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From Indonesian exile to Czechoslovakian pop star

An interview with Rony Marton

By Juke Carolina, with translations by Andi Tenri Wahyuni

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): 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.

GV: What happened after you arrived in Europe and what event prevented you from returning to Indonesia?

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: 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: 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: 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: 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.

Originally published at on January 16, 2020.



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