Putu Oka and Goenawan

The faces of Putu Oka and Goenawan

The following two interviews with Putu Oka Sukanta and Goenawan Muhammad were conducted online in succession Wednesday 27 May 2020 and should be read to supplement Warief Djajanto Basorie’s review of Romanticism in the Years of Violence, a Memoir of Martin Aleida. The interviews were conducted in Indonesia and all translations are the author’s.

Putu Oka Sukanta

Putu Oka Sukanta speaking
Putu Oka Sukanta

“I’m disheartened that I was not treated as a human being, as a citizen protected by law,” says Putu (pronounced poo-too) Oka Sukanta when asked about his greatest disappointment when he was imprisoned and tortured as a political detainee in Indonesia for 10 years. 

He was not formally charged and did not get due process before a court of law. 

Putu, 81, was caught in the “last supper” dragnet with Martin Aleida and four others on the night of the 21 October 1966 for alleged involvement with the 30 September 1965 affair that ended with the abduction and assassination of six army generals.  The allegation was groundless. The intelligence unit of the Central Jakarta District Command 0501 where Putu was initially detained for three months found no evidence of Putu’s engagement in any physical or political act of subversion. The interrogators could find no pamphlets or any material on Putu calling for support of PKI, the Communist Party of Indonesia, that the army blamed for being behind the killing of the generals. 

The one pretext to keep the Bali-born Putu in detention was that he had given refuge to people in his house. 

Regarding his experience as a political prisoner for ten years, Putu says that people “should conscientiously and wisely understand about the suffering of political prisoners, of their efforts to stay sane and survive.”

“The powers that be should treat citizens, people, in accordance with existing laws,” he continues.

Asked if he demanded compensation, Putu says that “the government, the power holders, should make clarification, admit the laws they have violated so that there may be equality in rights and obligations in being different.” 

Equality in being different means differences in religion, ethnic group, politics, ideology, but equality before the law and equality as human beings, Putu explains.

Apart from practicing acupuncture, Putu continues to write as prodigiously as when he was still with LEKRA, the Communist-affiliated People’s Cultural Institute whose members were artists and writers with a bias for revolutionary politics that PKI espoused. They used jargon such as “progressive elements”, “counter-revolutionary”, “revisionists” and “Nekolim” (neo-colonialism and imperialism).

While still active in LEKRA, Putu wrote Buruan (The Chase). It first appeared in 1964 as a serial in the Minggu Pagi (Sunday Morning) magazine in Yogyakarta. It is the story of the struggle of fisherfolk in the north coast of Central Java in facing off the fishboat owners.

Putu acknowledges that Buruan used political terms valid in that period even though it ran in a magazine that was not an organ of the PKI.  “In general, my writings are on the unfortunate lives of people according to my perception,” he says.

One such short story, Loper Koran (Paper Delivery Man) appeared in the newspaper Harian Rakjat. It is the story of a teacher who sold newspapers as a side job and his dedication to the party (PKI) even though he did not earn a regular salary.

Since his release from detention in 1976, Putu Oka has written novels and short stories that have been translated into English, French, German and his native language Balinese. These include Si Jalak/The Starling, a collection of poems, (Lontar 2013). A compilation of short stories is titled Lies, Loss and Longing (Lontar 2013). The writings have a common theme of a fight against oppression. 

One novel already translated is Celah/Spaces. It is on former political detainees who come against a battery of discrimination after release. This novel is one in a trilogy of novels. The other two, published in Indonesian, are Merajut Harkat (Knitting Dignity) on detainees in prison and Istana Jiwa (Palace of the Souls) about families whose husbands have been killed. 

Goenawan Mohamad

Goenawan Muhammad
Goenawan Muhammad

Goenawan Mohamad, 80, was the founder/first chief editor of the resolutely independent Tempo, arguably Jakarta’s most successful weekly news magazine in terms of impact still in print. 

Called GM in the newsroom, Goenawan steered the course as chief editor in the 13 years Martin Aleida was at Tempo  from 1971-1984. Goenawan was a signatory of the 1963 Cultural Manifesto, a writers’ group that sought artistic freedom of expression rejecting the politically-inclined language used by leftist LEKRA writers. The following is an online interview on Martin’s time with the magazine.

When Martin Aleida applied at your magazine, he explained to you he had previously been a reporter at the Harian Rakjat (People’s Daily, the Communist party paper) and an editor at LEKRA’s Zaman Baru (New Age). What went through your mind when he revealed that?

I hold the view that the post 1965 period should open a new page in history. Not to continue old conflicts.  Moreover, anyone who can write well and has integrity is suitable enough to be a Tempo journalist. Having worked at HR, that is enough as a starting base. HR indeed is a party paper. But it’s of good quality. The more so, HR Sunday. I admire the writing of Bung (Bro) Njoto. Martin does too. 

(LEKRA affiliated prose writer) Pramoedya Ananta Toer was released from Buru island in 1979. You drafted an article and asked Martin to comment on it. What is the main content of the article? Martin commented that for the article to have balance in line with what Tempo upholds, Pramoedya should read it first and allow him to comment. If the article goes directly to print, Pramoedya can not respond to it in writing. He is prohibited to write, he has no right to reply.  What were your thoughts when Martin made that comment?    

If what is meant is my reportage on my meeting with Pram on Buru island, that’s already in print in one of my books. In it is a conversation with Pram. On other writings, I forget. But I have met Bung Pram a number of times before the Buru novels were published (1980). And before Pram was released from prison, I delivered the royalty for his novels published abroad. Bung Pram’s wife (Maemunah) received (the sums).

When Martin was at Tempo, were you approached and queried by the laksusda (local special security agency that kept track among other things on released political prisoners) or any other authority inquiring about Martin’s status?

As far as I recall, no. Also, when Tempo ran articles by Buyung Saleh, giving (work) space for Maniaka Thayeb, Amarzan Lubis, Iskandar, all LEKRA activists. Tempo even had (PKI chairman) Aidit’s son as a stringer. Apparently, (government) intelligence had no knowledge about this matter. Both Maniaka and Amarzan we sent to Europe on assignment. They were not prevented to leave the country.  

What threatened the loss of their rights, I believe, and the security of Tempo are the journalists who managed the PWI (Indonesian Journalists’ Association). They took issue of LEKRA people in Tempo. That included (columnist) Rosihan Anwar who “exposed” the matter in a write-up in (the Jakarta daily) Pos Kota. 

When (PWI chair) Harmoko intensified the pressure, I was forced to conceal their names with their approval. But we did not dismiss them. They continued to come to the office and write. 

You as the evaluating chief editor, what were the strong and weak points of Martin’s reportorial work at Tempo? 

For me, Martin like many writers working at Tempo are more fit to be sastrawan (literary writers) than reporters. His writing is good, but it lacks thoroughness with data.

For more, please see Warief Djajanto Basorie’s review of Romanticism in the Years of Violence, a Memoir of Martin Aleida.

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