Subject: Listening to Indonesian War Veterans

Received from Joyo Indonesia News

Latitudes [Bali] Issue cover-dated August 31, 2003

Listening to Indonesian War Veterans

by Ajar Aedi

photographs by Sahlul Fahmi

Indonesia's history is animated by many wars-wars of liberation against the colonial Dutch and the occupying forces of the Japanese; wars of territorial contest in Papua, East Timor and now Aceh. Those soldiers and volunteers who fought for Indonesia are normally awarded a pension by the government. Most of them are members of the Legion of War Veterans of the Republic of Indonesia (LVRI), although not everyone wants to join.

Mbah Warsi

Mbah Warsi, as he is called, is eighty-one years old. He looks remarkably strong for his age. He is a bicycle repairman, his profession since 1967. From six-thirty in the morning until dusk, he is waits for customers at the Benteng Barat corner in Jogjakarta. "I make an average of Rp15,000 day," he tells me. "If you're willing to live on the street, you'll manage to eat."

Although he works as a humble repairman, he calls himself a fighter (pejuang). Between repairing a becak pedicab and patching the flat tire of a bicycle, he tells me about fighting the Dutch. "In those days, there was no fuss about the call to fight. 'Are you ready to die? If so, join us'." His eyes light up with fire.

Mbah Warsi's career as a soldier began in Seinendan, a village-level military organization formed by the Japanese during their occupation of the Indonesian archipelago (1942 - 1945). "Every day we had marching drill for an hour. It was always at mid-day, and they gave us only boiled yams and something to drink," he says. Then, during the 'Second Police Action' in 1948, he joined the 72nd Battalion under Lieutenant Soejono.

"My weapon was the hand grenade. And of course bambu runcing," he says, referring to the deadly sharp bamboo lances that are a symbol of people's armies. "All I wanted was for Indonesia to be one-hundred percent free." Mbah Warsi saw only enemies. "We had to be alert. The choice was kill or be killed." He shows me a scar on the left side of his chest. "Bayonet stab," he says.

Mbah Warsi, now a grandfather of five, says that a real fighter doesn't stop fighting as long as he lives. "You can be a war hero only after you die. As long as you're alive, you must keep up the struggle." I am not surprised when he tells me that he still enjoys his night job as a civil security guard (hansip) at the local district government office.

"Are you a member of the Veterans' Legion, Mbah?" I ask him.

"True fighters don't ask for rewards," he says.

"You know that they give veterans a monthly pension and health insurance?"

Mbah Warsi is silent for a while. "I know that. Let it be, I don't need it," he says with a lightly dismissive air. "But when I die, I want to be covered with the Indonesian flag."

Nonetheless, Mbah Warsi admits that he spent only two years fighting before resigning from the army. "Many years ago, my grandfather told me [in Javanese], 'Kid, someday people like you will be taken care of by the government. But if you want to live a long life, you'll have to sincerely forego it. (Le, bakele wong koyo kowe diurus negoro. Tapi yen pengen awet urip diiklaske lair-batin.)' I've never been able to forget that advice."

The old fighter says that he's reluctant to talk to members of the Veterans' Legion. Many have admitted that they fought only for the pension and benefits they would receive as veterans. Warsi says, "Let them lie to the country. They'll pay the consequences."

He tells me about an incident that convinced him that fighting in a war is neither for the sake of riches nor for veterans' rewards. It was after winning a battle in the region of Ambarawa, Semarang, Central Java, and a lot of his fellow fighters looted the houses of the Dutch and of Chinese-Indonesians who supported the Dutch.

"Some took gold and jewelry. I took only rice, and I gave it to people in the village who were starving." His face gets a faraway look. Then, "But most of those looters are dead now, or always sick. Maybe it's their karma."

Mbah Warsi is uneasy about present conditions in Indonesia, and he supports student actions in protest against government policies. "Sometimes I feel like joining the demonstrations; but I'm too old. What the students have done, and what they're doing, is for the Indonesian people. And whatever they gain is also for the Indonesian people," he says. He wipes the sweat from his face with a dirty shirt sleeve.

Mbah Warsi takes life as it comes. Some time ago, his favorite bicycle was stolen. "The thief was someone who often comes to our house. Well, let it be. Maybe he couldn't buy a bicycle of his own."

"Did you report him to the police?"

"What for? They wouldn't bother with it."

Impressively, Mbah Warsi says he's never sick. His health secret is bottled tea and cigarettes. "I had a check-up once. The doctor was amazed. He said, 'Mbah, you're old; why is your heart still so strong?'"

Mbah Atmo

R. Atmo Soewarno, aged seventy-eight, has been the head of the Veterans' Legion subdivision in Sewon, Bantul, Jogjakarta since 1992. He served in the wars as a member of the Indonesian Red Cross and is also a member of the Veterans of the Wars of 1945.

Mbah Atmo tells me that Veterans' Legion divides members into three categories: Veteran 45 (the war of independence); Veteran Trikora (for the 'liberation' of Papua) and Veteran Pembela (the campaign in East Timor). The amount of remuneration depends on the veteran's classification (golongan). Golongan A brings Rp650,000 per month; Golongan B around Rp600,000; Golongan C Rp500,000; Golongan D around Rp475,000; and Golongan E around Rp450,000.

To become a member of the Veterans' Legion, a veteran must be able to furnish the following: a photocopy of his identity card; a witness attesting to his service in the wars; the signature of his commander; and the signature of an 'extraordinary witness' (saksi istimewa). Normally, the higher the rank of this last personage, the higher the golongan you get.

The official who determines an applicant's classification comes from within the central headquarters of the armed forces (Markas Besar TNI) in Jakarta. But if a member feels that his classification is not that which he deserves, he can file an appeal. Mbah Atmo himself admits that he is Golongan E. "I try to live within my allowance. Lots of my friends say, if you've vowed to fight, it's not right to file an appeal."

He has some 1900 members. He says that members of the Veterans' Legion are granted many facilities. "With a Surat Keputusan (SKEP) document, a veteran can get credit at a bank; a seventy-five percent tax break; and all his children and grandchildren will get a discount in their school fees. Our health insurance is as good as that for middle-ranking officers."

There is a downside, however, to the provision of such good health insurance. Many active members of the armed forces (TNI) come to him for a signature. "They want to change their health insurance to that of a veteran's." Mbah Atmo shrugs. "So, well, I help them."

The Veterans' Legion was formed under the law known as UU No. 7 1967, which specifies certain conditions to be met: obedience to the military loyalty oath Panca Marga; allegiance to the national creed Pancasila; and other obligations, such as keeping national secrets and being a 'model human being' (manusia teladan). Therefore, if a member transgresses any of these, TNI has the right to suspend members.

"Are there any other sanctions?" I ask Mbah Atmo.

"The pension can be cancelled or frozen," he says. During Suharto's New Order, veterans were also obliged to vote for the ruling party, Golkar. "Once there was a veteran who campaigned for an opposition party. His pension was suspended." These days the political choices of the Veterans' Legion have changed. "We're free to vote however we want. But a member of the armed forces came to me and told us to keep voting for Golkar." Besides their monthly meeting, Mbah Atmo and his fellow veterans choose to spend their time drilling their marching band. Their instruments and so forth were bought with money contributed by a TNI field-officer.

And their coach comes from the Air Force Academy. "Once we played at the palace, at Puro Pakualaman. We had to march seven kilometers. It was a little tiring, but we were happy," says Mbah Atmo, laughing.

Like active soldiers, veterans are obliged to wear their uniforms on important occasions, such as ceremonies celebrating Independence Day and Veterans' Day and at war remembrance ceremonies. They have two sorts of uniform: a daily service uniform and a field service uniform. They also wear yellow berets and an assortment of insignias.

But this uniform is not a gift from the nation. "We have to pay for the uniforms ourselves. Usually we ask a tailor to make it. And we have to buy the insignias, too."

When a veteran dies, he must be buried in a military ceremony. "But that sort of funeral is expensive," says Mbah Atmo. "So we usually try to make it very simple." The fellow veterans of the deceased attend the funeral in their daily service uniforms, and there is a ceremonial reading of the deceased veteran's honors and of the Veterans' Decree.

Nonetheless, veterans do not automatically have the right to be buried in the War Heroes' Cemetery (Taman Makam Pahlawan). "There's a special veterans' burial ground. But many of us don't want that. Usually veterans ask to be buried in a public graveyard." For veterans and their families, one good thing about being buried in a public cemetery is that the grave is sure to be decorated with replicas of bambu runcing-those iconic weapons in the struggle for independence-and with the Indonesian flag.

"That's a must," says Mbah Atmo.

If a veteran's wife survives him, his pension passes to her. "But if the wife has already died, then it's over."

Mbah Atmo tells me that there are some things that bother him. He gets annoyed with members who claim to have seen battle in the wars for independence when they have not. He says that if a member is under seventy years old, he is lying. There is also someone he knows who, he says, is not worthy of being a veteran but who, strangely enough, was given a high classification. "Years ago, when I asked him join in the fight for Kota Baru, he chickened out. Maybe he got a high-ranking officer to be his 'extraordinary witness'." He says that there are veterans who did not get medals for their service. And he is especially annoyed that many soldiers are disrespectful toward veterans. "The high-ranking TNI field-officers respect us, but the lower ranks tend to be arrogant."

The stories of the Seroja War veterans are different. These are the former soldiers who fought when Indonesia annexed Timor Timur-a controversial move by then President Suharto to take over this former colony of Portugal, after a change in the Portuguese government in 1975 left the under-developed territory on its own.

The invasion took place at dawn on 7 December 1975, approximately twenty hours after the visit to Indonesia of United States President Gerald Ford and the Foreign Secretary Henry Kissinger. The code name for the invasion was Operation Seroja. It is thought that some 5,000 people on both sides died in that campaign.

The surviving Indonesian combatants were given the Satya Lencana Operasi Seroja award and granted housing in Bekasi, several kilometers east of Jakarta. The housing complex itself is called Seroja.

In August 1999, East Timor voted in a referendum for independence from Indonesia. Although this development was acclaimed internationally, it was bitterly resented by many in the Indonesian military, and particularly by Seroja veterans, who felt that all they had suffered in battle therefore had been rendered meaningless.

On Sunday, 19 May 2002, at the Seroja complex, the Indonesian flag flew at half-mast. That day, President Megawati Sukarnoputri was in Dili, East Timor to attend ceremonies solemnizing the new nation's independence.

While she was there, Megawati had a friendly talk with Xanana Gusmao, President of East Timor and former enemy of the Seroja veterans. Although she paid a call to the Seroja War Heroes' Cemetery in Dili, the veterans were in no way comforted by this gesture. To the contrary, they burned their Satya Lencana awards-and that evening they staged a demonstration to communicate their distress. As reported by, an Indonesian Internet portal, Sukoro, the head of the Seroja Veterans and formerly a member of the 512th Brawijaya Battalion, declared, "We, as the Seroja fighters, regret Ibu Megawati's visit to East Timor. We urge all other Seroja fighters in other regions to do the same." Not long afterwards, President Megawati inaugurated a Seroja memorial monument at the headquarters of the armed forces in Jakarta.

Once a war is over, people tend to look to the future, and the war veterans are usually forgotten. They are left to occupy themselves with memories of their losses, forever trying to re-create the passion of heroism that animated them as men, once upon a time in the past.


Ajar Aedi is a free-lance writer and frequent contributor to Latitudes.

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