Nov 30, 2023 Last Updated 8:29 PM, Nov 27, 2023

Coming out

Published: Sep 22, 2007
For 32 years they were condemned to a life of misery. Now former communist political prisoners are emerging, slowly, into the daylight.

Helene van Klinken

It’s my first day in Indonesia after five years. There’s a women’s congress in Yogyakarta, so I decide to take a look. Once among the well-dressed delegates I realise I should have worn that shirt with sleeves, instead of this sleeveless dress I’m wearing to survive the heat! But when I produce copies of Inside Indonesia - by chance with women in Islamic head-dress on the cover - everyone wants a copy: ‘A women’s magazine?’

Sitting next to me is a smart, middle aged delegate of the government-backed Indonesian Women’s Coalition (Kowani). She’s taken me under her wing. The first speaker is slight, elderly, Javanese, softly spoken. There’s trouble with the loud speaker, and everyone around me is chatting. ‘Am I hearing correctly?’, I ask my neighbour. ‘Is the speaker really an ex-political prisoner, a former communist?’ ‘I am not sure’, she replies, ‘she has not actually said so’. The speaker is calling for full rights to be restored to communists, who were stripped of them under Suharto.

Then the Dutch sociologist Saskia Wieringa is speaking. She was banned from Indonesia for her 1995 thesis on the communist women’s movement Gerwani. She tells how, early in Suharto’s New Order, Gerwani members had sexual immorality added to their other ‘sins’. Accused of complicity in the murder of six army generals that set in motion the so-called communist coup on 30 September 1965, they were said to have conducted sexual orgies and mutilated the generals’ genitals before killing them. Yet in fact, Wieringa says, the autopsy on their bodies never mentions such mutilation, and it was signed and accepted by then General Suharto. An indignant forensic doctor grabs the microphone. ‘It’s an indictable offence to lie about an autopsy’, she says resolutely. Enthusiastic applause.

I’ve read about changes in Indonesia. But this is staggering. Communists were outcastes throughout the New Order, and could never have addressed a major gathering like this. I can’t wait to ask other delegates what they think. Yes, Ibu Sulami, the opening speaker, spent twenty years in gaol for being the deputy leader of Gerwani. Yes, it’s the first time a Gerwani member has spoken openly.

But all is not sunshine at the conference. Delegates grumble that the Jakarta organisers have an ‘agenda’. Next day, amidst a chaotic display of ‘democracy’, a group walks out. Some, including Aisyiyah (the women’s movement within the Islamic group Muhammadiyah), resent what they believe is an attempt to rehabilitate communists. The final declaration of the congress on 17 December does not mention the shadow under which ex-communists still live, despite the wish of some delegates to include it.Tears

For now I’m excited about the attention given to these former political prisoners, or ex-tapol. I want to know what N, an ex-tapol friend who spent 13 years in gaol thinks about all this. I get rather vague directions to her place. After calling at two previous addresses I finally track her down amidst a relentless tropical downpour. She is not as excited as I’d hoped. Through her tears she tells how every time she moves house a report about her has to be sent around to a half dozen different officials. ‘Oh, so you’re like that ibu,’ one told her cruelly. ‘We’re all good people who live in this area, you know’. The report lists her as being ‘involved’ in the coup of 1965, so therefore she cannot be trusted. She fears this process, as she has to move again soon. She feels humiliated and abused. She fears eviction if her landlord finds out who she ‘really is’.

I decide I want to meet other ex-tapols and find out if life is any different for them since the fall of Suharto. Despite rules barring him from school for fear of ‘contaminating’ students, L has a job as a teacher. Like all the tapol I meet (except Sulami), L fears losing his job if I print his name. Tapol remain hidden within Indonesia. L’s students bring him articles about Marxism - he just listens and smiles to himself. He thinks students are a bit freer to think now, and certainly more open about discussing Marxism.

I ask L about his identity card, is the ‘ET’ mark still there - a forced declaration to the world, like the Star of David was under Hitler, that he is an ‘ex-tapol’? He shows it to me. ‘No ET’, he says. ‘But look, the card only lasts till 2000. I’m over 60 so it should say "lifelong". They still know!’ He quickly puts it away as if embarrassed to let me see it. Does L still report to the local government official regularly, as required throughout the New Order, I ask? No, not any more. But others do - he’d like to think they had the courage to refuse.

I take a bus ride through the congested Jakarta traffic to visit S in his small rented house. His neighbours trust and respect him. Some know about his background, many don’t. ‘For thirty years my parents and siblings have experienced trauma because of me’, he says. But since May 1998 his family seem less worried. He is even thinking of marrying, because there is a little less suspicion. Till now, he felt marriage would be unfair to his wife, and the stigma would pass to his children. S explains that research in one area of West Java showed a divorce rate for ex-tapol of over 50%. Often they were blamed for the trouble they brought on their families. Children, taught lies at school about 1965, came to hate their parents and grandparents. After years in gaol and almost no possibility of work, the families sometimes felt the released person was just a drain, an added burden.

My time’s running out - I just want to meet a friend of S who helps tapol and wants to record their stories. Some reveal all to this person just days before they die. For S, this is important history. The next generation must know the truth of 1965. Many tapol are now sick and old. Sometimes their families have forsaken them.

In Jakarta I ask activists what is being done for the tapol. Yes, like the organisers of the Yogya Congress, they agree that now is the time for justice, an amnesty for all communists. The events of 1965 must be investigated afresh, free from New Order ideology. I’m told that schools now no longer have to teach the New Order version blaming the 1965 debacle on communists. In fact there are seven versions - including one in which the perpetrators are Suharto and the CIA. Students and teachers can choose! But, say most activists, justice for communists is still a difficult issue. One reason I heard stated often is that the majority Muslim population cannot accept those ‘with no religion’.

At the end of my travels, I admire the organisers of the Yogyakarta Congress for highlighting the tapol issue. But I feel sad that the woman from the government-backed women’s organisation could not admit what her ears were telling her. I do hope that ‘reformasi’ will mean something for the 13 people still languishing in gaol, and the thousands of ex-tapol who continue to have their basic rights denied.

Helene van Klinken teaches Indonesian at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane. She wants to start a support fund for aging female tapol. Contact her on tel 07-3371 3854, fax 07-3871 2525, email

Inside Indonesia 58: Apr-Jun 1999

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

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