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Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, face of Indonesia disaster relief efforts dies at 49

Dr. Sutopo was respected for informing Indonesians about the country’s natural calamities.
Dr. Sutopo was respected for informing Indonesians about the country’s natural calamities.(Tatan Syuflana/Associated Press/File 2019)

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, Indonesia’s disaster agency spokesman, who was respected for informing the public accurately and quickly about the country’s frequent natural calamities, died Sunday morning in Guangzhou, China. He was 49 and had been undergoing cancer treatment since June, the National Disaster Mitigation Agency said.

Dr. Sutopo revealed in early 2018 that he had been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer and was told he might not survive more than a year. As his personal tragedy unfolded, the year would become one of the worst in recent memory for natural disasters in Indonesia. Thousands died in a series of earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and landslides.

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Dr. Sutopo continued to work while enduring intense pain, typing news releases from his hospital bed after undergoing chemotherapy, updating social media, holding press conferences and fielding calls from reporters at any hour.

‘‘He was a hard-working figure who served the media and public independently and tirelessly even while very sick,’’ disaster agency chief Doni Monardo said. ‘‘He deserves to be called a humanitarian hero.’’

In a country where many officials are notorious for economy with the truth or outright distortion, Dr. Sutopo distinguished himself by marshaling facts, combating hoaxes, and frequently drawing attention to lack of disaster preparedness and man-made factors that worsen natural calamities.

He was the public face of the thousands of people involved in Indonesia’s arduous disaster relief efforts and affectionately known as ‘‘Pak Topo,’’ a moniker that combined abbreviations of his name and the Indonesian word for mister.

His communications expertise earned him many awards in Indonesia and the region. Tributes poured in Sunday from people of all walks of life in Indonesia and neighboring countries.

Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, said on Twitter, ‘‘We have lost a person whose life was dedicated to other people.’’ He quoted one of Dr. Sutopo’s recent comments: ‘‘Life is not about how long we live but how much we can help others.’’

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Dr. Sutopo was born on Oct. 7, 1969, in the central Java town of Boyolali.

He told Indonesian news site Kumparan in 2017 that he grew up in a poor family and was bullied at school for being shoeless and stupid. He said that he was an average student at university, where he studied geography, but that due to perseverance and diligence he earned a doctorate.

Early in his career, while working as a government researcher, Dr. Sutopo gained attention by exposing the misconduct of officials who could have prevented a dam collapse that killed more than 100 people.

“I always shared with the public, through the media, what the facts are,” he told The New York Times in December.