The recent cancellation of all events at the Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival directly related to 1965 felt like a throwback to the days of Soeharto’s New Order iron-fisted rule. The alleged communist coup attempt on the 30th of September 50 years ago, in which seven high ranking military officers were murdered, unleashed a horrific, near-incomprehensible backlash that resulted in the massacre of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. Millions more ended up being incarcerated due to being “implicated in the communist coup” or having their lives ruined by simple association with those allegedly implicated.
The festival is the biggest of its kind in Indonesia and has a significant international following. Initially official concern was focused on the scheduled showing of Joshua Oppenheimer’s film The Look of Silence, which hasn’t received the Indonesian film censor board’s approval. However the alarm bells at the regional level were set off, and the fire spread to all sessions connected to the events of ‘65. After a week’s deliberation the verdict came down. Clearly the cancellation, ostensibly deliberated on and executed by a sub-provincial joint task force, received at the very least a nod – if not encouragement – from those up on high. The message seems not only for Indonesians to toe the line, but to remind the outside world that this is an Indonesian affair, and that our government will not bow to outside pressure.
This censorship is seen by many as an ongoing attempt to bury the past by those who have vested interests in doing so, including those who argue that we shouldn’t “rouse the sleeping tiger” by reopening old wounds. The mantra they chant is that we should “simply move on”. Bitterly opposed to this is a minority who feel that the government should acknowledge and atone for the horrors that supposed communists and their families suffered during and after ‘65. But of greater concern is what this means for the future: that an unresolved matter of such gravity and significance should be so vehemently suppressed bodes ill for the future of Indonesia.
Seventeen years of change and growing freedom of expression have intervened since Soeharto’s fall. ’65 is no longer as taboo a subject as before. Yet limits to government and military tolerance to open discussion of the events of ’65 remain firmly in place. Earlier this year, President Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) was rumored to be planning an official apology to all victims on both sides of the violence on the 30th of September. Then shortly before the actual date more rumors, quite possibly intentionally fabricated, swirled through social media that the president was set to simply “apologize to the communists”. Whether intentional or not, it raised hackles.
Eventually on the 30th, when questioned, Jokowi made a brief, cold, and pointed public statement saying that he had no intention of offering apologies to anyone regarding ’65. That he only made this statement then and not during the weeks beforehand gave rise to much speculation. But more significantly, the fact that such rumors, true or false, could get such traction in printed and social media seems a hangover from the New Order era during which most news was to be read “between the lines”.
Proponents on both sides of this smoldering issue in Indonesia’s political psyche put forward starkly contrasting arguments. Both sides reference the past. One side is emboldened by decades of exercising heavy handed control with little censure, the other hardened by the frustration of suffering brutal repression and restriction. A journalist friend tells of seeing a billboard erected recently near the regional military command in Denpasar urging the public to “be wary of KGB”, an ironic acronym for Komunis Gaya Baru or ‘new style communists’. Reports came in from Malang recently that the Pemuda Pancasila (a youth organization deeply implicated in the 1965 affair) had posted banners with similar messages. Under these conditions even “simply moving on” seems unlikely.
What these conditions do ensure is that the status quo will continue. The reality is that the 1965 affair is far more nuanced and complicated in its origins and its outflows. To explain the complexities of the bitter rivalries between the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI, third largest in the world at the time), and the military and Islamic organizations combined would take too much space here. The involvement of Cold War superpowers (and their notoriously devious intelligence agencies) was also a hugely important factor. Suffice it to say that Indonesia in the mid ‘60s was a tinder box doused in gasoline, waiting for whoever was devious enough to spark it.
It is also important to note that prior to ’65 there was a sustained spate of extreme provocation from the Left, who were jockeying for controlling power over the archipelago. We can even see it in the context of literature – given that this all unfolded in the lead-up to UWRF. Take the case of internationally renowned author Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Pramoedya was internationally lionized for his courage and tenacity during his cruel incarceration in Soeharto’s gulag, for his commitment to telling the stories of the suppressed. Yet Pramoedya in his day was deeply implicated in the intimidation of Indonesian literati through LEKRA (The People’s Cultural Institution) which wielded tremendous power and of which he was prominent figure. One Indonesian writer even recalls Pramoedya wearing a pistol on his hip. Not a few writers suffered repression and even incarceration during LEKRA’s heyday.
But none of that in any conceivable way justifies the barbaric, bloody violence of what followed after that fateful night. It is important for us as a nation to have open dialogue: not to condemn or punish or blame but to really understand how it happened. To forgive and to learn. No venue for such a dialogue could be better than a literary festival. That executive members of the government, even the police and ultimately the military can make a judgment on a cultural process of this kind ironically smacks of the draconian order of things in actual communist states like the PRC. And the other irony is, as author Diana Darling pointed out in social media, that the discussion is not even about communism, it’s about human rights.
Again, it is vital for us as a nation to have open dialogue. To argue that it is better to leave it alone, that we now have peace, is to ignore the ongoing political impunity and violence that mark our days. If you massacred hundreds of thousands of people fifty years ago and it is still somehow considered justified, you can certainly get people to run riot through Chinatown pillaging and raping and not get arrested, and you can watch as they burn churches as they wish and expect to get away with it.
What is happening is not just throwing a blanket over the past, it is also the passing on of the relay baton of intimidation to the next generation. As Michael Vatikiotis points out in his excellent essay on the issue, it’s “fear of social change in a society plagued by inequality”. If this continues we may as well scrap all pretense of democracy and just get on with tyranny.
We need to move forward from paranoid, mindless fear-mongering on to admitting the many nuances of the situation, the provocations and the manipulations that sparked the mob rampage. We need to learn from that how to avoid repeating such horrific episodes again. We need to admit that such provocation and brutality will eventually destroy us as a nation. We desperately need to move beyond sloganized polarization and get back to being a functional, pluralistic society that actually heeds its constitution.
lead photo from The Look of Silence