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Romo Mangun

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Catherine Mills

Romo Mangun

Yusuf Bilyarta Mangunwijaya was born on 6 May 1929 in Ambarawa, Central Java, from Catholic parents. At the age of sixteen, during the revolution for independence from the Dutch, he joined the Student Army. The troops' callousness towards the villagers shocked him. In 1950, after hearing a speech by Major Isman about the harmful effects of the revolution on civilians, he decided to repay his debt by serving the people as a priest.

After studying theology and architecture, Romo (Father) Mangun started his public life in Yogyakarta in the late 1960s. He became a parish priest, lecturer in architecture, practising architect, essayist, columnist, novelist, human rights activist and social worker. For six years he lived among the poor along the Code River in Yogyakarta, and built a Community Centre for them.

He died on 10 February 1999. Romo Mangun was a staunch advocate of democracy to the last.


'Although it claims to be public, the forthcoming (1976) election is clearly going to proceed in its exclusive la Indonesia style.'

On the face of it, this orderly queue of Javanese voters is a good example of communal response to the New Order's implementation of 'democratic' values. However, the shape of the queue recalls that of the headdress of two characters from the shadow puppet theatre: Bima and his son Gatutkaca. Both were associated in Romo Mangun's mind with Sukarno. Sukarno saw in Gatutkaca a heroic role model for modern Indonesian nationalists. The cartoon thus makes an implicit comparison between the early years of independence and 1976. The voters' closed eyes suggest that, this time, they are blindly obeying orders from above, instead of realising their potential for shaping democracy. Through this picture, Romo Mangun encouraged ordinary people to become once again politically aware and active.

School for individuals

'Because this New Order of ours is a military order, an authoritarian order, commando style, there is no education. There is only instruction, a mere taming experience.'

Romo Mangun believed education was a crucial pre-condition for Indonesian progress. Its aim should be to promote discernment and creativity in individuals. He strongly objected to teaching methods which crushed spirits instead. Most of all, he insisted it was for everyone, not just the elite. In 1993 he founded an experimental school for disadvantaged children in Yogyakarta under the research group Laboratorium Dinamika Edukasi Dasar. He often said: 'When I die, let me die as a primary school teacher.'

Two heroes

'However different they may be, Sukarno and Sutan Syahrir represent two poles of the same world of fighters. They were the soul of bravery and faced exile for the sake of their comrades' freedom.'

Romo Mangun looked back to the 1945 revolution as the golden age of Indonesian nationalism. Among his favourite heroes were former President Sukarno and former Prime Minister Syahrir. They are represented in this picture as the Javanese shadow puppets Bima and Yudhistira. According to Romo Mangun, Sukarno resembled Bima because of his tenacity of purpose, his flamboyance and his raw style of expression in the low Javanese language or ngoko.

Syahrir resembled the more refined Yudisthira because he used knowledge and diplomacy rather than brute force to solve national problems. Romo Mangun himself hated violence. He admired both heroes for their selfless commitment to the national cause.

Catherine Mills ( recently wrote an honour's thesis on Mangunwijaya at Curtin University, Perth, Australia. Photo from Y B Priyanahadi (ed),'Romo Mangun di mata para sahabat' (Yogyakarta: Kanisius, 1999). Line drawings by Romo Mangun, in Y B Mangunwijaya, 'Puntung-puntung Roro Mendut' (Jakarta: Gramedia, 1978).

Inside Indonesia 68: Oct - Dec 2001

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