If These Walls Could Speak

JUNE 05, 2011

Report Wahyuni Kamah

In Muntok, Bangka-Belitung, there is an old colonial-style building with an Indonesian flag waving out front. Set in a modest neighborhood, the building is clean, reasonably well-maintained, but quite unremarkable. Inside, you’ll find a few framed photos of Sukarno, the country’s first president.

Those photos are the only indication of the building’s historical significance. For five months, from Feb. 6 to July 2, 1949, the building housed Sukarno, along with other founding figures of the nation, including Foreign Minister Haji Agus Salim and Prime Minister Sutan Sjahrir, after they had been exiled by the Dutch colonial government, on the eve of Indonesia’s independence.

It was in this building that the leaders of the newly formed Indonesian republic hammered out the agreement that would lead to complete freedom from the Dutch — the freedom they had fought so hard for.

Looking for some historical insight, I came to Muntok to visit Sukarno’s home in exile, now named Wisma Ranggam, as well as Wisma Menumbing, which housed the country’s first vice president, Mohammad Hatta, during the same period.

I was disappointed to find that there was little evidence of the buildings’ historical significance, both having been renovated by private companies after the founding fathers made their triumphant return from exile. But simply standing in the same spots where our country’s founding fathers had spent so much time gave me a feeling of connection to our country’s revolutionary past.

Sukarno and the others were exiled to Muntok at the tail end of their long and bloody war for independence. Although Sukarno had proclaimed national independence in 1945, the Dutch continued to fight for control of the country for several years.

In December 1948, the Dutch attacked Yogyakarta, at that time the capital of the republican government. Sukarno decided to allow himself and other prominent republican leaders to be captured, even as he ordered Gen. Sudirman to launch a new guerilla campaign.

Sukarno was first exiled, along with some of his colleagues, to Prapat in North Sumatra. At the time, the Dutch were under intense pressure from the international community to give up their attempts to reassert control over the country. Thus, Sukarno was granted his request to be moved to Muntok, where Hatta was located, so they could discuss matters relating to the seemingly inevitable handover of power.

Originally, all of the exiled founding fathers were placed in Wisma Menumbing, then called Pesanggrahan Menumbing, which was located at the top of a hill, about 10 kilometers from Muntok. But Sukarno could not stand the chilly weather on the hilltop, so he and a few of his men were moved to Wisma Ranggam, then called Pesanggrahan Muntok.

The old house, built in the classic colonial architectural style, has a big yard and two wings with terraces to the right and left. It was built in 1827 by Banka Tin Winning, a tin mining company, as a retreat for its workers. Its walls are painted cream, while its wooden windows and doors are dark red. For its time, it would have been a typical and fairly unremarkable structure.

Located on Jalan Imam Bonjol, the house today is physically in good shape, especially considering its age, at more than 184 years old.

“Please, come in. It’s free,” said Edi Rasidi, a guide who greeted me at the door.

Stepping inside, I expected to see historical artifacts — documents, antiques — something that would give me an idea of how Sukarno and his colleagues spent their time in the building. Unfortunately, I only saw empty rooms and a couple of old photographs.

“Everything in here has changed,” said Edi, who has taken care of the house since 2001 with his wife, Latifah.

According to Edi, a native of Muntok, the house was in miserable shape just 10 years ago. Many parts were damaged or in disrepair. The subdistrict head of Muntok at the time, Alamsyah Arsyad, asked Edi to fix up the building.

“I cleaned the house and cut the grass. I worked for nine months without receiving a rupiah, but I did it with pleasure. I was called to take care of a historical building — and I adore [Sukarno] as well,” said Edi, who now lives in one of the rooms in the back wing of the house.

Inside the main building, there are only two framed sets of photos of the first president. One frame displays pictures of his short time in exile.

In Muntok, with other founding fathers and his counterparts from the Dutch government, Sukarno held important meetings and discussed the terms for what would become the Roem–Van Roijen Agreement.

Finalized on May 7, 1949, the agreement hammered out the details of certain contentious issues that had to be resolved before Indonesian independence could be granted. The agreement included the cessation of guerilla activity by Indonesian armed forces and all military operations by Dutch troops, the freeing of prisoners of war and the restoration of the republican government in Yogyakarta.

After the agreement was reached, things moved quickly. Sukarno and Hatta returned from exile to the newly re-established capital of Yogyakarta on July 6, 1949. A formalized cease-fire between Dutch and Indonesian forces was signed on Aug. 3 of that year.

Finally, a round-table conference between the two governments, held in The Hague, paved the way for the complete transfer of sovereignty by Queen Juliana of the Netherlands to the Republic of Indonesia, on Dec. 27, 1949.

After Sukarno and his colleagues left Muntok, the building was taken over by Timah, another local mining company.

Many parts of the building were physically changed when it was converted into housing for employees of the company, and renamed Wisma Ranggam. When Timah almost went bankrupt in 2001, the building was abandoned and fell into disrepair.

In 2003, the Agency for Historical Relics and Archeology in Jambi restored the exterior of the house to its original state. But its interior had already been completely redone after Sukarno left.

“Everything was gone. It was my idea to put up those photos,” said Edi, pointing to the photos on the wall. The caretaker said he spent his own money to maintain the house, buying fuel for the lawn mower, replacing damaged light bulbs and so on.

The rooms in the left and right wings of the front house are available for visitors to rent. The rooms in the main building can be visited, but they are all empty.

Wisma Menumbing, the building in Muntok that housed Hatta and colleagues, is also open to visitors, though it is much more difficult to access.

Secluded and isolated, the house can be reached through a narrow, inclined, curving road in a forest conservation area.

Compared to Wisma Rangga, Wisma Menumbing, which was built in 1927, is not in very good condition. The building was used as a hotel until 2005, but since then it has been rented out as a venue for meetings.

Looking at historical photos, it appears that there has been little effort to care for the house since it was built.

The main hall of the house, where Hatta used to be locked up, has been converted into a meeting room with a small stage. The room that used to be his bedroom is locked, but can be opened for visitors.

Inside the room, there are several framed historical photos, newspaper clippings, letters and memos written by Sukarno and Hatta, which helped me understand the mind-sets of the founding fathers during their time in exile.

On the wall of the room there is a plaque signed by Hatta, in remembrance of his time spent there.

The room and bedroom are furnished and the bathroom has been totally renovated. According to Edi, all of the furniture pieces are replicas. The only original object in the house from that time is the car Sukarno used to use during his exile, a black Ford Deluxe 8.

Even through there is not much to see at the buildings, they are nevertheless important pieces of our country’s history. I hope that in the future they will be given the treatment they deserve as entry points to remembering Indonesia’s independence.