Former political prisoner Solikhin in front of his home on Buru Island, Maluku. (Antara Photo/Hafidz Mubarak A.)

Hope Springs Eternal in Indonesia's Former Gulag


MAY 20, 2019

83-year-old Diro Utomo's hands trembled as he recalled how it felt to be tortured for years during the dark days he spent as a political prisoner on Buru Island in the 1970s. Along with thousands of other Indonesians, he was shipped to the tiny remote island in the Banda Sea, ordered to cut down forests to be made into rice fields with only a hoe – or more often with his bare hands.

Diro was sent to Buru Island without trial in 1971. He became part of the island's Unit XVIII group. 

The Orde Baru (New Order) government called the island, without irony, Tempat Pemanfaatan (literally, "place of exploitation"), shortened into Tefaat.

The name was later changed to Inrehab (Instalasi Rehabilitasi, or "rehabilitation installation"). It was Indonesia's equivalent of the Soviet gulags, where political prisoners accused of being involved in a coup d'état attempt against President Soekarno in 1965 wasted away in total misery.

Most of the 12,000 political prisoners on Buru Island were either members of the now-banned Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), party sympathizers or leftists. PKI was blamed for the murders of Army generals in Jakarta during the coup attempt. The incident led to mass killings of between 500,000 to one million Indonesian communists and leftists in 1965-1966.

But some of the Buru prisoners were also victims of personal or political vendettas.

"At that time your index finger could be deadlier than any weapon. Anyone who did not like you could easily accuse you [of being a member of the PKI]. I was captured and sent to Buru without trial," Diro said.

84-year-old Solikhin was arrested with his wife in Tasikmalaya, West Java, in mid-1966. Police claimed they found the blueprint of a plan to attack a police station in Tasikmalaya in his possession. Solikhin said he had never seen the map in his entire life. Nevertheless, he was banished to Buru in 1970 and stayed with Unit IV Savana Jaya.

Prisoners in Buru suffered from violent treatment by soldiers who managed the island like their own little kingdom.

"Buru was built with the blood, sweat and tears of political prisoners. Now it's a rice barn for Eastern Indonesia," said Solikhin, who decided to stay on in Savana Jaya since his release in the late 1970s.

Starting in 1972, many of the prisoners' wives and children followed them to Buru. Most of the prisoners were released in 1979 and some decided to settle on the former prison island. 

Sugito, who was born in 1942, fell in love with Sugiharti, the daughter of another Buru prisoner. They were married in 1978. His marriage certificate still bears a note explaining that he was a "tapol" (the Indonesian acronym for "tahanan politik," or political prisoner).

Most former prisoners in Buru who decided to stay on the island now live in relative peace. They spend their days working on the farm or minding their street-side food stalls.

They get along well with transmigrants from Java who moved to the island later on in the 1980s. The tapol stigma has remained, however. Sometimes people still throw insults at them, reminding them that they were communists who deserved to die. Shouts of  "Dasar PKI!" ("Damn communists!") are still heard every now and then.

These former political prisoners now demand that whoever is declared president-elect on May 22 will soon be able to restore their good names. They would hate to see their dark history repeated and want most of all to be able to spend the rest of their lives in peace in Indonesia's former gulag.

Political prisoners docked at Sanleko Beach during their exile in Buru Island, Maluku.
Sanleko Beach, where Buru's political prisoners stepped foot on the island for the first time. (Antara Photo/Hafidz Mubarak A.)
Solikhin and his wife before the thirtieth of september movement tragedy.
Solikhin and his wife before they were arrested. (Antara Photo/Hafidz Mubarak A.)
Sugito, a former political prisoner (right) and his wife, Sugiharti a daughter of former political prisoner choose to stay and live in Buru Island, Maluku.
Former political prisoner Sugito, right, married Sugiharti, the daughter of another Buru inmate, in the late 1970s. They decided to stay on the island after Sugito was released. (Antara Photo/Hafidz Mubarak A.)
An old picture of Sugito and Sugiharti during their wedding in 1978 at Buru Island, Maluku
Sugito and Sugiharti on their wedding day in 1978 on Buru Island. (Antara Photo/Hafidz Mubarak A.)
Daughter of former political prisoner works as a teacher in Waepo 1 Elementary School in Savana Jaya, Buru Island, Maluku.
This teacher in Waepo 1 Elementary School in Savana Jaya is also the daughter of a former Buru inmate. (Antara Photo/Hafidz Mubarak A.)
Savana Jaya Monument to remembering the 30 September Movement tragedy in Buru Island, Maluku.
The Savana Jaya Monument commemorates Orde Baru's version of the so-called "September 30 Tragedy." (Antara Photo/Hafidz Mubarak A.)
An old picture of forced labour during harvest time in Buru Island, Maluku
Political prisoners work a paddy field on Buru Island sometime in the 1970s. (Antara Photo/Hafidz Mubarak A.)
Diro Utomo (left) a former political prisioner and Sugiharti (second left) a daugther of former political prisoner vote during 2019 General Elections in Savana Jaya, Buru Island, Maluku.
Former political prisoner Diro Utomo, left, cast his vote at a polling booth in Savana Jaya in last month's election. (Antara Photo/Hafidz Mubarak A.)
Diro Utomo (left) hugs his friend, Slamet (right) a former political prisoner in Bulu Island, Maluku.
Diro, left, hugs his friend, Slamet, also a former political prisoner in Buru. (Antara Photo/Hafidz Mubarak A.)