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Kadir Soelardjo, a 29-year-old medical student from Medan, North Sumatra, had been a guest at an event commemorating 16th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in Tiananmen, Beijing, when he received the news: there’d been an attempted coup back home.
In the early hours of 1 October 1965, six army generals in Jakarta, including Army Commander Lieutenant-General Ahmad Yani, had been abducted and assassinated by dissident members of the Indonesian Army who referred to themselves as the 30 September Movement. It was a fairly short-lived movement; Army Strategic Reserve Commander Major-General Suharto crushed the attempted coup that evening. The plot was blamed on the pro-Beijing PKI, triggering a large-scale anti-communist purge. Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, was politically weakened and forced to cede power to Suharto, who was formally appointed president in 1968.
A member of the Communist Party–affiliated CGMI (Concentration of the Indonesian Students Movement), Kadir became one of hundreds of Indonesians in Eastern Europe and China—mostly students, scholars and civil servants—who were exiled for their refusal to support Suharto’s New Order.
Not all of them were affiliated to the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI): I Ketut Putera was 23 when he got a scholarship to study economics in Bulgaria in 1963. Sukarno had pushed for higher education abroad for Indonesians, believing that they could help build the nation upon their return.
“I’m not a political person,” said Putera. “Nevertheless, I took the risk to support Bung (Brother) Karno.”
Kadir and Putera are among an estimated 500 orang pelarian politik (political fugitives) who had their Indonesian passports revoked after they refused to recognise Suharto’s regime. These exiles include literary figures such as Utuy Tatang Sontani and Sobron Aidit, the younger brother of PKI chair D. N. Aidit.
The stories of these exiles are little known these days, both within and without Indonesia. A veteran journalist is trying to change this; Martin Aleida has compiled the stories of Kadir, Putera and 17 others in his book Tanah Air Yang Hilang (Homeland Lost), published in Bahasa Indonesia in August last year.
Between March and June 2016, Martin travelled to cities like Amsterdam, The Hague, Berlin, Cologne, Paris, Prague and Sofia, where he interviewed 30 exiles about their experiences. “First, it’s to give a picture to the people of Indonesia, particularly the young generation, that there are Indonesians who are treated unfairly whose citizenship has been invalidated,” he tells New Naratif. “The second motivation is a drive within me as a journalist that their stories, the exiles, must be written.”
Scholars in exile
In the early 1960s, Sukarno deepened ties with Communist-bloc countries. College degree programmes and scholarships, particularly to China and Eastern Europe, became available to young Indonesians.
The People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union had the most Indonesian students. After Suharto wrested power from Sukarno, Indonesia’s relations with the Eastern-bloc states, particularly China, soured.
The students were able to continue their studies but were called in by the Indonesian embassies for what was termed a “screening”. These sessions were essentially loyalty tests, with one dominant question: “Do you accept or not accept Suharto’s New Order?”
These sessions were essentially loyalty tests, with one dominant question: “Do you accept or not accept Suharto’s New Order?”
Child psychology student Soejono Soegeng Pangestu at Charles University in Prague was defiant. He challenged the screening officer to explain what the New Order was, in relation to the news of widespread killings. For stating that he could not accept a regime that did not honour basic human rights, the Indonesian embassy in the Czech capital did not extend the validity of his passport. Others faced the same treatment: one either expressed support for the new president or lost the right to return home.
“[I]n their case, they did not get the opportunity to defend themselves,” says Martin. “They were summoned to the embassy for interrogation. And basically, after interrogation, if they declared [that] they only accepted the old government, in this case it was President Sukarno who sent them abroad, it would be a major problem for them if they returned home to Indonesia. [They] could have been arrested or faced something worse.”
Unable to return to their home country, some exiles were provided with jobs by their host country upon graduation, while others moved to Western Europe to seek asylum. After having rubbed shoulders with Chinese Communist Party officials, Kadir Soelardjo found himself moving to Amsterdam where he began working as a waiter in a Balinese restaurant. His wife, Melia Siregar, and daughter, Ita, joined him from Indonesia in 1976.
Strength amid adversity
Every exile profiled in the book has an exceptional story, presenting varied examples of persistence and resilience in the face of numerous hurdles.
Sobron Aidit moved to China to teach Bahasa Indonesia in the 1960s and prevented from returning post-1965. “But [then] the 1966 Cultural Revolution erupted. He was a prominent figure ostracised, isolated,” Martin says.
After the death of his wife in 1981, Sobron flew to France with his two teenage daughters, Nita and Wita, and successfully sought political asylum. A year later, he and other political exiles opened the Restaurant Indonesia, serving Indonesian fare in a European city known for its sophisticated tastes.
Today, his daughter Nita runs the restaurant; her father passed away in 2007. Her customers, about 95% of whom are French, have their favourites—authentic Indonesian dishes like nasi goreng, sate and rendang—and the establishment has made it into the Guide Michelin. It’s a level of success that belies the fact that, during the New Order years, the Indonesian embassy forbade Indonesians to patronise it. It was only after Suharto stepped down in 1998 that the taboo was shattered.
“[T]hat oppression is not one layer in the sense that they are hounded by the New Order regime … the oppression was layered”
Another singular story is that of Waruno Machdi, born in Bogor in 1944. The son of a diplomat, he spent most of his boyhood overseas. He received his chemical engineering degree in Moscow and lived in the Soviet Union for 20 years. Although he states that he’s not a Communist, Machdi identifies himself as a Sukarno supporter. In 1977 he moved to West Berlin, using an exit visa issued by the Soviet Union to get himself to the American sector of the city; he hadn’t been able to get along with the pro-Moscow Indonesian exiles in the Soviet Union.
He landed a job as an assistant researcher at the Fritz Haber Institute, a science research institute affiliated with the Max Planck Gesellschaft (Society) in Berlin. The institute needed someone with experience working with air-sensitive elements that couldn’t mix with oxygen. There were twenty applicants, mostly Germans, but Machdi got the job; he’d worked in a similar field in the Soviet Union. This serendipitous result makes him one of the few exiles who has secured continued employment in the field of their academic study.
When asked for his impression of the exiles he’d interviewed, Martin swiftly zeroes in on what struck him the most: “Their strength. Meaning they could endure the political oppression. They could overcome it. And that oppression is not one layer in the sense that they are hounded by the New Order regime. But when they were in the People’s Republic of China, they were banished to a place 200 kilometres away from Beijing. They had no freedom for contact with the outside. When they received visitors, the visitors had to be registered first. So, the oppression was layered.”
Contributions and recognition (at long last)
When Abdurrahman Wahid became Indonesia’s fourth president—remaining in power from 1999 to 2001—he invited the political exiles home. But the ship has sailed for many of these exiles and their families; they’ve adopted other nationalities and aren’t officially Indonesian citizens any longer.
The future generations, too, might not recognise Indonesia as home. Nita, for instance, compared visits to Indonesia to going on “a stroll”, as opposed to returning to her kampung (village). She’s gone to Indonesia four times—once to bring her father’s ashes to his birthplace of Belitung, an island off the east coast of southern Sumatra.
Martin says that these stories highlight the “presence of injustice”, and that “to the present day this injustice prevails affecting a number of people despite regime change.”
But some exiles have been more successful in bridging the gap and gaining the gratitude of the Indonesian government for advancing bilateral relations.
Putera’s connection to Bulgaria, for example, has proven useful: in 2004, when a Bulgarian trade delegation travelled to Indonesia, Putera—who had worked at the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry after earning a PhD in economics in 1973—was asked to serve as the delegation’s interpreter. He reprised this role in 2006, when Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, then the mayor of Surakarta, visited the Bulgarian city of Montana to sign a sister-city partnership.
His efforts have since been recognised. During an embassy function in 2015 marking the 70th anniversary of Indonesia’s proclamation of independence, the Indonesian ambassador to Bulgaria presented Putera with the first serving of tumpeng, a ceremonial rice cone with beef, chicken and assorted side dishes. Putera was 75 years old then, the eldest in the reception, and the gesture of respect was a significant one: an official acknowledgement of an Indonesian in exile whose lost homeland has been regained.
But not all exiles have led successful, fulfilling lives: a sports reporter who had worked for the Warta Bhakti daily newspaper suffered from depression and ended up taking his own life in Amsterdam. His wife asked Martin not to use her husband’s name in the book. Instead, Martin republished a fictionalised account of the journalist’s life that he had written in June 2016. The story had been voted as the best short story published in the newspaper Kompas that year.
Producing Tanah Air Yang Hilang has been a labour of love. Martin’s friends—some of them writers and poets themselves—donated money to fund his travels, while the exiles put him up whenever he visited.
There are many more stories to be told. There were, for instance, individuals who had attended the 1965 commemoration of the founding of the People’s Republic of China—the same event that Kadir Soelardjo had been at—who had returned to Indonesia, only to suffer repercussions.
Wikana was one such person. He’d been a youth activist and a PKI member in the Provisional People’s Consultative Assembly. A year after his return from China, Wikana was picked up by soldiers at his East Jakarta house and disappeared. His wife has had no word of his whereabouts, nor of his fate.
Martin’s aware that there’s much more to be said about this part of Indonesian history. He has no plans so far to release a second volume of the exile’s experiences, but says he’s planning to spend two to three years writing about the 30 September Movement: “In the past months I’ve been collecting books about the event abroad and domestically. But I’m looking for the testimony of victims. Their notes. Facebook has plenty of it. […] There are blogs that bring together [such testimony]. I want to bring out the human side.”
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