Grace Susetyo takes a trip to Ende, where Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, was exiled between 1934-1938. President Sukarno used his time on the island to write plays and poetry with hidden meanings, meditating on his vision of an independent Indonesia.
It had been ten days since I’d been going up and down the cool mountains of Flores when I felt the warm marine breeze on my face while beholding the haughty Mount Wongge from my motel window. In this coastal town surrounded by mountains, I’d been looking forward to meeting the womb that conceived the nation of Indonesia.
I first heard of Ende in my primary school history lessons. Sukarno, later the first president of Indonesia, was exiled here in 1934-1938 because his political activities were viewed as a threat to the Dutch East Indies Government. I imagined that Ende would be a romantic place that inspired Sukarno to write passionate letters, poetry, and theatrical plays.
As I walked the southern beaches of Ende Island, I felt the grains of black volcanic sand on my bare feet and the waves of clear blue-green water on my legs. Children swimming and paddling their canoes called out to my camera with big smiles. It was by the shores of these beaches that Sukarno coached locals in dramatic vocal exercises as they rehearsed the founding father’s dreams of a future sovereign Indonesia ruled by Indonesians.
It would be easy for a travel writer to call this place the clichéd ‘piece of heaven’. But Ende in the 1930s was anything but that for Sukarno.
In the mid-1930s, with a population of only 5,000, Ende was considered a primitive outback of the Indies, where Sukarno and his family would be foreign Javanese strangers in the land of the Ende-Lio speaking people. It was at least a month’s boat ride away from the European-educated Javanese-Malay elites engaging in fiery discourse about independence in Batavia (Jakarta). Intensive contact with them
would have been crucial to Sukarno’s political work. Back then, the only way to keep in touch would be through letters that would take months to reach Java and back to Flores.
In other words, the exile to Ende was one of the Dutch Government’s attempts to abort the conception of the Republic of Indonesia.
Sukarno made use of his four years here meditating on his vision for an independent Indonesia and engaging with locals to take part in it. To connect on their level, Sukarno wrote a dozen theatre plays and founded the Toneel Club Kelimutu which involved locals in productions performed at the Immaculata Building.
“When Sukarno asked permission from the local parish to use the Immaculata Building, the Dutch priests in charge of the parish were worried that Sukarno would indoctrinate locals with his ideas of nationalism,” said Maria Marietta Bali, lecturer of Indonesian literature and theatre in Universitas Flores, Ende. A friend of Sukarno assured the fearful priests that Sukarno’s activities would be harmless and under responsible supervision.
Indonesia 1945, a then futuristic fiction play about the Pacific War and the rise of Japan’s uprising against the USA and Britain, accurately predicted Indonesia’s independence in the year 1945.
Another play, Dr. Sjaitan, tells of a mad scientist who is able to bring dead organisms back to life by transplanting the heart of another living organism. 17 kilometres out of Ende, eight parts of a robot and thousands of pieces of shrapnel are found. In order to bring the shattered robot back to life, it must be connected to the 45 electric poles, which need to be wired and capture energy from the Great Lightning.
“The shrapnel represents Indonesia’s many islands scattered between the oceans. The lightning symbolises God. When a nation in suspended animation receives the power of God like this robot receives electricity, it can rise up and come back to life,” Bali explained the Frankenstein-inspired play. She added that 17km, 8 parts and 45 poles prophesied Indonesia’s independence date of 17 August 1945, though this was never written explicitly in the script.
During his exile in Ende, Sukarno and his family lived on Jalan Perwira. Their house is now known as Situs Pengasingan Soekarno, a national heritage museum run by former friends of the Sukarno family. The museum houses goods owned and used by Sukarno during his stay in Ende. Visitors to the museum have reported pleasant visits reminiscing Sukarno’s conception of the Republic of Indonesia in the womb that is
Ende through old photographs, newspaper clippings, oration quotes and vintage exhibits.
Unfortunately, I failed to enter the house during my visit in Ende because the museum’s caretaker decided not to show up for work for the weekend. The neighbours didn’t have his number. According to an Endenese acquaintance who is related to him, the caretaker is a low-waged, paid-by the hour worker who still takes his canoe out fishing for a living.
I came to Ende expecting to encounter romantic walks down memory lane
that give me euphoric bursts of last century’s Indonesian dreams. Instead, I spent the afternoon waiting for the absent museum caretaker at a mediocre warung Padang whose waitresses were busy watching a sappy sinetron (soap opera).
Seeing how some Indonesians today seem to struggle respecting other Indonesians who are different from them as human beings, I find it embarrassing that Sukarno’s vision from last century to unite Indonesia may have been replaced in favour of cheap soap operas loaded with fake drama and palm-oil drenched, high-cholesterol, spicy curries.
On the other hand, positive developments have taken place in Sukarno’s memorial sites in Ende. Since receiving funds from Yayasan Bung Karno in collaboration with the Ende regency government, the Immaculata Building is currently under renovation. When I visited in December 2013, the building was greatly damaged and infested with wild vines.
That year, Universitas Flores’ production of Dr. Sjaitan had to be performed in a small tent in the streets outside Immaculata Building. The production was performed in honour of Sukarno’s 102nd birthday and attended by then Vice President Boediono. “We are looking forward to perform in the new Immaculata Building in the future, and to see Sukarno’s memorial sites better taken care of,” said Bali.