Ma'e Tole Nembange Genjer Genjer (karya Andreas Iswinarto)

Ma’e Tole Nembange Genjer Genjer (Andreas Iswinarto)

Sri Lestari Wahyuningroem, Jakarta

Just days before President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo presented his State of the Nation address on Aug. 15, some groups and individuals provocatively rejected reports that he was to deliver an apology to members and supporters of the banned Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).

Yet such reported plans are unnecessary and irrelevant because sorry is not the main point of any initiative to settle past human rights violations, including for serious crimes around the political upheaval of 1965.

Rumors that the President will at some point “apologize to the PKI” started when Attorney General HM Prasetyo announced in May the government’s initiative to establish a joint team on settling past rights abuses. He said the team would recommend reconciliation and it was later reported that the President would deliver a state apology for victims of rights abuses.

Some groups took this reported plan as the government’s attempt to defend the PKI. Reactions included those from Kivlan Zen, perhaps representing the voices of conservatives within the Army. Islamic groups, ranging from the largest Islamic organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which clashed with PKI masses in some parts of Java in the 1960s, to hardline Islamic organizations that emerged after the New Order, such as the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI), also opposed the reported plans of apology.

Gerindra, the only political party that reacted to the rumor, supported the plan, saying the public apology would also uncover the involvement of foreign countries as the masterminds of the 1965 bloodshed.

Senior poet Taufik Ismail wrote a provocative piece in the Republika daily, cleverly using the term KGB (Komunis Gaya Baru: new style communists) in rejecting the rumored state apology. Some mass organizations mobilized hundreds of people to demonstrate opposition to the news.

Such opposition is not new, regardless of any truth to the rumor. Jokowi made no such apology in his speech, but said his administration would seek settlement of past human rights abuses.

Under then president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono there was also resistance to any attempt to settle the issues of 1965’s mass violence. Yudhoyono once promised to settle past human rights abuses, even though he did not explicitly mention 1965 — obviously, given possible impacts against the name of his late father-in-law Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, who had led the special Army troop (RPKAD) assigned to eliminate supporters of communism as ordered by Soeharto.

Such pledges to settle past abuses are now left in the hands of the new President, who also campaigned along similar lines during his presidential campaign.

As this year marks the 50th anniversary of the bloodshed, any initiative to settle “1965” would command the wide attention of not only the domestic but also international public.

However, critics miss the point, or deliberately shift the main point, by making an issue out of “apologizing to the PKI.” Jokowi’s administration is also losing the point if it focuses only on delivering an apology and aiming for reconciliation between perpetrators and victims because there are three elements needed to value an apology as relevant and necessary.

The first and foremost is that “sorry” can only be done based on a historical narrative of an injustice — the story of what happened: the event of past wrongs, the victims and the perpetrators. A “sorry” needs a truth.

Even if the truth is bitter, it will give a new moral stand for the nation, which could help the nation rethink and renew its nationalism and stand up as a great nation.

Truth is needed for those who advocate “sorry” and reconciliation, but also for those oppose it. Thus the truth also includes the answer of why 500,000 to 3 million people were killed, as cited by historians — a figure that still cannot be ascertained — while thousands more were imprisoned illegally, tortured, raped, or subjected to forced disappearance.

Truth would do justice to those subjected to violence, including by the PKI and other political groups — based on empirical facts where historians are also involved. Truth would unveil the dogmas and stigmas around our historical narratives.

Stressing “apology to the PKI” shifts attention and urgency to unveil the truth of past injustices. Revealing the truth can be threatening to some groups, who consider available historical versions as final and unquestionable, despite new evidence and testimonies that have emerged. Challenging history means challenging the legitimacy of those in power in today’s regime.

The way to prevent any attempt to be critical to the available version of history is to create insecurity by maintaining propaganda on the evil of communism and the communists. These are similar to strategies of the militaristic regime, now maintained by its supporting elements who focus on the “apology” to communists, not the truth of past injustices.

The second requirement for “sorry” is political distance between the head of state and the perpetrators of the crime. Observers often refer to the 20th and 21st centuries as the “age of apology”, when at least 50 representatives apologized for specific events in their nations’ histories.

Apology has become a political ritual, especially in countries experiencing transition. Apology could be a form of restorative justice, aiming to restore, or heal, individuals or a nation suffering from injustice.

However, apology could also be used by the regime in power merely to gain legitimacy in the new
political era.

The third element for an apology relates to a commitment to justice for victims of violence and a commitment for the state to ensure the non-recurrence of violence.

Thus, apology is merely an important step to settle past abuses, but without truth and commitment to justice it would not liberate the nation from the burden of its past.

The writer is a researcher at the Jakarta-based Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR), a regional NGO focusing on human rights.

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