The irrepressible and intimate Mochtar Lubis

Diary of Indonesian newspaperman and veteran political prisoner gives younger Indonesians insight into "the untold chapters of the Soeharto years"

The Jakarta Post
Sunday, September 21, 2008

By Warief Djajanto Basorie

The late Mochtar Lubis is arguably Indonesia's best known, internationally acclaimed newspaperman and veteran political prisoner of two presidents.

He attests that some political prisoners rceived better treatment, depending what what they were allegedly inside for. Lubis revealed this in his diary, published May 2008, describing his time in 1975 at Nirbaya, the detention facility in East Jakarta for those who politically crossed Soeharto, Indonesia's top dog from 1966 to 1998.

"Food rations at Nirbaya are no better than during the Old Order. The rations for the Gestapu/PKI detainees are worse. Hariman and I still get one piece of scrambled egg for lunch, and once in a while a perkedel (potato-based dumpling) in the morning or in the evening, with some cooked vegetables.

"But the Gestapu/PKI prisoners get only one piece of tempeh (fermented soybean cake) or bean curd with vegetables morning, noon and night," Mochtar Lubis writes in a February-10-1975 entry.

The Gestapu/PKI detainees were those allegedly involved in the abortive coup of Oct 1 1965 blamed on the PKI, the Indonesian Communist Party.

They included Air Force marshals, Army generals, cabinet ministers, all perceived to be left wing. After the infamous Supersemar warrant of March 11 1966, the executive order that President Soekarno signed that passed power to General Soeharto, Soeharto banned the PKI and called his new regime the New Order.

The Soekarno period was labeled the Old Order.

Lubis and University of Indonesia student activist Hariman Siregar were detained in connection with the Jan 15 1974 riots that rocked Jakarta during the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka.

Prior to his visit, students protested Japanese businesses. But the protests mushroomed to become a vote of no confidence in President Soeharto and his clique of close-knit advisors called the Aspri (asisten pribadi, personal assistants).

The Aspri were accused of being in league with cukong, big-time financiers, who partnered with foreign investors, particularly Japanese MNCs, to control the economy.

Soeharto sensed the students were out to destabilize his government. He further suspected remnants of the PSI were behind the students. The Partai Sosialis Indonesia was the political party of socialist intellectuals akin to Western Europe Socialism.

It was banned by Soekarno, Soeharto's predecessor.

After the deluge came the purge. Soeharto jailed the dissidents and banned 11 print media, including Mochtar's Indonesia Raya (Greater Indonesia) daily that had been constantly critical of the Soeharto government, particularly with regard to perceived corruption.

On February 4, 1975 three prosecutors from the Attorney General's Office came to Mochtar's Central Jakarta bungalow to take him to Nirbaya. Mochtar stayed in detention for a little over two months and was released April 14, 1975.

The authorities could not find any smoking gun for use against him. Attorney General Ali Said summoned Mochtar to his office that day. With a theatrical flourish the attorney general signed the release papers before Mochtar.

Interrogators had persistently inquired Mochtar's relationship with Sumitro Djojohadikusmo and Sudjatmoko, two internationally regarded intellectuals with past PSI links. The investigators could not find any subversive tie-in.

Throughout his detention, Mochtar kept a diary. It narrates his experience in detention. Mochtar stayed in a 6 x 5 meter one-room pavilion with bath and toilet he had to himself. The door was left unlocked and he was allowed to visit the other inmates. They would have dinner together and share food sent in from their families.

Mochtar's fellow prisoners included former Air Force chief Omar Dhani and former Central Java army commander Pranoto Reksosamudra. Past cabinet members included foreign minister Subandrio and justice minister Astrawinata.

When Mochtar was released, he lamented that he was freed sooner than the others, who were in custody for more than nine years. "They have been held for too long without any trial. This is not good for the soul of Indonesia." (March 19 1975).

The diary is a sharp, open rebuke to Indonesia's legal system. Mochtar strongly objected to the ease with which people were arrested.

"Many detainees were held for months, and in some cases for years, before they were brought to trial. Judges tended to sentence them according to the existing length of their detention. This situation shakes confidence in the rule of law." (April 14 1975)

The diary also brings out the human, private side of this irrepressible government critic. Mochtar worships his wife Halimah, affectionately called Hally. Hally has stood by her man from detention to detention. Mochtar had been jailed under Soekarno too.

Mochtar writes of his pride in Hally for staying calm.

"I want you to be like that always. Do not worry about me. If you are strong, I will be strong too. I get my strength from you, and hope you will get strength from me."

Mochtar can succumb to poetic intimacy, in English, in exclaiming his irreversible, total love for Hally. "Thank you for your flowers. Each time I look at them I see your love in them." (March 22 1975)

Mochtar Lubis' diary is now published under the title Nirbaya, Catatan Harian Mochtar Lubis dalam Penjara Orde Baru (Nirbaya, Diary of Mochtar Lubis in a New Order Prison, LSPP and Yayasan Obor Indonesia). This is a good read for younger Indonesians to learn about the untold chapters of the Soeharto years and of the character of one man in facing the trials of that period.

However Hanif Suranto and Ignatius Haryanto, the book's editors, should have written a prologue and epilogue to put the Nirbaya episode in historical context.

The prologue could explain the political circumstances at the time before and after the January 1974 riots. An epilogue could relate what since happened to all the prisoners in Nirbaya.

Since the resignation of Soeharto and the fall of his New Order on May 21, 1998 Indonesia now has no political prisoners. Lubis died July 2, 2004. He was 82. Hally has also passed away. They both are together in Jeruk Purut cemetery in South Jakarta.