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General! A poem of solidarity from Timor-Leste for human rights struggles in Indonesia

Monday, April 23rd, 2018


(with introduction and notes by David Webster)

Cover of Seno Gumira Ajidarma, Ketika Jurnalisme dibungkam hastra harus bicara (When Journalism is Silenced, Literature must speak).


“When journalism is silent, literature must speak,” in the words of Indonesian writer Seno Gumira Ajidarma, whose reporting on the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre in Timor-Leste (East Timor) broke the silence about the killings in Indonesia.1

In 1965-66, as many as a million Indonesians, and perhaps more, died in a wave of violence following the seizure of power by General Suharto. The events are now well covered in scholarly work in English.2 Army officers spurred on killings of suspected leftists and many more were arrested for their political views, becoming “tapol” (political prisoners, from the Indonesian phrase tahanan politik). Several scholars have also pointed to the role of the United States government in encouraging the Indonesian army to carry out the mass killings, a complicity highlighted decades ago and confirmed by recently-declassified US government documents.3

The most famous Indonesian literature outside the country is the Buru quartet of books by the writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer, written while Pramoedya was a tapol on the island of Buru.4 The writings of Eka Kurniawan also reference the 1965 killings.5 Half a century later, debate about the “1965 events” continues to face challenges, even in post-Suharto democratic Indonesia.6 Literature may speak more freely than journalism even now.

The Indonesian armed forces invaded Timor-Leste (East Timor) in 1975 and colonized it for 24 years, with the cost of more than 100,000 lives – estimates of the death toll run as high as one-third of the population.7 Timorese students were forced into the New Order educational system, which placed heavy stress on a nationalist view of Indonesian history and continually underlined the regime’s basis of legitimacy as the force that vanquished an alleged communist coup effort in 1965 and “saved” the nation. Only after the fall of Suharto and the dismantling of his “New Order” system of control were the Timorese granted a referendum, in which they voted overwhelming for independence. After the fall of Suharto, Timor-Leste was able to regain its independence and elected governments took office in Indonesia. Indonesian civil society activists, long repressed, burst into the open. It became possible at last to discuss the “1965 events” more openly. At the same time, the Indonesian military and elite figures linked to the New Order remain influential, and have often resisted the more open tone of conversations about 1965.

As Indonesian military elites try to downplay discussion of the massacres that engulfed their country in 1965, a powerful new poem from emerging Timorese writer Dadolin Murak expresses solidarity from now-independent Timor-Leste for the victims of 1965 and those trying to debate the 1965 tragedy today. “General!” is a wake-up call and a warning that is receiving wide distribution in the Indonesian language. It is an intervention from a formerly colonized land into Indonesian debates by one of a generation of Timorese intellectuals who came of age within the New Order educational system, but also within Indonesian pro-democracy activism.

In 2017, he published “General!”, a powerful “poem of solidarity from Timor-Leste for the discussion of the 1965 tragedy in Jakarta and victims of the 1965 tragedy.” Written in Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia),8 it aims, as Murak writes, to speak to silences and to help advance the Indonesian national debate on the 1965 killings. It opens with a reference to the way the 1965 coup was taught to the poet and other students during the Suharto era, passes through a litany of the suffering of Timor-Leste under Indonesian occupation, and ends with a call of solidarity with Indonesian activists that echoes solidarity from Indonesian activists for Timor-Leste expressed back in the 1990s.

“General!” was not published in a literary journal or book. Instead, it was part of a proliferating “Facebook literature” of poems and prose in the highly-networked world of Indonesian-language Facebook.

Below is the English translation of the poem “General!” with explanatory notes. An edited transcript of an interview with Dadolin Murak follows.



Dadolin Murak


We didn’t know

The dark affair of 30 September 1965

When you came

We were indoctrinated by your false history:

Cutting genitals

Slashing with razors, gouging out eyes

Joined the communist cavorting at Lubang Buaya9



We were forbidden to speak of Boaventura and Nicolau Lobato

You forced us to memorize the seven Heroes of your Revolution

You even forced us to memorize the number of feathers on the Garuda’s wings10

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