In the sphere of political activism, poetry has a long-established and honoured place in Indonesia. Since the colonial period, poems written about issues of topical interest have been part of political expression in newspapers and magazines, at meetings and demonstrations, on university campuses and the factory shop-floor. In the early New Order period a distinctive style of political expression became the hallmark of the poet Rendra. Rendra’s theatrical poetry readings, or ‘performances’, drew huge crowds of young people wherever they were held. His 1980 volume of protest poems, collected under the title Potret Pembangunan dalam Puisi (A Portrait of Development in Poetry) provided a model for a whole generation of activist poets who followed his example.
In the late New Order, the labour activist Wiji Thukul became a new hero to followers of this tradition. In a series of both reflective and more directly confrontational political poems (Aku Ingin Jadi Peluru, I Want to be a Bullet, 2000) Wiji Thukul gave voice to the lives and demands of industrial workers and the urban poor, the human capital of the New Order’s developmentalist economy. After his disappearance and presumed murder in the military’s crackdown against labour unrest from late 1997, his famous line Hanya ada satu kata, lawan! (There is only one word, resist!) became both his memorial and his legacy to the reformasi generation.
Sajak Menggoyang Zakir by Apito Lahire is a good reminder of how widespread the tradition of activist poetry had become by the time of Reformasi. In the ballad style of Rendra, it expresses the specific demands for local-level reform in Tegal, in northern Central Java, which Anton Lucas described in Inside Indonesia in 1999. Zakir, the corrupt Tegal mayor, amassed his fortune from levies on illegally-logged Kalimantan timber. The source of his wealth, and his neglect of local development projects for the sake of his own business interests, was the object of scorn and anger that went beyond the writing of poetry in 1998. But in a region with a powerful tradition of political activism in the arts, the poem shows how the enjoyment of language and performance can be turned to directly political ends. In this tradition, creative expression plays a part in the process of political and social change.
Keith Foulcher (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches Indonesian at the University of Sydney. He translated Sajak Menggoyang Zakir for Inside Indonesia.