Life, interrupted: Documents from Berlin

Jakarta Post, 10 December 2018

by Katrin Figge

jakartapost_logoWhen Pipit Rochijat Kartawidjaja came to West Berlin to study electrical engineering in the early 1970s, he found a city isolated by the Cold War and divided by a wall. It was home to all sorts of creative minds: musicians, artists and student activists.

Foreigners seemed to be strangely attracted to West Berlin, as its isolated status reflected their own state of mind of feeling like an outsider.

Pipit, however, quickly took root and befriended many students — German students, mostly, because he thought it was the quickest way to learn the language.

“I distinctly remember the many discussions we had,” Pipit recalls. “It was quite an amazing experience for me because we all had different ideas, yet we were still able to talk about it. My friends didn’t judge me for my views but were rather interested in finding out how I came to have these views.”

PipitDokumenBerlinPipit soon became an activist for the Indonesian Students Association (PPI) — an organization founded by Indonesian students in West Germany — himself. At the same time, he distanced himself from the Soeharto regime in Indonesia, publishing critical articles in PPI’s journal Gotong Royong, of which he became editor-in-chief in 1977.

The Indonesian government soon saw the students’ political activism as a threat. By the end of the 1970s, it established a nationwide program to induce and implement the principles of the state ideology Pancasila. This program, called “P4”, came in the form of two-week seminars that every pupil, student, civil servant and military personnel had to participate in — including Indonesian students abroad.

“They had flown in high-ranking government officials to lead through this program,” Pipit says. “But they used this platform to intimidate us. They asked us to come in for one-on-one conversations under the pretext of getting to know us better, but then inquired about the PPI’s activities and even threatened some with bodily harm should they not refrain from political activism in the future.”

While the intimidation seemed to work with some, Pipit was furious and continued to challenge the Indonesian government officials, asking critical questions that remained unanswered. He left in the middle of the program.

“That was quite a scandal,” he says, a faint smile on his face. From that day on, he was officially considered a troublemaker. This became painfully obvious when Pipit wanted to renew his passport. Instead of receiving a two-year renewal, which was common at the time, his passport was only renewed for a mere six months.

“I asked them on which statutory basis they were basing their decision,” Pipit says. “But again, they didn’t answer. I then received a letter from the consul, in which he explained that I should regard his actions as a warning for whatever I had planned in the future.”

In 1986, things got even worse for Pipit.

“I was invited to appear in a German talk show on TV, where they wanted to discuss the New Order in Indonesia,” Pipit explains. “Two days before the recording at the studio, the Indonesian consul invited me for dinner and told me to ‘play nice’ on TV. I didn’t.”

After he openly criticized the Soeharto regime, and even worse, told the audience about the dinner with the consul that had occurred prior to his TV appearance, his passport was revoked — he only regained it in 1998, shortly after the fall of Soeharto. In the meantime, he had to use an “alien passport”, a travel document issued by Germany to noncitizens residing within their borders who are stateless or otherwise unable to obtain a passport from their state of nationality.

During that time, Pipit was isolated — his Indonesian friends were often too scared to be associated with him. Moreover, he was subjected to repeated harassment by telephone and veiled — or not so veiled — threats from the Indonesian authorities.

“I had my own tactics on how to counter it,” Pipit explains. He regularly wrote letters to the Indonesian Embassy and sometimes even showed up when it organized events — fully aware that in the presence of German and other international dignitaries, the Indonesian government wouldn’t cause a scene. Pipit also carefully recorded the telephone calls he received; the date, the time and what was said. These handwritten records have found their way into his book Dokumen Berlin, an important and intriguing collection of letters, notes and other documents Pipit wrote and received during this rather tumultuous period in his life.

Seno Gumira Ajidarma, under whose supervision the book was put together, writes in his introduction to Dokumen Berlin that, “With his own interests being sacrificed, and his life being disrupted, Pipit’s experience is a narrative that is absolutely necessary to the illustration of our national history, as it is revealed from all the documents. Indeed, we have to thank Pipit for not wanting to forget his bitter experience, for example by throwing away or burning all the files that filled the walls of his house in Berlin, but diligently scanning them, seemingly in their entirety, so that many people could learn from these documents.”

In 1991, Pipit cofounded the human rights organization Watch Indonesia! as a response to the military actions in East Timor. Watch Indonesia! exists until today; after the fall of Soeharto, its main objective became to strengthen and further the democratic process in Indonesia.

Pipit, who worked for the Brandenburg Agency for Structural Development and Employment (LASA) until he retired, has traveled to Indonesia a lot over the years, where he has established a reputation as an election observer and has also cofounded Sindikasi Pemilu Demokrasi.

When asked about the upcoming presidential election, he throws up his hands in defeat. Twenty years after the fall of Soeharto, he says, it is rather disappointing to see the recent developments in Indonesia.

“The old players, they are all still there!” he bemoans the current situation, shaking his head in disbelief. He also watches the rise of conservative Islam with growing concern.

“But maybe I should be happy because paradise will be filled with Indonesians if we keep it up,” Pipit adds sarcastically, referring to the suicide bombers’ belief that their actions will secure them a spot in paradise.

Pipit has been living in Germany for so long that he can’t imagine relocating to Indonesia again. There would be too many things he couldn’t cope with anymore, he says. But if he had the opportunity to go back in time and do things differently, would he take it? Would he rather have led an uninterrupted, less dangerous and peaceful life in Germany, or even Indonesia?

“No, I wouldn’t,” Pipit says emphatically. “A lot of people have asked me this question, but my father taught me to always follow through on what I have started. That’s my answer.”

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