Saturday, July 18, 2009


Saturday, 04 July 2009


The night PUTU OKA will never forget


The Jakarta Globe – July 02, 2009

By – Armando Siahaan

Putu Oka Sukanta. (Photo: Armando Siahaan, JG)

Putu Oka Sukanta. (Photo: Armando Siahaan, JG)

Living Memory of The Torture Years

The night of Oct. 21, 1965, was one that Putu Oka Sukanta will never forget. After returning from a movie theater in Pasar Minggu, South Jakarta, a group of men in military uniforms stormed into his residence and arrested him.

“There was no letter of arrest shown and no explanation whatsoever,” said Putu Oka, sitting in the living room of his house.

He spent the next 10 years behind bars with no idea of how long he would be there.

“I wasn’t sure when I could go home,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what would happen to me.”

The years 1965 and ’66 were tumultuous ones in Indonesian history. Three weeks prior to Putu Oka’s arrest, a failed coup had been launched, allegedly by the Indonesian Communist Party, in which six high-ranking military officers were killed on a night known as the September 30 Movement. The Indonesian Armed Forces subsequently retaliated with a massive purge of suspected communists.

Putu Oka, a high school teacher and freelance journalist, was a member of the People’s Art Guild, also known as Lekra, a cultural organization affiliated with the Communist Party.

Putu Oka had been dismissed from the school where he was teaching about a week earlier due to his involvement in Lekra, so he suspected he might soon be targeted for arrest.

“It was like being defeated before the war started,” he said, his voice still reflecting his indignation so many years later.

Wearing a cotton polo shirt and brown pants, Putu Oka sat comfortably in his living room during our interview, checking incoming text messages and sipping a cup of tea. Such simple privileges were nonexistent during his long days in prison.

“The prison was overloaded,” he said. “A cell intended for one inmate was occupied by three. We had to sleep so tightly we were just like packed sardines.”

He said the cell he shared was approximately one and a half meters wide and two meters long.

Starvation was also an issue as there were seldom sufficient rations.

“The typical meals included horse food, rice mixed with sand and pieces of tempeh as small as your toe.

“Unless you had family members or relatives that brought you food,” he said, “you could die in six months.”

Putu Oka’s family lived in Bali, where he was born on July 21, 1939. Concerned for their safety, he didn’t even inform them that he had been arrested.

“[The Army] could’ve harmed my family,” he said.

The only person close to Putu Oka at the time was the woman he was engaged to marry. After she had visited him in prison a number of times, he told her to flee the country for her own safety. “It was only because I loved her,” he said.

She eventually met and married someone else in Germany.

Although he was beaten repeatedly in prison, Putu Oka said he never experienced any of the more extreme torture he witnessed or was told about by others.

“Some were beaten, some had their toes crushed with the feet of tables and some were electrocuted.

“The women prisoners had bottles shoved up their vaginas, and some were forced to have sex with fellow women prisoners [while guards watched].”

Equally as painful as the physical abuse was the intellectual restraint placed upon him.

“Prisoners were not allowed to write and read anything,” he said. “I had to keep my creativity orally. I still wrote fiction and poetry in my mind.”

After a decade of imprisonment, Putu Oka was released in 1976 because of illness. “I had respiratory problems,” he explained.

On the day of his release, he was forced to sign a document stating that he would not take any legal action against the government for what had happened to him in prison.

He was, of course, happy to be released, but new challenges awaited him.

“Immediately I had to find a place to live and food to eat,” he said, ”which meant I had to find a job.”

Looking for a job while bearing the stigma of a communist past was extremely difficult, as newspapers of the time were constantly reminding their readers of the dangers of communism.

“[Employers] would ask about your background. I never lied. If they wanted me, good. If not, that was fine.”

A Ministry of Domestic Affairs regulation in 1981 further legitimized the stigma against communists, and ex-political prisoners had their identification cards marked with the letters “ET” for eks tahanan politik (former political prisoner) , and had to report to authorities monthly.

“If you had the ET mark, your civil rights practically died,” Putu Oka said. “You couldn’t be a teacher, a civil servant or a military officer. You couldn’t vote during elections.”

Fortunately for him, when he moved from Tangerang to Jakarta in 1977, his identification somehow missed being marked with the “ET” designation.

To earn his living, Putu Oka eventually pursued a career in acupuncture. He learned the traditional form during his time behind bars from Dr. Lie Tjwan Sin, one of his former cellmates.

“[While in prison] I helped people who had skin, mental, nerve, respiratory and digestive problems,” he said, adding that the health care provided by the prison was abysmal.

Putu Oka opened an acupuncture clinic in his house in East Jakarta, which still runs today, and with other traditional doctors established the Foundation for Indonesian Traditional Healing Methods in 1980. The foundation focuses on providing traditional medicine courses and health development programs.

“My social commitment was high,” he said. “I’ve never lived just for myself. There are so many unfortunate people who don’t have access to a better life.”

Putu Oka also revived his passion for the literary world. He submitted some short stories to major publications, “but I was banned from doing it again after the newspapers discovered my background.”

He found the answer to his predicament in foreign cultural organizations, where he became involved in fiction writing and poetry readings, and had a number of works published through alternative publishing companies.

“I refused to label my work as leftist,” he said. “I prefer to call it literature for the people. I write political and social fiction.”

Putu Oka won the prestigious Kalpataru award in 1982, and received much media attention nationally. Following his win, he said, the Ministry of Information issued a regulation saying that any recipient of a government-held award must be able to prove that he or she did not have a communist background.

In 1990, Putu Oka was once again arrested and tortured by the Army, on accusations that his literary and medical activities were “sponsored by an underground communist group.”

Accusing him of trying to revive communism, the government again added the “ET” mark to his identification card and he was put under intensive scrutiny by government intelligence.

Putu Oka said he continued producing his more political writings in secret. But it was his persistence in the health sector that bore the most fruitful results. More than 10 health-related books have been published under his name and the Health Ministry eventually employed him to promote traditional medicine in Indonesia.

“My achievements in the health sector were recognized by the government.”

In May 1998, when Suharto abdicated from his position as president of Indonesia, Putu Oka felt a deep sense of relief.

“I took part in the fight against Suharto,” he said with pride. “It was a result of a struggle.”

But the journey toward independence has not ended yet, he said.

“The struggle will never end because it’s not just for me. It’s for others, too.”

In 1999, Putu Oka published a novel that brought him to national prominence. “Merajut Harkat” (“Knitting Dignity”) was the result of 20 years of writing, and is a fictional account of a man who became dehumanized after being imprisoned without knowing why.

He has written more fiction based on the injustices of 1965 and after.

Wanting to give other victims an opportunity to tell their stories, he also began producing documentaries.

“Through films and writing [the victims] get room to say what they wish to have heard, to have read and to have seen by many people, so that the reality of the past is no longer stigmatized and darkened,” he said.

Through his documentaries and writing, he also seeks a greater goal. “The 1965 mass slaughter is a problem that has not been legally resolved,” he said. “It was a gross violation of human rights.

“The government needs to acknowledge their mistakes in the past. This will be a task for me as long as I am still alive.”

His immediate hope: “I want the current generation to be able to see our history in an honest way.

“It is very important so that we can build a future that is more civilized.”

Other Victims Share Their Experiences

“Menyemai Terang Dalam Kelam” (“Sowing the Light in the Dark”), 2005

Putu Oka Sukanta’s first documentary looks at the tragic events of 1965 and ’66 through the testimony of individuals who endured hardships in those years. One witness tells of the fiction the New Order regime put out that Communist women had seduced the murdered generals, and later gouged their eyes out. Another woman talks about how she spent much of her childhood going from one prison to another looking for her father. There are more heart-rending accounts in the documentary that chronicle the wounds inflicted by the cruelties of the time.

“Perempuan Yang Tertuduh” (“The Accused Women”), 2006

One of the most highlighted aspects of the failed coup in 1965 was the role of female Communists in the killing of the six generals. “Perempuan Yang Tertuduh” offers personal accounts of four women who were imprisoned because they were allegedly involved in Gerakan Wanita Indonesia (the Indonesian Women’s Movement), better known as Gerwani, and accused of playing a role in the attempted coup on Sept. 30, 1965.

“Tumbuh Dalam Badai” (“Growing in the Storm”), 2007

“Tumbuh Dalam Badai” focuses on children whose lives were affected by the events of 1965 and ’66. Its five subjects include Wangi Indria, a puppeteer from Indramayu whose father was a suspected Communist who was arrested as a political prisoner, and Nani Nurahman, whose father was one of the military officers killed on Sept. 30, 1965.

The documentary shows how this next generation still struggles with their lives, unable to separate the dark history from their daily lives.

“Seni Ditating Jaman” (“The Art That Will Not Die”), 2008

Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat (People’s Art Guild), better known as Lekra, was linked to the Indonesian Communist Party and banned during the New Order regime. “Seni Ditating Jaman” shows how Lekra continued its activities during the Suharto era. Members either went underground to produce art or did so while in prison. Historians, legal experts, artists and curators are interviewed to add substance and color to the film.

To order DVDs, contact:
Lembaga Kreatifitas Kemanusiaan
Tel. 021 489 1938

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