Life

Hersri Setiawan: Survivor
of a dark, political chapter
in Indonesia's histor

Many people who were been jailed by the New Order regime following the so-called September 30 Movement in 1965 might regard themselves as victims of a political game.

But former tapol (political prisoner) and author Hersri Setiawan refuses to be called a victim.

"I'm not a victim because I was aware of the risks I faced when I chose the leftist movement," Hersri told The Jakarta Post recently.

"From the earliest stages of my life I knew the risks ... being haunted by the government, we had to be prepared to die."

Born in an upper-class family in Yogyakarta on May 3, 1936, Hersri was exposed to modern literature at an early age.

He said his father, "a village intellectual", had about 2,500 books in the Malay, Javanese and Dutch languages.

"I read a lot from both ideologies ... I absorbed what was good for me and my environment."

Hersri was only eight when his father died in 1944; his mother was left to raise seven children alone.

Hersri received a government scholarship to study sociology and communication science at Gajah Mada University in 1955. At the same time he studied at Yogyakarta's Drama and Film Academy in the evenings.

He graduated from the academy in 1959 and from the university in 1961.

At university, Hersri was involved in many activities including radio broadcasting. He also founded two high schools in Yogyakarta, where he taught, and become the deputy editor at the Indonesian-Chinese newspaper Harian Pembaruan in Semarang.

It was during his university years that he was exposed to the leftist movement. He became a member of Consentrasi Gerakan Mahasiswa Indonesia CGMI (Indonesian Student Movement Concentration) in 1958 which he perceived as the organization with the highest social commitment.

But after becoming fed up with "too much intellectualism", he left CGMI and joined Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat (Lekra) which he said brought him "closer to the people's cultural movement".

As a man with some repute, he was appointed as the secretary general for Central Java's Lekra chapter in 1959.

From 1961 to 1965, Hersri was a representative of the Indonesian National Committee for the Asia-Africa bureau of writers in Colombo.

In July 1965, the bureau was banned by Sri Lanka's new right-wing government, and along with 11 other Asian-African country representatives, Hersri was declared persona non grata by the new authority. He returned to Jakarta on Aug. 24, 1965.

On Sept. 30, six senior army generals were kidnapped and killed and in the days and weeks that followed, the army blamed the coup attempt on the Indonesia Communist Party (PKI).

"As soon as Nasution declared that (PKI members killed the generals), I knew I was just counting my days."

However, Hersri, who was staying with his younger brother, a navy colonel, in Tebet, South Jakarta, was not caught. He said this may have been due to the fact that many people didn't know he had returned to Indonesia.

He worked as a translator with different embassies in the capital, including the Cambodian, Cuban and Bulgarian embassies.

Then one day in 1969, two navy officers came to his house saying they had been looking for him. They did not arrest him but asked his brother to escort him to the navy base the following day, saying it was "for the good of the navy and for the sake of his younger brother".

His brother was arrested a few months after him and was expelled from the navy three years later.

Hersri was detained as a prisoner in Cilandak, Salemba and Tangerang for two years without legal processing. In 1971, he was sent with 850 other prisoners to Buru Island in Maluku province. During the period 1969 to 1976, the New Order regime sent 11,948 political prisoners to the island, which was used as a prison camp.

During his time on Buru Island, Hersri was asked to write an undergraduate thesis for a first lieutenant. Upon his return from Buru in 1979, the soldier visited him to show his gratitude, as because of the thesis the soldier had been promoted to the rank of colonel.

Hersri's eight years on Buru Island were documented in his 2004 book Memoar Pulau Buru (Memoir from Buru Island).

In the first six months after his release, Hersri won two first prize essay-writing awards, which marked his debut in writing for national media.

In 1979, he published folklore stories under the pseudo name Anom Sosroharjo. He also established a translation bureau called Biro Translasi Inkultra (Inkultra Translation Bureau).

Hersri married Dutch writer Jitske Mulder in January 1981. The couple had one child, a daughter who now lives in Australia.

From 1981 to 1983, Hersri worked as an editor for publisher Ikhtiar Baru - Van Hoeve in Jakarta.

When the Indonesian media was not allowed to publish his work in 1984, he concentrated on translating and editing more than 20 books, including Akira Nagazumi's The Dawn of Indonesian Nationalism.

In 1987, the man who said he "had gone through everything except death during Soeharto's regime", moved to the Netherlands after his wife was diagnosed with cancer.

Jitske died in the Netherlands on April 22, 1989. She had finished her fifth and final book, Quartering, 24 days before her death.

Hersri translated her book into Indonesian under the title Selamat Tinggal Indonesia, which was first published in 1994 under the pseudo name Ruth Havelaar.

He went onto marry human rights activist Ita Nadia in 2004.

Now 72, Hersri returned to Indonesia in 2004 and is still an idealist writer. From 2002 to 2008 he published several books, including Aku eks Tapol (I'm an ex-tapol, 2003), Kamus Gestok (Gestok Dictionary, 2003), Memoar Pulau Buru (2004) and last year he published his poem anthology Inilah Pamflet itu (This is the Pamphlet).

Hersri said he does not regret what happened to him and would never admit that he did anything wrong in those dark years of Indonesia's history.

"Among the first questions they asked me was why I didn't run away. I didn't run because I didn't believe I had done anything wrong.

"I was only a member of Lekra and of the group of Asia-Africa writers ... please punish me if this is regarded as something wrong.

"It's usual for those in power to punish those who lose, whether they are right or wrong. But what can't be accepted is punishing people without any legal process."

Post Your Say

Selected comments will be published in the Readers’ Forum page of our print newspaper.