Let Bygones Be Bygones

Issue 28, Summer 2015

'Let bygones be bygones!’ Mum and Dad said to me, speaking over each other. Their faces shared a determination to have the last say on the matter. The afternoon light was fading and our teas were turning cold. My parents and I had been shouting at each other for the past hour, debating whether or not Indonesia should apologise to the victims of the 1965 communist purge.

Like some Indonesians who lived through the massacre of nearly one million people that brought Suharto to power, my parents are averse to the idea of a national apology and reconciliation for the crimes of 1965.

‘Who would apologise? All the people responsible have died.’

‘The state,’ I said. ‘It’s in the past,’ Mum snapped.

I tried yet again to put my argument. ‘The army did it. The army is a state institution. Therefore, the state should apologise on behalf of the army. It doesn’t matter whether generations have passed. That a state institution carried out the killing is what matters.’

The conversation ended with Mum and Dad saying the president should spend his time tackling poverty and natural disasters. I insisted that someday the state would apologise; maybe not now, but definitely later. We agreed to disagree but I knew this would not be the end of our discussions.

My parents’ position did not surprise me. I was more in awe that this heated dialogue was actually taking place. ‘Let bygones be bygones’ has been the national mantra to address the cry for justice from survivors and victims’ families since Suharto fell from power in 1998. The mantra has been used by the Indonesian govern­ment, the military and religious groups such as Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama. The army extinguished communism in Indonesia with the help of civilian militias like NU’s youth wing, Banser. NU clerics and their congregations acted as death squads in East Java, at the time Indonesia’s communist stronghold, killings tens of thousands of people.

A few years ago, a very limited space opened up for talk about the kill­ings of 1965. After Suharto’s fall, attempts were made to break the silence. Survivors got together to collect testimonies, documentary film­makers started to record the violence and stigma that families of victims face, and researchers released various analyses of the massacre. But these documents reached only limited circles and their impact was slight.

In 2012, the National Human Rights Commission (Komisi Nasional Hak Asasi Manusia, known as Komnas HAM) released the results of a four-year investigation into the atrocities of 1965 and declared that the army had carried out gross crimes against humanity. But since 2012, the attorney general has continued to reject Komnas HAM’s recommenda­tion for a criminal inquiry.

Nevertheless, the documentary film The Act of Killing, and its sequel The Look of Silence, have opened up a larger space to talk about what occurred. Those born after 1965 are now discovering that modern Indo­nesia is built on horrendous violence. We are asking questions of our elders, and the answers reveal not only that we were lied to by the state, but that we have also been deprived of our families’ histories.

It is fifty years since Indonesia’s anti-communist purge. In 1965, with three million members, Indonesia had the largest number of communist party members in the world outside the USSR and China. But in a mat­ter of six months, the army, operating with the help of civilian militias, extinguished communism and nearly wiped out the entire Indonesian political left.

The slaughter started in retaliation for the killing of six army generals by left-wing junior army officers. Suharto, the only one among the army top brass who was not targeted in the putsch, blamed the communists for the murders and, as Saskia Wieringa explains in her book Sexual Politics in Indonesia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), used a campaign of sexual terror against Gerwani, the communist women’s organisation, to paint a savage and brutal image of communism.

Shortly after the assassination of the generals, army newspapers, the only ones allowed to run at the time, libelled Gerwani members. The reports made the public believe a fiction that communist women danced naked while the generals were being tortured. The army also reported that they committed sexual acts with the generals, castrated them and gouged out their eyes. Further into the propaganda against the Gerwani, they were reported to be prostitutes for Partai Komunis Indonesia leaders.

The lies were effective. The retaliatory killings did not begin until three weeks after the assassination of the generals, and only after the army had established an image of the PKI as godless, promiscuous and violent. Civilian death squads such as NU’s Banser saw the killing of communists as a religious duty.

Party and union members, teachers, journalists, writers, artists and farmers were tortured and slaughtered in a bloodletting comparable to the horrors of the genocide in Rwanda and Cambodia. These mass killings have been universally condemned, while in Indonesia the perpetrators have never been found guilty.

Suharto had been in power for sixteen years when Mum gave birth to me. I was sixteen when student protests brought him down in 1998. The babies born that year are now sixteen. Their history books tell the same stories as my history books, painting Suharto as the saviour of the nation.

Most Indonesians born after 1965 grow up without knowing the dark history of their country. Throughout his rule, Suharto spooked the public by raising the spectre of atheist communists lurking within Indo­nesian society, ready for a takeover. Every year until his fall, students were made to watch the slasher-style propaganda movie Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI, a three-and-a-half-hour movie about how the communists tor­tured and killed the six generals on 30 September 1965. The movie dehumanised the PKI and desensitised us to any whispers we heard about the killings.

I became aware of the moral wrong of the communist purge only after watching The Act of Killing in 2012. The film follows Anwar Congo, an ageing but jovial death-squad leader in Medan. Inspired by the cowboy image of John Wayne, he created a narrative for himself as the hero kill­ing the evil communists through theatrical re-enactments of how he murdered his victims. At the beginning of the film, the filmmakers, American Joshua Oppenheimer and an Indonesian ‘anonymous’ co-director (we will call him Anon), place the film against its historical background of the massacre of more than one million.

After watching the film for the first time, it was hard for me to speak. I was taken back to 2008, when I visited Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh and shivered while walking the paths surrounding the pits in the killing fields, unaware that my own country had a similar story.

Walking in Jakarta now feels sinister and nightmarish. Instead of memorials for the victims of the purge, we have monuments and museums that reinforce the narrative of Suharto as the national saviour.

In the 1970s, when human rights activist Soe Tjen Marching was young, she liked to lie down by her dad’s side. She would notice that his chest was covered with rounded scars that looked like craters on his skin. She asked him what they were. He would close his eyes, shush her and tell her to sleep.

One day as she lay by her dad, she joked about whether these were ant holes. He became furious. ‘Never ask again!’ he shouted.

Marching tells this story in the memoir she is writing about her relationship with her father. She knew he had been imprisoned for being a communist supporter and hated him for this, having been taught at school to fear and hate the PKI. She couldn’t understand his sudden out­bursts of anger.

Marching is now one of the most vocal advocates for victims and sur­vivors of 1965. Only one-and-a-half metres tall, she is small but a force to be reckoned with. Her journey to understanding the events of 1965 and her father’s personal history took decades. She used to wonder why her father would never vote during elections in the Suharto era demanded that the TV be turned off whenever Suharto was on the screen.

After seeing The Act of Killing she started to ask her mother questions. She was shocked to find that her father had been one of the committee members of the PKI branch in Surabaya. Nobody in her family knew this except her mother. Marching and her siblings had known only that he was jailed for his involvement in the leftist organisation.

‘He had just been inaugurated but the official letters from Jakarta hadn’t arrived in Surabaya when the systematic attack against the PKI started,’ Marching said. Her parents burnt all papers associating him with the PKI so, when the troops searched their house, they found noth­ing. But he was eventually named.

The image of her father’s sudden flares of anger at the sight of Suharto on TV and his rage at the sound of the presidential court’s chanteuse, Titiek Puspa, reminds me of a quote by Indonesia’s most celebrated writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer. ‘I’m enraged alone,’ he told Andre Vltchek and Rossie Indira, who published their interview with Pramoedya in 2006. The writer, who spent fourteen years in the Buru island gulag, describes in that short sentence his fury towards the state and the aliena­tion he felt from Indonesia’s people, especially the young, who were not aware of Indonesia’s dark history.

Pramoedya’s words resonate with the desolation that thousands of sur­vivors of 1965 felt. Suharto not only massacred the entire Indonesian left, his propaganda ensured survivors were emotionally isolated – by the annual television screening of Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI, in monuments and museums built to influence Indonesians’ memory of PKI as a traitorous monster, and in the history books of students. In many instances, emo­tional bonds between survivors and their families are completely severed.

It’s not uncommon for Indonesian families to suppress family histories related to 1965. Writer Putu Oka Sukanta told me that his nephew also grew up hating and fearing him. Sukanta was imprisoned for ten years for being a member of a writer’s association deemed close to the PKI. Sukanta makes documentaries about 1965 survivors. In one of his films about female prisoners in Plantungan prison camp in Kendal, Central Java, he interviewed a woman who had lost contact after being imprisoned. They were adopted by family members and grew up hating her.

I decided to ask my close friends about their family histories. My friend Dorita Setiawan, a PhD student at Columbia University, said her mother’s distant uncle was shot dead in 1965. Dorita’s extended family took in his wife and nine children and attempted to erase the background to the death of the family’s patriarch.

‘They didn’t have any other way but to conform,’ Dorita told me. She said her family hid the story about how her relative died, but she had heard whispers in the village. After watching The Act of Killing and other documentaries such as Robert Lemelson’s Forty Years of Silence, she became curious. ‘But they don’t really want to talk about it,’ she said.

Another close friend, journalist Ika Krismantari, found out recently that her late grandfather had been imprisoned for eleven years. On a road trip from Jakarta to Yogyakarta, Ika decided to kill time by asking her parents if the 1965 pogrom affected their family. ‘I’m so shocked that I never knew about this,’ she said later.

My own family was not immune. Despite my parent’s stance on recon­ciliation, my dad’s uncle, Subandi, was imprisoned during the pogrom. Subandi was an army soldier who read about Marxism and communism. When the 1965 putsch occurred, the army detained him at the military command in my father’s hometown Salatiga, and later threw him in jail. ‘I used to ride my bike and take food for him,’ my dad recalled.

The premiere of The Act of Killing was secretly held in 2012 in Jakarta at Salihara Cultural Centre. In November 2014, the premiere of The Look of Silence drew nearly two thousand people to the open screening at Graha Bhakti Budaya theatre at the Taman Ismail Marzuki Cultural Centre. Organised by Indonesia’s National Human Rights Commission and the Jakarta Arts Council, the screening proved so popular the film had to be shown twice. The president did not comment.

While The Act of Killing focused on the story of one of the killers in 1965, The Look of Silence followed a travelling optometrist, Adi Rukun, whose brother was brutally murdered. In the film, Adi visits his brother’s killers. Calmly, he confronts them with uncomfortable questions about why they killed an innocent man. At the end of the screening, Adi came on stage to a long, standing ovation.

The Act of Killing paved the way for this remarkable event to take place, Anon told me.

The Act of Killing was not shown in theatres in Indonesia. But it has been screened thousands of times. The film’s producers send out free DVDs to anyone in Indonesia who wants to arrange screenings. They have sent more than 1800 DVDs to independent screening organisers in thirty-three provinces across the country. Since the premiere of The Look of Silence in November last year, more than 1200 DVDs of this film have been distributed. ‘As of February, there have been 266 open screenings,’ the Indonesian director said. ‘The great thing is more than 80 per cent of the organisers are young people. More than half are students from across disciplines,’ he said.

In The Look of Silence, while the perpetrators show no remorse, a daughter of one of the perpetrators of the violence apologised to Adi on her father’s behalf. Adi accepted her apology with an embrace.

‘We tried to show in The Look of Silence that intergenerational recon­ciliation is a more realistic aim than waiting for the old perpetrators to apologise,’ the director said. ‘We’ve waited so long and it hasn’t happened yet. But if the children can be moved, reconciliation can work.’

Human rights commissioner Nur Kholis, who is now forty-four, is used to hearing the phrase ‘let bygones be bygones’. He heard it many times in 2008 when he started to lead the investigation into the crimes of 1965. He hears it still, after the launch of the Komnas HAM report recom­mending a criminal inquiry into gross human rights violations in 1965.

Nur Kholis said leaders of the Islamic mass organisation Nahdlatul Ulama, whose youth group Banser was involved in the killings in Java, rejected the report and expressed their anger when they met with him. People point to his relative youth – and the fact that he was not there to witness the situation – in questioning his capability to investigate that period. ‘They would say, “How old are you to dare lead a team that would bring a big impact to Indonesia?” ’

‘I just listen to them,’ he said. ‘I understand their anger. In this country we have to be able to deal with anger. The survivors are twice as angry.’

Not all of NU rejects reconciliation. The late president Abdurrahman Wahid, who was a long-time leader of NU, apologised in 2000 on behalf of the organisation for its involvement in the massacre. Since the fall of Suharto, NU member Imam Aziz has spearheaded a civil-society initiative for reconciliation between NU and the survivors of the 1965 massacre through an organisation that he founded called Syarikat.

The generation born after the atrocities and those who witnessed them have only just begun to see the truth – and we want to remember. Unburdened by fear of ideological wars, we see the massacre in simple terms – a slaughter of helpless civilians. Most who manage to learn about the massacre side with the survivors.

The anonymous Indonesian co-director said that his own father con­demns the massacre, but thinks if it hadn’t happened communism would have taken over the country. My mum thinks the same way. The Film Censorship Body, a remnant of the Suharto era, seems to think the same way too as it banned public screenings of The Look of Silence in East Java.

But there is no turning back the curiosity of the post-1965 generation. In cities like Yogyakarta, Malang and Jember, where anti-communist groups cancelled open screenings, requests increase for DVDs to be screened underground. Banning screenings only increases curiosity.

‘Every time there’s a news report about cancellation in an area, we receive more requests for DVDs in that city for screenings,’ the director said. High school students ask to watch the film in class with their teachers. Some teachers show The Look of Silence and then get students to write essays reflecting on the country’s past.

I sat with twenty-nine-year-old university lecturer Windu Jusuf and his friend Berto Tukan, also twenty-nine and a lecturer. The two are now editors of the leftist website Indoprogress that features writings about Mar­xism, but they were both afraid of the communists when they were children. As part of Suharto’s propaganda against communism, school kids in Jakarta and surrounding cities were often taken on field trips to the Museum of PKI’s Betrayal, built near the memorial site for the assas­sinated generals in Lubang Buaya, East Jakarta, where their bodies were found in an abandoned well. Suharto filled the museum with dioramas detailing PKI’s treachery towards the nation in different eras. Windu visited the museum at the age of ten and recalls thinking ‘the communist were such dogs’. Berto, who was raised a devout Catholic in a small town in Flores, viewed communists as sinners.

At the dawn of Suharto’s fall, Windu’s father showed him newsletters from clandestine mailing lists that revealed forbidden information about 1965. His world was shaken. ‘I became really scared,’ Windu said. ‘I started to ask myself, Who am I really? I ask myself, Who am I as an Indo­nesian? Have I been fed lies all this time?’

Windu became silent for a while. Then he said to Berto: ‘I think we should make a funny meme at the Museum of PKI’s Betrayal.’ Berto laughed and agreed. ‘We should make people laugh at the obvious lies,’ he said.

In the memorial complex at Lubang Buaya, a couple of hundred metres away from the shack that houses a life-size torture-scene diorama, is the Sacred Pancasila Monument, commemorating the murder of seven Indonesian army officers in 1965. Statues of the generals stand in front of a massive mythical Garuda. Below are stone reliefs depicting communist women dancing naked while men (communists) throw the slain generals into a well. Elsewhere on the monument Suharto is seen bringing back order from chaos, symbolised by women cradling their babies with their heads bowed.

I looked at Windu posing with a director’s clapboard in front of the torture shack, looked at the monument and then my surroundings. Police cadets leisurely strolled through the grounds, couples held hands as they looked into the deadly well, children peered into the torture shack. Amid the surreal landscape of the monuments, the attempts of Windu and his friend to mock the distortions of history seem the only sane response.

In that mockery, I see change happening: when people reject the lies they’ve been fed and start to laugh at the absurdity of how the country deals with history, it marks a true turning point for the nation. 

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