Farewell the pioneer parachutist
She was Kartini with a gun – bold, brave, and determined to compete in men’s traditional areas. First journalism - then the military.
Herlina Kasim (right, with President Soekarno) was the only female parachuted into the Papua jungle behind the colonialists’ lines. This was during the 1961-62 Trikora (Tri Komando Rakyat - strategy for mobilizing the nation) campaign led by General Soeharto who later became the Republic’s second president.
The young writer turned warrior was also an exemplar of selfless patriotism. After being rewarded for her exploits by President Soekarno with a belt secured by a half-kilo gold clasp she was known as Srikandi Pending Emas (the gold buckle heroine).
Then she astonished the nation again by giving the prize back to the Palace.
She explained her gesture by saying that fighting for her country was honor enough and that the State needed the money for development.
When she died earlier this year from diabetic complications aged 75 her passing was little noticed.
As a feminist she was way ahead of her time, a tomboy before the term became acceptable. In early photos she looks self assured as though wearing khaki was as natural as a floral dress. In one group she audaciously thrusts hands in pockets.
Herlina was born in Malang, East Java in 1941, the third of six children. Only one was a boy. After completing basic high schooling in Jakarta she left home in search of adventure in the Moluccas. It’s not known why she wanted to put about 3,500 kilometers between herself and her family.
In Ternate she worked as a journalist on a weekly paper and got involved in anti-colonialism campaigns. It was a time of gross chauvinism.
Emboldened by shipments of Russian weapons and the backing of so-called ‘non-aligned states’, Soekarno started Trikora to wrest Irian Jaya from the Dutch. Western diplomats thought the real purpose was to divert attention from a collapsing economy.
Volunteers were sought to fight behind enemy lines. Herlina offered her services and must have had a silver tongue because she persuaded the generals that girls could also be guerrillas.
This was decades before women became active combatants in Western nations, with restrictions remaining in some armies. Last year the US finally announced that all roles are open to females. In Indonesia women in the armed forces are usually assigned to administrative and welfare duties.
After minimal training Herlina was parachuted into Irian Jaya along with 19 men. Like an earlier seaborne assault which turned into a rout, the drop was not a professional operation. She missed her target, was knocked unconscious and came too in a field of mud. She then set out to find her companions not knowing some had been killed.
After a week of fruitless wanderings and supplies running low she met local tribesmen and was led to a fishing village. Three weeks later Herlina was ferried to an Indonesian island. She hadn’t fired a shot or seized territory.
Trikora cost 400 Indonesian and 126 Dutch lives. But it showed Indonesia was serious about recovering colonial territory and the Dutch no longer had the stomach for war. Under international pressure they ceded the province to the UN. In a later referendum selected Irian leaders voted to join Indonesia.
By then Herlina had left active duties. For a while she worked in Jakarta as an educator in the Women's Army Corps, then as a press secretary in Foreign Affairs. There are reports that she was involved in a fake news campaign during Konfrontasi when Soekarno sent in the army to oppose the creation of Malaysia, but these can’t be confirmed.
She also married and had two sons, Rigel Wahyu Nugroho (born 1962) and now a trader, and five years later Aurigea Bima Sakti who works as a commercial pilot. Both men live in Malaysia.
“My Mom had a very strong character,” Rigel said by phone and e-mail. “She was disciplined, straight forward yet a very humble person. She liked to help people, especially the poor.
|Herlina with son Rigel|
“She hardly ever wore her army uniform but didn't tell me why. She didn’t care much about her rank - not like others.
“After she left the army she was involved in a few businesses as well as social work together with my Dad Harkomoyo. (When Rigel was nine his Mom divorced, later remarried but had no more children.)
“In the early 70s she got involved in sports and built the Caprina Football Club. Again it was not for business but for social activities. It was very successful.
“She selected about 24 junior players and gave them accommodation and education. She also ran a club for under 14s.
“After a few years the club joined the Indonesian professional league. It was based in Bali and renamed Caprina Bali FC. It also had a boxing team.
“I think my Mom was the only women who had a football team in Indonesia and maybe in the world.”
Nationally Herlina kept a low profile until 2011 and the 50th Anniversary of Trikora. She reportedly asked President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to change the name of Papua back to Irian.
It seems her motive was to negate the influence of the OPM (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, Free Papua Movement) because she believed its independence campaign damaged the reputation of Trikora. Irian Jaya became Papua in 2002.)
Herlina was laid to rest in Jakarta. Her family was offered a place in a heroes’ cemetery but she had stipulated an ordinary plot in a public graveyard. To the end she stayed determined to do things her way.
All pictures courtesy of Rigel Wahyu Nugroho.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 20 April 2017)