The Guardian, Wednesday January 5, 1972
PETER SCHUMACHER in Jakarta reveals Indonesia’s bizarre blueprint for dealing wit hits political untouchables.
MONTHS of constant requests to the Indonesian Attorney – General, Sugih Arto paid off recently when a handful of foreign and Indonesian journalists were allowed to visit the Indonesian island of Buru where 10,000 political prisoners are held. The detainees were arrested after the abortive coup in September 1965. After suffering for many years in cramped prisons on Java, the first group of 2,500 prisoners was shipped to this Moluccan Island two years ago.
All they found was a piece of land freshly cleared from the jungle and a number of barracks to sleep in. The authorities told them that this was their new land. They were given seeds and tools and were expected to grow their own food and to be self-supporting within eight months. They were told that by working hard their families could join them after two years. After six months came the second batch and now there are 9,957. The land they cultivate covers an area of some 400 square miles (one tenth of Buru proper) of thick, mountainous jungle, intersected by the crocodile-infested Apu River and its hundreds of tributaries. The first families are expected to arrive in June.
All these prisoners, most of them arrested five or six years ago, have never been charged since the authorities lack sufficient evidence to try them. But, since most of them have been members of Communist or Communist-influenced organisations, they are still considered to be “dangerous for the community” and are kept isolated for the time being. This, in brief, is what the Government has called the Buru Resettlement Project (BAPRERU).
To restrict the press party to Buru to its minimum the authorities ordered all applicants to pay for their own trip. They charged each of us £150. We would be on Buru only 36 hours. Hence, quite a number of people withdrew, as the authorities had hoped and the group was reduced to six.
The Buru Project is divided into 18 units and we were allowed to visit four of them. None of us had been among the first press party to visit Buru two years ago, and so no comparison could be made. Unit I and II are the oldest and most advanced units. So is IV. Here we saw acres of rice, corn, peanuts, cassava and other products. Irrigation too was quite impressive. Unit XIV is rather new and had never been visited by foreign journalists before.
In unit IV we visited a small hospital with six patients. Four were suffering from malaria. We asked the doctor whether malaria was common among the prisoners. ,”Yes,” he said. Were there enough medicines? “No, we have not enough antibiotic, quinine, and vitamin tablets,” he admitted. How many prisoners had died on Buru?” “Forty-one. Twenty-four had died of natural causes, fourteen from accidents, one committed suicide and two were killed by local people after an attempt to escape two years ago,” the doctor said.
Officially, all prisoners taken to Buru are healthy and under 45. But in reality the situation is quite different. One of the prisoners we were introduced to, Professor Suprapto, is 58 and there are at least a score of old and sick people, some of whom were suffering from asthma and tuberculosis at the time they were transferred to Buru. According to the Roman Catholic priest on the island, Father Werner Ruffing from Germany, this group of old and sick people is a great problem. “The younger and healthy prisoners are caring for them as brothers, but there is little hope they will survive,” Father Ruffing told me.
I asked the priest’s assistant, Sister Cecilia from Holland, what she thought were the main problems of the .prisoners. ” Most of them,” she said, ” are very worried about their families. They receive very little mail. Some haven’t heard from their wives for more than two years. A second point is the uncertain future. Officially these prisoners will be set free to return to their homes after they have proved to be good citizens, living and thinking along the State philosophy Pantjasila. But nobody knows when this will be.”
The number of Christians among the prisoners is surprisingly high: 17 per cent are Roman Catholic and 25 per cent are Protestant. The others are Hindu (6 per cent), and Moslem (52 per cent). Father Ruffing makes no secret of the sympathy he feels for the prisoners, which has made his relations with the military in Buru somewhat uneasy lately.
Families are reunited only when they are self-supporting. The authorities blame the prisoners for being “too lazy” but some people say that the main causes for the rather disappointing results in agriculture are bad planning, corruption, bureaucracy and over-optimism. Informed sources told me that many of the things the prisoners make, such as furniture and handicrafts, are exported in growing numbers by Chinese salesmen. Very little of the revenue returns.
Many of the prisoners are farmers themselves, but others, such as the 40 to 50 intellectuals here, have never worked on the land before. They find life hard on Buru. I spoke with some of them. The first day in Buru, by pure chance, I met such man as I walked into a cassava field in unit XIV to tape an interview. He identified himself as Basuki Efendy (42), film director and screenplay writer. Back in the fifties he had won prizes at international film festivals for his films Si Pintjang (The Cripple) and “Pulang”; (Homecoming). He was first arrested in 1965 for being a member of the Indonesian Film League, which was supposed to be Communist-influenced. After four months he was released and worked as a salesman for a time. In 1969 he was rearrested and gaoled in Salemba Prison in Jakarta.
This new arrest came as a complete surprise to him and his family. He was interrogated at length. Asked whether anybody had told him the reason for his arrest Effendi said; ” Up till now, no sir.” Had he heard from his family? “The last time I saw my wife was in June 1971. She visited me in gaol, as she was allowed to do once every two months.” Had he received any letters since he arrived in Buru last August? “No sir.” They have two children, a daughter of 14 and a son of seven.
l asked all prisoners I met whether they wanted their families to come over. Surprisingly, most of them said no. They do not want their wife and children to share the same hardship. Another point they made concerned education for the children. There is no secondary school m the Buru Project.
It is not only the men who do not want to be reunited under present circumstances. A Government survey revealed that 70 per cent of the wives didn’t see much to be gained in joining their husbands. Sixty per cent of these wives wished to be divorced. There are same understandable reasons for this reluctance. Mothers are only allowed to bring three children. Since most Indonesian families are rather big — eight children is no exception—the wives do not want the family to be split up once again.
Sailing back on board a small landing craft to Namlea, I asked General Wadly who would take over as the new man in charge of the Buru resettlement Project from Sutrisno Hamidjojo what his impressions were of this two-day trip. After all it was the first time he had seen Buru. He shrugged his shoulders and said very honestly: ” I cannot really say. I have seen so little.”
Later we heard from a man who had been in all 18 units that what the authorities had shown us was indeed very little. ” You’ve seen a show case,” he said. I asked the general on what grounds he was appointed for this new job. Had he, for example, any previous experience with political prisoners? Did he have a law degree? Again he shrugged his shoulders: ” I don’t really know why I got this job. I just accepted the order from my superiors.”
I comforted him with the thought that his own Attorney General, General Sugih Arto, didn’t have any law degree either. As for political prisoners, the Attorney-General practically acts on just one simple rule of law; ” Every Indonesian citizen can be arrested and kept in prison for an unlimited period of time if the Government or the army consider him or her a danger to the nation.”