by Pat Walsh
Originally published on Inside Indonesia, February 20 2017
The Herb Feith Foundation gave its inaugural human rights education award to Putu Oka Sukanta. Pat Walsh presented the award.
‘I’m wearing this cap to keep my head warm because of the AC, but also to stop me from getting a swelled head,’ said Pak Putu wryly after I presented him the inaugural Herb Feith Human Rights Education Award in Jakarta on 1 December last.
The comment is typical of this deeply sensitive, gifted, warm and caring man. Now 77, Pak Putu has maintained his sense of humour and an inspirational faith in humanity and Indonesia despite experiencing long years of imprisonment during the Suharto era, and the rejection of the ideals he stood for, not least his intense desire to serve his fellow human beings. Inside Indonesia highlighted this aspect of Pak Putu’s character in its very first edition. In an article in November 1983, Keith Foulcher commented that Putu Oka’s poems re-awakened ‘the notion of the artist as social being’.
The Herb Feith Foundation award was established precisely to recognise and promote this concept of creative service of humanity so beautifully lived by Pak Putu. It is an ideal that Herb Feith also embodied, though as an academic rather than as an artist like Putu Oka.
The award, said the Foundation, was to recognise Pak Putu’s many contributions to human rights education in Indonesia through his writing (fiction and non-fiction), editing, film production and community education activities.
Following his release after 10 years in prison without trial (1966–1976), Putu has made at least six films using survivor testimony to rebut propaganda about communists and to publicise the suffering of former political prisoners and their families. He has produced at least three edited collections including rare oral history accounts, organised countless book discussions, film screenings and events in Indonesia and presented his ideas and works all over the world. His books, including novels, short stories and poems, have been translated to English, German and French.
The central concern of his work is the restoration of the human dimension to the events and aftermath of 1965 – too often reduced to purely political and research terms.
He is currently writing a third novel about how prisoners survived upon release, sometimes constrained by their own fixation on the past or the letting-go of old ideals. The financial part of the award will assist that project.
Pak Putu said he welcomed the award like a refreshing drink of water offered to a tired traveller on a long journey.
Along the way, said Putu, ‘I’ve been brought to a standstill by the sound of a friendly voice calling my name. Slowly that voice has made itself known as a clay drinking pot, gently supported by a multitude of hands. I see it clearly, wet with dew, and I know for sure it holds the water of the spirit of life, fresh and clear. The hands extend the pot to my dry and thirsty lips, and from its spout I drink in the respect and solidarity of fellow activists for humanity. It cools my spirit, and gives me energy.’
The award event was delightful and inspiring. It was held at the Ruang Di Ke:Kini in Menteng, a lovely public space, and organised for the Herb Feith Foundation by Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR), an Indonesian NGO dedicated to supporting survivors of human rights violations in Indonesia and other countries in the region. AJAR also screened a short documentary on Putu which included interviews with him in his acupuncture practice, a skill he picked up in prison.
Young Indonesians read excerpts from Putu Oka’s writings. A number of ageing ex-political prisoners also attended and, at the conclusion of proceedings, were treated to an amusing impromptu tutorial by one of their number on how to stop their hearing from deteriorating.
Presenting the award to Putu, I remarked that Putu’s creativity post-detention is a measure of the scale of the loss of intellectual and cultural capital Indonesia experienced post-1965.
I referred to a papier mache statue of a jamu lady, made by a political prisoner, that I bought in Bandung in 1969. Unknown to me, Pak Putu had already been in jail for about three years by then, but the beauty of the statue shocked me, a politically innocent young man, into realising the calibre and refinement of the internees. The Indonesians we were supposed to think of as monsters were gifted people of sensitivity and talent! Over time, it also helped me realise what violence Indonesia had inflicted at that time, not just upon many of its brightest sons and daughters but also to its personality and spirit as a nation, and what a monster an unrestrained military can be. I also concluded, sadly, that Western governments cannot be trusted to put human rights first when their interests are at stake. Did Australia speak up for Pak Putu, the creator of my statue, and his kind at the time? I doubt it, just the opposite. I was very moved, therefore, that on behalf on an Australian organisation I was able to make up for Australia’s failings in a little way by now saluting Pak Putu and, in his words, to give him energy to continue.
In his poem Rebirth, Putu Oka writes, ‘There is a song which never dies/the anxiety of a waiting heart.’ The waiting has been long but by his writing and other creative work Putu Oka is ensuring the memory of 1965 will now not only never die but be heard louder and more widely. His labours will only be ultimately worthwhile, however, if the madness of 1965 is never repeated. That is a job for all of us. It will be Pak Putu’s ultimate accolade and a justly proud reason for a very swelled head.
Pat Walsh is AJAR’s International Board of Advisors