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From Indonesian exile to Czechoslovakian pop star: An interview with Rony Marton

Rony Marton in one of his performances in front of the Czechoslovakian public. Photo from Marton's private collection, used with his permission.

Rony Marton may not be a well-known name in Indonesia but in 1970s Czechoslovakia, Marton could draw crowds.

He was an Indonesian scholar studying in Europe when General Suharto grabbed power from President Sukarno in 1965. The new government banned hundreds of pro-Sukarno scholars like Rony from returning to their homeland. This triggered the worst brain drain in Indonesian history. Suharto ruled for 32 years under his New Order regime, which was later accused of committing widespread corruption and human rights abuses.

After his studies in Czechoslovakia, Rony became a pop singer in the 1970s.

It only became possible for Rony to return to Indonesia after the downfall of Suharto in 1998.

Juke Carolina from Global Voices Indonesia interviewed Rony who shared his journey from Asia to Europe and how he found fame in his adopted country.

Global Voices (GV): Hello Rony, thank you in advance for granting Global Voices the time for this interview. Please narrate how you became a scholar in Czechoslovakia.

Rony Marton (RM): Nama saya Jaroni Surjomartono, lahir di Kudus tahun 1943 tapi dari sejak balita hidup di Solo, Jawa Tengah. Setelah lulus SMA sempat kuliah di Universitas Gajah Mada (UGM) jurusan ekonomi perusahaan. Setelah kuliah di kampus UGM di Bulak Sumur Jogja, saya menulis permohonan ke PTIP (kementerian Perguruan Tinggi dan Ilmu Pengetahuan). Awalnya sebagai mahasiswa ke Jepang, namun ternyata program beasiswa ke sana sudah ditutup. Saya kemudian ikut ujian dan pelatihan selama dua bulan sebelum akhirnya menerima telegram bahwa saya memperoleh beasiswa ke Cekoslowakia.

Rony Marton (RM): My name is Jaroni Surjomartono, I was born in Kudus in 1943 but grew up in Solo, Central Java since I was a toddler. After graduating from high school I went to Gajah Mada University (UGM) majoring in corporate economy. After attending studies at Bulak Sumur campus in Yogyakarta, I wrote an application to the Ministry of Higher Education and Science (PTIP),  initially as a student to Japan, but the scholarship program ended. Later on I attended exam and training for two months before receiving a telegram which announced that I obtained a scholarship to Czechoslovakia in 1963.

Rony Marton (front row, second from the left), photographed here with the Indonesian Student Association (PPI) alumni, active members of PPI Republic Czech chapter, and Yenny Wahid, politician and daughter of the late President Abdurrahman Wahid. Photo from Marton's private collection, used with his permission.

GV: What happened after you arrived in Europe and what event prevented you from returning to Indonesia?
RM: Setelah tiba di Praha 10 September 1963 saya dan rombongan pelajar Indonesia yang studi di Cekoslowakia (sekitar 35 orang) mengikuti kursus bahasa Ceko selama 10 bulan,  seusainya kami masing-masing masuk ke universitas pilihan kami, saya masuk ke Perguruan Tinggi Ekonomi di Praha (Vysoká Škola Ekonomická VŠE). Tahun 1965 saya terpilih sebagai Ketua PPI Cekoslowakia – Perhimpunan Pelajar Indonesia Cekoslowakia. Dengan pecahnya peristiwa 30 September 1965, yang berujung kudeta terhadap Bung Karno secara licik oleh Kolonel Suharto dan konco-konconya, serta terjadinya pengkapan, penculikan dan pembunuhan ekstrajudisial ratusan ribu warga Indonesia, semua anggota pengurus PPI Cekoslowakia yang saya ketuai dicabut paspornya sekitar pertengahan 1966 (KBRI Praha yang saat itu dipimpin Dubes Memet Tanuwidjaja tidak memperpanjang paspor yang sudah atau akan habis masa berlaku) dan akhirnya berimbas juga pada anggota PPI (sekitar
100 orang dari total 200 orang). 100 orang anggota kami, memutuskan untuk lepas dari PPI dan bergabung ke organisasi pelajar bentukan KBRI Praha yang juga disebut PPI, mereka yang bergabung dengan PPI KBRI tidak mengalami pencabutan paspor.

RM:Together with about 35 Indonesian students, we attended a Czech language course for 10 months. Upon completion, we entered our chosen university respectively. I went to the University of Economics in Prague (Vysoká Škola Ekonomická VŠE). In 1965 I was elected chairman of the Czechoslovakia PPI – the Czechoslovakia chapter of Indonesian Student Association. Following the 30 September 1965 coup against President Sukarno by Colonel Suharto and his entourage, all PPI members had their passports revoked around mid-1966. The Indonesian Embassy in Prague didn’t extend expired passports. Around 100 out of 200 PPI students decided to leave our student association and joined the group established by the Indonesian embassy in Prague, which happened to be named PPI as well. Those who aligned themselves with the embassy had their passports reinstated.

GV: What happened to you and other students who were banned from returning home?
RM: Sebagai ketua dan pengurus PPI Cekoslowakia yang anti rezim Suharto, kami terdesak menyelesaikan perkara eksistensi pokok 100 mahasiswa untuk bisa tinggal di Cekoslowakia guna menyelesaikan studi masing-masing. Tantangan kami antara lain: mengupayakan izin tinggal dari pemerintah meski kami tidak lagi memiliki paspor, mengupayakan izin melanjutkan studi kami sampai selesai, mengupayakan izin tinggal di asrama pelajar hingga studi kami rampung. Ketiga hal tersebut kami sampaikan ke pihak (pemerintah) Cekoslowakia yang mengurusi persoalan mahasiswa asing yang belajar di Cekoslowakia.
Beberapa minggu kemudian kami mendapat jawaban yang sangat memuaskan, yang terus terang secara pribadi, melebihi target yang kita inginkan. Pertama: kartu penduduk kami akan diperpanjang (meski tanpa paspor Indonesia) sampai masa studi selesai. Juga fasilitas tinggal di asrama pelajar diperpanjang. Kedua: setelah studi selesai kami bisa memilih untuk tetap tinggal di Cekoslowakia, atau pindah ke negara lain (untuk yang ingin pindah, pihak pemerintah Cekoslowakia akan membantu memberi dokumen perjalanan menurut UU PBB, di Cekoslowakia kami mendapat perlindungan sebagai pencari suaka dibawah naungan International Red Cross, cabang Cekoslowakia). Yang ingin menetap di Cekoslowakia diberi izin tinggal tetap, berarti memiliki hak dan kewajiban sama dengan warganegara Cekoslowakia, kecuali hak memilih, dipilih dan wajib militer.
Kondisi-kondisi yang sangat positif ini yng memberikan ketentraman buat kami untuk menyelesaikan studi dan melanjutkan kehidupan kami selanjutnya. Saya pribadi merasa berhutang budí terhadap pihak Cekoslowakia waktu itu, yang kelihatannya tidak lupa akan tradisi historis yang mereka punyai di tahun 30an, pada masa dimana Republik Cekoslowakia memberi suaka kepada warga Yahudi dan yang lainnya yang melawan kekejaman Nazi Hitler di Jerman.

RM: The challenges we faced included requesting living permits for those who no longer had passports, arranging permits so that we could conclude our studies, and arranging student accommodations. Those were our three requests to the Czechoslovakian government. A few weeks later we got a very satisfying answer, which frankly, was above and beyond our hopes. First: our residential card was extended (even without a valid Indonesian passport) until our studies were completed. Our living permits in the student dormitory were also extended. Second: upon completion of our studies, we could choose to remain in Czechoslovakia, or move to another country (for those who wished to move, the Czechoslovakian government would arrange a travel document in accordance to the UN Law. In Czechoslovakia, we got protection as refugees under the auspices of the Czechoslovakia chapter of the International Red Cross). For those who wanted to settle in Czechoslovakia, they were granted a permanent residence permit. These conditions were very positive and enabled us the peace of mind to finish studying and go on with our lives. I personally feel indebted and grateful to the Czechoslovakian government at that time, who did not forget their historical tradition since the 1930s, when the Republic of Czechoslovakia gave asylum to Jewish citizens and all who rose up against the atrocities of Hitler’s Nazism in Germany.

GV: What happened to your family in Indonesia and also to your relationships with Indonesians living in Prague following the rise of Suharto’s New Order?
RM: Praktis setelah paspor kami dicabut akhir 1966, kami tak ada kontak sama sekali dengan KBRI, dan kami dikucilkan oleh masyarakat Indonesia di Cekoslowakia. Mahasiswa-mahasiswa yang pro Suharto tak bergaul dan menyapa kami yang anti Suharto.
Orang tua di Indonesia tahu tentang keadaan saya di Cekoslowakia, 2-3 tahun setelah September 1965, mereka sangat sedih dan prihatin tentang anaknya diperantauan, tapi mereka agak tenang setelah mendengar bahwa kami bisa melanjutkan studi sampai selesai (mungkin dengan harapan Suharto dalam kurun waktu 5-10 tahun akan diganti dengan pemerintahan yang demokratis, ternyata Suharto berkuasa selama 32 tahun). Sepulang Umrah tahun 1978, ibu sempat mampir ke Praha, beliau meminta saya untuk tidak pulang ke Indonesia dulu karena sepak terjang keluarga Suharto di kampung halaman Solo. Beliau rela menelan rasa rindu dengan saya cucunya asalkan kami aman hingga Orde Baru turun. Ibu saya yang amat apolitis pun mampu menilai Orba sebagai rezim yang brutal dan serakah.
Selain pengucilan oleh sejumlah warga Indonesia di Praha, Rony juga mengisahkan bagaimana kerabatnya yang bekerja di Kedutaan Besar Indonesia di Yugoslavia diminta untuk memutuskan hubungan kekerabatan dengannya.

RM: Immediately after our passports were revoked by the end of 1966, our contact with the Indonesian embassy was terminated, and we were shunned by other Indonesians in Czechoslovakia. The pro-Suharto students didn’t mingle with us, the anti-Suharto bloc. (My) parents in Indonesia only heard about my plight two or three years after September 1965. They were sad and heartbroken but they were slightly comforted after learning that we could stay and continue studying (they assumed Suharto would be deposed within 5 to 10 years and replaced by a democratic government). On her way home from her pilgrimage to Mecca, my mother visited me in Prague and asked me not to return to Indonesia for a while due to what Suharto family’s doing in our hometown Solo. She (claimed that she) accepts my absence, as well as her grandkids, as long as we are safe until the New Order is deposed. My mother is an apolitical person, yet she’s able to assess how brutal and greedy the New Order regime was.

GV: Can you share your story on how you became a pop sensation in Czechoslovakia?

RM: Sejak dari Indonesia saya berkecimpung di seni musik, main gitar dan menyanyi. Di SMAC 4 Solo saya memimpin band sekolah dengan kelompok koor berjumlah 8 orang pemudi. Di rumah, saya memimpin band gambusan (yang sepopuler dangdut zaman sekarang) dan band lagu hiburan. Waktu saya masuk UGM, saya diplonco ikut kontes nyanyi, saya ikut dan menjadi juara satu. Setelah itu saya direkrut jadi penyanyi Band Gama yang waktu itu sangat populer diantara mahasiswa.

Setelah tinggal di Praha, selain aktif membantu program-program kesenian Indonesia buat masyarakat Cekoslowakia, di tahun 1967 saya dan beberapa teman mendirikan Band Matahari yang tampil di kampus-kampus dan juga Klub 007 di Praha 6. Tahun 1970 saya ikut kontes nyanyi se-Cekoslowakia dan meraih juara pertama. Tahun 1973 saya mulai rekaman piringan hitam pertama saya dan tampil di TV Cekoslowakia. Meski ada beberapa orang Ceko yang pada permulaan abad XX yang hidup di Indonesia misalnya pujangga dan penulis Konstantin Beibl yang menulis sajak tentang Nusantara, pengetahuan warga Ceko tentang Indonesia sangat terbatas, jadi kalau saya konser di klub-klub sering saya selingi dengan informasi tentang alam Indonesia. Kenangan paling berkesan adalah saat konser Musim Panas tahun 1975, di panggung terbuka, yang dihadiri oleh sekitar 4.000 murid-murid sekolah, dan mereka bernyanyi bersama saya lagu Batak Sing Sing So. Selain itu saya juga berkolaborasi dengan penyanyi-penyanyi Ceko dan Slovakia sembari merekam beberapa single piringan hitam. Sekitar tahun 1986 saya mengurangi kegiatan konser. Sekarang saya menyanyi sebagai hobi, untuk kegiatan amal atau untuk senang-senang saja.

RM: I had been into music, playing the guitar and singing even as a student in Indonesia. In high school (SMAC) in Solo I was the school band leader, leading a chorus of eight girls. At home, I led a gambus music band (it's more known as dangdut nowadays) and a variety band. When I was a student in UGM, there was school hazing which involved a singing competition. I joined it and won. I was recruited as a singer in a band called GAMA, at that time the band was very popular among students. Even though there were a few Czech personalities in the early 20th Century who lived and were inspired by the Indonesian archipelago, like the poet and author Konstantin Biebl, the Czechoslovak public’s knowledge of Indonesia was fairly limited. So whenever I performed, I took the time to tell them about Indonesia and its history. One of the most memorable things during my career happened at my concert in summer 1975, when 4,000 students sang with me while performing a Batak song called Sing Sing So in an open-air venue. I also collaborated with notable Czech and Slovakian singers to record some singles in vinyls. Since 1986, I've been performing less in concerts. Now, I sing just for charity events or for plain fun.

GV: You’re part of the “brain drain generation” due to the New Order politics. Any comment about it and what your hope is for Indonesia's future?

RM: Brain drain adalah hal positif untuk pihak yang memanfaatkan dan negatif untuk negara asal. Berkaitan dengan situasi yang kami alami tahun 1965, situasi dan kondisi serta sebab dan akibatnya sangat berbeda. Orba melarang kami pulang karena alasan politik dan seandainya kami pulang tentu setidaknya kami akan dipenjara atau dipetruskan (catatan redaksi: penembak misterius, sebuah operasi rahasia binaan Orde Baru) dan kami diluar negeri relatif jauh dari bahaya penghilangan ekstrajudisial. Saya melihat brain drain ini dari kaca mata positif bagi. Bagi saya luka itu masa lalu sudah terbalut oleh waktu dan harapan masa depan.
Bagi generasi muda Indonesia, saya harap agar generasi muda berpandangan kritis terhadap apa saja yang terjadi di Indonesia, supaya giat merangkum informasi dan terbuka untuk berdialog sebelum memutuskan pendapat. Jauhkan diri dari fanatisme dan radikalisme apapun bentuknya. Belajarlah dari sejarah bangsa, agar tidak mengulangi kesalahan-kesalahan generasi tua. Sensitiflah terhadap fenomena-fenomena yang ingin memberangus dan merevisi demokrasi dan humanisme.

RM: In relation to our experience in 1965, there were various factors that led to multiple outcomes. The New Order’s politics banned us from coming home, if we did (come home), we would end up in jail or shot by snipers [author’s note: During Suharto’s New Order, there’s a group of elite snipers known as Petrus. They were deployed by the regime to silence critics under the pretext of “safeguarding the public peace”] and by being abroad we were safe from extrajudicial actions and forced disappearances. I see brain drain through a positive mind. To me, the past wounds are healed by time and hope for the future. For the young Indonesian generation, I hope they will be able to keep a critical mind towards things that unfold in Indonesia, and are able to gather information and open to dialogue before making up their mind on things. Distance yourself from any form of fanaticism and radicalism. Learn from our nation’s history so you won’t repeat the mistakes made by the previous generation. Be sensitive towards any phenomenon that seeks to destroy and revise democracy and humanity.

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