At Thursday’s commemoration of the date when 50 years ago six generals and a young officer were killed, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo put to rest reports that the state would apologize to the millions of victims, survivors and the families of the 1960s tragedy. I think the refusal to apologize is wrong and holds us hostage to the past, and the history as created by the New Order regime.
An apology is vital to bring the state a step closer to healing society, as it would reach out to victims and their families.
We should stand up and speak out when wrongdoing takes place. In the weeks and months following this week in 1965, scores were murdered, tortured and arrested. It is estimated that between 500,000 to 1 million people were killed during the cleansing of people with any leftist connections, regardless of their age or level of “connection”. The historical narrative of the banned Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), says that the organization was bad, dangerous, seditious and therefore deserving of its fate — this was the anthem played throughout the General Soeharto regime.
The New Order demonized the leftist movement by dehumanizing anyone associated with the PKI. Civilians — people who were politically ignorant, afraid, confused and possibly had some disagreement with elements or members of PKI at the local level — were co-opted into the killing machine in the crushing operations, as many of these civilians did the dirty work, massacred fellow countrymen and women, without awareness of their wrongdoing, let alone giving them a fair trial. It is essential that people from all walks of life learn from history. Indonesians need to have a critical perspective about what happened on Sept. 30, 1965 and the following atrocities. Providing a better understanding and countering the narrative choked down our throats via our schooling, propaganda films, regulations and laws that contradict the spirit of our Constitution, which guarantees human rights, is one way to honor the victims and survivors.
The dehumanizing of the PKI led to a genocide that until today is difficult for us to grapple with. Here it might be useful to use Hannah Arendt‘s The Human Condition. The political theorist recognized that to retain direction and meaning of such a significant human action, in this case the 1960s violence, another human capacity is required — remembrance. The present binds the past and future together. As a nation, our present can be the product of the past, so thus our future depends on how we give meaning to the present. So, what is preventing us from recognizing this wrongdoing in the past?
The present, regardless of how confusing “1965” was, is an opportunity to inspect our memory. A chance to collect more information, to gain better knowledge and evidence about what happened 50 years ago.
This act of remembrance is just one step before we can talk of reconciliation. An act of remembrance will reorient us in the direction of the future. Public remembrance with counter narratives about post Sept. 30 1965 is one way to honor the victims. Public memory is not singular and may be fuzzy, nonetheless trying to maintain its integrity is a worthwhile attempt. It is not an easy road, as meaningful action requires a public outlet and one such meaningful action is an apology. Thus, it is still important for the Jokowi administration to apologize unreservedly. We have to accept the tragic reality that the state did not prevent the mass violence following Sept. 30, 1965, and that state institutions were directly involved in the rampant killing and persecution of anyone considered left-wing.
An apology is appropriate given the gravity of the violence and how it affects us a nation-state, and as a reminder of our history. Apologizing to the victims and survivors of the tragedy, and their families, brings us closer to potential reconciliation and closure on the 1965 saga. It is important for the nation’s leadership to show that the way forward is not to argue about whether to apologize, but to lead by example and do the morally right thing. We need to see considerable progress toward justice for the victims and their families. Therefore, decisive political action is required. People need to learn about the past atrocities, the escalation of killings, arbitrary arrests and persecution, the decades of stigmatization of many innocent people simply because they were branded as leftist, including the PKI, the Gerwani women’s organization, the CGMI students’ organization and many more — the list is endless.
This 2015 commemoration of these events gives us a chance to pause and reflect, to think about how to guard our future by honoring the victims, by apologizing and educating ourselves so that these atrocities will never, ever happen again. A more balanced narrative is needed, an alternative version of what happened for new generations. It will most definitely require political will and courage. I do not say it will not be controversial. I simply say the state needs to act, to apologize in honor of the victims, their relatives and survivors — there are so many of them.
We have to accept the tragic reality that the state did not prevent the mass violence ...
The writer Maria Pakpahan, Edinburgh, Scotland is a feminist human rights activist and the Scotland, UK Coordinator of the upcoming International People’s Tribunal 1965, scheduled for November in The Hague, the Netherlands