Herawati Diah was still high-spirited as she welcomed guests to her 95th birthday bash recently. The press corp, prominent figures, government officials, foreign diplomats, and women activists paid tribute to Indonesia’s most senior journalist and one of the few living witnesses of Indonesia’s history.
Still sharp with her memory, she identified guests one by one and greeted them warmly. Having lived through six presidencies and both the Dutch and Japanese occupations, she can recall the important happenings of the different eras, the hardships, glory, and the achievements of the country since independence in 1945.
At her age now, she finds time to watch television on political and economic issues, reads The Jakarta Globe, and writes her memoirs. At times she would call if she liked an article published in the newspaper or make a comment about a certain issue.
Herawati pioneered the role of Indonesian women in journalism. She came from an intellectual family and went to study at Columbia University in the United States. She became the first Indonesian woman to obtain a degree from a respected American university.
She took a journalism course at Stanford University in California between her sociology studies at Barnard College at Columbia University in New York, after which she returned home in 1942 as the first Indonesian woman journalist to be academically trained abroad. Herawati’s notes in her diary caused the suspicion of the Dutch East Indies colonial authorities and she was imprisoned briefly. Under colonial practices, privileged Indonesians normally go to Europe to further their studies. She was then suspected by the Dutch of collaborating with the Japanese. With the arrival of the Japanese Imperial Forces in Indonesia that same year, Herawati was released, once again free to resume her journalism practices.
She became a stringer for the United Press International (UPI) newswire when she was 22, joined Radio Japan, or Hosokyoku, as an announcer, and later married the legendary journalist B.M. Diah, who founded the influential and nationalist Merdeka newspaper in 1945, the year Indonesia proclaimed its independence.
Ten years later, the historic Asia-Africa Conference was held in Bandung, attended by leaders of new emerging countries. This inspired Herawati to establish the young republic’s first English-language newspaper, the Indonesian Observer, which later became known for its critical editorials.
During her travels as a journalist and later as the wife of a BM Diah, who was appointed by founding president Sukarno as ambassador to Czechosklovakia, Thailand, and Britain, Herawati met many historic figures in person. She recalls meeting Mahatma Gandhi in India for an All-India Women’s Congress with Indonesian delegates in 1948, and asking his thoughts about India’s future. During that conversation, the Indonesian entourage also asked Gandhi whether the Indonesian struggle will succeed. Gandhi told them, ‘‘When you truly believe it will succeed, then it will surely succeed.”
Herawati’s days have been filled with many achievements. Her calendar is never empty. She likes to be busy, meet with people and travel. She plays bridge twice a week with her friends at the Women’s International Club. She has always been a political as well as a social and cultural activist.
She advocated Gerakan Perempuan Sadar Pemilu (GPSP), a movement to raise Indonesian women’s level of awareness on matters related to general elections. In the course of time, this organization became Gerakan Pemberdayaan Swara Perempuan, a movement to empower the voice of women.
“She has always been a fighter and remains a fighter. An exemplary and outstanding woman. At 95, she is still high-spirited and fighting for a cause,” senior presidential adviser and prominent economist Professor Emil Salim commented.
“She is a role model, a symbol of the women’s movement in Indonesia. I couldn’t say more, a very impressive personality,” said former transportation and communications minister Agum Gumelar, whose wife Linda is now a cabinet minister for the empowerment of women.
In her book “An Endless Journey: Reflections of an Indonesian Journalist,” Herawati discusses the transition of Indonesia from a Dutch colony to an independent republic and the progress of five presidents as they have made their way across the turbulent Indonesian political stage.
“The press has an important role to play. We must continue the struggle until we achieve our ideals,” Herawati said.
Herawati is concerned about the development of the press, which is too commercially-oriented today and where idealism is no longer prevalent. Although she acknowledged that the upbringing and the political and economic settings are so different from the early years of independence when the idealism was to become a free, independent nation after 300 years of western colonialism, idealism is still needed for the press to play a significant role.
Herawati sees that after more than 66 years of independence, Indonesia is far from what the nation’s founding fathers had visioned and expected in terms of economic achievements and improvements in people’s welfare.