help in finding work and education. If later on the conditions and situation of this nation improve, and we experience humane treatment, then everyone will know that we have been made human once more. We all search for nothing other than good deeds and devotion as provisions for the eternal life to come. This is advice of the ulama and spiritual leaders, so lofty to the ear but so hard to be put into practice. In our old age, we survivors of the 1965 tragedy never cease hoping and relying on God’s generosity. So please, be the extension of God’s merciful hands.

69 A well-known phrase from Javanese wayang kulit depicting an ideal kingdom, meaning ‘fertile and prosperous, where anything planted grows, and everything is inexpensive.’

70 On the women’s prison in Plantungan in Central Java see dr. Hj. Sumiyarsi Siwirini, Plantungan: Pembuangan Tapol Perempuan (Yogyakarta: PUSdEP dan IHJR, 2010).

Truth Will Out: Indonesian Accounts of the 1965 Mass Violence

   by Dr. Baskara T. Wardaya SJ