Features | Society | Southeast Asia

To Buru Island: A Journey to the Dark Side of Indonesia’s Past

Mars Noersmono’s story is a first-person account of a nation’s shame.

By Duncan Graham for
To Buru Island: A Journey to the Dark Side of Indonesia’s Past

In this Sept. 4, 2016 photo, Sabar, former political prisoner who was jailed for eight years without trial for being a member of the Peasants Front, one of the mass organizations of Indonesia’s Communist Party, walks in the teak forest where a mass grave is located, in Darupono, Central Java, Indonesia.

Credit: AP Photo/Dita Alangkara

Mars Noersmono has a story he’s determined to tell. It’s deeply disturbing — a tale of horror and courage, despair and resilience.  

Although primarily about Indonesia’s bloody and brutal past, it’s also a sober warning against authoritarian governments everywhere that ignore the rule of law and create civilian panic against mythical monsters to justify violence and maintain power.

The illegality and human suffering is strong enough, but this is also a first-person account of a nation’s shame.

In September 1965, a coup was allegedly staged in Jakarta. Six generals and a lieutenant were murdered, but no uprising followed. General Suharto took control of the military and placed blame for the coup on the Communist Party of Indonesia, the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI). Three three years later Suharto would supplant President Sukarno and became president himself. The rule of his authoritarian Orde Baru (New Order) administration would last 32 years.

Shortly after the alleged coup attempt, in October 1965, the PKI was banned and the slaughter started – not of invading foreigners or armed revolutionaries – but unarmed ordinary citizens who had been peacefully (“though not uncritically,” said Noersmono) supported Sukarno’s anti-colonial rhetoric. An estimated half-million died, their bodies thrown in rivers and mass graves.

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The regime change was much welcomed by Western governments. While aware of the killings, they failed to protest. Official documents only recently released in the United States and Australia showed diplomats reported the events back to their bases in Washington, London and Canberra.

In 1965, the Cold War was at its height. U.S. and other troops, including Australians, were fighting a losing war in Vietnam to stop the southward spread of communism; the abrupt and dramatic lurch to the right in Indonesian politics was seen as an end to the Red Tide.

In mid 1966, Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt reportedly told the Australian-American Association in New York that “with 500,000 to one million Communist sympathisers knocked off, I think it is safe to assume a reorientation has taken place.”

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency was less callous. In 1968, a secret report claimed the killings “rank as one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century, along with the Soviet purges of the 1930s, the Nazi mass murders during the Second World War, and the Maoist bloodbath of the early 1950s.”

Thousands of others were arrested and jailed. They were never charged or given the chance to plead in court. Nor were they told what crimes they’d allegedly committed.  

The brightest, perceived by Suharto to be the most threatening, were not violent men but rather academics, teachers, writers and artists — the people essential to build a new society. These people were exiled to remote Buru Island, 2,700 kilometers northeast of Jakarta. Among the 12,000 was Noersmono.

Noersmono has now added his voice to the call for justice with Bertahan Hidup di Pulau Buru (A Prisoner’s Life on Buru Island), which he started to write when Suharto fell late last century and Indonesia became democratic.

Writing was the easy part.

Noersmono spent 15 years searching for a publisher prepared to face the wrath of the government and the many powerful forces determined to stop revelations of their involvement, or their relatives’ role in the massacres. These include the army, the police and religious organizations.

Only Bandung publisher Ultimus was prepared to take the risk, but few copies landed on mainstream bookshop shelves.

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“I wrote the book because I want the younger generation to understand the truth, and pay respect to those who did not survive,” Noersmono said. “We are asking for recognition before we all die – is that too much?

“Writing has also lifted the burden I’ve been carrying for so long, and that’s a relief.  My dreams are now not so bad.”

For a moment the frail 79-year old broke down: “It’s only the second time I’ve cried – the first was in Yogyakarta (Central Java) when I was telling students my story.

“It has taken so long for me to get to this point because I’ve been afraid to be wrong. The brutality of Buru destroyed our confidence. We feared something bad would happen if we spoke out. We were totally powerless.”

Noersmono’s account is not a pity-me tract in a cheap printing, but a well-written and detailed 358-page history of the vile years and the torture, how the men lived, worked and found ways to adapt.

The book includes pictures of the prisoners drawn by the author, who among his many talents is also a fine draughtsman. Only a few blurred and grainy photos have survived; most prison buildings on the island have been torn down, so Noersmono’s sketches are invaluable.

Now back on Buru after spending the past few years with relatives in the East Java city of Malang, he has started sketching again in the hope that his pictures can be exhibited to keep the story alive.

Noersmono’s journey to jail started when he was 25, an undergraduate in his final year of engineering at Bandung’s prestigious Institute of Technology. Before heading to the West Java capital he’d studied art in Jakarta and had taken courses in architecture.

His father had been educated in a Dutch Catholic school and was the head of the nation’s Post and Telecommunications Service. Though staunch nationalists, the family often spoke Dutch in their large Jakarta home. They also owned a brickworks.  

Noersmono was the youngest of four and expected to manage the company after graduating.

“It was a happy family,” Noersmono said. “We were always talking about politics.  During the campaign against the Dutch after Sukarno’s 1945 Proclamation of Independence my father sent secret coded messages to the revolutionaries fighting in Surabaya.”

Like students worldwide, Noersmono was involved in discussion groups. The most popular was Consentrasi Gerakan Mahasiswa Indonesia (CGMI Indonesian Student Organization). It held a congress in Jakarta in late September 1965, which Noersmono attended just before the coup attempt took place.

“It was a frightening and chaotic time,” he said.  “We didn’t know what was happening.”

Noersmono’s eldest brother, Zochar, who worked as a translator of Chinese texts and was a leader in the CGMI, had a tip-off or premonition.  He fled to the Dutch Embassy with his young wife and was flown out of the country, first to China and then the Netherlands where he became a pharmacist.

On October 17, two members of the local militia came to the family home. “We knew them, they were neighbors,” said Noersmono. “They were reasonably polite and asked us to follow them to an office, but we heard of shootings so were getting nervous.

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“A few days later my parents and I were arrested. The CGMI was banned. My Dad was to spend 18 years in prison, my mother three. My sister and brother fled Jakarta and weren’t caught.”

After spells in Jakarta jails, in 1970 Noersmono and 500 others were shipped to Buru. The voyage took five days and they were never told where they were heading; by then they’d heard of the mass killings, so were in great fear.

The government line has always been that the killings were spontaneous reactions by outraged pious peasants who hated the godless Marxists and could not be stopped.

This story has by now been well buried by overseas academics like Australian Dr. Jess Melvin – who state categorically that the slaughter was carefully organized by the army.

Her certainty is based on original documents she was given in Aceh by the military.  

It has long been suspected that the papers exist, but the young doctoral student trounced all senior academics just by asking at an army office for them.  Her book about the find, The Army and the Indonesian Genocide, published last year, has rocked historians in Indonesia and overseas.

The genocide was engineered through a secret police unit with the Orwellian title Kopkamtib (Komando Operasi Pemulihan Keamanan dan Ketertiban – Operational Command for the Restoration of Security and Order.)

The men swinging the machetes and firing the rifles supplied by Kopkamtib weren’t all Muslims – Christians were also involved, particularly on Flores and islands further east.

The killings are often described as “executions,” which sounds swift, legal even. But many prisoners were viciously tortured, women mutilated and raped. How could such things happen in a culture of respect and conservative values?

Some participants look back with guilt and regret; others justify their actions by saying the times were so turbulent and the issues were black and white – for us or against us. Suharto’s propaganda unit had created an environment dense with hate. It coined the ominous term Gestapu for the coup and wrongly claimed the generals’ bodies had been mutilated.

Once on Buru the men, who had already been stripped of their civil rights, suffered further indignities. Noersmono’s shirt was stenciled number 493. With a few basic tools they were ordered by armed guards to clear the forest and build a barracks.

“For the first two months we had nowhere to live except the open air,” he said.  “We lived on rice porridge and whatever protein we could catch or gather.”

The prisoners were labeled tapol, an acronym for tahanan politik – political prisoner and held for up to 13 years.

The tapol have never been compensated for their wrongful imprisonment. Their plight has still to be officially recognized. Present President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who originally pledged to open discussions, visited Buru in 2015 but used the opportunity to urge farmers to improve rice yields. He said there’d be no inquiry.

Noersmono’s son Dwinura agreed – though with bitterness. “This is not South Africa,” he said. “There’s no Nelson Mandela driving the airing of history.

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“I’m proud of our father and we want his good name restored. He didn’t hurt anyone or steal anything – so what did he do to end in prison? I want recognition of the wrongs done to so many who committed no crimes. The army stole Dad’s land in Jakarta; there’s been no compensation.There’ll be no reconciliation, no national apology as in other countries like Australia. This is Indonesia.”

Dwinura and his two brothers were born on Buru in the 1980s after his father married the daughter of another tapol and stayed on the island after release. About 200 others also remained.

“There was nothing left for us back in Java,” Noersmono said. “Our ID cards included the code ET identifying us as ex tapol. This ensured we were shunned by employers, friends, and neighbors – and sometimes by relatives who feared guilt by association.”

The tapol were only partly free; they were kept under surveillance, had to report regularly to the police and were denied property rights and work in the public service.

Once the camps were closed the Orde Baru government started a transmigration program moving poor farming families from overcrowded Java to Buru where they were given land to grow crops.

The newcomers took over the jungle clearings opened up by the tapol, accessing their homes on roads cut into the interior by the former prisoners who received nothing.

Noersmono became a contractor using the skills he’d learned at university and built his own house. He also designed and supervised the construction of a Rehoboth Presbyterian Church named after a pioneering chapel established in the U.S. state of West Virginia in 1786. The Buru church was fire-bombed by Muslim mobs during the 1999 nationwide ethnic and religious riots following the fall of Suharto the previous year. Funds were raised, and its renovation is underway.

The prison camps were closed in 1980 after pressure from overseas governments.  Change was also hastened following the publishing of The Buru Quartet.

The novels, banned until recently in Indonesia, were written by the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer who was held for 13 years on the island. Pramoedya died in 2006 and is the only Indonesian writer to ever be nominated for a Nobel Prize. He was sent to Buru for having “Marxist-Leninist thoughts.”

Although forbidden to write and denied pens and paper “Pram” still managed to produce his fiction set in the Dutch East Indies at the start of the 20th century. The books are about a young man named Minke and his growing awareness of colonization; nowhere is “Indonesia” mentioned.

He composed and memorized his works and kept them fresh by reading aloud to fellow tapol at night. When he eventually got access to paper friends helped smuggle the manuscripts to Java where they were printed in clandestine workshops.

The Buru Quartet was also secretly translated into English by Australian diplomat Max Lane and became internationally famous. Pram kept writing once back in Java; his later books further exposed Indonesia’s dirty war against dissenters.  

Buru should be a journalist’s heaven. The isolated island, 13 times larger than Singapore but with less than 200,000 residents, bristles with stories of tragedy and inspiration, saturated with politics. The custodians of the tales are keen to speak, have their photos taken and give their real names.

“I’ll tell you what happened,” said Diro Oetomo. “I want the world to know.”  He also stayed on Buru, married and opened a shop. The man would be a tobacco company’s pin-up boy, a heavy smoker all his life, but still fit at 83.

“We made cigarettes from papaya leaves and lit them by rubbing dry sticks together to make fire. I’m whispering because walls have ears. After you’ve gone someone will come round and ask what I’ve said.

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“Did we ever hope for release? Never. All we thought about was when and how we would die.”

Hundreds perished of starvation or killed themselves, usually by hanging or drinking pesticides. After a particularly brutal guard Pelda Panita Uma was murdered in 1972 by a tapol, 42 were killed in retaliation, said Noersmono. There’s a memorial to Umar, but no recognition of the tapol.

In the Savana Village cemetery are 150 graves. A few have headstones but most are unmarked mounds. More than 300 names of the dead were collected by Pramoedya and published privately, but many more remain unknown.

Despite almost two decades of democracy and the abandonment of oppressive rules governing the ET’s rights, intimidation persists. It’s no longer “the pointed finger as powerful as a pistol” as Oetomo said, but it’s still sinister and it starts at the island’s Namlea airport.

This is served by a 30-minute daily flight from the regional capital Ambon to the east and capital of the Maluku Province. These islands, long plundered by the Dutch for cloves, sit just under the equator. They have long and bloody histories going back centuries, but today are a peaceful part of the Republic.

However the Namlea terminal has more than airline staff; it’s thick with police, soldiers and Intel (intelligence service) plain-clothes officers. They ignore Asians but focus on white arrivals, questioning motives, gathering documents, reporting back to their superiors and distressing the visitors’ local hosts in their private homes.

In this intimidating environment it takes courage to be seen with reporters. The ETs no longer care but their families do. No parents want their children teased at school for having big black combat boots on the porch. The Red Bogeyman still stalks the land.  During this year’s Presidential election campaign Jokowi’s rivals suggested with no proof that his late father, Widjiatno Notomiharjo, had been a PKI member.

In Indonesia discussion groups about Buru and the killings have been closed down by the police. U.S.-born British director Joshua Oppenheimer’s films about the killings, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence have been shown openly abroad and won awards. In Indonesia they’ve only been screened covertly.

While Indonesian authorities try to keep Pandora’s box well locked, arguing that release will inflame community tensions, the story has already escaped, largely helped by activists. They took Indonesia to the International People’s Tribunal at The Hague, which found Indonesia “responsible for, and guilty of, crimes against humanity.”

The verdict was flicked away by the government. Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu reportedly responded: “Why listen to foreigners? Foreigners should listen to Indonesia.”  

Locally, Komisi Nasional Hak Asasi Manusia (the National Commission on Human Rights) Komnas HAM, doggedly persists in publishing reports and reminding politicians that the stain on the nation remains, but most deep scholarship comes from overseas.

Last year Canadian Geoffrey Robinson published a potent account of the time titled The Killing Season. The Financial Times ranked it as “one of the best books of history in 2018.”

Robinson describes Buru as a “concentration camp” and “penal colony”; The New York Times had previous called it Suharto’s Gulag.” The government’s terms were  “resettlement project” for “political rehabilitation.”

Robinson, now a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), was a student of the late Benedict Anderson and Ruth McVey at Cornell University.  They were the first to question the Indonesian army’s account of the coup and killings.

Their analysis, which came to be known as the Cornell Paper, was discredited by the Indonesian government and its authors banned. This pushback ensured their views got an even wider audience.

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Robinson has maintained his mentors’ fire: “I am still sickened and outraged — all the more so because the crimes committed have been all but forgotten and those responsible have not yet been brought to justice.”

Attempts were made in 2015 (the 50th anniversary of the coup) by academics, journalists and the victims’ families to ventilate the history and begin a process of reconciliation. That has largely not happened.

That year police threatened to close down the internationally-famous annual Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival in Bali if it promoted books about the coup and killings.  Participants were outraged, the foreign organizers modified their program to appease, but discussion continued.

“I still don’t know why I was arrested,” Noersmono said. “You ask them. Was I a Communist? I don’t understand Communism – are you talking Russian, Chinese or Indonesian?”

Noersmono is a Protestant. He says his faith helped him through the ordeal. Another factor may have been his lively mind, observing and recording everything, and his curiosity in local technology, like crude stills to make eucalyptus oil.

“There was no support from Indonesian congregations,” he said. “We were not executed because the churches overseas were concerned with the human rights abuses and broadcast our plight. Gradually curbs were relaxed.” Eventually the men’s families were allowed onto the island.

Once free, Noersmono married Nursilah whose father was a tapol  “If I hadn’t been sent to Buru I would not have met my beloved,” he said.

“I’ve always tried to be cheerful and see the positive. But I cannot forgive Suharto – not just for what he did to us, but for the way he destroyed the spirit and character of our nation that had been built up by Sukarno.

“As historians say – if we don’t know our past we are doomed to repeat the mistakes. I have seven grandchildren. I never want this to ever happen again to them or my country –or the people of any other nation.”

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist living in Indonesia.