Jul 24, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Ratna accused, and defiant

Published: Sep 29, 2007

BARBARA HATLEY traces the life of Ratna Sarumpaet, among the most prominent of Indonesia's new political prisoners.


On the evening of Wednesday 11th March, viewers of Australian ABC television's '7.30 Report' witnessed a startling event - the arrest of playwright and theatre director Ratna Sarumpaet.

Ratna and others had planned a gathering to coincide with the joint sitting of the Indonesian parliament, about to formally re-elect President Suharto. The international press and foreign embassies were invited. But the program of discussions was cancelled when security officials intervened.

As we watched from our living rooms, Ratna informed a small crowd that the event could not go ahead, and led them in the singing of two patriotic songs, Indonesia Raya and To you our country. Then, as they prayed silently before dispersing, the order went out to take Ratna Sarumpaet.

We heard Ratna's sharp cries of protest 'Where is your warrant? Where is the warrant?', and saw her companions attempt vainly to prevent security police from forcing her into a car. Eight were arrested and taken with Ratna to the police headquarters in Jakarta.


Eventually six people were charged with holding an illegal political meeting. At the time of writing they remain in detention awaiting trial. Ratna herself faces two charges. One under a Sukarno-era ban on 'anti-revolutionary' political gatherings (with a maximum sentence of one year in prison), the other under an infamous colonial law against the spreading of hatred (maximum seven years). Both charges are filled with irony. A pre-trial appeal, protesting irregularities in their arrests, was summarily dismissed. The judgement stated in part that 'singing Indonesia Raya and To you my country is proof of their political crime'.

Ratna's supporters around the world have rallied in her defence, with letters of protest to the Indonesian authorities, a web page focussed on her case, and a world-wide program of readings from her works. But, confronting a regime which indicts the singing of patriotic songs as a political offence, they face a tough struggle.

At one level Ratna's arrest was hardly a surprise. Over the past few years the outspoken, determined playwright has been involved increasingly combative confrontations with the authorities. She joined protests against the banning of Tempo magazine. She participated in the 1997 election campaign with a street theatre involving a coffin labelled 'democracy'.

The last straw was her outright defiance of a ban imposed in Lampung last December on the performance of her monologue 'Marsinah accuses'. She proceeded with the show in a darkened, locked theatre complex before an audience who had evaded security guards by climbing a back fence.


Her political activities have been accompanied by an increasingly critical stance in her creative works. Her 1994 production Marsinah: Nyanyian dari bawah tanah ('Marsinah: A song from the underworld') reflected on issues of political violence and repression inspired by the Marsinah case. Terpasung ('Shackled') explored themes of male dominance and violence towards women. Pesta terakhir ('The final celebration') depicts the grand funeral of a deceased authoritarian leader at which not one guest appears.

And in the monologue Marsinah menggugat ('Marsinah accuses') Ratna returns to the Marsinah theme, speaking directly in the voice of the murdered worker, who details the horrific brutality of her torture and death.

Indeed, Ratna's words just before her arrest show her moving to a savage indictment of a parliament which betrays the hopes of 200 million people. 'Who and what are we before our children, before the coming generations, before hundreds of millions of people far less empowered than ourselves', she called out passionately to those present, 'if, as our nation faces such a desperate situation, we can do nothing?'.

Ratna's activities do not, of course, remotely justify her detention. But they may suggest how a paternalistic, authoritarian regime, outraged at such provocation by a mere woman, feels the need to silence her. And they raise an intriguing question. How is it that a woman playwright who until a few years ago had been quite uninvolved in politics has taken up such a critical, outspoken position, at a time when better-known literary and theatre radicals are silent?

Rendra Both Ratna's parents had been politicians. But as representatives of Christian parties, marginalised and disfavoured in the Sukarno period, they did not bring up their children to be political. The emphasis, Ratna reports, was on working hard to do something useful.

She was studying architecture at the University of Indonesia in 1969 when she saw a production of one of Rendra's plays and decided immediately that this was the path she wanted to follow. She went to Yogya and joined Rendra's group. After a time she left, with the aim of becoming a director and proving that in this way she could do something for society.

But instead she fell in love, married and had children. At first her husband, a businessman, refused to allow her to perform. Later he financed her in staging several productions. These were adaptations of foreign works - Rubaiyat of Omar Kayam, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet, in the last case with Ratna playing Hamlet.

Then from 1976 to 1989 Ratna stopped performing theatre, though still working in television and film, as she struggled with the traumas of an unhappy, violent marriage. When she returned to theatre after her divorce, her productions were informed by a sustained focus on the situation of women.

Ratna explains that her adaptation of Antigone to a Batak setting, for example, reflects the privileging of sons and brothers in Batak society and the lack of rights held by women.


But it was the murder of the female worker Marsinah in 1993 which set Ratna on a new direction in her work. Marsinah was a factory labour leader who was almost certainly murdered by military men acting on behalf of management. 'I am obsessed by Marsinah', Ratna said before the performance of her Marsinah play. She recounts how the murdered worker's face had appeared before her as she wrote the script, and how, after the production, she cried out to Marsinah's spirit to release her from her overwhelming influence.

Ratna identified intensely with Marsinah in her brutal silencing, not just as a worker but as a woman. The way Marsinah was treated, her raped and mutilated body simply discarded in a forest, to Ratna symbolised the deep, trivialising contempt which men, especially powerful men, feel towards women who dare to speak out. She herself had suffered enforced silencing and physical abuse in her marriage.

Stimulated by Marsinah's story Ratna went on, both in 'Marsinah: A song from the underworld' and in 'Shackled', to explore links between male dominance of women in the family and the exploitation of weaker forces by the power-holders in the paternalistic Indonesian state. Over the months and years the abuses of this authoritarian political system came to serve as an ever stronger focus of personal anger for Ratna. Artistic exploration flowed into direct political action.

If personal suffering has fuelled Ratna's attacks on the political system, so too, she suggests, such experience has given her courage to sustain the consequences. Surviving the trauma of her marriage, and the long struggle to obtain a divorce through Islamic courts which preached reconciliation until convinced by hospital reports of her broken ribs, gave her new confidence. Speaking prophetically in 1995, Ratna stated that she was now not afraid to speak out, not even of going to prison. The only things she feared were harming others and God.

Though there are powerful feminist resonances in Ratna's story and in her creative work, her relationship to feminism as a movement is an ambivalent one. She reports that feminist groups in Indonesia always want her to make a Statement about women in her plays, and to do something about the situation of women through her work. But this is too hard a thing to ask, she says. Social change does not happen in this way. In any case her concern is for all weak, oppressed people, women as well as men. She feels she can best assist Indonesian women by providing an example of achievement which others can follow.

Feisty defiance That achievement, as the only recognised Indonesian woman playwright and director in an otherwise all male field, has been hard-won. Ratna's personal style - assertive, forthright, self- confident, sharply critical at times - has both been central to her success and has also aroused criticism and controversy.

Similar complexities are evident in her present situation. The same feisty defiance which has seemingly provoked the authorities into hard-line repression is also sustaining her strongly through its effects. When her pre-trial appeal was rejected she issued a statement questioning President Suharto's re-election promise of openness to criticism - was this gold or dross, real commitment or lip-service?

She told journalists: 'Although I am physically in prison, my ideas about truth and justice will not be imprisoned'. She was recently hospitalised briefly with severe back pain due to a pre-existing condition, but remains positive.

While awaiting trial, she says she is learning from her 'new friends' - her ten cell-mates, whose backgrounds and experience are totally different from her own. And each day she is gratified to read in the newspapers of the ongoing struggle by the students to achieve political reform.

To these young people Ratna in turn is a source of inspiration as an artist who has dared to speak out for the same cause as theirs. Ratna's international supporters, while pressing for concrete political action, are also sustaining the spirit of this determined, idealistic, idiosyncratic fighter for justice, and thereby contributing to a spirit of solidarity and resistance.

Ratna was sentenced to 70 days jail on 20 May (the day before Suharto's resignation). The sentence equalled the time of her detention, and she was immediately released. For general information about Ratna and her writings, how to send letters of protest about her case, and to donate to a support fund, see http://www.en.com/users/herone/Ratna.html. For information about play readings, including some being held in Australia, see http://members.aol.com/leharper/index.html.

Barbara Hatley has written widely on Indonesian theatre. She teaches at Monash University in Melbourne.

Inside Indonesia 55: Jul-Sep 1998

Latest Articles

Essay: Testing out my Bahasa Indonesia

Jul 09, 2024 - PATRICK J MAHONY

We need to learn more about each other. If we do, we will find that in many ways we have much in common

Asbestos danger

Jul 08, 2024 - GWYN ROBERTS

What can be done to prevent suffering in Indonesia?

Obituary: Stop telling, start listening

Jul 04, 2024 - DUNCAN GRAHAM

Owen Podger’s guide to aid-giving

Essay: What remains of the 1998 tragedy for the post-1998 generation


Hearing about my mother's experiences in May 1998 became a pivotal moment that has shaped my life. 

Obit: Bob Muntz, 1947-2024

Jun 24, 2024 - HELEN PAUSACKER

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.

Bacaan Bumi: Pemikiran Ekologis – sebuah suplemen Inside Indonesia

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar.