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The Activist Shining a Light on the Women Prisoners of the Indonesian Massacres

Mar 4 2016 8:45 PM
The Activist Shining a Light on the Women Prisoners of the Indonesian Massacres

Photo courtesy of Soe Tjen Marching. Photo by Angus Nicholls

In the most recent issue of Soe Tjen Marching's politics and culture magazine "Bhinneka," the academic and writer speaks to several "ex-women prisoners"—survivors of Indonesia's horrific anti-communist purge in the late 60s—about what they saw in captivity and the discrimination they faced when they were finally released.

A lot has been forgotten in the aftermath of Indonesia's massacre of 500,000 alleged communists between 1965 and 1968. Thanks to efforts like Joshua Oppenheimer's Academy Award–nominated documentaries The Act of Killing and its follow-up, The Look of Silence, those history had left behind are getting the chance to tell their stories. Even in Indonesia, what used to be a secret so threatening that it had to be scrubbed clean from history books had transformed into a kind of silent activism, and victims have begun opening up in stark, harrowing fashion in order to find solace in recognition and, hopefully, forgiveness.

Soe Tjen Marching is an Indonesian writer, activist, and academic who knows how important it is to remember the atrocities. With the most recent issue of her magazine Bhinneka, founded in 2008 to focus on politics, gender, and religion, she sought to publish accounts that had, before, been reduced to, "Don't bring them up anymore. They're old wounds—let's move on."

Women's stories have been particularly ignored. In her feature on "Ex–Women Prisoners" in the October 2015 issue of Bhinneka, Marching interviewed five women: Christina Sumariyati (Bu Mamiek), Hartiti, Maria Goretti Sumilah, Theresia Kadmiyanti, and Yosephina Endang Lestari. They were all, at some point in the late 1960s until early 1970s, imprisoned at a fairly young age for petty or sometimes unknown reasons, though they all shared the same designation—"political activists"—that men were massacred and imprisoned for. The women suffered horrific sexual abuse as well as torture at the hands of police and soldiers. You were a member of Gerwani, the Indonesian Women's Movement? You were a member of Lekra, the Institute for the People's Culture? You danced an offensive dance? You were going to jail.

Then there was the ordeal these women went through after being released from prison. "These former political prisoners were considered prostitutes and 'tarnished,'" Marching told me. "Sometimes their own families were ashamed of them. They were isolated and alone."

As the daughter of a suspected communist imprisoned during the purge, Marching had a personal investment in telling these stories—though it hasn't been easy. She's received death threats for her activism and had several "news" sites link her with radicalism. I caught up with her to talk more about the magazine and why she feels it's so critical to keep talking about the massacre.

Soe Tjen Marching with Joshua Oppenheimer, the director of "The Act of Killing"

BROADLY: Indonesians were forced to re-examine the massacre last year, which was its 50th anniversary. I'm not saying they were forced to confront it, because not a day went by without some shady politician denouncing the massacre and reducing its suffering to "old wounds." Why did you think it was important to dedicate an issue of Bhinneka to it?
Soe Tjen Marching: I started the magazine [in 2008] to promote critical thinking, and the latest edition is on the 1965 genocide because, after 50 years, the government still has done nothing about it. With the popularity of Joshua Oppenheimer's films, I could not lose that momentum. This had to be blown up right now—otherwise people will forget about it forever. And you know what? People may say, "Let's forget about it," but then the crime and impunity continue in this country.

I think the starkest part of this issue is the "Ex–Women Prisoners" feature. Why did you want to focus specifically on women's stories?
I have been writing a book about the testimonies of the victims and their families since mid-2013. And I wanted to write about women as well, because women have been rather under-represented. First I got in touch with [interviewee] Christina Sumarmiyati via Facebook. Then I decided to visit her in Yogyakarta in 2015. From Christina, I was introduced to other women. I think because I am also the daughter of an ex–political prisoner, they [felt they] could open up straight away to me.

Christina Sumarmiyati (Bu Mamiek) as she appears in the "Ex–Women Prisoners" feature in "Bhinneka"

Christina (also known as Bu Mamiek) told you a story about officers pitting women against each other and soldiers dating young women so that they could be spies. How was the treatment to women different from that of men?
With women, the officers tried to make use of them sexually. And they tried to make a competition between the young and old ones (also between those they considered beautiful and not). This is a divide-and-conquer strategy. The women were fighting against each other because those who got more attention from the soldiers would, of course, receive rewards, and many of these prisoners were desperate, so it was easy for them to be manipulated. However, I also heard of sexual abuse against male prisoners (for example, electrocuting their penises).

What caught me off guard the most was the part when Bu Mamiek was released from prison—she faced so much discrimination, and then her parents arranged for her marriage shortly after.
For women, it's hard because in Indonesia women were and are still supposed to guard their purity. These former political prisoners were considered prostitutes and "tarnished." Sometimes their own families were ashamed of them, and they were isolated and alone. The stigma against women is bigger in Indonesia, even now.

She is already at peace with what happened, but she does not want to forget. She wants the truth to come out.

These stories must not have been easy to hear. How is Bu Mamiek now?
Yes, it [was] not easy for either of us—I internalized their stories. At times, I felt that [they were] actually happening to me. I had nightmares about it, but I thought I just had to continue.

Of course, it was much harder for [Bu Mamiek]. She had to stop several times during the interview because it was just too much for her. She is OK now. She is a very strong woman, and I really admire her. She is still healthy, despite her terrible past, and she is also very generous; she tries to help other people in need. She is already at peace with what happened, but she does not want to forget. She wants the truth to come out.

You mentioned that former female prisoners faced discrimination because they were supposed to be "pure." What other kinds of stigma did they face after they were released?
That the political prisoners were "witches" who [had] raped, mutilated, cut the generals' genitals, and plucked their eyes. These women prisoners were asked these questions in the prison as well: "Did you cut the generals' penis? Did you pluck their eyes?" Why don't people want to think and check? This often makes me angry as well as sad.

Do you ever want to give up?
My magazine and activism give me a meaning in life. At times, I think my own family doesn't understand this. They even discourage me from doing this, because of the threats I have received. My husband is often worried about me and my safety, too. But I'd rather die than not being able to do what I want or to say what I believe in. No matter what, whether they discourage me or not, whether people threaten me or not, I will not give up.

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