From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject To Catch the Heartbeat of Those Below: Interviewing Martin Aleida on Indonesia’s Cultural Organisation Lekra
Date October 18, 2020 12:00 AM
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[It is very important to relay to the younger generation the
recent past and history of the country’, Martin insists. During the
2015 International People’s Tribunal on the 1965 events, Martin
testified about the crimes against humanity that he saw.]
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September 30, 2020
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_ It is very important to relay to the younger generation the recent
past and history of the country’, Martin insists. During the 2015
International People’s Tribunal on the 1965 events, Martin testified
about the crimes against humanity that he saw. _

Martin Aleida gives a testimony at the International People’s
Tribunal in The Hague in November, 2015,


‘It was the worst when I was released. That’s the biggest prison I
had to face’.

Martin Aleida recalls the moment he was released from prison at the
end of 1966. The then twenty-two-year-old writer emerged from nearly a
year behind bars to Jakarta unable to find his friends and comrades.
His workplace, _Harian Rakjat_ (‘The People’s Daily’), the
official newspaper of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), was no
longer. His Party and cultural organisation, Lekra (_Lembaga
Kebudajaan Rakjat_ or ‘The Institute for People’s Culture’),
was banned – and has been illegal ever since.

Three months into the pandemic, Tricontinental: Institute for Social
Research [[link removed]] reached out to the
now seventy-six-year-old Martin. Though a North Sumatra native, Martin
has lived in Jakarta since the early 1960s, where he responded to us
from a local library that he frequents every Saturday.

‘There are a lot of events and feelings I had gone through during
the last fifty years that I couldn’t tell.’ Martin first tells us
about his recently published memoir, _Romantisme Tahun
Kekerasan _(‘Romance in the Years of Violence’). Martin, however,
isn’t his name at all.

‘During the thirty-two years of military rule under General Suharto,
in order to write, I had to use a pseudonym – Martin Aleida –
since as a writer I was prohibited by the authorities to write. Being
accused arbitrarily and without proof that I was involved in the
failed coup attempt of the September 30th Movement in 1965 [also known
as G30S] by the military, I couldn’t get back to my professional
field as a writer. The same applied to thousands of teachers, civil
servants, even puppet masters who were prohibited from going back to
their fields, unless they were prepared to be investigated again and
again with the possibility of being detained, and at worst,

The September 30th Movement was a military splinter group that carried
out an early-morning action in 1965, resulting in the kidnapping and
killing of six senior officials. Though the details of the day
continue to be murky, what is clear is that the communists were
scapegoated. This event served as a convenient pretext for the
genocidal crackdown on the PKI that was to come. Led by the US-backed
General Suharto – perhaps known better to the CIA than to the
Indonesian people at the time – in the short months that followed,
one million communists and their sympathisers were murdered. President
Sukarno – not a communist, but still a great champion of the Third
World project and convener of the 1955 Afro-Asian Conference in
Bandung – was deposed. Suharto and his ‘New Order’ military
dictatorship would stay in power for the next thirty-two years until

Faced with one of the bloodiest and most-silenced massacres of
communists in history, Martin deepened his commitment to literature
– one that, as he says, ‘defends the victims, not power’. Under
the penname of Martin, he writes novels and short stories, fiction
and non-fiction, about the suffering of the people and the disappeared
and the silenced aspirations of a generation. He writes in _Bahasa
Indonesian_ – one of the Indonesian languages that was adopted as a
language of the national struggle in 1928 and matured out of necessity
through the anti-colonial and anti-feudal struggles of the 1930s and

In one short story, the protagonist Dewangga lies on her deathbed,
reliving memories of an entire marriage with her husband, Abdullah.
Only in her final moments, after a lifetime spent together in silence,
do they finally have the courage to reveal their militant pasts to one
another – he as a jailed activist in 1965, she as an organiser of
landless peasants. Martin’s recent memoir, he hopes, can revive
these not uncommon stories of Dewangga and Abdullah for the younger
generation about life before 1965, life after, and the conditions that
led to this still open wound in Indonesian history.


[Hendra Gunawan, War and Peace, 1950]

Hendra Gunawan,_ War and Peace_, 1950

When they say the ‘the east was red’, it was because the east was
indeed red. In 1965, the PKI had three and a half million cadre and 20
million people in its mass organisations of youth, women, peasants,
and workers. It was the third largest communist party in the world,
after the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union. Lekra was
one of its mass organisations with over 200,000 members, totalling 1.5
million with its supporters. Lekra was likely the world’s largest
cultural organisation not affiliated with a state to have ever
existed. Too little is known about this historic organisation.

As a former member of Lekra, Martin recalls, ‘I was attracted by the
organisation’s point of view that literature should take a side and
uphold justice of the oppressed majority – the labourers, peasants,
and fishermen. Literature, and art in general, are predestined to
defend the oppressed’. In August of this year, Lekra would have
celebrated seventy years since its founding – sharing the date of 17
August with Indonesia’s independence, a struggle that has always
been intimately connected with the battle over culture.

Two decades earlier, Indonesia’s national liberation was born out of
a cultural cry. After independence was proclaimed on 17 August 1945,
the Dutch and Japanese continued to hold onto their colonial interests
until 1949. _Gelanggang_, a group of artists associated with
the _Siasat_ weekly magazine aligned with the Socialist Party of
Indonesia, published its ‘Testimony of Beliefs’, a cultural
manifesto for the months-young nation state:

We are the legitimate heirs of world culture, and we will perpetuate
this culture in our own way. We were born from the ranks of ordinary
people, and for us, the concept of ‘the people’ signifies a
jumbled hodgepodge from which new, robust worlds are born. Our
Indonesian-ness does not just derive from our brown skin, our black
hair or our prominent foreheads, but rather from what is expressed by
the form of our thoughts and feelings… Revolution for us is the
establishment of new values on top of obsolete ones which must be
destroyed… Our appreciation of the surrounding conditions (society)
is that of people who acknowledge the reciprocity of influences
between society and the artist.1
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It was in this moment when many revolutionary cultural organisations
flourished. Lekra was not only the largest but was also the most
left-aligned. Many of its senior members were PKI cadre, including two
of Lekra’s founding members: Njoto, editor of _Harian Rakjat_ who
was elected into the PKI’s five-member politburo, and D.N. Aidit,
the Party’s future secretary-general. Both of them were killed in

At Lekra’s first National Congress in 1959, Secretary-General
Joebaar Ajoeb said, ‘Lekra was founded in 1950 due to an awareness
of the essence of the August 1945 Revolution and of the connection
between the Revolution and culture, an awareness that the Revolution
has great significance for culture, and, at the same time, culture has
great significance for the August Revolution’.

From this congress, Lekra was divided into seven institutes:
Literature, Fine Arts, Film, Theatre, Music, Dance, and Science.
Through each of these artistic languages, Lekra artists sought to
build a new culture, rooted in the traditional, and infused with
revolutionary ideas. The cultural tasks were tall and many; they
ranged from systematising popular and traditional music to identifying
the decadent aspects that persisted, from developing a cultural
political education program to encouraging new creative production,
from rediscovering ‘people’s music’ and instruments to
organising international cultural exchanges. Through its fifteen-year
existence, Lekra not only mobilised millions, but developed cultural
practices rooted in the people’s concrete and material conditions.
From their organising, new expressive forms and new artistic theories
emerged – they were, in essence, writing art history in the Marxist


[Amrus Natalsya, Mereka Yang Terusir Dari Tanahnya (‘Those Chased
Away from Their Land’), 1960.]

Amrus Natalsya, _Mereka Yang Terusir Dari Tanahnya_ (‘Those Chased
Away from Their Land’), 1960.

One of Lekra’s key principles was _Turun ke
bawah _or _turba_ (‘descend from above’2
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which was concretised in the first National Congress as a theory to
guide the artist-militant’s work. ‘It literally means going down
to the grassroots – working, eating, living with labourers,
landless peasants, and fishermen’, Martin explains. Along with the
‘three alikes’ – work alike, eat alike, sleep alike – this
methodology ‘was a way to intensify your imagination and
inspiration, to sharpen your feelings about how hard the lives of the
people are’.

Hersri Setiawan was another Lekra member and the Indonesian
representative to the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association in the 1960s.
He was jailed on Buru Island for many years for his work with Lekra.
In the documentary _Tjidurian 19_ – named after the street address
of Lekra’s secretariat in Jakarta, which was raided during the
crackdown – he remembers spending days hoeing and weeding and nights
discussing folk tales while weaving with the peasants. To him, the
purpose of an artist was to ‘catch the heartbeat of those below’.

Martin spoke about Amrus Natalsya, a prominent Lekra sculpturer whose
work was admired by President Sukarno and exhibited at the Bandung
conference art exhibition. Amrus lived among the Central Javanese
peasants and created one of his most famous wood sculptures after a
land dispute that resulted in the death of eleven landless peasants.
The work was a record of an event, an analysis of class struggle, and
an embodiment of the Lekra principle _kreativitas individual dan
kearifan massa_ (‘individual creativity and the wisdom of the
masses’). The eighty-six-year-old Amrus held his last solo
exhibition in Jakarta last year entitled _Terakhir, selamat tinggal
dan terima kasih _(‘The last, farewell and thank you’).


[Viva Cuba, collection of Lekra poetry in homage to the Cuban
Revolution, 1963.]

_Viva Cuba, _collection of Lekra poetry in homage to the Cuban
Revolution, 1963.

In 1959, Sukarno called upon artists to stand in the ranks of the
anti-colonial and anti-imperialist fronts. He knew that developing a
robust national culture must be anti-imperialist. ‘We must be more
vigilant, more tenacious, and more persevering in opposing imperialist
culture, especially US imperialist culture, which in reality continues
to threaten us in every shape and way.’ This was also the year of
the Cuban Revolution.

In those six years before Sukarno was deposed, he was getting closer
to the left flank of the Non-Aligned Movement, of which both Cuba and
Indonesia were a part. They were united against imperialism and
jointly organised the Tricontinental Conference that would take place
in Havana in 1966 – the very conference that we pay homage to in our
own name at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. Neither the
PKI, Lekra, or Sukarno’s presidency would live to see that

But history arms us. ‘For the younger generation it is very
important to relay to them the recent past and history of the
country’, Martin insists. During the 2015 International People’s
Tribunal on the 1965 events, Martin testified about the crimes against
humanity that he saw. When questioned about his PKI affiliation – a
Party that continues to be illegal – he responded, at great risk to
himself, that he never regretted joining the Party when he was
twenty-years-old. ‘I am a human being; I am proud that I have
ideals, even if everyone condemns what I aspire to’.

In 1966, the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association organised the
Anti-Imperialist Caricature Exhibition in Beijing, hosting 180 works
from 24 countries on the Asian and African continents. Following this
lineage, Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and
the International Week of Anti-Imperialist Struggle
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series of four Anti-Imperialist Poster Exhibitions. We have had over
145 artists from 35 countries contribute work to our first three
cycles themed, ‘Capitalism’, ‘Neoliberalism’, and
‘Imperialism’. The third exhibition launched on 1 October as part
of the week of actions from 5-10 October, organised by hundreds of
popular movements and political organisations around the world.

‘Formal organisations can disappear; Party organisations can be
abolished’, Lekra poet Putu Oka Sukanta reminds us, ‘but the
spirit lives, if it is right’. We call on you to contribute art to
our exhibition so that we may – in the spirit of Lekra on its
seventieth anniversary – combine individual creativity with the
wisdom of the masses.

[S. Nar, People’s Iron Broom, from the Afro-Asian People’s
Anti-Imperialist Caricature Exhibition, 1966]

S. Nar, _People’s Iron Broom_, from the Afro-Asian People’s
Anti-Imperialist Caricature Exhibition, 1966

_Martin Aleida is a survivor of the bloody political upheaval in
Indonesia from 1965-66 during which hundreds of thousands of people
were killed. He was a former journalist of Harian Rakjat (‘The
People’s Daily’) and editor of Lekra’s monthly magazine Zaman
Baru (‘New Age’). He was detained for almost a year when he was
just twenty-two years old. After being released, he wrote a good
number of short stories on the impacts of the massacres carried out by
the army and the civilian paramilitary. He worked as a reporter for
TEMPO, a prominent weekly news in Jakarta in 1971 and was interrogated
multiple times by the military authority under General Suharto’s
pro-United States regime._

1 Translated from Goenawan Mohamad, ‘Forgetting; Poetry and the
nation, a motif in Indonesian literary modernism after 1945’, 2002.
2 Translated by Antariksa, Sari D., Sol Aréchiga, Edwina Brennan for
School of Improper Education, KUNCI Cultural Studies Center, 2018.

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