“I Demand Change ” – The Poetry of Wiji Thukul

Thukul helped organise workers demonstrations and was a member of Partai Rakyat Demokrasi (People's Democratic Party). In a worker demonstration in 1995, Thukul was struck in the eye by a rifle butt, causing permanent damage to his sight.

The election period has renewed discussion in Indonesia around the disapearance of pro-democracy activists in 1998. Reading reports about the missing activists is what actually lead me to the amazing poetry of Wiji Thukul, who has been missing since 1998 when he took part the anti-Suharto demonstrations occurring then.

Below are two samples of his work, which are really reflective of life for the majority of struggling Indonesians, and what the works show is that life hasn’t really changed much for the majority of Indonesians who still do it really hard.

The work is translated is by Richard Curtis.

I Demand Change

one hundred latrines
mean more to me
than your big mouth
it’s not important
who’s going to win
we’re fed up
with a life like this:
a hassle going to the toilet
a roof that leaks when it rains.
we don’t need chants
magic spells
or promises;
a sack of rice
from the masters’ food stores
won’t wipe out poverty;
sympathy and second-hand clothing donations
are of no help;
we no longer believe in that.
political parties
and the language of their trade
floating so far over our heads
and our problems
will not fill our stomachs.
shut down this silly comedy,
we want to sleep soundly
with our debts paid off,
truly free,
not under pressure.
we’re fed up
with a life like this
or to say it more explicitly:
I demand change!


An odd puzzle

that night we got together and talked
from our mouths no grand issues emerged;
we talked about our hopes,
things simple and understandable
one person had been hoping for a long time
to add on a kitchen to the place he rents
which reminded others
they didn’t own a saucepan, kerosene stove,
drinking glasses, or frying pan,
which made them remember
they had once wanted to buy such things
only to see their wishes soon buried
beneath weariness
and wages that so quickly changed
into toothpaste, shampoo, rent
and unpaid bills at the food stall
after that many of us found it difficult
to enjoy the warm tea that had been served
because we were still busy thinking
about where to rest our heads and where to hang our clothes
another person mentioned that for ages he had wanted
a bathroom of his own
from which topic the discussion jumped to cement and wall paint,
prices for which never seem to fall
we also talked about the election campaign,
the one just passed
and of the three parties that competed,
we concluded had no connection with us: workers
whose only use for them is our votes,
to be exploited for their own interests
we laughed because we realised
that for many years we had been deceived
and treated like buffalo
but in the end we asked
why it’s so difficult for a worker to buy a can of paint,
even after working no less that eight hours a day,
and why it’s so difficult for them
to send their children to school
when each day they produce
tons and tons of goods
and then one among the group stood up,
looked around and asked:
“are there any things you use
that are not made by workers?”
a question that made us observe
the many things around us: neon lights, televisions, radios, clothes, books…
since that time I’ve always felt
we are faced with an odd puzzle, one that arises whenever we talk
about saucepans, kerosene stoves,
drinking glasses, or frying pans
and also at times we count our wages
which so quickly change
to tooth paste, shampoo, rent
and unpaid bills at the food stall
I’m always surprised and ask myself
what kind of power it is that can so easily absorb
our energy and the fruits of our labour.



Author: kategrealy

Australian singer songwriter, PhD candidate, Mum

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