1965’s shadow over Indonesia: Not enough truth nor action

Photo: Théo Paul/CC BY 2.0

By Holly Reeves

“Many people think of reconciliation as, ‘Please, forgive us for what has happened in the past’. But actually, the word ‘reconciliation’ should come from the victims,” said Ilham Aidit, a 1965 survivor and son of the late Communist Party (PKI) leader D.N. Aidit.

The shadow wrought by the deaths of half a million people sits long over Indonesia this month. Long suppressed, unspoken, and long buried, the massacre of 1965 is rising to haunt an unapologetic Indonesian administration.

On the surface, chinks of truth are shining through the dark curtain of history. A forum just held in Jakarta marks the first time an Indonesian government has participated in a national-level discussion about one of Southeast Asia’s worst episodes of violence in recent memory. But activists question the lack of apology, lack of prosecutions and lack of fundamental truth.

“This conference is a far cry from what the government should be doing, which is following through with legal processes to address the human rights abuses of 1965,” said Haris Azhar of the Commission for Missing Persons, one of several prominent activists who boycotted the two-day event.

No apology

Their grievance can be traced to a comment by Chief Security Minister Luhut Pandjaitan, “Don’t even think that the government will apologise for this and that,” he rallies. “We know what we are doing, that is best for this nation.” No apology, no legal process, no reconciliation, say survivors.

As Ilham put it, proper reconciliation should be based on a revelation of the truth both from the perpetrators’ side and the victims’ side. This could then be passed onto future generations.

But what is the truth? In the course of five months from late 1965 to early 1966, anti-communist Indonesians killed about half a million of their fellow citizens following an abortive army coup.

Some say that even this may be an underestimation, claiming millions were purged in the bloodshed. Many of these ethnic Chinese were targeted because of their links to Beijing.

Nearly all the victims were associated with Indonesia’s left, especially the PKI that had risen to unprecedented national prominence under President Sukarno’s programme of Guided Democracy. The massacres were often coordinated or carried out by anti-communist quarters of the Indonesian army, although they also engaged wider elements of Indonesian society in their purge.

What about America?

And it is not just Indonesia’s leaders that need to stand up and reveal their truths. The role of the US is these events remains shrouded in secrecy. At the time, the US viewed Indonesia as an important player in its attempts to limit the influence of China and Russia. It is alleged the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) provided lists of Communist sympathisers to the army, fuelling the purge.

“We want to know the working level involvement between the US government and the killers in 1965,” said Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth. “Who knew what, and what were the channels of communication? Were names conveyed by the US government and, if so, what happened to those people?”

Indonesia’s human rights commission last month asked the USA to declassify its files and this request is being reviewed. President Barack Obama has a record for releasing this type of information for the greater good, but does Indonesia want to hear it?

“Some are not eager for a truth-telling process to go forward,” adds Roth. “This is where civil society has a role to play. The more the press clamors for a truth-telling process, the more civil society joins in, the more that President Joko Widodo will have the political backing needed to overcome this resistance and to move forward both in telling the truth here in Indonesia.”

Ceremony, or true progress on reconciliation?

The symposium was organised by Indonesia’s human rights commission with the involvement of one of President Widodo’s advisers. Also attending were former military generals, academics, human rights activists, victims, and families of victims from various provinces of Indonesia.

Although clearly important, it was a controversial event. The government claims that this exercise is part of its commitment to resolving past human rights abuses. Human rights groups say it is merely a ceremonial effort.

The question of an apology is a core element in reconciling Indonesia’s dark history, explained the coordinator of the International People’s Tribunal 1965 organising committee, Nursyahbani Katjasungkana.

“The state should acknowledge that victims were innocent via an official apology by the Indonesian president. This can be carried out following Indonesia’s law on Amnesty and Rehabilitation,” she explains. But this has already been ruled out by the government.

Among her other recommendations are that “the number of victims of the massacres must be determined. A nationwide effort is required to investigate and document the identities of those murdered or disappeared.”

She added, “The Indonesian attorney-general’s office must […] take appropriate steps to prosecute cases for which sufficient proof can be found. Prosecution can start quickly for well-documented cases, such as the concentration camps on Buru island.”

“Offenders to acknowledge that they engaged in crimes against humanity. Victims may grant forgiveness for the crimes perpetrated against them and/or their family members.”

“Relevant places such as mass graves should be memorialised. The government should establish a national-level memorialisation.”

Her final point – “These actions must be seen in combination with each other. Even if not all measures can be taken up immediately, it is not sufficient to select just one or two items.”

There are parallels for successful reconciliation processes in Southeast Asia. Both Cambodia and Vietnam have exercised the demons of their past with lengthy and painful discussions. And for both the survivors, and reluctant governments, a similar long road to truth must begin with a single step.