As 250 million Indonesians face up to the 50th anniversary of one of the most crushing episodes of our nation’s history – the massacre of up to 500,000 or more alleged Communists between 1965 and 1968 by the Suharto regime – the business of confronting the past has reached a new urgency. And it is an urgency that has only a week ago was sharpened by new disappointments.
That new disappointment is our president Joko Widodo’s stance on “1965” – as the tragedy is commonly referred to. In a statement in front of the leaders of the Muhammadiyah, the country’s second largest Muslim organisation, he has refused to apologise to the victims of 1965. And so ended the campaign promises he made –hollow ones to start with, of giving priority to the country’s unresolved cases of human rights violations, including 1965 – that earned him the people’s votes.
It is a staggering, utterly dispiriting verdict, especially as it came on the heels of the tide of cynicism, both from those who demand an official public reckoning and from those who oppose it, when it seemed he was still toying with the possibility of a groundbreaking gesture.
This recent development notwithstanding, there still is no easy picture to paint about what we have achieved in terms of our struggle against forgetting. Clearly, right now the call is for action. The call is an accelerated series of concrete measures. An official state apology, even if it were to come to pass, would simply not have been enough. It is too late to pledge mere words, for words too have an expiry date.
It has, after all, been almost 20 years since the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998. After 32 years of obsessive and systematic conditioning by the Suharto regime of the perils of Communism, Indonesians, to the limited yet vigorous extent that they have been able to, have since indulged their new thirst for alternative readings on 1965. Since 2000, thought-provoking revisionist histories have been produced by the academia. The works of the great Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer, previously banned, were sought anew. Survivors of Suharto’s prisons published their memoirs with admirable courage and panache. Novelists and documentary filmmakers were emboldened.
That such a surge was even possible has not been taken for granted, for the most part. At school, my generation was taught categorically – with no room for other interpretations – that all Communists were atheists and the enemy of the Indonesian state, and that the defeat of the Indonesian Communist party was crucial to the survival of the nation.
Absurdly, not only has this steady propaganda produced a generation schooled in silence and apathy; it has also given birth to successive generations that are wholly ignorant of that period of history. A survey published by the Jakarta Globe in 2009 showed that more than half of the respondents comprising university students in Jakarta had never even heard of the mass killings of 1965-1966. Never mind the fact that it happened to be, as stated by a CIA report, “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century, along with the Soviet purges of the 1930s, the Nazi mass murders during the second world war, and the Maoist bloodbath of the early 1950s.” Thus, any sign that “1965” has not been forgotten is a burst of fresh air, a salve to the soul.
… it is no longer possible to deny that a systematic, politically-charged pogrom in fact took place
Sure, there were the occasional hitches that often seemed like a huge setback: the blatant rejection by a cabinet minister, last year, of the findings of the National Human Rights Committee because he believed that the mass killings were “necessary at the time”; the recent naming of a Suhartoist known for leading the purge, as a national hero; the odious crackdown on a gathering of the families of 1965 survivors, most of them elderly, in Padang Pariaman, West Sumatra. All such insults, on top of the president’s flip-flopping, coalesce to sharpen our fear of the limit of what is truly achievable.
For while it is impossible to speak of unveiling the truth as though there is only one truth, it is no longer possible to deny that a systematic, politically-charged pogrom in fact took place and that it was, in the simplest possible terms, a crime against humanity.
We know that no great historical struggle ever occurs in a vacuum, and that the seeds of discontent between the left and the right in Indonesia had been sown for decades prior to the tragedy. Prior to 1965, the left, buttressed by the ascendancy of the Indonesian Communist party, were persecuting the right too. Yet what anyone who has watched Joshua Oppenheimer’s landmark documentaries, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, or read Tempo magazine’s 2012 special edition on 1965, in which the perpetrators spoke unapologetically about their role in the killings, cannot do today is to look away.
As with most calamities in history, our collective memory fails because the collective memory can bear only so much. So what does it mean, these days, to not look away? When each passing year takes us further away from the impact and meaning of the tragedy, let alone the full measure of it?
Could it be possible that as we hit the 50 year mark, and as more stories are being told – stories of ordinary people, people who had been excluded from the panoptic view of history – there is, despite the failures of the current regime, something extraordinary happening at the moment?
Having witnessed for years what continued stigmatisation did to people, I never thought we would reach this point: to be anticipating, in The Hague this coming mid-November, an International People’s Tribunal on 1965 Crimes Against Humanity in Indonesia.
This is not to say that this undertaking won’t be painful and full of risk. Even those among the survivors have pondered the wisdom of letting sleeping dogs lie. Transcendence may never be achievable, as is rendering “justice” to the hundreds of thousands of victims. The tribunal, which does not seek punitive measures for the alleged perpetrators, but, rather, to issue a morally-charged verdict which will become the basis for future government policy-making, will not be able to provide answers to every question it asks, nor will it able to put those they can into immediate action. As such, it is already facing tremendous opposition from certain quarters in the government with prevailing links to the Suharto regime.
In other words, civil society still has to continue its part in setting up “truth-seeking commissions” in order to reveal abuses, to empower victims in telling their stories, to produce and disseminate a revisionist history (especially in schools), and to find ways of properly compensating the victims and their families and rehabilitate their good name.
But the spirit and the commitment of the tribunal, no matter the ambivalences and reservations it too may contain, suggests that memory is a strange and often wondrous thing: there is, blessedly, such a thing as the duty of memory – and it often imposes a continuity, particularly when the time calls for it, upon the act of remembering. It rebukes us for thinking in terms other than deep outrage, mourning and a call for justice, for to do so would be to dishonor the explicit moral gravity of the subject.
What it embodies promises this anniversary as a marker, a new beginning. It is a time to reckon, reflect, and repair. It is a time to pay tribute to the resilience and vitality of the individual human spirit in the face of unspeakable loss and destruction. Because it isn’t as if there is much else we can hang on to, in the face of the self-righteousness and cowardice of those in power.