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

Romo Mangun, activist

Published: Sep 12, 2007
Even after his death, YB Mangunwijaya speaks still with the voice of Indonesia's democratic independence fighters

Nico Schulte Nordholt

Romo Mangun's voice is silent. Just now, when the situation in Indonesia is so grim, we miss his wise words and his courage. Fortunately he illuminated the political transformation process of recent years with incisive commentary through numerous articles, written with a boundless energy. Many of them are collected in a book entitled Menuju Indonesia serba baru 'Towards a completely new Indonesia' [Gramedia, 1998]. This is part of his heritage to a younger generation of Indonesians. To influence, to inspire that younger generation, that was Mangun's chief purpose in all his political action and writing.

In this book Romo Mangun appears to be fascinated by the differences and similarities between the struggle for independence in the 1940s and the current struggle for democracy. In those days, the new Indonesia had to be built up after colonial exploitation and fascist occupation. Today young people face the task, after seven years of oppression under Sukarno and another 33 years under Suharto, once more to give shape to a nation that has been wounded to the bone.

That task is if anything even more difficult today. The earlier struggle was led by a democratic leadership, with figures such as Sutan Syahrir, Mohammad Hatta and so many other founders of the republic, who gave meaning and direction to that process of nation-building. The indoctrination of the last forty years has made the possibility of democratic leadership at least in the short term virtually zero.

Mangun rather feared that the post-Suharto period could well be even more repressive. He resisted that danger, and worked for a genuine democracy, literally to his last breath of life. He saw it as his mission to convey the democratic values of the revolutionary period to a younger generation, who grew up in an Indonesia where for 40 years those values have been suppressed.

As a lad he fought in the student battalion, the Tentara Pelajar Indonesia, TPI. Since he had had a basic technical education, he became a driver-mechanic. He drove for the former Sultan of Yogyakarta, and also regularly came into contact with Commander Suharto, who later became president.


This period was decisive for the remainder of his life. Three individuals played an immense role for him. They were Major Isman, the commander of TPI; Monsignor Sugyapranoto, who as bishop of Semarang unconditionally chose the side of the republic against the colonial Dutch and was later honoured as national hero by Sukarno; and Sutan Syahrir, the republic's first prime minister, whose inspiring, democratic attitude during the independence struggle made a great impression on the young soldier Mangun.

As a result of a speech made by Major Isman during a TPI reunion in Malang in the early 1950s, the 22-year old Mangun decided to dedicate the rest of his life to the cause of the wong cilik, the 'little people', the weakest members of society. Major Isman had pointed out that the true heroes of the revolution were not they, the young student-soldiers, but the villagers who had suffered so much. In order to repay his debt to them, Mangun henceforth devoted himself to the weak and the oppressed.

Under the influence of Mgr Sugyapranoto he then entered seminary to become a priest. The same monsignor later sent Mangun to Aken in Germany to obtain a degree in architecture.

It is the social democratic ideas from the writings of Sutan Syahrir that continually reappear in Mangun's politically coloured articles. He saw Syahrir as someone who devoted himself completely to the independence cause, but who understood at the same time that a narrowly nationalistic, merely political independence would not be sufficient to really improve the lot of the 'little people'. That requires in the first place social liberation, coupled with education on a massive scale, but also, and especially, international solidarity.

The technically gifted Mangun brought his political ethics, rooted in a religious social democratic thought world, into practice in such a way that for him the word and the deed became one. He acquired a virtually unique place among Indonesia's political activists. But perhaps Romo Mangun's especial characteristic is that he never let himself be put into one particular box. He knew how to break through every dividing wall. He could do that at least partly because of his multifaceted talents, among which lay a great sense of humour, and which makes it really impossible to regard him only in one dimension, namely as political activist.

He first became nationally known as an activist when he declared himself, in word and deed, in solidarity with the slum dwellers of the Code River in Yogyakarta. But he had by then already acquired fame through his novel 'The Weaverbirds' (Burung-burung Manyar, 1981). The novel won him a literary prize. Narrowly nationalistic interests initially contested the award and accused Mangunwijaya of having detracted from the heroic struggle for independence. However, because of his own role in that struggle, indeed under the command of Suharto, who had since become president, Mangun seemed to be immune from such reproach.

In his action on behalf of the Code River residents he also made skilful use of his old job as driver for the former Sultan of Yogyakarta. He never hesitated to make the fullest use of contacts built up over a rich and varied life, in service of the wong cilik.

Mangun adopted the same approach in the second big socio-political action into which he threw himself, on behalf of farmers displaced from their homes in a Central Java valley by the building of the huge Kedung Ombo dam. Without hesitating he contacted his campus friend from his Aken period, Rudy Habibie, at the time minister for research and technology, and asked him in an open letter for his help. Yet even more important than the letter was another aspect of his approach to action.

No dividing wall

As a priest he knew he was vulnerable to the allegation that he was hunting for converts through his social action, especially after he began a basic education project for the children in the Kedung Ombo dam environs. For that reason he made a close ally out of his friend Kiai Hamam Dja'far of Magelang, who has also since died. Not out of the tactical consideration that he needed someone to cover his back but, as he said to me, in the full awareness that in an action such as this every hint of conversion fanaticism must be avoided. He was convinced that only by working together hand in hand, in praxis, to improve the lives of the oppressed was it possible to break through the religious dividing walls. In that respect Romo Mangun's life as an activist has become a role model for all socio-political activists in Indonesia, indeed by no means only in Indonesia.

Now we must mention two further themes in the 'Mangun as political activist' narrative. First is a deep involvement in the cause of the East Timorese. He had already adopted a stance against the grave injustice of the occupation, though in a veiled way, in his novel Ikan-ikan Hiu, Ido, Homa of 1983. Here he drew an allegorical parallel between the bloody massacres of the inhabitants of Banda Island by the seventeenth century Dutch VOC, and the Indonesian occupation of East Timor in 1975.

Soon thereafter, arguing both out of his historical insight that the founders of the republic had fought only for the freedom of the territory of the former Netherlands India, and out of his great feeling for justice and a revulsion against any kind of human rights abuse, Romo Mangun became one of the first Indonesians to speak publicly in favour of a just solution to this bloody conflict.

Besides his good friend Abdurrahman Wahid, the colourful chairman of Nahdatul Ulama, Mangunwijaya was the only other Indonesian to be personally invited by Bishop Belo to attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo on 10 December 1996. For political reasons, Wahid allowed the invitation to pass, but Romo Mangun was there. This is one of the differences between the NU leader, who has since then developed into a practising politician, and Mangun the political activist, who was always indebted only to his own principles.

In the second theme, however, Mangun came much closer to the area of practical politics. Over the last twelve months he became a very vocal defender of the federative idea within the political arena. Precisely because he thought of himself as a fighter for independence, he saw that the future of the entire island nation could only be saved as the Republic of Indonesia by working towards a federative state.

I would like to end with a mention of what was no doubt the pinnacle experience of Romo Mangun's role as political activist. On 26 May 1998 he was one of the main speakers at a mass rally in Yogyakarta to commemorate the death of the student Moses Gatutkaca. I tend to think it must be more than mere coincidence that it had to be someone with such a symbolically laden name who became the victim in Yogyakarta's otherwise rather peaceful month of May 1998: Moses, the liberator in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and Gatutkaca, the purest hero within the Javanese mythology.

But I want to point to the speech that Romo Mangun delivered on that occasion. It was undoubtedly one of his most political speeches, but it was above all highly visionary and, to my mind, of the same quality as the Manifest Politik nomor 1 of November 1945, which Romo Mangun quoted so frequently. This document, written by Sutan Syahrir in the time of kegelisahan, of chaos, significantly determined the meaning and direction of the struggle for independence.

Mangunwijaya in his speech of 26 May 1998 especially addresses the youth, and calls on them incisively yet patiently to carry on the struggle 'towards a completely new Indonesia'. He envisaged in the first place the year 2028, a hundred years after the 'birth' of the first generation of democratic leaders, who proclaimed independence in 1945. And then, eventually, the year 2045 when, a hundred years after that proclamation, a truly democratic Indonesia has taken shape.

Like the prophet Moses, Mangun spoke of a promised land that he knew he would never enter. But with a rock solid faith in the power and impetuousness of youth he was convinced that that vision would become a reality. Abdurrahman Wahid expressed the same faith in an obituary for his friend Mangun when he wrote of his conviction that we would surely be enriched by successors to Mangun, who would dedicate themselves as wholeheartedly to his ideals.

Nico Schulte Nordholt (n.g.schultenordholt@tdg.utwente.nl) teaches at the University of Twente, Enschede, Netherlands. Extracted from a eulogy delivered at a memorial service for YB Mangunwijaya on 6 May 1999. Mangun died on 10 February 1999 aged 69 (see Inside Indonesia no.58, April-June 1999).

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