A new report challenges Indonesia’s collective amnesia

A new official report declaring the purge of communists in the 1960s in Indonesia to be a crime against humanity may be a historic milestone, but the muted public reaction suggests that this tragic episode has almost been wiped from the nation’s collective memory. On Monday, the National Commission on Human Rights, an independent state ...

Carol Goldstein/Keystone/Getty Images
Carol Goldstein/Keystone/Getty Images

A new official report declaring the purge of communists in the 1960s in Indonesia to be a crime against humanity may be a historic milestone, but the muted public reaction suggests that this tragic episode has almost been wiped from the nation’s collective memory.

On Monday, the National Commission on Human Rights, an independent state body, released its findings from a four-year investigation. The commission concludes that the army-led campaign amounted to a gross violation of human rights. It urged the government to prosecute the perpetrators and compensate victims and survivors. It also called upon President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to issue a public apology.

But the report failed to generate much public interest, if the reaction of the country’s major newspapers is any indication. They either ignored the story or buried it in the inside pages — which made for a jarring contrast to the hysterical headlines devoted to shooting in faraway Denver last the weekend. But then the mainstream media have always been complicit in the conspiracy of silence over the killings, whether knowingly or out of ignorance.

The killing campaign in 1965 and 1966 was unleashed after an abortive coup against President Sukarno in October 1965 that the army blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). Although the massacre happened on Sukarno’s watch, he had by then become a lame-duck president. The report instead put the blame squarely on the Command for the Restoration of Security and Order led by General Soeharto, who went on to become president in 1967. The commission’s recommendation only says that those most responsible should be prosecuted, though it gives no specific names.

In spite of its massive scale, the killing campaign has been shrouded in mystery. No one — the Human Rights Commission included — has ever been able to put a figure on how many were killed. Estimates range from a conservative 200,000 to as many as three million, a figure once boastingly cited by Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, who headed the military campaign at the time as chief of the army’s Special Forces.

The Soeharto regime banned any discussion of the entire episode, including the massacre and the circumstances surrounding the transfer of power. For more than three decades, only the military’s version of history was allowed to circulate. The veil of silence was lifted only some years after Soeharto stepped down in 1998.

Official history books today still treat the episode as an attempt by the PKI, then the world’s largest communist party in a non-communist state, to grab power. They make no mention of the ensuing massacre of party members, their sympathizers and relatives, and even many innocent bystanders, or the harsh treatments meted out to the survivors in the aftermath of the killings.

The report, the most detailed study ever carried out on the massacre, lists the types of crimes committed, including murder, slavery, forced disappearances, limits to physical freedom, torture, rape, persecution, and forced prostitution. It also says the killing was widespread across most major islands in the archipelago, and not confined to Java, Sumatra, and Bali, as had been widely believed. The study also identified at least 17 mass graves where the victims were buried.

Although Indonesians who went through the period are aware of the killings, most have turned a blind eye, and many have even managed to erase them from memory. They accepted the official version that the military had saved Indonesia from communism, and, by logical conclusion, that Soeharto and his military cohorts were the heroes of the day.

Time will tell how far the report will go to break these long years of the conspiracy of silence about the killings, and whether it will succeed in jolting the nation out of its collective amnesia. The report also calls for the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission to look into the tragedy.

Scholars attempting to study the killings say that many of the perpetrators and the surviving victims have refused to be interviewed for events that they said were too traumatic to recount. A few, however, have been brave enough to break their silence, as captured in the film documentary 40 Years of Silence — An Indonesian Tragedy.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, for whom the report was prepared, responded positively by ordering the office of the attorney general to look into the recommendations, including considering the prosecution of those most responsible for the killings. His office has also said that the president is considering an official apology on behalf of the state for all the human rights violations committed against its own citizens.

All the key players in the killing campaign, however, are dead: Soeharto died in 2008, his deputy Admiral Sudomo this past April, and Sarwo Edhie, in 1989. It will be interesting to see how far the Indonesian military, or President Yudhoyono for that matter, are prepared to see their seniors tried in absentia or be dragged through the dirt in the event that the truth and reconciliation commission is formed. Yudhoyono, a military general himself, is the son-in-law of Sarwo Edhie.

Many human rights activists have their doubts. They note that a report by the same commission about the mass rape of Chinese Indonesians during a riot in 1998 never received any follow-up from the office of the attorney general.

The release of the report was hailed as a milestone by a handful of victims and survivors who had been seeking justice all these years. For most Indonesians, it was non-event.

In one of the rare public reactions to the report, Priyo Budi Santoso, a senior politician from the Golkar Party, said that wallowing in the past was unproductive for the nation.

"It is better if we move forward," said Priyo, whose party provided the political machine that sustained Soeharto in power for more than three decades.

Tragically, he probably spoke for most of the people in this country.

Anyone wondering why the systemic culture of impunity, and with it the culture of violence, are so notoriously strong in Indonesia, may have found the answer this week. They are deeply embedded, along with the nation’s collective amnesia.

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