This month, it will be 70 years since Indonesia declared its independence from Dutch colonial rule. But what has Indonesia been best known for internationally in recent years? One of the most famous topics of international debate still is the genocide of 1965. The culprit? Who else but the award-winning director Joshua Oppenheimer, with his two documentary films “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence.”
His first film has made many people gasp, as they see mass murderers boasting about how they tortured, strangled and mutilated other human beings as part of the anti-communist purges of the mid-1960s. One of them even casually says about raping young women: “The nice ones are the 14- and 15-year-olds. Still young and fresh!”
What on earth could explain this abomination, you wonder?
The mass murderers say that they did it for the country.
They maintain until today that their brutality was “permitted.”
Formal or tacit endorsement from the authorities can indeed justify extreme and cruel actions. This is what often makes many other people turn a blind eye. The famous Milgram experiment conducted at Yale University in the early 1960s, demonstrates how many people are willing to cause pain and suffering to others, if this is condoned by a figure of authority. The majority of people were willing to carry out inhumane acts, simply because they felt that they could get away with it, especially if combined with the promise of rewards. The law can be a safe place to hide from persecution for the biggest crimes in the world.
This is not something new in history and the celebration of atrocities is not something only people in Indonesia are guilty of. How about the arrogance of the Dutch colonial government in boasting about its conquest of the archipelago? How about the massacre of Aborigines in Australia — around 20,000 of them were murdered in the 18th and 19th centuries. The lynching of “Negroes” was at one point a form of public entertainment in several parts of United States. On Feb. 27, 1901, for instance, the American newspaper Chicago Record described how children collected small souvenirs from the slaughter of a “Negro” in Terre Haute, Indiana. The victim’s toes were cut off to be taken home. With the consent of those in power, all kinds of brutal acts can be transformed into something innocent, even a form of child’s play.
While democracy holds the promise of people power, most citizens still look up to the authorities in hopes of getting the nod for whatever they are doing. Therefore, we should never overlook the roles and responsibilities of governments and senior officials in implementing humaneness. Unfortunately, little has been done in this regard by the various governments of Indonesia and the security apparatus in regards to the atrocities of the 1960s.
Let us now compare with another case that made headlines around the time Oppenheimer’s first film had been released. In 2013, a man from Sleman, Danang Sulistyo, boasted on Facebook about his own “act of killing,” created massive uproar online The case was reported to the police in March 2014, and officers were quick to investigate, soon releasing a statement that the law had indeed been broken. But what had Danang done? He had shot and killed nine cats.
How is it possible that people react completely different when killers boast of their willing participation in massacres that claimed thousands of human lives? Why, until now, has nobody in a position of authority bothered to investigate?
Most of the people in power in Indonesia do not have much interest in setting straight our history. In “The Look of Silence,” Adi Rukun, whose elder brother was brutally murdered in 1965, bravely confronts the people involved. He does not intend to take revenge but demands that they admit that they were wrong. However, the mass murderers never admit that they did something wrong and, in fact, keep bragging that what they did was heroic. Before the film was released, Adi Rukun had to move out of Medan, for fear that his life would be threatened. Now, he must remain in hiding. Adi had been aware of these risks but he was willing to take them, for he wanted the truth to come out. We have to question why the authorities do nothing to protect Adi Rukun, while mass murderers are free to go wherever they want.
The preamble to Indonesia’s 1945 Constitution can be translated as: “Independence is the right of all nations, and therefore, any oppression on this earth should be abolished, since it is incompatible with the sense of humanity and justice.” Thus, as our struggle for independence was based on the conviction of equal rights for all people, what is the meaning of independence celebrations when the victims of various atrocities committed during our seven decades of independence are still oppressed?
In his 1913 article “Als Ik Eens Nederlander Was,” Ki Hajar Dewantara wrote (to protest to plans to make colonial subjects pay for celebrations to commemorate Dutch independence from France a century earlier) : “If I were a Dutchman, I would not organize an independence celebration in a country where the independence of the people has been stolen.” Now, allow me to say this: I would not organize an independence celebration in a country without acknowledging the fact that the independence of many of its own people has been stolen.
Soe Tjen Marching, author of “Kubunuh di Sini” (“I Killed Here”), is currently working on a book chronicling the lives of victims from the 1965 anti-communist purge.