Tuesday, May 28, 1996

For Indonesia's Oei Tjoe Tat, Memoir Is His Epitaph

Andreas Harsono 
Institute for the Studies on Free Flow of Information 

JAKARTA -- When the couple celebrated their wedding golden anniversary in April last year, the wheelchair-bound husband launched his memoirs, which revealed one of the bloodiest power transitions ever in Southeast Asia; saying in his short speech on that occasion that watching his memoir being printed was his final wish. 

"I'm old now and will die some day. But people encouraged me to write my personal experience," said Oei Tjoe Tat, a former minister to the late Indonesian President Sukarno.

Oei added that Catholic priest Y.B. Mangunwijaya and Moslem leader Abdurrahman Wahid, two of the most influential religious leaders in Indonesia, also asked him to write the extraordinary story of his role in Indonesian history. 

"They argued that it is not my own personal story. It belongs to the nation-state of Indonesia," said the sad-eyed Oei, looking on life a little more brightly as he sat surrounded by his wife, his children, his grandchildren and more than 1,500 guests, comprised mostly of opposition political figures, human rights workers and scholars. 

His final wish was fulfilled on that day. His biography, entitled Memoir of Oei Tjoe Tat: An Assistant to President Sukarno, had 20,000 copies in print. The 400-page biography was jointly edited by Indonesian novelist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, and young journalist Stanley Prasetyo Adi. 

Reviewers praised the memoir, saying that it is a well written biography -- a rare commodity in Indonesia. 

After delivering his speech, Oei wept as he handed a copy of his memoir to Megawati Sukarnoputri, the chairperson of an opposition party who is also the daughter of his former boss: President Sukarno. 

And last Friday, as if hearing his own last words, Oei died of cancer at age 74 at the St. Carolus Hospital in Central Jakarta. 

His body was cremated on Monday as hundreds of people, including dozens of aging politicians of the Sukarno era, paid their last respects. 

Oei was a state minister from 1963 until March 1966, when then- Major General Suharto took over power from Sukarno following a failed coup d'etat six months earlier largely blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party. 

In the coup, about half a million alleged communists were killed, and hundreds of thousands were arrested in one of the bloodiest power struggles ever to occur in the region. Sukarno was sent to the sidelines, and Suharto, backed by the army, rose to power. Soon, the army arrested all Sukarno-related politicians, including Oei Tjoe Tat, whose detention lasted longer than even he expected. 

Without a trial, he was jailed 11 years in two different prisons in Jakarta for his alleged links to the coup attempt, before an impromptu military-controlled court in 1976 officially imprisoned him for 13 years. 

Oei denied his involvement in the coup. In his memoir, he charged that the main culprits of the attempted coup attempt were the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, along with elements in the Indonesian army and some communist leaders. 

Based on his role as an official assigned by Sukarno to investigate the mass killings during the period described in the hit Academy Award-winning film, The Year Of Living Dangerously, Oei revealed in his memoir that thousands of innocent people were killed throughout the country just to make way for military rule. 

"Nobody knows the exact details of the attempted coup. So many people were involved then complete chaos followed right after," Oei said in his memoir. 

He also said that Gen. Suharto is a "cruel" person whose instinct is "to crush his opponents without mercy," and added that his memoir could help trace back a dark chapter of Indonesia history which has never been independently investigated. 

Many believe here that Oei was an idealistic person who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some who were his opponents in the 1960's even became his friends after the release. 

"I just laughed, but the real idealists are those who keep on opposing the [dictators], whether he is Sukarno or Suharto," Oei once said. 

Born into an elite Chinese family in Solo, Central Java, the young Oei completed his law studies in Jakarta. He opened his own law firm in 1948, became a successful lawyer and gradually became involved in the ethnic Chinese political movement, Baperki, to advocate for their rights as Indonesian citizens. 

He later joined the Partindo, a political party born of a coalition of leftists and nationalists in which Baperki was an element. 

Army officers alleged that Oei also played a role as the treasurer of the communists, an allegation Oei repeatedly denied and denounced for the final time in his memoir. 

Then Vice President Adam Malik persuaded President Suharto to release Oei to return to his wife and their children, who had grown up without the presence of their father. 

A lawyer by training, he reopened his law firm but closed it again, later explaining he was "an out-of-date" lawyer because he could not (and would not) compete with other, younger lawyers who aggressively bribe law enforcement officials to win their cases. 

"During the Dutch [colonial] period, we didn't recognize such a practice," he said. He then used his time to concentrate on writing his memoir, which was banned in September 1995 based on a judgment that it was "poisonous" to Indonesia's youth. 

A government official said the younger generation does not know the facts of the coup d'etat, in which six Army generals were murdered by the communists "since the content of the memoir is contradictory." 

Daughter Oei Lan Siem, who is currently a Vice President of Citibank in Jakarta said, "The memoir helped us, his children, to recognize our father completely. I was still a high school student when he was arrested. We partially knew him before the publication of the memoir. We're really proud of him. Talking about the memoir and the 1960's made him alive." 

Oei is survived by his wife, and by four children, two of whom are living in Germany and France, respectively. 

Journalist Prasetyo Adi said on Monday that wife Kwee Loan Nio, the woman behind Oei and who raised their children singlehandedly, once whispered, "The memoir is actually his gravestone."

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