Jun 14, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

A fresh wind is blowing

Why is it so hard to remember the evils of the past? ROB GOODFELLOW explores the pain, and the exhilaration, of memory.

Over three days from the 1st of August 1997 a remarkable national campaign against violence towards women in Indonesia was launched at the Benteng Vredeburg Museum in Yogyakarta. There was music and drama. It featured an impressive exhibition of fine art, installation, sculpture and print-making. And the campaign was launched by powerful and passionate speeches. One speech in particular marked a significant departure from contemporary Indonesia's dominant culture of suppressing hitherto 'un-resolved historical issues'.

Nyi Mardiyem was a slave forced into prostitution by the Japanese Army, a jugun ianfu. Now ageing, she spoke of her experiences during World War Two. She explained to the spell-bound audience in reserved but confident tones how, together with other young girls from her village outside Yogyakarta, she was forcibly recruited into a life of shame and degradation. Campaign organiser Dewi Ratnawulan comforted Nyi Mardiyem as the latter ended her speech with an emotional prayer to Allah for long life, so that she could 'continue to bear testimony to the violence and humiliation committed against her and tens of thousands of other Indonesian and foreign women'.


The event received wide media coverage, at least in Yogyakarta. Half page advertisements in leading local dailies and popular magazines promoted the event, stating the movement wished to expose the intimidation, discrimination and abuse of women and children by men.

Western researchers such as Norma Sullivan have studied domestic violence in depth. The Indonesian press, however, has tended to embrace the issue only when it becomes sensational - such as the July 1995 home invasion and rape of a mother and her two young daughters in Jakarta, or the murder of 42 women by the North Sumatra mystic 'Datuk' (in Amandamai village, the name means 'safe and sound').

The interest of journalists in Nyi Mardiyem's story marked something of a watershed in reporting on both historical and contemporary violence. Indeed the very existence of a movement dedicated to raising, and then dealing with what are generally considered to be Indonesia's 'historical problems' marks a watershed. According to Dewi Ratnawulan, a public and painful discussion of the plight of ex-jugun ianfu would not have been possible even two years ago. Clearly a fresh wind has blown over the issue.

In a local newspaper article two days later, the exhibition's curator Dr M Dwi Marianto made the important point that the primary function of the exhibition was to raise public consciousness and thereby 'plant ideas into the feelings, thoughts and desires' of everyone involved.

Ex-jugun ianfu Nyi Mardiyem was permitted to play a significant role in raising public consciousness. She elaborated to reporters that rape was only one level of violence in society. There were other, deeper examples of violence, 'below the surface', which had not been exposed, both physical and non-physical, she said. These comments had an invigorating effect on the press in Yogyakarta.


Media expert Ashadi Siregar, writing for the local Kedaulatan Rakyat, took the opportunity to raise a raft of issues constructed around the life of R A Kartini, turn-of-the-century nationalist heroine and champion for women's rights. After providing the censors with a painless first paragraph, Siregar went on to examine discrimination and violence in a broader context, from AIDS to worker's rights and conditions, from labour market segregation to the 'structural problems and interpretation of the state ideology Pancasila in the context of capitalism'.

Finally Siregar raised the cause celebre of the murdered factory activist Marsinah who, according to Siregar, was singled out 'first because she was a common worker, second because she was an activist, and third because she was a woman'. Towards the back of the newspaper, in that remote place where the minions of the Ministry for Information seldom venture, he went on to construct a bold analytical comparison between Marsinah and the 'structure and ideology' of violence and discrimination in Indonesia. He drew strong comparisons with the case of Megawati Sukarnoputri, the deposed leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party PDI. This, the author argued, was another, but different case of 'ideological violence', in fact a 'portrait' of 'naked discrimination and intimidation in the public rather than private domain'.

Critique brutality

Naked intimidation was also the subject of a dramatic production staged in Vredeburg on the second night of the exhibition. Carousel, atau komidi putar ('Carousel') was produced by a group of political science students from Gajah Mada University calling themselves the Sanggar Garasi Group.

Nyi Mardiyem's evocative comments about deeper examples of violence in society, 'below the surface', appears to have given Sanggar Garasi a powerful opportunity to critique brutality - through the prism of communal violence. Producer Baskoro Darmawan was obviously being very careful when he described the play in the press as 'designed to resolve', or rather 'open up', unresolved contemporary issues.

In stark contrast to these modest comments, the performance was a dramatic and disturbing graphic representation, indeed a gruesome feast of violent images. The play represented a critique of both the genesis and finale of communal violence. This encompassed a number of issues including the rape and murder of women by men, but it actually focused on the 'hypothetical' subject of an urban street riot.

A spectacle of flaming props contributed to the dramatic effect. An enormous back-drop slide screen flashed images of savagery from Jalan Thamrin in Jakarta to the West Bank of the Jordan River, from the Vietnam War to caged political prisoners in Chile, and to Nazi execution squads shooting old Jewish men into a ditch. The play's final act was unforgettable, a crescendo of pathos and destruction. The association with the July 27th riots in Jakarta was unmistakable, as were echoes of a previous and more brutal 'historical problem', 1965-66.

Sitor Situmorang

On the evening of the 11th of August, one week after the launch of the anti-violence campaign against women at Vredeburg, Basis magazine sponsored a night of poetry reading in honour of the poet Sitor Situmorang. It was hosted within the royal palace, the kraton, in Yogyakarta, at one of the residences of the younger brother of Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono X, Gusti Joyokusumo.

A prominent literary figure during the 'Old Order' era, Sitor was chairman of the National Cultural Institute (LKN) from 1959-1965. Both Sitor's chairmanship of LKN and his literary career were abruptly terminated in the violent, military-led anti-communist backlash of October 1965.

A question fielded from the audience through the moderator asked why Sitor had not published anything between his Sastra revolusioner ('Revolutionary literature') of 1965 and his Dinding waktu ('Time wall') of 1976. As if people did not know! The question gave Sitor the opportunity to put aside issues of literary merit and syntax. In a humorous yet profound way he explained what, according to him, did or did not constitute a 'dark period' in a writer's life and whether the non-publication of work could be considered as 'unproductive'.

Any direct mention of Sitor's imprisonment following the night of the 30th of September 1965 was avoided by the use of intimation, double-entendre and punning. This cleverly embellished the poet's veiled views about the years after 1965 without once having to explicitly raise them. In turn it had a profound effect on the audience, who were clearly unaccustomed to discussing the massive human tragedy of the early New Order in a public forum.

Mysterious gunmen

Perhaps by coincidence, early August 1997 also marked the local publication of the novel Ojo dumeh, by Agnes Yani Sardjono. Ojo dumeh is a story set in Yogyakarta around the 1983-5 killings of thousands of organised criminals and others by specially trained army 'hit-men'. The so-called petrus affair, from penembak misterius or 'mysterious gunmen', provides the social canvas for Sardjono's central character, the freelance journalist Samhudi. The book is about a dilemma. It is about friendship, trust and betrayal. But it is also about the rich, dark world of the organised criminal gangs that 'ruled the streets' of Yogyakarta and other Indonesian cities, the gali or preman, before their violent extra-judicial annihilation.

Ojo dumeh is, once more, about unresolved 'historical issues', about un-excavated memories. Samhudi's novel puts literary flesh and bones on characters who otherwise remain anonymous victims of the 'mysterious gunmen'. Nyi Mardiyem's story, told so powerfully at Vredeburg, transforms the myth and speculation surrounding ex- jugun ianfu into historical discourse. Sitor's description of the effect of his literary 'dark period' of 1965-1976 personalises, or rather humanises, the experience of thousands of Indonesian writers, poets and artists who were sucked into the historical vortex after September 1965. Each of these examples has raised the prospect that Indonesians may soon be able to confidently 'clear the historical air'.

Is it possible that the time is approaching when stories may be publicly told about the killings and mass arrests of 1965-66? Those of us who are patient, and who listen, are waiting for the 'fresh wind to blow'.

(Contact the campaign against violence towards women: Gerakan Anti- Kekerasan Terhadap Perempuan Indonesia (GAKTPI), Jl C Simanjuntak 8, Yogyakarta 55223, Indonesia, tel/fax 0274-588605).

Rob Goodfellow lives in Wollongong, Australia. He spends a lot of time in Yogyakarta and is writing a PhD dissertation on Indonesian memories of violence. He expresses his thanks to Herb Feith for support and encouragement.

Inside Indonesia 55: Jul-Sep 1998

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