Indonesia's Long Lost Poet is Awakening Questions About The Past

Indonesian poet Wiji Thukul disappeared over a decade ago during political turmoil. But with the release of his biopic Istirahatlah Kata-kata, his words are awakening once more
February 22, 2017, 8:15am

Widji Widodo was born in Solo, Central Java to a rickshaw driving father and a mother who sold streetside fried chicken. He was a brash-speaking, thin and perennially restless man who went by the name Wiji Thukul. This was not the kind of man films are made about. But hundreds of people came to Taman Ismail Marzuki in Central Jakarta to watch a movie about his life

Between 1994 and 1998, he lived his life as an outlaw. Clandestinely crossing islands and cities, using friends homes as hideouts, looking for the nearest escape route and barely seeing his family. He was a Catholic with a lisp that made it hard to pronounce R's, fellow activist Prijo Wasono said, "he liked to wear a white shirt that was no longer white."


Workers rights were often at the core of his activism after founding the art collective, Jaringan Kerja Kebudayaan Rakyat (Jaker) under the People's Democratic Party (PRD). Depending on who you ask, the PRD was trying to overthrow Soeharto's regime or promote workers rights. Wiji's life was increasingly defined by the message of revolt. It was never bloody, unlike his right eye that military personnel bashed it with a gun, he stood in solidarity with workers. Like the 14,000 laborers of PT Sri Rejeki Isman he joined to demonstrate for higher wages in 1995.

Activism was seen throughout his bluntest weapon, poetry. He thought of himself as "the president's nightmare" ("Nyanyian Akar Rumput"). Oppression to him was "the most honest of teachers" ("Pepatah Buron") and anything challenging it makes generals "angry" ("Para Jenderal Marah-Marah"). He wrote what people referred to as "pamphlet poetry," easily consumable by the masses. He's seen as one of Indonesia's great literary figures, as writer Armah Dhani argues in his piece.

"Poetry is eternal, it can be taught every time. Reading it should help people to understand the situation that made it necessary for it to be written in the first place," Wahyu Susilo, Wiji's younger brother told me when asked if Wiji's poetry should be taught in schools. His brother carried on Wiji's legacy on workers rights by working as an analyst at Migrant Care, an NGO focused on  migrant workers rights.


A fatal riot broke out in the headquarters of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) in July 1996. It was a desperate bid to elect Megawati Soekarnoputri as president in order to finally end Suharto's 32-year New Order regime. The regime painted PRD as the perpetrators, triggering a witch hunt that sent Wiji on the run. Eventually the hunt ended in May 1998, resulting in the unsolved disappearance of 13 people, including Wiji. Since then, he has been a poster boy for silenced, displaced people; for unresolved ordeals. If broken democracy had a face, it would have his scrawny, unkempt one.

I got an insight into Wiji's last few months before his disappearance. Istirahatlah Kata-Kata, a film by director Yosep Anggi Noen, chronicles Wiji's seven-months on the lam to Pontianak, West Kalimatan. A city where folks knew him by three names, Paul, Martinus Martin and Aloysius Sumedi. Theatre actor Gunawan Maryanto portrays Wiji throughout the quiet film. Maryanto was transformed into the famous poet, right down to the fake, protruding teeth. Wiji's poems help drive the narrative through a voiceover, his constant fear felt clear and unwavering.

Novelist and executive producer Okky Madasari thinks the enthusiasm behind the film is fueled by Indonesians yearning to dig up secrets buried in the past. "Like Wiji, they'll also remember what it feels like to be abandoned and erased by the country," she wrote in an op-ed. The film portrays Wiji as a human affected yet unfazed by fear, and also as a family member that was out of the picture and would remain so. It traverses the stealth and confrontational nature of his poetry. For most people watching it, the filmmaker said, they already feel as if they have lived this story.


To us, Wiji is nothing more than a story convincingly told. Sure, we know something about the people he left behind, but little is actually known about him. His wife Siti Dyah Sujirah is a tailor in Solo and suffered from depression over the loss of her husband. Fitri Nganti Wani, their daughter, is an Indonesian literature graduate from Universitas Sanata Dharma, she released a book of poetry called Selepas Bapakku Hilang. Fajar Merah. Their son, is a musician in a band called Merah Bercerita, their self-titled album contains 4 songs that adapt Wiji's poems as lyrics, including "Bunga dan Tembok" which plays during the film's final act.

"I like the ending: It dramatizes things and that the film has more quiet, stoic scenes about. I prefer a quiet scene, because it gives time for our minds and thoughts to race. We think to ourselves, 'Oh so this is what it feels like to be a fugitive'," Fajar tells me.

Most assume given the time that's passed, Wijir's children are at peace with what happened. "Not really. Because I have a band, too, right? Often times we get asked questions about dad, well it makes sense, because I'm his kid. Truth is I don't know a lot about dad—how his memory lives on. Occasionally when people share with me memories about dad, that rattles me a little. Because when it hurts, I get reminded that I'm in pain," he says.

What I assumed, that Fajar idolizes his father, made me feel kind of foolish. Of course, there are still things unresolved; there will still be those reminders in Fajar's life. "Yes, it can be intrusive if the questions asked by reporters are stupid and looking for sensational stuff. I like them when they're a lot more probing," Wahyu tells me.


I did get one thing right: That Wiji was a brave man, considering the circumstances he found himself in. "He was whatever he wanted to be. A writer, an idealist who wrote about the poor, about the rights that are taken, about freedom that is compromised. At the time, there wasn't a lot of people like him. In general, people choose the well beaten path and if they get into trouble or whatever, it was normal. That he chose the hard way, that's amazing," Fajar says.

However the film turns out, it exists as a text of Wiji's life. It can also be a reminder for us. Aku mung pengen kowe ono, Sipon says in the film; Javanese for I need you to exist. And on the poem that gave the movie its name ("Istirahatlah Kata-Kata"), Wiji wrote,

Be asleep these words

We'll awake later

We'll heed all the demands

Of those poor and destroyed

However the film turns out, these words have awoken.