Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Stewed Pieces of Slippers and Shards of Broken Glass

Political Activist Remembers the Soeharto Era


Jakarta, Indonesia--At first glance, the painting on the wall showed the feet of what must be a sick man, covered by a blanket, beside a small basket of corn grains, next to what could be a bowl of soup. ButTedjabayu Sudjojono, 70, son of Indonesia’s renowned painter, shook his head and said this was not what the painting is all about.

The man whose feet were shown sticking out of the striped blanket was not just any other sick man. He was a political prisoner, jailed for his political beliefs under the Soeharto regime.  He was probably ill but the bowl of soup next to his feet did not contain nourishment to eat.

Sudjojono, who spent 14 years of his life in prison under the regime of former Indonesian president Soeharto, said the painting depicted a political prisoner imprisoned on Buru island, a large prison camp used to house 12,000 political prisoners after Soeharto came to power. Beside the prisoner’s feet, the small basket contained 120 pieces of boiled corn grains, the only food the prisoners were made to eat the entire day, every day during their stay in prison.

Instead of a delicious soup, the bowl contained stewed pieces of slippers and shards of broken glass that the prisoners were made to eat.

He said they had to endure this ration day after day, throughout their stay, so bad many of their friends died and only a few of them survived.

Tedjabayu, who took us to his house in the outskirts of Jakarta two days after the April 9 general elections, said a former political detainee gave the painting to him as a gift on the day of his son’s circumcision in Java, long after they were released from prison. “About 2,000 of them came, I was so surprised,” he said.

The painting reminded them of theordeal they once shared: how, in their hunger, they had to sort out and take away the shards of glass and the slippers, hoping to drink from a bowl of soup. “We used to joke about it, because without the joke, we only had death and the grave,” he said.

An estimated 1 million people died, most of them suspected Communists and their sympathizers, when Soeharto assumed power in 1965, overthrowing the Soekarno regime.

Still a student activist when he was picked up and brought to prison, Tedjabayu had endured Buru island for four months before he was moved on to Nusa Kambangan, a maximum security prison off the southern coast of Java island and then, on to a series of other prisons and finally to the military prison camp called Ambarawa until his release in 1979.

As Indonesians trooped to the polls on April 9 this year for the general elections, the outcome of which would determine Indonesia’s presidential polls in July, Tedjabayu expressed concern over the prospect that personalities associated with the old Soeharto regime would usher in the military’s return to power.

At least two of the top three contending parties in Indonesia are fielding personalities with links to the previous regime; namely: Soeharto’s former political party Golkar; and its breakaway, the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), which will be fielding PrabowoSubianto, a former special forces commander and former son-in-law of Soeharto, as its political bet for president in the July elections.

Indonesia’s election law only allows political parties which win 25 per cent of the votes in the national elections, or 20 per cent of the total seats in the House of Representatives (HR), to field their presidential candidates for the presidential elections.

This election is important for us,” said Tedjabayu, who admitted he did not vote in Indonesia’s previous three elections, disappointed by the failure of the reformasi to usher meaningful change to the lives of Indonesian people. “I did not vote because in doing so, I would only support a government that is not pro-democracy and leaders whose commitment to the people was not clear,” he said.

But this time, he said, not to vote would be a sin.

“This election will decide the future of Indonesia. We don’t want to give the presidency back to the military and to the corrupt generation,” he said.

A popular uprising may have ended Soeharto’s 30-year-old rule in 1998, propping up a popular presidency that ushered in Indonesia’s reformasi, or the era of openness and reform.

But the failure of the reformasi era to institute meaningful change to the lives of average Indonesians, and allegations of corruption that followed the succeeding regimes, eroded people’s confidence and estranged them from taking part actively in the country’s elections.

In Indonesia, the people’s disillusionment has given rise to the phenomenon known as “golput,” short for “golonganputih (white group),” a group of Indonesian voters who refused to vote, as a way to keep themselves clean from the stain of politics they already perceived as dirty.

Reports by the civil monitoring election network JRRP, a multi sectoral interfaith nongovernment organization, showed an increasing percentage of Indonesia’s voting population have stopped participating in the polls. “We want everyone to participate in the elections,” says Afif, the group’s national coordinator, as he urged citizens to take active part in the polls. “This is our challenge because in the last three elections, we’ve been having a decreasing participation rate.”

While voters’ turnout registered a high of 92 per cent in the elections of 1999, or the year after Soeharto’s overthrow, the numbers plummeted to 84 per cent in 2004 and plunged further to 71 per cent in the 2009 elections.

Reports said voters’ turnout was back again to 75 per cent during the April 9 polls this year, thanks to the campaign to encourage people to vote. “Many people are discouraged, because of the bad image and reports of corruption,” Afif said, “This is a challenge.”

But among those who refused to vote, journalist AneguraPerkasah,who covers the business and human rights beat for the Indonesian paper Bisnis Indonesia, said he is disappointed by the energy policy of the government, which allowed big business to set up coal mines in his hometown in Kalimantan, displacing people from their land, polluting the air and water, and depriving people of their livelihood and access to drinking water. “I do it as a form of protest,” saysPerkasah, raising both his hands to show fingers untainted by indelible ink, on the day of the April 9 general elections.

But he was equally aghast at the people’s failure to remember the past.

Although Jakarta Governor JokoWidodo, the presidential bet of the Megawati Sukarno-led opposition party PDIP, continues to lead popularity surveys, following behind him is PrabowoSubianto, the commander of the special commando force under Soeharto.

Prabowo has beenlinked to the abduction of student activists in the time of Indonesian riots in 1998, 13 of those activists remained missing up to this day, their family members holding silent protests every Thursday in front of Indonesia’s state palace, asking for justice for their missing kin.“It seems that people easily forget,” said Perkasah, referring to the relative popularity of Prabowo in the polls.

But Tedjabayu still remembers, and his memories even go three decades further back, when Soeharto just assumed power. He recalls having to bury four of his friends at one time, he had trouble carrying them, one in front, two at his side and another one at his back.

“The first time we heard our friend died, we stood and bowed our head, as a sign of respect,” he said, “Then, the following day, another news of another friend came, and we could no longer stand up. We were so weak and in pain.”

“There was a time the death all around us have made us so numb, we could no longer feel anything.”

Tedjabayu divided the history of Indonesia into three eras: The first era belonged to the generation of his father, the 1945 generation who fought the Dutch and freed Indonesia from foreign power; the second era, his generation,persecuted bySoeharto’s new order; and the next generation, whom he said, will be the future of Indonesia. “If I’m not going to vote it will be a sin for the future,”he said, “I will vote to save the new generation, to ensure that the next president will not come either from the military or from the corrupt politicians.”

As if recalling the taste of stewed slippers and shards of broken glass, he says he knows exactly how it feels for the country to lose its freedom.This year’s election should be no time for golput, he says. Indonesians should vote to say never again to military rule.   

GermelinaLacorte is a journalist fellow of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa) sent to observe Indonesia’s general elections on April 9, 2014.

The man who happens to see Franz Kafka

The media advisory that reached us from the Eastern Mindanao Command early in May said the mining activist who claimed to be Romeo Rivera was actually Felix Armodia, a ranking member of the Communist New People's Army operating in Davao del Sur and surrounding areas. The Eastmincom said Rivera was but an alias of Armodia. I did not immediately brush aside this claim by the military until I had the chance to go to where the prisoner was detained and had the chance to ask him. "Who are you?" I asked, staring at his face. "What is your name? Are you Felix Armodia?" "No," he said. "I am Romeo Rivera. I have a father and a son, who are both my namesake. I am Romeo Rivera, Jr.," he said again, "I have a father whose name is Romeo Rivera Sr., he is confined in a hospital in Tagum city, you can check that out," he said, "Please check that out. I have a son whose name is Romeo Rivera III; he works in a call center in Manila; I am Romeo Rivera Jr., how can I have any other name?" I walked away as shaken and horrified as he was.

Monday, May 26, 2014


Now, I'm seriously wondering why she quit that office. Was it only only because she had such a lucrative offer she can't refuse? Or was it because the things they made her do there had already grown so outrageously and unbearably, overwhelmingly sickening, she had to get out of there or else she would die? Was she on the verge of killing herself? Or was it only her imagination? Was she bothered by a bad conscience? Or mounting debts? Or laundry piling up? Or her son's failing grades? Was she harassed by a stalker? A lover? A motocycle-riding madman? A police? A priest? Or a rebel? Why did she leave? Wasn't she happy with her life? Was she happy with her lovelife? Who should I ask now that she's gone?

Friday, May 23, 2014

Old houses have stories to tell

And I really want to discover them.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Dealing with Data

This was last Saturday, (figure out the date, it's Thursday today, although it already feels like a century ago) when I joined the Data Journalism Training given by Vera Files editor Yvonne Chua, sponsored by Mindanews, and held inside the Journalism Lab on the fifth floor of the Ateneo de Davao University (What building? I could no longer remember, but I can find that out). This was the same JournLab where I used to hold classes in the previous semester with third year AB Mass Comm students, three of them also joined the training. The one raising his hand here below is Walter, I don't know why he was raising his hand. I just happened to snap the shutter exactly at the time he did it, so, I think, he was really very smart to do that, but I'm smarter because I was the one who took this picture. (Guffaw). I learned a lot from the training but the most important thing that I learned was that I was dumb. One thing that really struck me from this training: that I'm really grateful for all the Maths I learned. Ms Yvonne simply remind me of my former Math teacher, the way she speaks and the way she loves Math. I also remember Maritess Villamor, my first editor, the one who really taught me how to write a business story, how to deal with sources, and everything that you need to know as a reporter. She charted my beginnings. Now I'm learning new things.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

What did I do last summer?

I’ve been looking for a folder full of articles, probably marked May 2013, to see what I was  doing at about this time last year, only to find out that I never had such a folder. Instead, I found another folder, marked May Elections 2013, which yielded pictures taken at the height of the political campaign, because May 2013, I remember now, was an election year; and so, it was a month of my allergies and boils and probably hard coughs, as my body strained and struggled to catch up with impossible deadlines. I know you understand the feeling: the racing heartbeat, the choking and then the sinking sensation in your gut as you realize that no matter what you do, the work you’re doing won’t amount to anything. Last summer, I was too busy even to open a new folder to mark the passage of time. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Music and Memories

I told Karl and Sean I don't have a memory of sounds. No matter how I like a particular music, no matter how I want to listen to it over and over again for days and weeks, I know that once that music stops, I would remember nothing of it, except for three notes. Three notes! They shake their heads in disbelief. Once, I told this to Tu Nguyen Ngoc, who stared at me, not knowing what to say, until I told her I used to listen to Yanni and the Classics until I forgot all about music because the house chores had a way of stealing my life. It's only now that I discover my memory is disintegrating because of the absence of music in my kitchen. I never had a chance to know Tu for long because my music is broken and I'm really trying very hard to fix it, hoping that doing so would allow me to recover memories I have lost through the years.

Journal of Journals

Once, I was amused when I discovered in Miguel Syjuco’s, “Ilustrado,” [[thanx to Mick!]] a character who had so many diaries: a poetry diary, where all her poems were written; a dream diary, where she recorded all her dreams, and a diary diary.
For years, I have taken to writing journals. Ja used to ask, "What?! You're writing a journal?" As if it's the most degrading thing to do.  "What are you going to do with that journal?" he asked. "What are you going to eat?" But I continued doing it anyway and it went on and on and on through the years. There are so many things I learned from writing journals. First, it can be a writing classroom, where I learn to write my sentence. If I know how to organize it and how to write it well, it can be a valuable reference point which can help me locate myself at certain moments of my life. Sometimes, it can be a window to new story ideas. What am I going to eat? I will learn to eat paper.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

When the book is made flesh

Simply for the love of horses

They were not mistaken when they asked me to cover the country's longest running horse show and competition at the Riverfront Stables in Maa, which opened today and will run in the next three days. By acting just like an ordinary journalist, I get to ask questions and know more about these most magnificent and fascinating of creatures. For a long time now, I have secretly nourished this love for horses.