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Poetry from Prison

Internationally recognised Indonesian poet and writer Putu Oka Sukanta is receiving a life time achievement award at the Ubud Readers' and Writers' Festival in October, 2022.

IMAGE: Zoe Reynolds

My profile piece on Sukanta (below) was first published in the Jakarta Post in July, 2013.

Putu Oka Sukanta survived one of the greatest atrocities in Indonesia during the violence of 1965-1966.

In this two-part series, Zoe Reynolds writes how the internationally recognized Balinese writer '€” and others silenced under Soeharto used the arts to voice opposition to persecution and injustice. I gaze at the Statue of Liberty And think of poetry written in prison. – Sukanta, '€˜Statue of Liberty'€™

So wrote Balinese poet Putu Oka Sukanta on a visit to New York in 2000. Now Sukanta writes from his home in East Jakarta, with funding from a Hellman/Hammett grant for courage in the face of persecution. The grant, by the New York-based Human Rights Watch, is named for the late American playwright Lillian Hellman and companion, novelist Dashiell Hammett. Both were persecuted during the McCarthy Communist witch hunt in the US in the 1950s. Like Hellman and Hammett, Sukanta, now 78, was a victim of the Cold War. Sukanta'€™s writings, spanning five decades, € three novels, short stories, essays, oral histories and documentaries '€” document how many artists found inspiration from the hell of incarceration and how they could not be silenced. He is foremost among the artists, writers, teachers, journalists and labor leaders who survived the 1965 Communist purge that followed the ouster of the Sukarno government and saw the ascension of Soeharto.

Yet Sukanta was not among his colleagues huddled in the pressroom of the National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) in July 2012, when it released its 468-page report into the mass killings that followed the purge.

'€œI have my work to do,'€ Sukanta said. '€œThe President will not apologize,'€ he said.. '€œThe perpetrators will not be imprisoned.'€

IMAGES: Sukanta as a child (right) and family, Singaraja, Bali. Images provided

Sukanta grew up in Singaraja in Buleleng, North Bali, as one of five children. His mother and father were illiterate small farmers and he was the first in his generation to go to school.

'€œBefore the Revolution under the Dutch, only the rich could afford to send their children to school,'€ Sukanta recalls.

When he was 16, Sukanta was publishing his writings in newspapers and magazines in Bali and Java such as Suara Indonesia, Balai Pustaka, and Waspada. He went on to study and then lecture at Tamansiswa University in Yogyakarta

Portrait of the artist (above): Sukanta reading poetry in high school in Bali in the 1950s.i (top). Images provided

In 1965, Sukanta was teaching at a private high school in Koja, Jakarta, living with artists and writers associated with the People'€™s Institute of Culture (Lekra), although he said that he himself was not a member.

Sukanta as a teacher. Image provided

Lekra was associated with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), which in turn was an arm of the government. Like the Hindu god Brahma, Sukarno had many arms at play '€” nationalism, religion and communism '€” known by the acronym Nasakom. Sukarno had declared that Indonesia would move toward a socialist economy. Eighty percent of industry had already been nationalized. But the brutal repression of the PKI after they were alleged to have launched the abortive coup of Sept. 30, 1965 changed everything. It is said the '€œthree greens'€ turned the rice fields of Bali and beyond red, referring to then-US ambassador to Indonesia Marshall Green, the green of the Indonesian Army and the green of Islam. Muslims were told that the PKI members were kafir, or infidels, and were urged to wage a holy war against them.

They cut down at night, They set fire at night, They run amok, day and night And I was one who ran helter skelter '€– Sukanta, from a poem performed in 2011

The figures on how many were killed in the ensuing violence vary wildly '€” from half a million, according to the CIA, to three million, according to the late Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, President Yudhoyono'€™s father-in-law, who headed the military campaign at the time as commandant of the Army'€™s Special Forces. '€œThe conservative estimate is 80,000 dead in Bali alone,'€ said Adrian Vickers, professor of Southeast Asian studies at the University of Sydney. '€œBali and East Java had the most intense killings. But whenever people have tried forensic research in Bali they have been blocked. Even now, people doing any study on the killings are harassed by the police,'€ Vickers said in a telephone interview.

An estimated one in 20 Balinese died, typically unarmed, at the hands of vigilante groups dressed in black and armed with machetes and swords between December 1965 and March 1966. '€œWhen the graveyards lit up at night you knew the killings were under way,'€ said Balinese painter Raka Suwasta. '€œI saw the lights walking home to Denpasar one night and fled. Then the military came. There was a knock on the door. They took me away.'€ Suwasta now lives on the other side of Ubud'€™s Monkey Forest. In 1965, he was designing political posters '€” something he now regrets. '€œArt should be pure,'€ Suwasta said, seated among framed oils of flowers and dancers in his studio. '€œPolitics can ruin art. It should be objective. Like journalism, don'€™t you think?'€ There is little objectivity in the accounts of 1965-66. The official version is a very different from the stories told by the victims of the purge. The generals who ruled Indonesia until the fall of Soeharto in 1998 point to the murder of six of their own in the bloody killings at Lubang Buaya (Crocodile Hole) in East Jakarta and the abortive coup. Others, such as Peter Dale Scott, a former Canadian diplomat and a professor at the University of California, claim that a dalang (or puppet master) '€” maybe the CIA, maybe Soeharto '€” was manipulating the events that led to Lubang Buaya to justify the bloodletting to come. '€œThe academic jury is still out on that one,'€ Akihisa Matsuno, a professor who studies Indonesia at Osaka University in Japan, said in an interview. '€œWe still don'€™t have enough evidence to conclusively support either version. But there are no doubts about the Indonesian Army'€™s involvement and US support for the civilian massacres to follow.'€ The US provided arms, communications and logistics during the mass killings, The Washington Post reported. At the height of the bloodbath, embassy cables showed Green assuring Soeharto. '€œThe US is generally sympathetic with and admiring of what the army is doing.'€ After the slaughter, an estimated two million women and men had been imprisoned and detained without trial. Sukanta was among them.

A soldier on guard at gate 5 bland smile, fiery jackal eyes Behind gate 7 a heap of souls incarnated as numbers '€– Sukanta, '€˜The Face of Salemba'€™

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 feaces.'€

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 and Kutut were 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.

IMAGE: Sukanta on his release from prison in 1976. Images provided

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:

After he was freed, Sukanta married his first wife, Rasima, and earned a modest wage as an acupuncture practitioner. He, 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.

Reading, Jakarta, 2014. IMAGE: Zoe Reynolds

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 (now deceased) ; 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


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.

Sukanta's wife Endah - as a dancer and modal (above) and at their wedding (below) Images provided by Sukanta

Sukanta's wife Endah as a professional dancer (above) With Sukanta at their wedding (below)

'€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'€.

Sukanta at his home in Rawamangun, East Jakarta, 2016. • IMAGE: 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.

IMAGE: Zoe Reynolds

Breaking the Silence book launch Jakarta, 2011 • IMAGE: Zoe Reynolds

Postscript: the killings came under the spotlight with the release of classified documents in the USA.

In January, 2023 President Joko Widowo did express regret for gross human rights violations committed in Indonesia in the past, among them an anti-communist purge in 1965 and 1966, saying his government would issue compensation to families to achieve reconciliation. Sukanta said this was not enough. Those responsible for the atrocities should be brought to justice

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