Political Activist Remembers the Soeharto Era
Jakarta–At first glance, the painting on the wall showed the feet of what must be a sick man, covered by a blanket, beside a small basket of corn grains, next to what could be a bowl of soup. ButTedjabayu Sudjojono, 70, son of Indonesia’s renowned painter, shook his head and said this was not what the painting is all about.
The man whose feet were shown sticking out of the striped blanket was not just any other sick man. He was a political prisoner, jailed for his political beliefs under the Soeharto regime. He was probably ill but the bowl of soup next to his feet did not contain nourishment to eat.
Sudjojono, who spent 14 years of his life in prison under the regime of former Indonesian president Soeharto, said the painting depicted a political prisoner imprisoned on Buru island, a large prison camp used to house 12,000 political prisoners after Soeharto came to power. Beside the prisoner’s feet, the small basket contained 120 pieces of boiled corn grains, the only food the prisoners were made to eat the entire day, every day during their stay in prison.
Instead of a delicious soup, the bowl contained stewed pieces of slippers and shards of broken glass that the prisoners were made to eat.
He said they had to endure this ration day after day, throughout their stay, so bad many of their friends died and only a few of them survived.
Tedjabayu, who took us to his house in the outskirts of Jakarta two days after the April 9 general elections, said a former political detainee gave the painting to him as a gift on the day of his son’s circumcision in Java, long after they were released from prison. “About 2,000 of them came, I was so surprised,” he said.
The painting reminded them of theordeal they once shared: how, in their hunger, they had to sort out and take away the shards of glass and the slippers, hoping to drink from a bowl of soup. “We used to joke about it, because without the joke, we only had death and the grave,” he said.
An estimated 1 million people died, most of them suspected Communists and their sympathizers, when Soeharto assumed power in 1965, overthrowing the Soekarno regime.
Still a student activist when he was picked up and brought to prison, Tedjabayu had endured Buru island for four months before he was moved on to Nusa Kambangan, a maximum security prison off the southern coast of Java island and then, on to a series of other prisons and finally to the military prison camp called Ambarawa until his release in 1979.
As Indonesians trooped to the polls on April 9 this year for the general elections, the outcome of which would determine Indonesia’s presidential polls in July, Tedjabayu expressed concern over the prospect that personalities associated with the old Soeharto regime would usher in the military’s return to power.
At least two of the top three contending parties in Indonesia are fielding personalities with links to the previous regime; namely: Soeharto’s former political party Golkar; and its breakaway, the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), which will be fielding Prabowo Subianto, a former special forces commander and former son-in-law of Soeharto, as its political bet for president in the July elections.
Indonesia’s election law only allows political parties which win 25 per cent of the votes in the national elections, or 20 per cent of the total seats in the House of Representatives (HR), to field their presidential candidates for the presidential elections.
“This election is important for us,” said Tedjabayu, who admitted he did not vote in Indonesia’s previous three elections, disappointed by the failure of the reformasi to usher meaningful change to the lives of Indonesian people. “I did not vote because in doing so, I would only support a government that is not pro-democracy and leaders whose commitment to the people was not clear,” he said.
But this time, he said, not to vote would be a sin.
“This election will decide the future of Indonesia. We don’t want to give the presidency back to the military and to the corrupt generation,” he said.
A popular uprising may have ended Soeharto’s 30-year-old rule in 1998, propping up a popular presidency that ushered in Indonesia’s reformasi, or the era of openness and reform.
But the failure of the reformasi era to institute meaningful change to the lives of average Indonesians, and allegations of corruption that followed the succeeding regimes, eroded people’s confidence and estranged them from taking part actively in the country’s elections.
In Indonesia, the people’s disillusionment has given rise to the phenomenon known as “golput,” short for “golonganputih (white group),” a group of Indonesian voters who refused to vote, as a way to keep themselves clean from the stain of politics they already perceived as dirty.
Reports by the civil monitoring election network JRRP, a multi sectoral interfaith nongovernment organization, showed an increasing percentage of Indonesia’s voting population have stopped participating in the polls. “We want everyone to participate in the elections,” says Afif, the group’s national coordinator, as he urged citizens to take active part in the polls. “This is our challenge because in the last three elections, we’ve been having a decreasing participation rate.”
While voters’ turnout registered a high of 92 per cent in the elections of 1999, or the year after Soeharto’s overthrow, the numbers plummeted to 84 per cent in 2004 and plunged further to 71 per cent in the 2009 elections.
Reports said voters’ turnout was back again to 75 per cent during the April 9 polls this year, thanks to the campaign to encourage people to vote. “Many people are discouraged, because of the bad image and reports of corruption,” Afif said, “This is a challenge.”
But among those who refused to vote, journalist AneguraPerkasah,who covers the business and human rights beat for the Indonesian paper Bisnis Indonesia, said he is disappointed by the energy policy of the government, which allowed big business to set up coal mines in his hometown in Kalimantan, displacing people from their land, polluting the air and water, and depriving people of their livelihood and access to drinking water. “I do it as a form of protest,” saysPerkasah, raising both his hands to show fingers untainted by indelible ink, on the day of the April 9 general elections.
But he was equally aghast at the people’s failure to remember the past.
Although Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, the presidential bet of the Megawati Sukarno-led opposition party PDIP, continues to lead popularity surveys, following behind him is Prabowo Subianto, the commander of the special commando force under Soeharto.
Prabowo has beenlinked to the abduction of student activists in the time of Indonesian riots in 1998, 13 of those activists remained missing up to this day, their family members holding silent protests every Thursday in front of Indonesia’s state palace, asking for justice for their missing kin.“It seems that people easily forget,” said Perkasah, referring to the relative popularity of Prabowo in the polls.
But Tedjabayu still remembers, and his memories even go three decades further back, when Soeharto just assumed power. He recalls having to bury four of his friends at one time, he had trouble carrying them, one in front, two at his side and another one at his back.
“The first time we heard our friend died, we stood and bowed our head, as a sign of respect,” he said, “Then, the following day, another news of another friend came, and we could no longer stand up. We were so weak and in pain.”
“There was a time the death all around us have made us so numb, we could no longer feel anything.”
Tedjabayu divided the history of Indonesia into three eras: The first era belonged to the generation of his father, the 1945 generation who fought the Dutch and freed Indonesia from foreign power; the second era, his generation,persecuted bySoeharto’s new order; and the next generation, whom he said, will be the future of Indonesia. “If I’m not going to vote it will be a sin for the future,”he said, “I will vote to save the new generation, to ensure that the next president will not come either from the military or from the corrupt politicians.”
As if recalling the taste of stewed slippers and shards of broken glass, he says he knows exactly how it feels for the country to lose its freedom.This year’s election should be no time for golput, he says. Indonesians should vote to say never again to military rule.
[Germelina Lacorte is a journalist fellow of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa) sent to observe Indonesia’s general elections on April 9, 2014.]