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Palangkaraya – Dreaming about the ‘Soviet’ Capital of Indonesia

21 10 8
02.12.2018

Believe it or not, but decades ago, Indonesia was a socialist country, the cradle of the ‘Non-Aligned Movement’, with the progressive and fiery President Soekarno leading the nation. The Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) was then the third largest Communist Party in the world, after those of China and the Soviet Union, and was it not for the US-orchestrated coup of 1965; it would easily have won elections in 1966, democratically and comfortably.

All the key natural resources of Indonesia were in the hands of its people and the government; firmly and uncompromisingly. Indonesia was becoming one of the world leaders: still a poor country, but optimistic, determined and full of hope.

Soekarno was a dreamer, and so were his Communist comrades.

But besides being a ‘political poet’, Soekarno was also a pragmatic civil engineer, who knew a thing or two about both architecture and city planning.

One of his great visions born at the end of the 1950’s was to build a brand-new capital for his enormous country of thousands of islands. It is believed that one day he calculated the precise location of the ‘geographical center’ of Indonesia, inserted a pin there, and declared that this is where the new ibu kota (capital or ‘mother’ city) would be constructed.

The proverbial pin had marked the area which, in reality, was in the middle of the impenetrable jungle of Kalimantan (Indonesian part of Borneo), some 200 kilometers from the nearest city of some size – Banjarmasin.

Before construction began in 1957, there was only a village – Pahandut – soon to became the capital of the new Autonomous Region of Central Kalimantan, with Soekarno’s comrade, Tjilik Riwut accepting the role of the first governor. One year later, however, the future city was renamed, becoming Palangkaraya.

The task of designing the urban area came from Comrade Semaun, who was one of the founders and the first chairman of the PKI. He graduated from the ‘Communist University of the Toilers of the East’ in the Soviet Union. He often performed tasks of a city planner and, together with Soekarno, he was determined to erect the ‘second Moscow’ in the middle of Kalimantan/Borneo, with magnificent research centers, theatres, concert halls, libraries, museums and public transportation, as well as fountains, wide avenues, squares, parks and promenades.

Soviet architects, engineers and workers, (but also teachers) were invited to help with this mammoth task.

In the middle of the wilderness, between two tropical rivers, Kahayan and Sabangau, one of the greatest Asian projects of all times was slowly beginning to take shape.

It was launched by President Soekarno himself, who on 17 July 1957 marked the inauguration of the monument in the middle of a new roundabout, which was expected to become the very center of the new city, of the new province, and eventually of the entire Republic of Indonesia (RI).

The project started to move forward, feverishly, and enthusiastically. Soviets, side-by-side with their Indonesian comrades, were building roads and erecting structures.

There were even plans to construct tunnels, practically bomb shelters, against potential attacks by the Malaysian and British forces; tunnels which could, at some point, be further deepened, widened and serve as the basic infrastructure for the underground public transportation of the city (metro).

The revolutionary zeal of Soekarno’s idealism was igniting both local and foreign (Soviet) builders. It was that chaotic but marvelous ‘nation and character-building’ period often described by the greatest Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer – without any doubt the greatest era of the otherwise gloomy history of the archipelago.

Then, suddenly, full stop!

On September 30/ October 1, 1965, the West, together with treasonous Indonesian military cadres led by General Suharto and by the religious cadres, overthrew the young socialist democracy, and installed one of the most brutal fascist dictatorships of the 20th century.

What followed was genocide. The country lost between 1-3 million intellectuals, Communists, atheists, artists and teachers. Rivers were clogged with corpses, women and children gang-raped, almost all progressive culture banned, together with the Chinese and Russian languages.

Communism and atheism were banned, too. Even words like ‘class’ were forbidden, together with the Chinese dragons, cakes and red lamps.

The Palangkaraya ‘project’ came to an abrupt halt. Soekarno was put under house arrest in Bogor palace, where he later died.

Soviet engineers and workers were flown to Jakarta and unceremoniously deported. All Indonesians who came in touch with them, without exception, were either killed, or ‘at least’ detained for a minimum of one year; interrogated in detention, tortured and in the case of women, raped.

The ‘Killing fields’ were not only in Java, but also both north and west of the city of Palangkaraya.

The master plan, drawings, in fact almost all information related to the ‘second Moscow’ in the middle of Borneo, suddenly ‘disappeared’.

Palangkaraya is now geographically the largest city in Indonesia, but it counts on only about 250,000 inhabitants.

Like all other cities of the archipelago, it has inadequate infrastructure, notorious absence of cultural life, and it is dotted with miserable slums. It has absolutely no public transportation.

Big dreams fully collapsed. But not only that: now, almost no one in the city or anywhere in the country, is even aware of those grandiose plans of the past, of that enormous project to build a ‘different Indonesia’. A truly independent, anti-imperialist country led by President Soekarno and the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), has died; was smashed to pieces. The stepping down of General Suharto changed nothing. No renaissance of socialism ever arrived. The Communist Party and thoughts are still banned.

While working on a documentary film about the natural devastation and collapse of the third largest island on earth – Borneo – we came to Palangkaraya, the first time, in October 2018.

What impressed us the most was how thoroughly the regime has wiped out everything related to the city’s past.

People were scared to talk, or they simply ‘did not know’. As I recorded on film, children knew absolutely nothing about the past, except those few deceptive and primitive barks that were forcibly injected into their brains.

We searched, but could not find any detailed references or drawings – here, or even in Jakarta, Bandung and abroad. All gone!

Obviously, the great past of Indonesia remains classified, as ‘top secret’. It is because the contrast between the revolutionary dreams and monstrous present-day reality, is too great and potentially, ‘too explosive’.

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Pararapak........

© New Eastern Outlook