Hersri Setiawan (right) with a fellow former political prisoner, Tedjobayu Sudjojono, at Sanleko beach, where they first arrived on Buru Island. Photo by Ken Setiawan.

Hersri Setiawan (right) with a fellow former political prisoner, Tedjobayu Sudjojono, at Sanleko beach, where they first arrived on Buru Island. Photo by Ken Setiawan.


On 18 May, the Faculty of Cultural Studies at Airlangga University in Surabaya notched up a small victory against decades of state propaganda about the events of 1965. It held a successful screening of the film Pulau Buru, Tanah Air Beta (Buru Island, My Homeland), by Rahung Nasution.


Screenings elsewhere had been cancelled under pressure from religious hard-liners, military officials and university bureaucracies not yet ready to embrace freedom of thought and expression. More than 500 students from Airlangga and nearby institutions watched the film – under surveillance by intelligence and other state officials.


Why has this unassuming film caused such ripples? What is the significance of a few hundred students watching a film?


Buru Island, My Homeland is a simple film depicting the return of 1965 survivor and former Buru prisoner Hersri Setiawan to the island with his daughter Ken Setiawan (a University of Melbourne academic). The dialogue between father and daughter is relatively flat and doesn’t explain in detail what exactly happened on Buru, or the repression imposed by the Soeharto regime. But through the film, Hersri (and director Rahung) invite the audience to think again about a tradition of leftist nationalism that has largely been forgotten in Indonesia.


This message is present only subtly, in Hersri’s dialogue with Ken, and in smaller details, such as the t-shirt he wears that reads Orde Baru Itu Keliru (The New Order Was Wrong). In one scene, for example, Hersri describes the time he represented Indonesian literature in the Asian-African Writers Conference, which was held in 1958 in Tashkent, now the capital of Uzbekistan. He enthusiastically recalls meetings with activists and thinkers, discussing cultural movements against colonialism.


The enthusiasm of students about Buru Island has so unsettled authorities because it is representative of a gradually increasing broader awareness of the 1965 tragedy. Although far from developing into a substantial political force, this growing consciousness shows that young people now realise that something is amiss in the government narrative of history. They recognise it has been constructed and nurtured since the events surrounding the change of power on the night of 30 September that led to Soeharto assuming power. They understand it was used to justify the persecution of communists and their alleged sympathisers – and the involvement of thousands of them in forced labour on Buru.

Buru and the destruction of the revolutionary tradition

Through small details, Hersri reminds us that Buru is more than a monument to one of the worst human rights violations of the twentieth century. The story of Buru between 1969 and 1979 is not just about the 11,498 academics, artists, teachers, journalists, and other political prisoners who were exiled there. It is also about the destruction of a tradition of socialist and populist nationalism formed to oppose colonialism and feudalism. In an inversion of Kartini’s famous phrase, it marks a time that darkness overcame light.


When Soeharto and his New Order came to power not only did he destroy the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) as a political force. He also demolished a modern form of nationalism that took inspiration from the ideas of democracy, equity and socialism manifest in revolutions in France, America, Russia and China. As Hersri writes in his book, A Memoir From Pulau Buru I, one of the greatest tragedies of the 1965 violence was the destruction of the ideals expressed at the time of independence in 1945: political independence, cultural freedom, and freedom from fear and ignorance.


This developing political consciousness had grown between 1945 and 1965, despite the country’s often-problematic relationship with democracy. It was a period characterised by rich connections between culture, literature and politics, when cultural traditions such as ludruk, ketoprak, and wayang were used as tools for political education. Life at the village level was enlivened by social research involving collaboration between farmers, intellectuals and party activists to initiate land reform. The period was also marked by interaction of Indonesian civil society activists with radical international activists, such as leftist philosopher Frantz Fanon, whom Hersri recounts meeting at the Asian-African Writers Conference.


Eighteen years after Soeharto fell, the ruling class in Indonesia remains unwilling to re-examine the 1965 tragedy and apologise to its victims and their families. Many of the Soeharto-era political elite are still influential in the ruling class today. It is not surprising that they would seek to prevent the state from acknowledging its role in the extermination of more than 500,000 Indonesians – the event on which the New Order regime’s political legitimacy was built.


But change is slowly taking place. The enthusiasm of students at Airlangga University and other institutions to watch films like Buru Island shows that young people are prepared to challenge the New Order version of history. In the midst of a wave of “Neo-New Order” ideology, which seeks to promote Soeharto as a national hero, and increasingly confident religious fascism spreading intolerance and hate, some members of the next generation have shown that they want to study a history that was systematically silenced by the state. The young generation has welcomed Hersri’s invitation to get to know the alternative revolutionary tradition of their nation.


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