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Murder most beautiful, and poems of Putu Oka Sukanta

  • Zoe Reynolds

    The Jakarta Post

Sydney | Fri, July 26, 2013 | 12:30 pm
Murder most beautiful, and poems of Putu Oka Sukanta Killing fields: Balinese singer and gamelan player “Ketut” (not his real name), walks near the spot where two young artists were pursued by vigilantes and hacked to death during the Communist purge. (Zoe Reynolds)" height="300" border="0" width="510">Killing fields: Balinese singer and gamelan player “Ketut” (not his real name), walks near the spot where two young artists were pursued by vigilantes and hacked to death during the Communist purge. (Zoe Reynolds)

Putu Oka Sukanta survived one of the greatest atrocities in Indonesia during the violence of 1965-1966. In the second article of a two-part series, Zoe Reynolds writes how the internationally recognized Balinese writer and other artists silenced under Soeharto fared in prison and after their release.

On Oct. 21, 1966; soldiers came to arrest Sukanta in Mangga Besar in Central Jakarta. He was interrogated, tortured and imprisoned, first at the local military district command, then at Salemba Penitentiary in East Jakarta.

There was no arrest warrant, no trial.

Since being brought here, I have spoken mostly to myself.

Conversations, even with other longtime prisoners, are cursory.

I have lost the will to talk.

My breaths are short and labored,

though I cough less frequently now

—Sukanta, “In my cell”

Although prisoners were denied pen and paper, Sukanta could not be silenced. “A writer struggling for human rights and dignity will never stop writing, even if he must write on the sky, clouds and wind - on light and darkness,” Sukanta said in an essay. “Writing became my personal medicine and self-therapy.”

There was little medicine, so Sukanta learned acupuncture from a fellow prisoner. It was a remedy for injuries suffered during torture and the ills that came with starvation.

“We ate cockroaches, anything around us — even rats,” said “Ketut” (not his real name), a Balinese singer and gamelan player, in an oral history titled Memecah Pembisuan (Ending the Silence) compiled by Sukanta. “We planted spinach fertilized with our own feces.”

Ketut said in an interview that he once led a troupe of 30 village artists and performers in singing Sukarno’s proclamations in the rice fields and village halls. He once led me across a road and pointed to the spot where two men were pursued by vigilantes and hacked to death during the Communist purge.

After 10 years of suffering and detention, Sukanta was among 1.9 million political prisoners released in 1976 as the result of international pressure. Out of prison, the freed political prisoners lived under a type of house arrest, reporting to local authorities, watched, shunned by society and struggling to make a living.

Soeharto’s Indonesia, meanwhile, remained a dictatorship behind a facade of democracy.

He built prisons large and small, some with bars,

but also one without limits, as wide as the sky.

- Sukanta, “Jailers of Humanity”

For better, for worse: Sukanta at his wedding to his second wife, Endah. “It took three days, baby in arms, to find where he was,” Endah recalls of when Sukanta was detained after returning from an overseas visit. (Courtesy Putu Oka Sukanta)For better, for worse: Sukanta at his wedding to his second wife, Endah. “It took three days, baby in arms, to find where he was,” Endah recalls of when Sukanta was detained after returning from an overseas visit. (Courtesy Putu Oka Sukanta)
After he was freed, Sukanta married his first wife, Rasima, and earned a modest wage as an acupuncture practitioner. He, too, was lucky: Former political prisoners were barred from public service jobs or teaching. Papers and magazines feared employing them or printing their work.

Sukanta’s poetry became internationally renowned before he was widely read in his own country. His first anthology, Bali Strait, was published in 1982; his latest collection, Flower Letters from Ubud, in 2008.

Alongside poetry readings given in Hawaii and New York, Sukanta has been the guest of 18 nations, including Australia, Canada, China, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Sri Lanka, Sweden and the UK.

I have no stamp to post my letter

I place a blossom on the envelope

in its place

Dear honorable world I have grown many colors

From the blood of murdered artists

My fragrance is that of their names

– Sukanta

I first met Sukanta in 1982 when working for a daily newspaper in Jakarta. In 2008 we were dining in Sukasari Restaurant in the hills of Bogor, an hour’s drive from Jakarta — the poet; Hanafi Rustandi, a union leader; and I. Although Rustandi had no associations with the PKI or Lekra, they had much in common. The men compared their experiences of torture over a meal of fish, sate and salad.

“What about the rats? Did they use rats?” one asked of the other.

It had been 10 years since the fall of Soeharto when we ate. However, until the end of the New Order, Sukanta had been periodically arrested, interrogated and tortured.

I am back again in my cell

Rubbish lit by candlelight

A nest for rats

The sound of the interrogator’s worn and broken billiard

in the next room, hitting the cue ball

against the window of my heart all night.

Mental torture.

And the sewer rats run back and forward across my body at will,

the drone of mosquitoes in my ear

And the electric shocks pierce my brain.

Challenging preparations of interrogation to come

Or repeated beatings

Again

And again,

- Sukanta, “Back Again”.

The abuse typically followed his return from overseas.

Sukanta’s second wife, Endah, a dancer originally from a family of the court of Surakarta, Central Java, now runs a herbal medicine business in Bogor. “Every time he left I did not know if he would return,” she says.

“Once after he came back from Germany, they came to our house and took him away. The neighbors slammed their shutters and doors in my face and refused to talk to me. I wept. It took three days, baby in arms, to find where he was.”

Sarsa, Daddy can’t take you for walks in the mornings, pushing the pram I bought at the market.

You are like the cry of a poem in the night,

because I, your father, carry the burden of the poetry of the oppressed,

— Sukanta, “Back Again”.

Reap the whirlwind: The massacres of 1965 were reenacted in theater and dance at the launch of Sukanta’s collection of oral histories. (Zoe Reynolds)

Killing fields: Balinese singer and gamelan player '€œKetut'€ (not his real name), walks near the spot where two young artists were pursued by vigilantes and hacked to death during the Communist purge. (Zoe Reynolds)

Putu Oka Sukanta survived one of the greatest atrocities in Indonesia during the violence of 1965-1966. In the second article of a two-part series, Zoe Reynolds writes how the internationally recognized Balinese writer and other artists silenced under Soeharto fared in prison and after their release.

On Oct. 21, 1966; soldiers came to arrest Sukanta in Mangga Besar in Central Jakarta. He was interrogated, tortured and imprisoned, first at the local military district command, then at Salemba Penitentiary in East Jakarta.

There was no arrest warrant, no trial.

Since being brought here, I have spoken mostly to myself.

Conversations, even with other longtime prisoners, are cursory.

I have lost the will to talk.

My breaths are short and labored,

though I cough less frequently now

'€”Sukanta, '€œIn my cell'€

Although prisoners were denied pen and paper, Sukanta could not be silenced. '€œA writer struggling for human rights and dignity will never stop writing, even if he must write on the sky, clouds and wind - on light and darkness,'€ Sukanta said in an essay. '€œWriting became my personal medicine and self-therapy.'€

There was little medicine, so Sukanta learned acupuncture from a fellow prisoner. It was a remedy for injuries suffered during torture and the ills that came with starvation.

'€œWe ate cockroaches, anything around us '€” even rats,'€ said '€œKetut'€ (not his real name), a Balinese singer and gamelan player, in an oral history titled Memecah Pembisuan (Ending the Silence) compiled by Sukanta. '€œWe planted spinach fertilized with our own feces.'€

Ketut said in an interview that he once led a troupe of 30 village artists and performers in singing Sukarno'€™s proclamations in the rice fields and village halls. He once led me across a road and pointed to the spot where two men were pursued by vigilantes and hacked to death during the Communist purge.

After 10 years of suffering and detention, Sukanta was among 1.9 million political prisoners released in 1976 as the result of international pressure. Out of prison, the freed political prisoners lived under a type of house arrest, reporting to local authorities, watched, shunned by society and struggling to make a living.

Soeharto'€™s Indonesia, meanwhile, remained a dictatorship behind a facade of democracy.

He built prisons large and small, some with bars,

but also one without limits, as wide as the sky.

- Sukanta, '€œJailers of Humanity'€

For better, for worse: Sukanta at his wedding to his second wife, Endah. '€œIt took three days, baby in arms, to find where he was,'€ Endah recalls of when Sukanta was detained after returning from an overseas visit. (Courtesy Putu Oka Sukanta)For better, for worse: Sukanta at his wedding to his second wife, Endah. '€œIt took three days, baby in arms, to find where he was,'€ Endah recalls of when Sukanta was detained after returning from an overseas visit. (Courtesy Putu Oka Sukanta)
After he was freed, Sukanta married his first wife, Rasima, and earned a modest wage as an acupuncture practitioner. He, too, was lucky: Former political prisoners were barred from public service jobs or teaching. Papers and magazines feared employing them or printing their work.

Sukanta'€™s poetry became internationally renowned before he was widely read in his own country. His first anthology, Bali Strait, was published in 1982; his latest collection, Flower Letters from Ubud, in 2008.

Alongside poetry readings given in Hawaii and New York, Sukanta has been the guest of 18 nations, including Australia, Canada, China, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Sri Lanka, Sweden and the UK.

I have no stamp to post my letter

I place a blossom on the envelope

in its place

Dear honorable world I have grown many colors

From the blood of murdered artists

My fragrance is that of their names

'€“ Sukanta

I first met Sukanta in 1982 when working for a daily newspaper in Jakarta. In 2008 we were dining in Sukasari Restaurant in the hills of Bogor, an hour'€™s drive from Jakarta '€” the poet; Hanafi Rustandi, a union leader; and I. Although Rustandi had no associations with the PKI or Lekra, they had much in common. The men compared their experiences of torture over a meal of fish, sate and salad.

'€œWhat about the rats? Did they use rats?'€ one asked of the other.

It had been 10 years since the fall of Soeharto when we ate. However, until the end of the New Order, Sukanta had been periodically arrested, interrogated and tortured.

I am back again in my cell

Rubbish lit by candlelight

A nest for rats

The sound of the interrogator'€™s worn and broken billiard

in the next room, hitting the cue ball

against the window of my heart all night.

Mental torture.

And the sewer rats run back and forward across my body at will,

the drone of mosquitoes in my ear

And the electric shocks pierce my brain.

Challenging preparations of interrogation to come

Or repeated beatings

Again

And again,

- Sukanta, '€œBack Again'€.

The abuse typically followed his return from overseas.

Sukanta'€™s second wife, Endah, a dancer originally from a family of the court of Surakarta, Central Java, now runs a herbal medicine business in Bogor. '€œEvery time he left I did not know if he would return,'€ she says.

'€œOnce after he came back from Germany, they came to our house and took him away. The neighbors slammed their shutters and doors in my face and refused to talk to me. I wept. It took three days, baby in arms, to find where he was.'€

Sarsa, Daddy can'€™t take you for walks in the mornings, pushing the pram I bought at the market.

You are like the cry of a poem in the night,

because I, your father, carry the burden of the poetry of the oppressed,

'€” Sukanta, '€œBack Again'€.

Reap the whirlwind: The massacres of 1965 were reenacted in theater and dance at the launch of Sukanta'€™s collection of oral histories. (Zoe Reynolds)Reap the whirlwind: The massacres of 1965 were reenacted in theater and dance at the launch of Sukanta'€™s collection of oral histories. (Zoe Reynolds)
Endah used her connections in Surakarta to get her husband released. '€œI could tell what had happened,'€ she recalls.'€œBut neither of us spoke of it.'€

Sukanta, whose ID card lists him as a former political prisoner, still works to shine a light into one of the darkest crevices in Indonesian history. He has made four documentaries on the Communist purge and released a collection of oral histories titled '€œEnding the Silencing'€ in 2011.

One of the speakers at the launch was Imam Aziz from Nahdatul Ulama, Indonesia'€™s largest Islamic social group. He was on hand to apologize for the organization'€™s role in the violence.

'€œSoeharto ordered us to kill members of the PKI,'€according to one of the stories read that night. '€œThe police chief ordered us. At the time no one had the courage to question whether it was right or not. If we spoke a word of compassion for the victims we would be regarded as in sympathy with the communists and could be killed ourselves.'€

Later, Sukanta told the guests that it was difficult to imagine that the government would apologize for the past.

'€œWe can, meanwhile, do something good ourselves as individuals, and together fight to reclaim our humanity. We are beginning to have the courage to break the silencing. Even if those in power still refuse to listen,'€ Sukanta said. '€œBut enough words.'€

The lights were dimmed, the curtains raised and the massacres of 1965 were reenacted in theater, song, dance and poetry.

Murder most beautiful.

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