Putu Oka Sukanta, an important Indonesia literary figure slated to appear at this year’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, started his career writing poetry at 16. By the time he was 27 he had also written short stories and novels, and had left his native Bali for Yogya and Jakarta. That was the year, 1966,  his world turned upside down. Imprisoned for being a member of the communist cultural organization LEKRA, he spent 10 years in prison without trial.

interview by Rio Helmi

RIO HELMI: You have endured the bitterness of being repressd politcally and being imprisoned for a long time. Until now, the Indonesian central government, involved institutions, and the like have not admitted that any transgressions of human rights occurred during 1965/1966. So far only one mayor (of Palu, Sulawesi) has admitted the fact, apologized, and promised to fulfill the basic human rights of the victims’ families. Do you still have the desire to obtain justice, or at the least admission that trangression of human rights occurred nationwide in 1965? Or at the very least in individual regions like in the city of Palu? Is this even possible?

PUTU OKA SUKANTA: I have been active, individually and collectively, in urging the government, formal and informal leaders, politicians, leaders of the nation and the public in general to recognize that the state had perpetrated violence on its own people. This has taken place since the end of 1965, and in the following years, in various regions of Indonesia and in various different ways. So in order to get closure on the transgression of human rights in the past, the first thing that has to be done is an open admission by the government, that the state has perpetrated violence. This is a transgression of human rights, a demeaning of human dignity.

Why is this a difficult thing for the government to do? Because basically the mentality of the government since Reformasi (post Soeharto era) is still dominated by the New Order mentality, a regime that perpetrated this violence.

I followed the process of honoring human rights in Palu, for two years (2011/12) I worked together with the Solidarity for the Victims of Human Rights Transgressions (SKPHAM) in Palu, launching and discussing my book “Memecahkan Pembisuan” (Shattering the Muting) and the novel “Istana Jiwa” (Palace of the Soul). I followed the process both with Mayor Rusdy Masturoh and other echelons of the local government. I joined the survivors to transform the bitterness into taking steps that were actually possible. Through communication and efforts to understand each other’s perspective during 1965, and the implications of that time, a consensus was reached that the victims civil rights needed to be restored, and their human dignity as well.

These steps should be developed and spread to other groups and regions. But it depends very much on the capacity of the groups that care and see the need to resolve the human rights issue as well as the attitude of the local government leaders.

p22-aportrait.img_assist_custom-339x499                                    Putu Oka Sukanta at 16

RH: During 10 years in Salemba prison, what kept you going?

POS: (In prison) I rejected all accusations of guilt. I assured myself that I was not guilty, because I was never put on trial in court. This degradation I fought by working to maintain dignity wherever I was, and in any situation within prison. I also worked to build solidarity amongst the prisoners. I made my fellow prisoners into books that I never finished reading nor studying.

RH: You made documentary films about the victims of 1965. Have you watched Joshua Oppenheimer’s films “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence”? How did you feel watching those films?

POS: I have watched them, and participated in organizing the screening of both films in several places. I was even invited by Sunway University in Selangor to comment on “The Look of Silence”. For the viewer who has not yet read about the history of the Indonesian people, it is a little difficult to properly understand these films, especially The Act of Killing. I screened this film amongst students in Bali. Many of them were laughing and making stupid remarks during several scenes. They said it was a funny horror film.

When we got into the discussion session, they began to understand that this was a documentary about the slaughter of people accused of being communists in North Sumatra.

The Look of Silence is easier to understand, and the viewers asked, how come these killings were allowed to take place by the governments, and how come the perpetrators are still free today and even feel proud of what they did?

Neither of these films actually explain enough about the context of the Cold War: several researchers have proven that there were foreign powers involved in the human tragedy of 1965.

These two films have been of extraordinary service in informing the world that the Indonesian people have yet to establish a humane civilization and has not yet done it’s utmost to respect the basic human rights as the foundatons of building a democracy.

RH: As a writer, is writing now a process of healing for you? Or are you simply driven by the desire for artistic perfection? Has there been a change in your attitude towards your own work as the years pass and you get further from the bitter realities of the past? Can you leave that bitterness behind?

POS: I still write driven by the slogan and paradigm which I express at each opportunity, that writing is a movement that calls us to live. Writing is a part of the struggle for life, to become human once more.

The goal has not yet been achieved, that is a condition that reflects the respecting of the equality in diversity. Thus, even though the situation now is far more humane than during the New Order, writing remains the door to healing; for me as a writer and for those readers who feel they have been demeaned.

By reading my work, hopefully those readers whose hearts are sensitive to humanity will think again – at last toward the mistaken attitudes and processes involved in understanding the human tragedy of 1965/66.

RH: Do you feel freer compared to the New Order days?

POS: Yes. I have more room to express myself.

RH: After your release you began studying and practicing acupuncture. What initially drove you in that direction?

POS: When I was in prison I secretly began learning foreign languages, cutting hair, cultivating mushrooms, making tahu and tempe, and ‘totok’ (a kind of acupressure) which is based on the same theory as acupuncture. I was sure that the government was not going to provide any kind of work for me if I was released in good physical and spiritual health, there was already too much unemployment to cope with.

Once outside I learned acupuncture systematically, then undertook qualifying examinations held by the Professional Organisation and Institute of Health in 1977. After passing I obtained by permit to practice in 1978, and have been a practicing acupuncturist since.

RH: You said that all your activites are dedicated to the fight for equality in diversity. Yet you were once again arrested by the BAKORNASDA (the regional branch of the national government coordinating body for security in Jakarta) who demanded an explanation of your activities teaching health and medicine to ordinary people. They connected it to the PKI communist party even though your activities were coordinated with the Indonesian Health Department. Is that correct?

POS: Yes I was arrested, and held for 10 days and tortured: beaten and electrocuted. I was blamed for not obtaining permission to travel when invited overseas, both for learning acupuncture and for cultural activities. They said there was an underground communist party that arranged and financed my acitivites, including the traditional medicine foundation that I established and led. I was considered culpable because several ex-political prisoners worked in the clinic, and that I was teaching the public how to live a self-managed healthy way of life. The intelligence person interrogating me said that was how the PKI works. I had to prove that all those accusations were not true. In the end they closed down the foundation, and all the ex-prisoners were interrogated but not imprisoned.

RH: Are you personally still active in the field of HIV-AIDS prevention and treatment?

POS: I am still active, both in a private capacity and institutionally, serving those who are in need. Since the last three years I no longer work in programs with foreign institutions. Taman Sringanis is the institution where my wife and I contribute our ideas of Gerakan Budaya (cultural movement) in the field of health. For us health is culture, not technology or industry.

RH: Do you know that your Wikipedia page in Indonesian is super short compared to your English one? In the Indonesian one there is no politcal reference…

POS: I know, and am thankful for whatever there is because the information there is entirely dependent on the interest of the contributor. I can’t do anything except be grateful – even if there is only little information at least there is some. Those who would like to know about me and what I do will surely find a way to do so.

RH: What do you think about the development of Balinese and Indonesian literature in Bali these days? Your motto that writing is the struggle for life – does that apply here?

POS: I am pleased to see the rich growth in modern Indonesian literature in Bali. Many young writers, men and women born in Bali, write what they feel is important to write about. They chose for themselves the goals and reasons for which they write. Their life experiences and dreams shape the goals that they determine for themselves. The struggle for life takes on vast dimensions, segmented and varied. Struggling for life essentially means improving the quality of life to a level that is more humane; more respectful of diversity. I am sure that writers are sensitive to humiliation so that their work will breathe resistance to the systemic manifestation of such abuses. The words they choose would not be empty. This September I will go with Oka Rusmini and Cok Sawitri to Hamburg and Frankfurt for the Frankfurt Book Fair. We will focus on the theme of ‘Bali Now’ through our writings.


feature photo courtesy Ubud Writers and Readers festival