Interview With Putu Setia

Putu Set discusses his life during the 1965-66 Massacres in Indonesia, as well as his later life as an intellectual leader in the Hindu community during Suharto’s regime, and his experiences as a Hindu Priest during his retirement.

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Born a Hindu in 1951, Putu Setia first discusses the clash between the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) and the Nationalist Party (PNI) in his locality of Pujungan Village in Bali. He explains that the PKI had a much smaller presence in the area, such that the conflict did not escalate into open combat like it did in Jembrana. Instead, the clash remained largely at the intellectual level, with activists from either party running campaigns satirizing the political ideas of their opponents.

However, there remained more violent actors, primarily the military, and the more militant youth groups such as Ansor. Suspected Communist sympathizers were arrested on even the faintest of suspicions, such as lending the PKI a stage to address the public, even if the owner himself was not affiliated to the party. Even family members would report their own relatives to stay out of trouble. Putu Setia recalls seeing violent attacks near his school, such that the headmaster closed the institution for safety reasons. He also watched from a distance as his friend was paraded and killed by anti-communist forces.

Despite his personal alignment with the PNI, against the PKI, Putu Setia also reveals that even as a teenager, he held humanitarian concerns above party lines. He attempted to protect the daughters of PKI members from sexual abuse by the military by issuing them with false certificates of affiliation to the PNI, as he had links to the PNI office. 

Putu Setia shares how right from his childhood, there was a healthy friendship between the Hindu and Muslim communities. His mother would cook treats for their Muslim neighbors during Ramadan, and they would return her kindness during Hindu festivals. Later, he pursued a 28-year career as a journalist, and eventually rose to become the official Intellectual Leader of the Hindu community under Suharto’s regime. He also recounts a memorable occasion when President Suharto invited him to share his seat when there were insufficient seats at a gathering of religious intellectual leaders in 1994. 

In 2006, he left his career in journalism to study to become a Hindu priest, which he completed 3 years later. Religious scholars like himself also received opportunities to study in India, from where they brought back more updated religious teachings, such as how to simplify funeral rituals to be more cost effective and shorter in duration. Relatedly, he also discusses the spiritual dimensions of his community life, such as how priests like himself had to conduct funerary and spirit summoning rituals for the souls of those who had been killed in the massacres. While it was easier to contact the spirits of those whose places of death were known, such as a farmer who was killed in the village graveyard for being a BTI member, or mass burials, priests were not able to help many whose remains were left undiscovered. Putu Setia’s reflections reveal the complex interplay of religious dimensions in Indonesia’s Cold War conflicts

Interview Putu Setia

Tuesday, July 21st 2020.

14.05- 15.20 WITA 

Pujungan Village, Bali, Indonesia

First Recording (58 minutes), 

Interviewee: Putu Setia (witness of 1965 events, member of GSNI, Student Organization affiliated to PNI, Hindu Priest later on), born in 4th April 1951

We had a small talk then started the audio recording quite when we were in the middle of conversation.

Putu S : (The operation was) in October... December… until January


Putu S : Yes, ’66… it was a quick operation. And here (in this village) there was no frictions. (There was no) friction between Communists and PNI. 

INTERVIEWER: Was there any physical friction or…?

Putu S : No... No… it was quiet here. It (was maybe) because the number of PKI (sympathizers) was small here. The war zone was in Jembrana... Here, maybe we just satirized (ourselves) in the campaign events (between PNI and PKI parties). There was a campaign event once a week in the field. And we had our own vocal group and we satirized each other’s jargon. So, there was no further friction more than that. The PKI here was small, they couldn’t make a big move. 

INTERVIEWER: What was the major party here?

Putu S : PNI.

INTERVIEWER: What about the friction in Jembrana, was it also spread here?

Putu S : There was no connection from what happened in Jembrana to what happened here. When Jembrana was in chaos, it was all fine here. Because, the PKI sympathizers here had no power. The situation here was so peaceful. That’s why when there were soldiers looking for PKI sympathizers here, many local people were surprised that their search for them was extended until this village. And those figures who were taken were not political figures, they were just victims of internal family issues. When they had problems with their relatives or family members, they reported them as PKI members. There was my relative who didn’t know anything (about politics), but just because he provided a stage for PKI campaign, he was (accused being) connected (to PKI)... that’s why his family reported him.

INTERVIEWER: Are you sure he was not connected to PKI?

Putu S : No, he just merely provided the stage. That’s it. But he was not killed here. He was taken by the soldiers and gone. The person who was killed here, he was a PKI member. But he was a farmer. He was dragged to the graveyard. 

INTERVIEWER: Was he BTI member? 

Putu S : Yes, he was. 

INTERVIEWER: In his case, was he killed in public at the day light?

Putu S : Yes, he was killed at the day light. He was killed in the graveyard... It’s far... around 1.5 km (from here). So, that person was paraded (to be seen) by many people. 

INTERVIEWER: Were there many who were killed that day? 

Putu S : No. Only one man. 

INTERVIEWER: Did everyone know along the street that the guy would be killed?

Putu S : Yes. They knew. The man’s hands were tied up and walked by the soldiers to the graveyard. He was not tortured on the way to the graveyard. Just when he arrived at the graveyard, maybe he was tortured until he met his death. 

INTERVIEWER: Did you witness how he was paraded that day?

Putu S : Yes. It was here crossing that main road (pointing out the main street that is less than 500 m from his house). 

INTERVIEWER: Was it only soldiers who paraded him? 

Putu S : No, there were also PNI and Ansor(’s members). But there were not many Ansor (Ilsmaic militia), mostly were Tameng (PNI militia). The soldiers worked only at night, they looked for people at night and brought them onto the trucks. There was not any soldier movement at the daylight. People here (PNI) operated at the daylight. 

INTERVIEWER: Did you witness other event, like capturing or slaughtering… torturing people?

Putu S : Oh, it was outside this village. In Badre village. It was around October or November…


Putu S : In ’65. The schools weren’t closed yet. The conflict was in the school. A friend in the same school year as me was murdered. I didn’t know who murdered him. I just saw the body was paraded… well he was not dead yet... he was dying… I saw him in the soldiers’ post close to my school. One morning I saw a body was taken to the soldier’s post. He was just laid down there. I witnessed it myself. In fact, he was my friend. He was from SLUB …Sekolah Lanjutan Umum Bawah... (a private junior high school). I was in SMP (a state Junior high school). In my school, the students were majority PNI sympathizers, while students in SLUB were majority PKI sympathizers. We often clashed with them. But the murderer was not one of my friends (PNI sympathizers)... maybe the soldiers killed him. 

INTERVIEWER: But you saw his body close to your school, right?

Putu S : Yes, close to my school.

INTERVIEWER: Did you hear maybe any gun shot or see some torture done to him?

Putu S : No, I didn’t see. I just saw him being carried there… dying. He was from another village.

INTERVIEWER: How was his condition when you saw him? Did you see any bruise?

Putu S : No, he was just dying. I was not allowed to see it closely. I saw him from faraway. It even needed an extraordinary courage to see from that distance.

INTERVIEWER: How did you feel when you saw your friend in that situation?

Putu S : Ya... it’s common (feeling). Well, the situation was different at that time. I was still so young. I also wonder why I was not afraid. After that, I was called by my friend to see the headmaster. And the following day, the school was closed. 

INTERVIEWER: Was the school closed because of this event?

Putu S : No, no... it was just the headmaster who thought that the situation was getting dangerous for the students. 

INTERVIEWER: So, when exactly this event happened? In October?

Putu S : No, the event in Jakarta (the generals killing) was in October. I forget when exactly, if I’m not mistaken, here, started in November - December. Because the school was closed in December, so perhaps the event started in October (…) I wrote the event in detail in this book (showing his book). And I saved the girl students, the daughters of PKI (accused sympathizer). I saved them by writing a statement for them saying that they were a member of GSNI, under my leadership. But in fact, they were IPPI members. 

INTERVIEWER: What would happen if soldiers knew they were PKI (sympathizer’s) daughters?

Putu S : Yes… they would be taken by the soldiers. Even being raped if they were proved that they were PKI (sympathizer’s) daughters. That’s why I gave them a statement paper showing they were GSNI members. 

INTERVIEWER: How many girls you had saved at that time? 

Putu S : Hmm... maybe around five students. All those girls (PKI sympathizer’s daughters) were given my statement paper. But there was a girl that was unlucky. I heard the soldiers raped her. Her father was killed... disappeared. She was raped because she didn’t bring my statement paper when she went to the market. 

INTERVIEWER: So, the most dangerous time here was after that event? 

Putu S : Yes, after that. The operation during November-December focused in the big cities. Here was maybe late December… it was so quick. 

INTERVIEWER: How old were you exactly at that time? 

Putu S : Around 14 - 15 years old.

INTERVIEWER: How did you know about what happened to the girl? Did you meet her afterwards?

Putu S : I heard the rumors from friends when the school was opened again. 

INTERVIEWER: So, it was quite a while.

Putu S : Yes, quite a while. So, after the school was opened again, there was a list of whom became victim of anti-PKI operation, to see if there was any among them (the SMP students). Then, one of my friends reported that A (the girl) quit school because she was embarrassed. She was captured by the soldiers and brought into the soldiers’ post. So maybe she was tortured there. The school was opened again, in March ’66 to have the exam. I didn’t meet her again after the school was opened. 

INTERVIEWER: Even up to now?

Putu S : Yes, never heard of her anymore. Because after I finished my school, I didn’t keep in touch with my friends. 

INTERVIEWER: Did she really survive after the capture? 

Putu  S: Yes. She’s alive. Even the rumor saying she was raped was a story told by people. I don’t know whether it’s true or not. It was the wildest assumption because she was taken to the soldiers’ post where the majority were young single soldiers.

INTERVIEWER: Had you ever been afraid because of protecting your friends to not be caught by soldiers? 

Putu S : No, I was not afraid. I had enough courage for doing that because I made friends with the soldiers. I often came to their post. The soldiers’ post was in PNI office. The name was “Koordinator PNI”. Now you can call it like “office branch” of PNI. I liked to hang out with them. 

INTERVIEWER: Were the soldiers originally from Bali? Or did they come from different region of Indonesia?

Putu S : No. All of them from Java. And all of them were Javanese. I didn’t know to be exact if they were Sumatranese or Javanese. What I knew that they couldn’t speak Balinese. And they were young, not looking like married soldiers. 

INTERVIEWER: About Ansor… you mentioned there were Ansor(‘s members) here too. Where was their base then?

Putu S : I didn’t know. It seemed like they joined the soldiers. They weren’t much. Mostly were from Java. But, even in Jembrana, they have Islam community. So, I’m not sure if they were all from Java. But some of them were Javanese and they joined the soldiers, under their command. I didn’t write about that in my book because I’m not sure yet. But for sure, Ansor(‘s member) who gave me a weapon (lash), he’s Balinese. I mean, he’s Maduranese but he has lived here for long time because his father was a cow seller. 

INTERVIEWER: Have you ever used the lash before it was gone? 

Putu S : It was used by people who took it away from me, but I myself just brought it anywhere (didn’t use it). So, it was lost when there’s an execution for BTI here. They said that the BTI man was immune to any weapon. So, the lash was used to break the spell (the man was assumed having dark magical powers that made him immune to any weapon). Before that, I brought that at night watch. So, people here did night watch every night. It was so dark, I just followed the crowds. 

INTERVIEWER: About Muslims, was there any Muslim in this village at that time?

Putu S : At that time, there were two Muslim families. Satay sellers. But they didn’t join any party. The Ansor(‘s member) who gave the lash was from Pupuan. There were many Muslims, around 10 Muslim families there. But here were only two families.

INTERVIEWER: How was the situation between Muslims and Hindus at that time?

Putu S : It was fine. We lived in harmony. My mother made food in Ramadhan and gave it to them because they were poor. Even though we were also poor. And in Hindu big day, they brought us ketupat (a traditional food; rice cooked in the coconut leaves). My mother refused that but they insisted to repay my mother kindness in Ramadhan. We lived peacefully and respected each other. There was no issue regarding to religion. 

INTERVIEWER: You mentioned that there were some PKI members here at that time, how the locals treated them? And how the PKI members and the locals lived next to each other? 

Putu S : Nothing happened. The root society was doing fine. The problem was between PKI and PNI executive members. And the executive members had no problems with the PKI or PNI members here but with the executive members in the level of district. Here, on the bottom (in the village area) was peaceful… maybe because the education awareness here was low. My friend and I were the only men who studied in SMP. Even if there were people who finished their SR (Sekolah Rakyat) it was already a good achievement. So, people here were uneducated and poor. They did know nothing. 

INTERVIEWER: Was there any of your relatives affected, directly or indirectly by this event? Was there any of your relatives that joined or accused joining PKI?

Putu S : No, here... my family was grouped in one area. So, if one person joined PNI, the whole family would follow… There was one more party, IPKI (Ikatan Pendukung Kemerdekaan Indonesia). Their members were not many, then they joined PNI afterwards…

INTERVIEWER: How did you decide to be Hindu Priest? Starting from being journalist then became a Hindu Priest. How was the journey?

Putu S : Hmm... Because of the demand of my family… My family asked me to go back home to Bali, to support my big family… Well... it’s difficult. I have an autobiography and it’s complete there. If you want I have the pdf version. I will send it to you to email then... because in my autobiography book was complete talking about my spiritual journey too. 

(We were talking about the pictures in his living room). 

INTERVIEWER: Is it your picture with Suharto?

Putu S : Yes, Suharto. 

INTERVIEWER: May we see it? 

Putu S : I was the only one who could sit down sharing the same bench with him, even the ministers had never had that opportunity. In 1994… there was B.J Habibi too there.

INTERVIEWER: Where was it?

Putu S : In Suharto’s house.


Putu S : Jakarta. It’s 1994. At that time, Suharto’s aide was Balinese. Then, pak Suharto invited the intellectual religious leaders Indonesia, along with other intellectual religious leaders. There was one Buddhist leader who wore Buddhist clothes (kasaya). Suharto’s aide thought that he wouldn’t come to the room but he did. Meanwhile, the seats were fixed. So, there was no enough seat for everyone there. Then Pak Suharto pointed me and asked me to share the bench with him. The aide was surprised. That’s how I could sit next to him. I was the General Hindu Intellectual Leader Indonesia. Habibi was the leader of ISMI (Muslim Trading Association of Indonesia). 

INTERVIEWER: If I’m not mistaken, before becoming Hindu Priest, you were a journalist. How was the journey?

Putu S : In 1978, I worked at Tempo Newspaper, in Jogjakarta for five years. Then in 1982 I moved to Jakarta then I was retired when I was 55 years old in 2006. I went back home to Bali and studied to be a priest for 3 years. And in 2009 I became a Hindu Priest. 

INTERVIEWER: So, you had become a journalist for 28 years? 

Putu S : Yes, around that. 

INTERVIEWER: Talking about religious practice, is there any difference practice before and after ’65 (tragedy)? Any practice, like tradition, ceremony or so on?

Putu S : Yes, there are differences, but not related to tragedy of ‘65. The difference was related to the fact that more Hindu lecturers were sent to India to study and when they got back to Indonesia, they brought new sources to apply here. There was no connection with tragedy of ‘65.

INTERVIEWER: Could you tell me more about the change after they got back from India? 

Putu S : Our rituals got better. So, for example, before that, Balinese just did the rituals and didn’t pray and they taught us about the holy praying. So, our knowledge was broadening. We got more books to study and our understanding about Hindu was getting better.  So, there was no connection with political situation.

INTERVIEWER: Well, I was interested to know about Ngaben ceremony. Was there any change of rituals after tragedy of ‘65?

Putu S : No, there was no difference. The (only) difference was from the luxury and the time (perspective). In the past, it took so long to do that (funeral ceremony), because there were rare priests to do that and when they held the ceremony, they made a lavish one. It wasn’t supposed to be like that, but there were some suggestions to hold it ostentatiously. But now, we simplified it, even there are some people who aren’t holding the Ngaben ceremony. Now, the huge Ngaben ceremony is only found in Ubud in Villa Puri because it was a sponsorship and the media partners hold an exclusive right to broadcast it. It is about tourism factor. However, the Ngaben ceremony in the village has been simplified, both the expenses and time. Now it can be finished in a day, in the past it took weeks to finish the ceremony. There are many people who work in the office, so impossible for them to take days off too long. If you think rationally, it is not fair if it’s supposed to be held lavishly because only the rich who can do that. What about the poor? 

INTERVIEWER: So, how would the poor do the ceremony in the past?

Putu S : Well... they should wait and they were okay waiting like that because their religion understanding was still shallow. If they were lucky enough, they could join the rich who held the Ngaben ceremony. If they were allowed to join though... But in the royal family, if the poor joined their Ngaben ceremony, later on, they would make the poor family their slaves. 

INTERVIEWER: So, is it okay to wait for such a long time? What about the body? Maybe what was left were just the bones. 

Putu S : There’s a symbol for the body. The body who is buried won’t be taken out.

INTERVIEWER: So, what about the burning in Ngaben ceremony?

Putu S : The body burning is held soon after the death time, if the family has enough money to hold the ceremony soon. If, for example, there is someone who died today and the family will do the Ngaben ceremony in the next one or two years, we will not take the body from its graveyard. We will just summon his spirit and put his soul in the symbol.

INTERVIEWER: Is it the symbol that use certain leaves?

Putu S : Yes, Lalang leaves. In this village, the burning body ritual is forbidden because there is a sacred mountain close by and the smoke of body burning can make impure the energy of the mountain. So, the dead people here are just buried. If they want to burn the body, the family will take the body to the crematorium. We hold the mass Ngaben once in five years for the poor. So, we do it collectively to not spend much money. To hold it individually, it takes a lot of cost… it’s around Rp. 25 million at least. 

INTERVIEWER: Is this symbolizing ceremony occurred since long time ago?

Putu S : Yes. It’s been since long time ago.    

INTERVIEWER: Well, what happen to those missing people in ‘65 then? Even until now we don’t know where the bodies are (buried). Did they use that symbolic Ngaben ceremony too?

Putu S : Yes. A symbolic one. I told the story about that in this book. The problem was that we don’t know where the bodies are, so the concern was how we would summon the spirit. It puts on debates for long time. Finally, we just go to the closest junction of the suspected area. For those who were buried was clear enough on how we should do the ritual; even though it is a mass burial, we knew exactly where the bodies are (relatively). But for those who were missing. We don’t know where the bodies are. We didn’t know the direction. So, we just summon the spirit.

INTERVIEWER: Is there any special spirit summoning ritual for those missing people? 

Putu S : Yes. For those missing people, drowned ones, and for those whose bodies location isn’t so clear.

INTERVIEWER: The BTI farmer, from the story in the beginning, was his spirit also summoned through that ritual?

Putu S : Yes. It was easier because he was killed in the graveyard.  

INTERVIEWER: …Well, thank you. I think it is enough for now. We will read your book. 

Putu S : You can email me the questions later.

Interviewer: Robert Moisa

Interviewee: Putu Setia

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Transcript Notes

  1. How does Putu Setia’s recollections destabilize notions of a binary clash between Communism and anti-Communist governments in Cold War Indonesia?

  2. Consider the role of social relations and networks in the Cold War Era in Indonesia. What does this reveal about the nature of Indonesian society and the conflicts it was facing

  3. How did religion shape the Balinese community’s response to Communism in Indonesia, before and after the massacres?

  4. Discuss the role of the public (and personal) memory of the Massacre in Indonesia today, its significance and its limitations in light of Putu Setia’s recollections.

  5.  Did Indonesia truly experience a Cold War, given Putu Setia’s testimony? Would it be more accurate to characterize it as a local conflict? Why or why not?