Inside Story

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Indonesia’s dangerous silence

Richard Tanter reports on a controversial intervention in Indonesian history, culture and memory

Richard Tanter 28 April 2011 2986 words

Above: The dance performance Tjap Merah (Red Stamp), choreographed by Vincentius Yosep Prihantoro Sadsuitubun.
Photo courtesy Goethe Institute Indonesia

OVER four days earlier this year, the Goethe Institute in Jakarta hosted a remarkable series of events on the theme of “Indonesia and the World in 1965.” These events, and the responses they provoked, showed that the taboo on discussion about the events of 1965–66 lives on despite Indonesia’s era of reformasi.

On the opening evening, guests of the institute arrived at the GoetheHaus in central Jakarta to find the main gate blocked by a crowd of Islamist demonstrators and rows of harried police. The demonstrators carried banners proclaiming that “the PKI [Communist Party of Indonesia] was the perpetrator and the mastermind of 1965, not the victim” and “the communist Satan is dead,” along with others decrying “the sullying of Indonesian history by communists and liberals.” As security staff admitted guests, the event’s organisers argued with a delegation from the demonstration’s organisers, the Islamic Youth Movement and Laskar Empati Pembela Bangsa, and tried to deal with harassment from police. Earlier that day the series organisers had received threats from the Islamic Defenders Front and the less well-known Islamic Youth Movement. Police headquarters had conceded there was nothing out of order about the planned events but that didn’t stop the police at the GoetheHaus from demanding (unsuccessfully) the passports of foreign participants.

The source of the controversy was the Goethe Institute’s intention to bring into public discussion the domestic and context of the events surrounding the toppling of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, by Major-General Suharto in a coup involving junior army officers and key communist leaders on the night of 30 September–1 October 1965. The organisers wanted to trigger wider discussion of the events in the year that followed the coup, which included the murder of hundreds of thousands of alleged communists or communist sympathisers and the detention without trial of many more for upwards of a decade. More than half a century later, much about the events of 1965–66 remains out of bounds in democratic Indonesia. For many of the people who came to the Goethe Institute events, especially the many younger people, it was a first chance to see and hear, through performance, art and speeches, pluralist and critical views of the constitutive terror that formed the foundation of Suharto’s rule.

As the organisers put it, “Without this all-out embracing rift between East and West, Suharto’s fast and successful gain of power and parallel to that the systematic burying in oblivion of the violent facts of ’65 would have been unthinkable. Until today the repercussions of the imposed taboo are obvious.”

Inside the GoetheHaus, the four-day event began with the opening of an exhibition of photographs, murals, installations, cartoons and videos mounted by the Tempo Institute. Opening the exhibition, Lieutenant-General Agus Wijoyo talked about his own very direct relationship to the events of the period. Not only is Wijoyo a retired officer of an institution that played a central role, but he is also the son of one of the senior officers murdered on the morning of 1 October 1965. Wijoyo’s theme was the consequences for the country today of a failure to come to terms with its past and face up to the events of 1965 with a sense of proportion. He was speaking as a member of the group, Forum for the Friendship of the Children of the Nation (Forum Silaturahmi Anak Bangsa), which includes not only children of other generals murdered on 1 October but also the son of the executed Darul Islam leader, Kartosoewirjo, and the children of murdered Communist Party leader D.N. Aidit.

Speaking as much to those outside the GoetheHaus as those in front of him, Wijoyo set the tone for much of the next three days, making clear that for him the question of reconciliation is personal and difficult:

We are failing to settle the task of dealing with our history, and we will leave it behind for our grandchildren… Putting the events of the past into proportion indeed requires sacrifice from all the sides of those involved. Reconciliation is not a process of producing a zero-sum game, because, as we will see in this exhibition, there is not one side that could claim itself as merely the victim, and the other side as wholly the oppressor…What I want to say here is that readiness to enter the process of reconciliation requires the destruction of the myth that victims were the monopoly of one side and the perpetrators of the violence were the other side.

By this stage of the evening, the GoetheHaus’s large auditorium was overflowing with a predominantly young audience that had come to see Mwarthirika – About the Lost History and a History of the Lost, a production from Papermoon Puppet Theatre by Maria Tri Sulistyani and Iwan Effendi. Using almost life-sized puppet figures and masked performers (pictured below), the performance recounted a parable of children in a village on which events in the world outside were impinging. The puppeteers supporting the child-figures generated the sense of an inexplicable violation of order, which worked powerfully to generate a strong and enthusiastic response in the packed audience. Whatever else was to happen in the following days, it was clear that the Goethe Institute had already succeeded in opening questions of culture and memory.

Above: Mwarthirika – About the Lost History and a History of the Lost, a production from Papermoon Puppet Theatre by Maria Tri Sulistyani and Iwan Effendi

The academic workshop that began the next day was the result of collaboration between the Goethe Institute Indonesia, the Indonesia office of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Centre for History and Political Ethics at Sanata Dharma University in Jogjakarta.

Franz-Xaver Augustin, the Goethe Institute’s Indonesia director, had faced criticism from conservative political figures before the conference: why, they asked, is a German cultural organisation tackling the most sensitive political question in Indonesia? Augustin tackled that issue head-on. Memory, he argued, is a central component of history and culture, especially through the capacity for collective memory and remembrance. And that, he noted self-critically, is something that Germany knows something about. The Jakarta Post had earlier quoted Augustin as saying:

“I’m very happy that Germany has found a way only through this very thorough dealing with the past,” he said. “We don’t like to stand up as teachers and say ‘look how good we are and how good we did it’, but it is an offer. I think it is necessary for a society to deal with its traumas; if not, they will come back to haunt you. When there are skeletons in the cupboard, you can close the cupboard but they will still be there,” he added. “I think there will never be a real new beginning as long as they haven’t really looked into the agonies of past. In Indonesia, it’s also necessary.”

Erwin Schweisshelm from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung noted that the organisation’s office in Jakarta, which was established in 1967, was itself implicated in the problem as a Cold War player. When Schweisshelm took up his post in Jakarta, he went back to the early office archives and found clear evidence that the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung staff of the time had full knowledge of the events of 1965–66, fully supported the Suharto regime and did not raise the issue of human rights violations.

The decision to place the conference and public discussions in a Cold War context was a key to its success. Two of the formateurs of the conference, Bernd Schaefer from the Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Baskara Wardaya from Sanata Dharma University, set the and domestic scenes with a review of the Cold War in the late 1950s and 1960s and its saturation of the politics of Indonesia. Other papers by Brad Simpson (following on from his book Economists With Guns), Ragna Boden and Jovan Cavoski dealt with the relationships of the United States, the Soviet Union and China with Indonesia up to 1966. Schaefer and Boden also elaborated on the consequences for Indonesia, and the PKI (Communist Party of Indonesia), of the competitive manoeuvring of the two Germanies.

Memory was a recurring theme for a number of speakers at the conference. Heinz Schutte and I examined the press coverage of the 1965–66 period in France and Australia respectively, finding remarkably similar patterns. As Schutte concluded:

Reading through the articles and reports for several weeks in the French national library, one may easily give in to their almost narcotic suggestion. This is even true for the contributions of L’Humanité [the communist daily], which does not undertake a critical analysis of the material at hand but keeps operating with its habitual linguistic stereotypes, fitting the Indonesian events into the preordained ideological framework. The automatic solidarity of the Cold War determined “viewpoint” guided the perception of reality. From the bourgeois press one must therefore conclude that Indonesians are different from Europeans, that the regime under Sukarno was a grotesque dictatorship, that Suharto would set things right and that the monstrous massacre whose victims were anyway more or less resigned to accept the inevitable, i.e. to cleanse society and to build a better future, need to be accepted, albeit to our regret – the unavoidable collateral damage in pursuit of an ultimately good cause.

In a keynote address, John Roosa set the analytical and moral puzzle in the context of the “social non-memory” of the killings, asking why the consequence of the 1 October events was mass violence. Echoing Brad Simpson’s conclusion from US archival research, Roosa emphasised the anxiety on the part of American officials in October 1965 that the Indonesian army would settle for punishing only those directly involved in the 30th September Movement, and that Sukarno would be allowed to recover his political balance. The PKI, US officials decided, had to be eradicated, root and branch. As Roosa put it, “The commonly heard line in Indonesia about the time being one of ‘either kill or be killed’ hardly explains why the general pattern of the killings was the secret execution of detainees, nearly all of whom were noncombatants before their incarceration.”

Why is our knowledge of the killings so poor? asked Roosa. In part, the answer is that “the killings were designed so that they would not be narrated; they constituted an event that cancelled out its own facticity”:

The unchivalrous, shameful nature of the killing in 1965–66 partly explains why the perpetrators have been so quiet and have not proudly recited heroic narratives about battlefield exploits. The Suharto regime’s propaganda was silent on the killings, pretending as if they had never happened. While the “crushing” of the PKI was glorified in the abstract, the specifics of the violence were left unstated.

The mechanics of the mass murder, and the labour involved, have remained intentionally vague. More than a decade after the end of Suharto’s New Order there has still been no thorough examination of any of what must have been hundreds of separate massacres. The complexities and enduring conundrums of explaining the 30th September Movement – Roosa’s theme in his forensic classic Pretext for Mass Murder – still function as a “grand distraction,” Roosa concluded, from the exploration of how the great killings were actually conducted. And reconciliation is hard even to begin if there is no clarity about who did what.

One of the features of the conference was searching and often passionate commentary – not only from the Indonesian designated commentators on each of the papers, such as Yosef Djakababa, Susanto Pudjomartono, Cornelius Purba, Natalia Subagio, George Aditjondro, Hilmar Farid and Arief Zulkifli, but also from members of the invited audience of academics, ex-political prisoners, journalists and activists, such as Putu Oka Sukanta and Suzie Sudarman. It quickly became clear that this was an extremely significant space for analytical, political and autobiographical statements from the audience – a measure of the persisting lack of social space in the wider society to work through the issues under discussion. To their credit, the conference organisers encouraged this added dimension of the collective work.

THE last night opened with a public forum, again to a packed audience, on “Indonesia in the Power Game of the Cold War,” which showed both the political advantage – and indeed necessity – of the conference’s Cold War theme, and some of its limitations. The Jesuit philosopher Franz-Magnis Suseno opened the discussion on a theme he had explored in the conference by reflecting on his own ambivalent responses to the coup and the killings as a young priest in Jogjakarta in 1965. To those who had been dismayed by Suseno’s memory of his young self welcoming the coup after the months or years of gathering threat, he was unequivocal about his perception then and now that the mass killings that followed were a great crime.

The poet and film-maker Putu Oka Sukanta spoke powerfully about one point in particular. He rejected the language of “victims” – he was, he insisted, not a victim of his decade of imprisonment, but a survivor. Retaining that sense of agency was important not just for Sukanta, but also for many other former prisoners who spoke at the forum and at the conference.

The last speaker was retired Major-General Sudrajat, former Indonesian ambassador to China and chairman of the lead and zinc mining company, Earth Fortune. Sudrajat, a former military spokesperson from the Wiranto era, was intelligent and reasonable, and like Wijoyo, attested through his words and his presence to the importance of reconciliation as a way forward. The Cold War, he argued, had made puppets out of Indonesians, and both sides had been caught in what he described as the “hegemony of the Cold War.”

Yet while Sudrajat’s genial ecumenicalism was welcome, coming after Suseno’s and Sukanta’s more personal and political explorations his theme amounted to an abjuring of responsibility and a conspicuous failure to examine the particular responsibility of the leadership of the institution he served for three decades. While it was remarkable to have former generals and former political prisoners on the same panel before an audience that included the widows of murdered generals and murdered communists, it was at this point that the limitations of the politically necessary framework of “Indonesia in the Cold War” most showed through.

Later that night, the final event at GoetheHaus was one of the most remarkable: a dance performance titled Tjap Merah (Red Stamp) choreographed by Vincentius Yosep Prihantoro Sadsuitubun (Yosep) and performed by eight women (Ajeng Soelaeman, Achadia Suci Deashinta, Shinta Maulita, Hernis Mayatari, Gina Fitriyani, Adinda Pratiwi, Imawati Sardjono and Diliani). The performance explored the different facets of actual and imaginary accounts of Gerwani, the PKI-aligned women’s organisation banned after the coup. One of the most successful aspects of the disinformation campaign accompanying the coup was the fabricated story of Gerwani women writhing orgiastically in dance at Lubang Buaya as the kidnapped army officers were tortured and killed and their bodies mutilated before being thrown into a well.

As with the opening speech by Lieutenant-General Agus Wijoyo and the personal statements of many in the audience, Sadsuitubun’s production grew from the myriad webs of personal and family connections with the events of 1965–66. On the night of 30 September 1965 the choreographer’s grandfather, Inspector Karel Sadsuitubun (K.S. Tubun), was part of a Police Mobile Brigade guard outside the Menteng house of Deputy Prime Minister Leimena. Attracted by the sound of shots coming from the nearby house of General Nasution, Sadsuitubun was killed in the firefight with the would-be kidnappers.

Dressed alike in red cotton, Yosep’s eight dancers hinted at the propaganda images of both sides of the conflict – the evil and erotic anima conveyed by the winners’ disinformation campaigns, and the heroic imagery of struggle beloved of communist propagandists. With subtle and measured inflections from Javanese dance, Tjap Merah moved beyond the propaganda to provide a triumph both for its artists and for the Goethe Institute.

The fact of the dance performance and the forum before a packed and again largely young audience, following on from the conference and the earlier events, was proof that a foreign cultural organisation could play a small but useful part in helping Indonesian society work through the dangerous silences of the repressed past.

The courage of the Goethe Institute and their co-convenors raises two sets of questions. Most obvious, and most important for Indonesia, is the question raised by Agus Wijoyo: does the present society have the capacity to work through the trauma of the past, with the painful exploration of the truth of what actually happened and who did what as the necessary prerequisite to reconciliation, or at least a quietening of the graves?

The second question follows from the German initiative. Can countries much closer to these events than Germany begin to face their own historical roles and the consequences for themselves and Indonesia? Given the evidently active and potent, if still murky, role of the United States, Britain and Australia in the events leading up to the great killings of 1965–66, can these countries’ cultural organisations in Indonesia follow the German example? Can they transcend their normally anaemic and sanitised offerings and collaborate with Indonesian intellectuals and artists to work through their part in creating and maintaining those still explosive silences? •

Richard Tanter is Senior Research Associate with the Nautilus Institute.

Photos courtesy Goethe Institute Indonesia

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