Indonesia 1965

Echoes of 1965 in 1973-74

I have been trying to think about this question how I felt and what I knew personally in 1973/1974 about the great killings of 1965 and 1966 in Indonesia and more specifically Bali.

These events were not on my agenda then. My agenda was to re-establish contact with Indonesia, its intellectuals and artists, contacts that had been lost on the Dutch side in the process of decolonization. My employment as Director of the Rotterdam Arts Foundation since 1968 gave me some room to mend fences and open gates. As soon as I started Poetry International Rotterdam I made it an issue to have a modern Indonesian poet every year. I chose W. S. Rendra as my first invitee. Later on I would do the same, inviting Indonesian filmmakers, when I started Film International Rotterdam.

My feeling was that the Netherlands had lost much in losing these contacts. The commercial venture into South East Asia by the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie had been limited in its aim: to make profit by trade. But over 350 years it had widened its scope and deeply influenced Dutch life.

Hundreds of thousands of Dutch people carry Indonesian genes. Dutch literature would lose its most inspiring moments, if Indonesia had not been in the background. Since my schooldays I had been convinced that Indonesia would go its own way and that there would be no way little Holland could influence this significantly. My family had no links to colonial times. My vision was purely personal: Indonesia had meant so much in the Dutch narrative and had ceased to speak to us. And this was a deep sense of loss, like for a child the separation of parents.

I felt immediately at home in Indonesia when I arrived in Jakarta. Strangely enough I did not feel specially at home in the remnants of colonial living, the town houses of Menteng or the plantation houses in Sukabumi, though I felt the charm of the old hotels with their inner courtyards and their rooms for morning and evening mandi.

But I felt immediately at home with my new Indonesian friends, like the young student leader Gunawan Mohamad, the feminist poet Toeti Heraty, the dancer Sardono Kusuma and the poet W. S. Rendra. And especially the last one’s theatre family, the Bengkel and that strange galaxy of youngsters, the Urakan, who were dreaming of the pop scene in New York and singing Guantanamera at the same time.

But over this innocence of youth hovered the constant presence of the state. Somehow the state seemed not in love with its intellectuals and artists. It became clear to me that many of the most gifted and generous minds of Indonesia were, so to say, walking a tightrope in public view with the darkness of prison beneath. Every performance of Willie Rendra, both poetical or theatrical, was shadowed with official suspicion.

I personally became aware of this at Parang Tritis, a kind of summer camp for bright and aspiring artists and intellectuals on the dunes south of Jogyakarta. I was there as the personal guest of my Jogyakarta friends in the arts. The discussions held nothing political for me, and moreover, not speaking the language, I was only half able to engage. If anything it reminded me of the jamborees of the boy scouts in Holland. Or those coming-together of Christian Youth.

But one night, as I was sleeping in a tent on mats with some artists from Jakarta I was awakened around midnight by a police patrol. The situation was suddenly tense. It was whispered that I would be arrested and I feigned sleep. Rendra came over from his tent, where he had been staying with his wife. Long talks with the police ensued, flashlights playing over our bodies. There was mention that Rendra and his crowd would have to go to prison for interrogation. But miraculously nothing came of it, the police departing.

It gradually dawned on me that many of the artists I met had memories of a period before which was even less safe. They would talk of two competing lists of intellectuals and artists to be eliminated, one of the communist party and one of the police. If the communist had won, many would have been eliminated, but now that the nationalists had won the state was also wary of many names and activities.

I had expressed to my Javanese friends a desire to live for a few days in a true kampong, a normal Javanese farming village . One of the members of the Bengkel Theatre accompanied me there, but basically I was alone. It was strange to live in this dark unlighted house of a farmer, who looked the proverbial peasant with a noble face battered by the sun of the sawah, like sculptured in wood. But we somehow managed a strange relationship with very little in common and at the same time mutual benevolence. We talked about farming and his family, the usual things. But one night, helped by the translator, we happened on the events of 1965. He, a man of around forty, told me the villagers had been summoned by the beating of the kungklung (?), the village drum. The men had gone there. They had heard that the communist party had tried to take over the government, but failed, and that they should arrest all suspicious people as traitors. Which they had done.

I myself had my war memories and I stored this grim tale along with them.

I went to see the work of “Dancer of Asia” Sardono in the village of Teges in Bali. But perhaps this was not during the first visit but the second time. Anyway I had the feeling that the cultural heart of Indonesia was beating in Bali and I went there by bus in 1974. I was not aware the killings had had such an impact on the island. But also here, like the police patrol in Parang Tritis, and the rounding up of traitors in an anonymous village on Java, the happenings of 1965 seemed inescapable.

As a European I was of course interested to see what remained of the influence of Walter Spies and Rudolf Bonnet in modern Balinese art and dance. I also wanted to see what the great new painter Affandi had produced on the island.

I do not remember who exactly told me to visit an old Balinese painter in his studio. It was one of ten or twenty such visits and I am not sure of his name anymore. Perhaps it was K’Tengeh? Above all I remember his work as being truly intimate to the life of the Balinese compound. The women working with bare breasts, the toddlers naked. The artist struck me as sad and humble, sitting among heaps of paintings and drawings, mostly in black. I asked him if he exhibited. He said he never left his house. Afterwards, I asked my companion what that meant. He told me the painter had become afraid of going out during the events of the sixties, when he was considered to be a communist. He was hiding. This was another signal.

When confronted with the abovementioned small tidbits of information in 1974 I had yet no idea of the scope and the nature of what had happened in the sixties. In the following I give an outline of my interpretation of the impact of the mass-murders on Indonesian cultural development in a wider perspective.

Enlightenment and geopolitics

When I first came to Indonesia the trauma of the mass-killings was not even ten years old.

When in Bali early in 1974, living in a small lodging-house (losmen) I heard from a waiter about the “communists” still being kept in the local prison. On my questions (to the waiter), to my surprise I got some answers, or rather echoes, from the prisoners themselves. A family member of the boy was a warden at the prison. What I wondered about in the privacy of my room would soon be discussed inside the cells.

I did not take all this so seriously, as I should have. But it touched me that the main demand from the prisoners was for reading materials. As the waiter did not dare use his family connection to deliver books to the prisoners, I was advised to throw them over an outside wall. When I had finished reading a book I would throw it over the wall at an indicated spot. Somewhat later to my surprise the grapevine responded with a thank you.

The one indication I should not have missed escaped me then, that the internees were not uneducated. Their priority was books. Later I would meet with Pramudya Ananta Toer, perhaps the most important novelist of his generation, just after he was released from such a prison. We met at the Dewan Kesenian, the Arts Council of Jakarta. Also present was Sitor Situmorang. I think both had just returned from their deportation to the island of Buru.

In Java I met several people who told me they were on a list of proscribed journalists, writers, educators, artists. They were in a quiet way running for their lives. Sheltering with their family and friends, not leaving their houses. Rendra, the outspoken poet, was not among them. He was only spared prison, if not always, because of being married into the court (kraton) of Jogyakarta.

Still I saw this onslaught through my European experiences. I ascribed it to the intolerance of dictatorships towards criticism. I had met with Russian dissidents in Venice and earlier still with refugees from Franco’s Spain. I had read that the Spanish civil war of the thirties had eliminated 2 million people.

So I did not see the killing of about 80.000 people on Bali or plus or minus one million for the whole of Indonesia in its true context. I saw it as an accident of history, where bloodbaths are common and soon forgotten. It only now dawns on me that it was also an onslaught by the army on enlightenment as a road forward for the country as a whole.

In the nationalist period after decolonization the communist party seemed to offer the most enlightened choice to many people, unaware of the darker aspects of its practice. The prevalence of the common good over individual profiteering would have made them socialists, if that had been a strong option. But creating a strong public sector seemed to be in better hands with the communist party, that had a strong legacy from trade union strife with capitalism. An educated nationalist like Sukarno, the president, could even feel sympathy for this anti-capitalist agenda.

Neither the army nor the Islamist parties presented an alluring path forward. Enlightenment was optional, but not engrained in Islam, however fuzzy it might appear in practice. Enlightenment might appeal to some generals, but not as a political priority. Moreover the armies everywhere in South East Asia had to cope with the communist’s army taking over in mainland China. This resulted in the geopolitical pressure of the USA on them to take sides in a worldwide conflict between communists and capitalists.

Thus, when the Indonesian army reacted to the loss of some of its main independence fighters in a coup with communist overtones, the army hit back and coordinated the killing of thousands of enemies, who were called communists. And instructed local death squads to add thousands more. Idealists, fellow travelers, socialists, simple public servants and educators found themselves caught up in this horrendous killing. Many of them and their families were wiped out.

Once it had reestablished its conservative grip on power the army had no popular basis in a political party. So the anti-communist general Suharto sought political support with the Muslim parties. The Islamic agenda and that of the army gave no priority to enlightenment. So a devil’s contract was found in Islamisation of education in exchange for political support to the army. In this way the future of Indonesian education would no longer be enlightenment but theocracy.

So enlightenment was weakened both by its loss of personnel in the purge, and loss of its hold of political power over public education. It made enlightenment into a minority agenda and in many ways an agenda based on foreign traditions. Indonesia was slipping into a minor mode. And is more and more showing the effects of this.

In this tragedy the Chinese minority was even more affected than the common Indonesian. The Chinese diaspora had greatly invested in education and enlightenment, not only in Indonesia and Malaysia, but also in regards to what happened in China. The communist party after its takeover seemed for a while more enlightened than the robber barons of Chiang Kai-shek had been. Many of the enlightened Chinese in Indonesia were rightly suspected of being in sympathy with what happened in mainland China. They paid a heavy price for this.

(from Travel Diary, 9 III 2016)