Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Indonesia’s forgotten genocide-Fear of the future explains failure to grapple with the past

                                        A monument to the generals slain in the coup

Fear of the future explains failure to grapple with the past

With each passing year, the memories of violent death dim the way that old photographs lose their colour.

It’s now been 50 long years since that night in Jakarta on 30 September when seven Indonesian army officers including six generals were slaughtered by rebel troops, unleashing an orgy of violence across much of Java and Bali where it still remains unclear if more or less than a million people died.

The victims were for the most part ordinary Indonesians from towns and villages across Java and Bali, killed cruelly and without mercy, usually cudgeled or strangled in the middle of the night, on the merest hint of communist sympathy.

Most would have joined some communist party organised activities – with a membership of at least three million, it was one of the largest political parties in the country and had the tacit backing of President Sukarno, the nation’s founder. Many of the victims were educated, as it was believed that intellectuals were prone to communism sympathies. You faced death merely if you wore spectacles.

For three long decades, the victims suffered in silence.  Every year to mark the attempted coup on 30 September, President Soeharto’s New Order government showed a dramatic reconstruction of the events on that fateful night which portrayed the murdered generals as heroes, and the communist plotters as brutal killers, staying silent on the mass killings that followed.

There was hope for a reckoning of the past after 1998, when Indonesia threw off the authoritarian yoke and finally embraced the democratic system envisaged by the country’s founding fathers.

But liberal democracy has proven a weak tool for either justice or reconciliation in Indonesia. The media’s ability to chronicle Indonesia’s tragic past has not resulted in a collective commitment to establishing the truth or holding those responsible accountable.

Instead, the victims have been tortured further – promised some form of recognition in the form of a national apology, only to be told that the killings were justified by an aggressive conservative establishment that continues to stand by its anti-communist beliefs three decades after communism collapsed.

When he was President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono endorsed a National Human Rights Commission report into the killings.  The voluminous report recommended action to provide redress to the victims.  Yudhoyono contemplated a national apology, but met with fierce resistance from within the ranks of the military and the Islamic establishment, whose members carried out many of the killings.

Perhaps this was a vain hope; Yudhoyono’s own father in law, Sarwo Edhie, was the Special Forces General ordered to initiate the crackdown on communists and their sympathisers. To make matters worse, before the end of his Presidential term, Yudhoyono mulled a proposal to make Sarwo Edhie a national hero.

There was renewed hope that Indonesian President Joko Widodo, popularly elected last year and with no links to the old conservative establishment, would finally address the issue.  Contemplating an apology for human rights abuses was one of the many vague promises he made as he rode to power. But as the 50th anniversary approaches, his officials say the President has more pressing issues of social and economic development to attend to.

The army remains a strong pillar of the establishment and seems unwilling to make amends for its bloody past.  Indeed, there is still anger in military circles about the alleged communist involvement in the deaths of the generals. “We are victims too,” one former military officer once told me.

Neither do the Islamic organisations implicated in carrying out the killings want their role highlighted by any move to apologise for the past. News of Joko Widodo’s decision not to issue an apology this year came after a meeting with Muhammadiya, the country’s second largest Muslim organisation.

Behind the excuses, the disappointment and the failure to address what the rest of the world considers a forgotten genocide, lies a profound fear of the future. “What did the Communists want?” asked a conservative figure at one meeting to discuss reconciliation during Yudhoyono’s administration. “They wanted land reform.”  Then he asked: “Do we have land reform today?”

Fear of social change in a society still plagued by inequality perhaps explains why anti-communists protests still happen each time political leaders contemplate addressing the mass killings. The poverty rate may have halved in the last 15 years, but income distribution has become much more unequal; about 40 per cent of the country’s 250 million people still live on less than $2 per day

Threats to social cohesion could also be a factor preventing accountability. Javanese society in 1965 was composed of a more balanced mixture of Christian and Muslim communities; the communist party made gains in the Christian community, and anti-communist sentiment found root among Muslims.

It is no secret that much of the actual killing was carried out by Muslim youth gangs and militia, encouraged and armed by the army. Afterwards many Christians converted to Islam to escape suspicion and further harassment.  The legacy of accelerated Islamicisation since then has weakened the traditional cultural mechanisms for maintaining harmony between faiths, and religious conflict is on the rise.

Opening up these old wounds, many Indonesians argue, will only highlight modern inequalities and reinforce social divisions that already frequently result in conflict.  So why rock the boat?

The old photographs may fade and the images of death and immense suffering on such a massive scale all but physically disappear, but the collective social trauma lives on in the Indonesian psyche. It appears in the creative works of writers like Leila Chudori and Laksmi Pamuntjak who were born just before or after the killings.  It has been vividly expressed by some of the actors themselves – both killers and their victims – in the films of Joshua Oppenheimer.

What photographs hide is how people feel; deep down many Indonesians feel ashamed about a period in their history they can’t erase. This dark spot on the past clouds their vision of the future.

Michael Vatikiotis is a writer and peace mediator whose novel ‘The Painter of Lost Souls’ dwells on the challenges of remembering Indonesia’s violent past.      


  1. In reality, the successful coup d'état was General Suharto's clandestine plan to overthrow Sukarno with a nod from the Americans

  2. The politics of amnesia
    Wednesday night, 50 years ago, history changed in such a way that few want to talk about it. In Indonesia, radical officers supported by the leader of the Communist Party (but not the party), attempted to arrest prominent pro-US generals to account for their conspiracy against anti-imperialist president Sukarno.
    Had they succeeded, the left would have gained the upper hand. For although Sukarno’s people dominated politics, and the Communist Party — the world’s third largest — had succeeded in initiating progressive reforms in exchange for “guided democracy”, the price was high. But this night everything was lost.
    One general escaped and the others were murdered. This allowed the notoriously corrupt and unremarkable general, Soeharto, to take the opportunity to build broad unity behind disproportionate and senseless acts of revenge on Communists and leftist nationalists who knew absolutely nothing about the conspiracies. According to The Times magazine, this was “the West’s best news for years in Asia.” And before long, president Sukarno was disposed of in favor of Soeharto’s decades-long dictatorship. Genocide is a contested concept, but between 500,000 and 1 million people were murdered because they had modern leftist ideas in common.

  3. Innumerable people were detained, and persecution continued for decades. The military managed much of the pogroms on its own but mobilized religious and political militias too. The survivors and relatives suffer still.That ill-fated night in Jakarta changed history elsewhere too. Indonesia became a model for the West’s struggle against the left in the global South. The argument was that in spite of modernization, the liberal middle class had not proved able to win elections, create stable institutions and resist the left. Hence it was necessary to add “politics of order” with military backing. This was the rationale for the support of, for example, the regimes in South Vietnam and the “middle class coups” in Latin America; Gustavo Pinochet’s plan to overthrow Salvador Allende in Chile was even named “Operation Jakarta”.
    All this is well known, for those who want to know. Latin America has come to terms with its past. But in Indonesia, in spite of 15 years of liberal democracy, nothing significant has been done to uncover the truth and take legal action against the perpetrators who remain honored for their crimes. The standing argument is that such processes would only create new conflicts, and that it is necessary instead to move on. Indonesia’s allies are also reluctant to speak up about their previous support for repressive politics.

  4. But is it possible to “move on”? What happens when a country and its allies repress their history? The victims are of course denied their human rights. And the principle of legal certainty is also at stake, for the next time it maybe others that the law fails to protect. Then there is the cultural legacy. The lies and hushing-up leave deep traces in people and society. Even most of those who know what happened feel they must be pragmatic. Indonesia has become a stronghold of postmodernist relativism where factual knowledge is subordinated to everyone’s right to their own interpretation, as long as they have money and good contacts. Extremist groups are free to terrorize both victims and principled intellectuals. Adi Rukun, for example, who in the second of Joshua Oppenheimer’s exceptional films about the genocide (The Look of Silence) seeks out the local gangsters who killed his brother not for revenge but just to understand what took place, has been forced to go into hiding. Meanwhile, the West suppresses its own role in the repressive politics and focuses instead on teaching others about relatively uncontroversial aspects of human rights.
    But the political amnesia is worst. Consider Germany today without having come to terms with Nazism; or South Africa with apartheid. Although Soeharto’s version of Indonesian history has faded, there is no clear alternative narrative. On the contrary, the absence of an unflinching understanding of the causes and consequences of the genocide means that vital knowledge needed to build the world’s largest new democracy is disregarded. It is even neglected that the system behind mass murder and persecution has not disappeared with either the end of the Cold War or democratization.

  5. But is it possible to “move on”? What happens when a country and its allies repress their history? The old use of the security forces as well as the mobilization and legitimization of militias, security companies and religious and political organizations to murder and oppress still applies. It is also conveniently forgotten that broad popular organization was not “premature” as a basis for modern democracy in Indonesia. In the early 1950s it was even possible to build the world’s largest modern, peaceful and democratically oriented leftist movement. The disposal thereafter of democracy was only due to the political fashion of elitist leaders and experts at the time on both the left and the right. In the same way, it is often ignored that the easiest way to gain power and enrich oneself was not to develop capitalism or socialism but to claim allegiance to Sukarno’s nationalism and use state and politics to control the nationalized companies and other public properties and claim a share of the surplus produced by others. Therefore, the military grew stronger while the country’s economy deteriorated and the left was undermined. It is also overlooked that the middle class and the Western powers that criticized this supported instead Soeharto’s repression and his alliance of technocrats, financiers and military personnel — and that their extractive pattern of economic growth degenerated in more corruption and oppression. Finally, the absence of close examination into the consequences of the genocide prevents wide discussions about why democratization has been limited by elitism, continued corruption and the fragmentation of civil organizations and social movements.

  6. But how can the political amnesia continue? The bitter truth is that almost no one with influence wants to remember. Consider this: Conservative forces that wish to discourage criticism but can’t always rely on the police and military, need militias, security companies and extreme organizations. Donors and others who say that democratization must be based on the elite, or even that stable state institutions must come first, avoid the history of popular-based democratization. Few of the politically dependent businessmen and populists around President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo consider the roots of exploitation and repression in the abuse of nationalization and political regulation. The critics among the growing middle class and its international supporters neglect instead that their predecessors contributed to the genocide and dictatorship; and that their own contempt for “corrupt democracies” resemble these old positions. The new pro-democrats in fragmented citizen organizations who invest in populist leaders forget that their own inability to form broad organizations is largely because the ideals and knowledge of democratic popular movements were crushed by the genocide.In short, Indonesia’s dilemma is its negation of history. But herein also lies hope for change. The potentially most revolutionary and democratic forces today are the endangered critical historians and the teachers who can disseminate critical knowledge. They must become more and get full support!
    The writer Olle Törnquist, Oslo is professor of political science and development research, University of Oslo