Sondang, a fiery young man with a mission

Sondang, a fiery young man with a mission

Iqra Anugrah, Columbus, Ohio | Sat, 12/17/2011 3:41 PM


*Picture created by Budi Winursito

The Arab Spring started when Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian street vendor, burned himself alive to protest his dissatisfaction with the Ben Ali regime.

Here in Indonesia, the nation was shocked by the self-immolation of Sondang Hutagalung, a 22-year-old university student and activist who set himself on fire during a protest in front of the State Palace in Jakarta on Dec. 7.

Using his body and his life as a medium to convey a message, he expressed his criticism and disappointment with the political elite.

His death and courage soon became a topic in the media and for discussion in the public sphere. Sondang was no mediocre activist. An admirer of Sukarno’s ideas, Sondang was actively involved in various human rights groups and civil society initiatives, such as Kontras, Sahabat Munir and many others. Throughout his life, he helped many victims of human rights abuses receive justice.

And yet, Sondang was also one of us. A bright law student at Bung Karno University who did well in his studies, he had a family, friends, and even a girlfriend.

As an ordinary Indonesian citizen, his concern about the nation trumped the lip service and rhetoric from the political class.

However, the big question is what was the message he was trying to communicate through his self-immolation?

Different interpretations and debates on the meaning and impact of his action have abounded. Was it a symbol of a pessimistic frustration? Was it a call for resistance? Some of us even criticized, labeled and judged his act as “useless” or “not in line with religious teachings”.

Nevertheless, I believe all of those interpretations are wrong. I understand Sondang’s deed differently.

His self-immolation captured the current desperation that we feel as a nation. Despite the fact that we live in a democratic age, formal political channels have been hijacked and dominated by vested political interests, overriding power of capital in our public sphere and ignorance of our own history.

Sondang’s message was not apocalyptic. Instead of pessimism, he shed light and gave us hope, as if he knew that his message would set us on fire to continue his struggle.

What makes his action more honorable is that rather than avoiding death, he embraced it. We may never know what was in his mind. But one thing is for sure: His message is even stronger than ever. As leftist independence fighter Tan Malaka once said, “My voice will be even louder from my grave.”

Linking Sondang’s death to a narrow interpretation of his fate in the afterlife or his attempt to change the political situation will cheapen the real meaning of his message and sacrifice for us.

Likewise, mourning his death excessively or, as many of our politicians are doing, hijacking the message of Bung Sondang while expressing condolences will also distort the spirit of his message.

The heroic case of Sondang is, essentially, a mandate for us to carry on with our lives. It is our duty, who are still alive, to continue his works for a more democratic and just Indonesia.

He who chose to set himself ablaze is a reminder of the importance of life, not the celebration of death, in civic engagement.

After this despair, what we need is a firm commitment and a practical manifestation of the legacy of Sondang.

In the context of our politics, critical attention must be given to human rights abuses, economic and welfare disparities, capital-driven politics and disrespect with lack of rule of law — issues that had been a focus for Sondang.

Moreover, this particular episode in our history reminds us to rethink the relevance of the student movement and its potential to transform our corrupt political landscape.

In the end, the brave attempt of Sondang sent us a signal of a possibility of revolutionary politics. Here, “revolutionary” should not be translated into a radical structural change or a drastic moment of rupture, but rather a gradual process to transform our democracy as deliberatively as possible.

Optimism, albeit cautious, is always better than despair. That, comrade Sondang, you have shown us.

The writer, a graduate of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, Japan, is pursuing a master’s degree in political science at Ohio University, US.

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