The executions of drug smugglers in April 2015 created a mild climate of fear and loathing and discernible unease in both Indonesia and Australia, and perhaps a second thought on holiday plans for Bali. Yet young Australian travelers have a reputation for being headstrong and daring which strikes fear into parents who take headlines too seriously as their offspring venture into places politicians and noisy radio commentators tell us are dangerous and customs, appearances and language are quite uncivilized. Thus it was natural for me as a twenty-one-year old on a Lokantara Fellowship in the relatively new Republic of Indonesia to take a train through the southern Sumatra provinces that in 1961 were supposedly simmering with discontent and threatening more armed insurrections against the central government in Djakarta. According to the news headlines outside Indonesia, and foreign correspondents based in the capital, the soldiers of the Permesta breakaway rebellion were still hiding in the Sumatran jungles ready to pounce on anyone from the main island of Java and especially nosey foreigners.
Wishing to learn a Sumatran dialect, and to see my first pepper tree in the Lampung area, I accepted a poorly paid assignment from Molly Bondan, the famous Australian working in the Indonesian Foreign Office, to write a chapter on Transmigration for their upcoming 1962 Year Book, to be sent to embassies abroad. Moving people from overcrowded Java to sparsely populated areas was then thought to be the answer to the growth of poverty on Java, but later it was recognized as just moving poverty from one location to another.
Molly was the fearless Australian lady who had married Bondan, an Indonesian intellectual the Dutch in Australia had called “a dangerous brigand” and had exiled to Boven Digul prison camp in West New Guinea, with Dr. Mohammad Hatta, Indonesia’s future first Vice-President and other nationalist leaders. They had transferred Bondan to Brisbane, ahead of the Japanese occupation. Far from being a brigand, Bondan was a pipe-smoking, placid idealist who aspired to establishing an apprentice training scheme for Indonesian youths to learn trades in the new Republic, copying training systems he learned in Brisbane.
Molly was then a senior translator for President Sukarno and the Foreign Office, where my first tutor young Alex Alatas worked. In later life he was Foreign Minister in the Suharto cabinet after nationalizing his name to Ali. Molly and Alex saw no harm in sending me into the Sumatran jungle, but did ask me to avoid discussing politics. The Year Book in my library today reminds me of my trip and how important it is to travel inland, so to speak, even when headlines suggest otherwise. We were not dealing with the China-inspired, anti-Western Communist Party thugs who came onto the scene a few years later, but rebels who had demanded Sumatra and the Celebes form their own breakaway state.
My advance for this assignment was around US$5 for the train ride from Teluk Betung in the south, to historic Palembang, with a stopover in a (then) small town of Batu Raja to write the story. Indonesian teachers at university were fearful for my safety, telling me armed rebels attacked anyone representing the Javanese central government and they were especially hateful of foreigners.
No proof was ever given for these claims of rebels hiding in the jungle, and none of my university peers had ever set foot in Sumatra. I was travelling into danger.
For about US$2 I travelled peacefully by overnight bus to a ferry that took me over the Sunda Strait, passing the old Krakatoa volcano and landing me at Teluk Betung where I was to board the 0700 train at Teluk, to go north into danger.
Yet, a strange peace pervaded the little town and the platform area. No one else seemed anxious that we were on the frontline in a supposed civil war. The steam train puffed gently awaiting a start, but the passengers for this three-carriage train were in the canteen, playing cards, drinking coffee, and generally lazing about. They soon got over the surprise of seeing a foreign student in their midst, asked my origins, my family’s size, what Australians had for breakfast and were puzzled that I wished to know about Transmigration, which none of them had heard about. Time ticked by, and my fears of missing the train, not in view from the canteen, were evident to them. “It won’t go without us. This is Hamid, the driver, with us now.” Hamid’s uncle, a key player in this railway schedule it seemed, finally arrived with a “titipan”, a new word for me meaning a present for someone faraway. Hamid’s wife was sending it to her family in Palembang, the alleged nest of anti-Jakarta rebels. Not a gun or a secret message, but a twine-bound package of Lampung coffee and pepper, both said to be “more expensive up in Palembang.”
Good manners suggested Hamid remain for a coffee before we departed. The timetable said the train was an ‘Express Teluk-Palembang’ stopping only at Batu Raja, but it stopped a dozen times between stations, arriving at Batu Raja an hour or more late. The Chief Administrator of the town met me, but he was in no hurry to take me to see the Javanese newcomers living in the jungle. He had arranged for a group of colorfully dressed prominent locals, with no apparent livelihoods to attend to, to welcome me. For two days I was taken around town in a horse drawn, decorated buggy and introduced as a “person from the Foreign Office” and given sumptuous food and exquisite fruit. There were numerous references to how little revenue Djakarta gave to the Lampung area and there were broad hints things were definitely heading for an armed showdown. On day three the Chief took me to a huge clearing in the jungle where an entire Javanese town of one thousand inhabitants, small shops, school and teachers had been shipped from an overcrowded area in Central Java, leaving me to my work.
The Javanese immediately claimed me as one of their own because I spoke with a Javanese accent I had shamelessly copied from President Sukarno. They were homesick and a little tired of the rather grating Malay of the Lampung locals, darkly suggesting that the jungle surrounding them was the home of anti-Java rebels. I felt duty bound to stay the night with these friendly people who fed me delicious Yam snacks and coffee, entertained me with a brief shadow play, saying there was no wayang in ‘uncivilized Lampung!’ They pressed me for extended descriptions of green paddy fields and idyllic life in rural Java and my halting descriptions of rich red volcanic soil and vistas of extensive fields during harvests that contrasted sharply with their jungle-edge existence. My hosts’ unpaved street had been replicated from the original, arranged so everyone had the same neighbors they had grown up with in their village on Java.
Such was the spirit of nostalgia abroad that when they learned I had lived briefly in a Kuningan district village not far from their birthplace, they pressed me to linger on my laudatory descriptions of the polite people living a peaceful life, the green rice fields and picturesque backdrop scenes of volcanoes, which contrasted sharply with the dull green thick jungle that now surrounded them. The women asked me to visit again, and please bring them some jamu village all-cure medicine packets the local Sumatran bumpkins were yet to learn about.
Next morning, back in the village chief’s house in Batu Raja, I was up early and back in a Western frame of mind, to ensure I would be on time for the 0830 train. Worry, worry! I was uneasy, yet my host seemed relaxed about the train’s arrival time. It would be a bit late, he said. But being a gracious host, he delivered me to the station and seemed truly bewildered when we arrived to find the train ready to depart right on 0830. Travelling north through magnificent green jungle, the other dozen or so passengers in my compartment soon knew my name and how many children my mother had, my father’s home village, whether he smoked, and any news about tall buildings in the capital city of Djakarta. I told them of my assignment, but none of them knew or seemed interested in the transmigration settlements. Relieved we were now on our way, I praised their railway system, saying we had departed Batu Raja precisely at 0830, as the timetable had said. This sent them into howls of friendly laughter, some of them almost paralytic as the joke ran up and down the length of the carriage for a couple of side-splitting minutes before my companions seated across from me politely explained that I was on yesterday’s train! Mine would be in tomorrow morning. Perhaps.
A very slow day later the entire train was halted, in danger of being swept off the rails by floodwaters. The rails ahead and behind us were inundated. We had to catch fresh rainwater by holding cups out the window. We slept or talked our way through the utterly boring three-day delay, but some of the conversations changed in tone to anti-Java, anti-central government complaints. Secrets were unfolding as my companions decided I was now safely one of them, with shared travelling woes. Many of them admitted to being sympathetic to the rebellion and would introduce me to certain insurrection leaders when we got to Palembang.
I was suffering hunger pains whereas they were not, so they showed me how to smoke a kretek clove cigarette. That cured the hunger pains. But hours dragged by very slowly. By day, baboons and colorful birds came by to stare in at us, but had turned away when realizing we had no food to give them. Every snack, every grain of rice, even a large bag of rambutan fruit, had been shared around and long gone by day two. The nights were a string of nerve-tingling hours. In rare breaks between sheet-rain downpours pounding the steel roof, wildlife howls and snarling sent vibrations of fear through our semi-dozing bodies. In those restless, dark hours, I saw several men quietly unpack their traditional sarongs and pull them over their heads to escape into their personal spaces.
We were all disheveled, exhausted and desperate for a decent meal and a mandi bath when we finally got into Palembang station, four days late. By now I was considered one of their rebel sympathizing gang, so I joined my group in a shared taxi ride in a roofless, beaten up Morris Minor, to a small hotel.
In a little café out front several Makassar businessmen, friends to my group and also rebels to the anti-Java cause, were apparently plotting the government’s downfall, between long sessions of cards and coffee and cigarettes. There was a lot of secretive mumbling, so I was hoping to hear a gunshot of two. I walked a few kilometers to the edge of town, a thrill-seeking adventure to the frontline in this civil war, but found only a group of mature women, happily grading pepper and mending fishing nets. They gifted me a small parcel of peppercorns and refused payment.
The war, it seemed, was an occasional event, perhaps deeper in the jungle, for the evenings were peaceful and life idyllic for me. I comfortably paid my hotel and food costs and finally bought a packet or two of kretek cigarettes to share around. The Makassar rebels also claimed me as their own, giving me their name cards and demanding I visit when next in the Celebes. On the second delightful morning, as I sat with the plotters in the sunshine outside our losmen bed and breakfast, a uniformed Javanese military intelligence officer, who introduced himself as Captain Hasan, called for me, bringing a Garuda ticket for me on the next day’s flight out to Djakarta. The Captain was firm that it was time for me to return home. He knew most of the rebels and joined us for a coffee, promising to pick me up next day. On the way to the airport, in a jeep, he told me he couldn’t engage the rebels in armed warfare because they were mostly old friends. Nor would they shoot at him, because he knew their relatives, and they were always pressing for news from their sons in jungle hideouts.
Even me, myself, the officer said complaining, I have to share profits from rubber smuggling to Singapore because Djakarta has not paid me for months. His wife, too, was in dire straits. She was a primary school teacher who had not been paid for months. When the money did come it was enough for just a few days.
When I stepped off the plane at the little Kemayoran airport in the capital, I had expected to see another military officer waiting for me, perhaps to grill me about the rebels and their jungle hideouts. But no one cared that I had just emerged from a great adventure. As I rode a becak to town I had the feeling I had been gone for months and that I knew something the people around me didn’t know, or were too busy to bother learning. That was the key to the revolt. Djakarta politicians didn’t have time to give the outer islands much thought, so the outer islanders had taken matters into their own hands. Palembang had become an independent, self-financing trade center, to survive.
A very old story, in a new Republic.
When delivering my Transmigration article and photos to the Pejambon Avenue headquarters of the Foreign Office, Molly and Ali Alatas thanked me profusely and asked if I had I seen any signs of anti-Djakarta rebels.
I confessed I had been deeply involved in a very civil, civil war.
Dr Francis Palmos, historian and former foreign correspondent, opened the first newspaper bureau in the new Republic of Indonesia in December 1964, the era of Guided Democracy. His Indonesian history interest began in Surabaya when a translator for the original Java Postin 1961. His book Surabaya 1945: Sacred Territory, a comprehensive history based on Indonesian documents of the first days of the Republic, was formally presented to the East Java government in 2011. In 2012 Frank was awarded the symbolic Keys to Surabaya City for this work, which is being translated in time for this year’s 10 November ceremonies.