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Truth Will Out: Indonesian Accounts of the 1965 Mass Violence

Stories restore history, stories restore dignity


Ronnie Hatley1

Each new story brings us closer to a history that is more truthful. This is part­icularly so when these stories speak about a dark past, or about memories sensed as shameful and thus are stifled, ignored, cleansed or forgotten, includ­ing when we lie to ourselves. More stories are especially necessary to shed light on historical periods that have thus far been repressed or delib­er­­ately hidden. The collection of accounts in this book is important be­cause it provides both new perspectives not yet published, as well as personal experiences of survivors of the catastrophe of mass violence carried out against Indonesian people who were identified with the Indonesian Communist Party, following the military seizure of power on 1 October 1965.

Bright light of witness and testimony

The accounts in this book reinforce stories about the 1965 massacres in Indonesia which many people have already often heard. For instance, about the suffering the victims experienced; about the same methods of torture being used in emergency detention centres that sprung up across the country; about female detainees being stripped naked under the pretext of a search for a non-existent mark of political identity, only to be raped; or about forced labour, year after year, until death.

At the same time, this book also presents new information given by people who were witnesses at the time rather than victims, and who have been totally mute for the last five decades about what happened in 1965 and afterwards. About the terrible suffering experienced by victims and people at the grass roots; about a warehouse full of detainees who were taken out one by one at night to be ‘disappeared’; about bodies floating in the rivers; about schools forced to close because there were no teachers; about ricefields deserted because those who worked them had vanished; and so on.

Amid such stories of calamity there also emerges examples of moral dignity and humanity. For instance, stories of people prepared to protect people on the run; about the willingness to adopt children who suddenly became orphans; or about the courage in hiding people being hunted. Then there are the explanations by people who subsequently came to the realization that the victims of the 1965 violence were not only those who survived, but also every citizen of Indonesia, who in some way or another suffered loss, because it was a great national tragedy.

In this way, this book gives a new perspective to Indonesian history by inviting readers to see the 1965 tragedy not standing alone, but in the context of what happened before and after it; and not only from the viewpoint of survivors, but also from the viewpoint of witnesses from varied backgrounds. This shines a light to expose and reconnect those parts of Indonesian history that have to date appeared dark – or which have been deliberately kept in the dark.

Restoring peace

The bright light shone by the testimony in this book demonstrates the importance of efforts to unearth history through interviews with observers who are not direct victims. From them we obtain useful information to complement that from survivors. In this way, we can get a more complete picture about what went on at the time.

Even so, there is something even more important in this book than historical truth, namely the acknowledgement that the massive violence, human rights violations, suffering and social upheaval of 1965 actually happened. This acknowledgement is important because it is the first step necessary to move beyond denial and more towards healing the wounds of the past so there can be social reconciliation.

Whether true or false, history plays a large role in shaping our future. True history can be used for good. We can extend what is right and what works best, and we can work to repair and to limit – if not overcome – our failings. Falsified history only perpetuates the conflicts and violations it attempts to cover up. So with each truth unveiled regarding 1965 we have the opportunity to reshape our future. In this sense the truths and acknowledgements of this book also give us an idea of how far we have to go in recovering both our history and our future.

One way to understand the sufficiency of the truth of our history is to read books like this one, measuring its revelations against what still remains to be done to reconcile the social differences of 1965.

Shared future

In reviewing the work of dozens of truth and reconciliation commissions in dozens of countries, Audrey Chapman summarizes what she sees as the steps necessary to national reconciliation in societies divided by conflict and violence.2 Chapman argues that the initial understanding regarding national reconciliation is commitment to a shared future. That we all will participate in defining our future is what reconciliation is. She explains six requirements for reconciliation.

First, truth. Discernment of the truth about the dimensions, causes and perpetrators of the conflict, violence and abuses in the past. In order to involve more parties, she sees that this effort should preferably be facilitated by a body with official status.

Second, acknowledgement. What is meant here is the open and shared acknowledgement of injuries suffered and losses experienced (both people and wealth) in relation to the past event being discussed. According to Chapman, ‘it is one thing to know, it is yet a very different social phenomenon to acknowledge’. ‘Acknowledgment through hearing one another’s stories validates experience and feelings and represents the first step toward restoration of the person and the relationship.’

Third, ‘victims’ willingness to let go of the past and forbear from seeking vengeance.’ Just as ‘those who inflicted the harm and those who were complicit by their silence and failure to stop the wrongdoing’ need to show ‘acknowledgement of moral responsibility’ in order to restore their sense of person, so do survivors of abuse and violence need to ‘acknowledge the humanity of those who have committed the injury [which] may entail the communication of mercy and forgiveness.’

Fourth, justice. Justice is indispensible for reconciliation, but in this case what is meant is restorative justice, which seeks to repair injustice, to compensate for it, and to effect corrective changes in relationships and in future behaviour.

Fifth, restoring relationships between adversaries. Practical reconciliation requires a commitment to repairing and restoring relationships broken by conflict and violence. Recognition of contrition and forgiveness facilitates the restoration of relationships. Coexistence enables greater sharing.

Sixth, common future. All members of the community must explicitly establish the terms of a new and common future. Inclusion and equity are principles that support sustainable community.

Truth will out!

Refering to Chapman’s steps, it seems that this book is part of the drive for communal truth about the dimensions, causes and perpetrators of the conflict, violence and abuses of human rights that happened in Indonesia in the past, in this case in the 1965 tragedy. Indirectly, this book is also an attempt to provide opportunities for ‘acknowledgment’ and to process the experiences of those who at that time were witnesses but to date have chosen to be silent. As for the ‘person’ of the victims, the perpetrators and the witnesses, this book is part of the attempt to restore a sense of person to all those involved. It is an attempt to nguwongke3 them.

The survivors’ stories told in this book stress that almost all survivors have accepted their past, in the sense that they no longer regret their loss and suffering. And while all still question ‘What did I do that was wrong’, most no longer harbour revenge. But in all these (and more) stories by survivors about their experiences, we rarely read explicit expressions of forgiveness of those who victimized them. In relation to this, we must remember that forgiveness requires acknowledgement of wrongdoing. And in the case of the 1965 tragedy in Indonesia this kind of official acknowledgement – except for that of the late President Abdurrahman Wahid -- has not yet occurred.4 There is a general reluctance to acknowledge that the 1965 violence was an abuse of human rights, and to take responsibility for that abuse. This factor lies behind the absence of an explicit expression of forgiveness.

An essental requirement for national truth, justice and reconciliation about the abuses of 1965 is that the state must acknowledge and assume responsibility for them. The state must admit that it is responsible for the violence that it perpetrated. The 1965 abuse happened only because the state organized it and carried it out. And it will only be when the state acknowledges responsibility and facilitates remedy for its wrongdoing that repair and reconciliation will take place.

For instance, the outstanding report of the National Commission on Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan), Gender-based crimes against humanity (Jakarta: 2007) is perhaps the best summary of what is necessary to restore justice and restore victims’ rights.5 In Indonesia, reconciliation and restoration can only occur if the state wishes to involve itself in the process.

In this book, in the experiences of the survivors we hear that at the neighbourhood level many aspects of genuine reconciliation have long been practised. Across the nation it is the case that among neighbours and family, reception of survivors into full family and community life has been widespread. But we can see too from some of the stories in this book, that too many of the outcomes of the 1965 tragedy are not reconciliation. In fact, in many neighbourhoods, victims and perpetrators have been practising false or partial reconciliation for years and divided families have been only formally reconciled. Many renewed relationships are in no way true reconciliations, but instead represent a forced recognition of inequality of appropriation and loss wrought as the outcome of the political upheaval of 1965.

Thus this book also reminds us that we need many more stories. More stories of survivors are needed soon, because they soon will be gone. So we urgently need a concerted effort to collect these stories. The book also shows that apart from collecting stories of the survivors, we also need to collect stories from witnesses who followed what was going on and yet chose to remain silent. Whether or not those witnesses show sympathy with the victims, we still need to hear their voices.

The process of national reconciliation after the violence and the suffering of 1965 will be a long one. Americans are still in conflict regarding their Civil War of the 1860s; the caste conflicts of India are thousands of years old. And there will soon be no one from the 1965 generation still alive, so reconciliation will need to be carried on by their descendants. To discover and facilitate this process, the stories of the young will need to be told, collected and listened to. And of course the future will be shaped and recorded by this new generation.

Indeed, the questions that the young scholars and human rights activists who collected the stories for this book asked their elders, provide the model for hastening the reconciliation of 1965.

While the greatest respect must be extended to those who suffered and yet were brave enough to speak in this continuing climate of enforced silence, we must also thank those who have long been silenced but speak now in this book, and we must especially thank the young compilers for their example. For it is by questioning our elders that the secrets of the past will be known in order to gain future reconciliation. Truth will out!

1 Ronnie Hatley is a academic consultant at PUSdEP who feels fortunate to have three homes: the United States, Indonesia and Australia.

2 See Audrey Chapman, ‘Conceptions of National or Political Reconciliation’ in Raymond G. Helmick, S.J. and Rodney L Petersen, Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Religion, Public Policy and Conflict Transformation, 2001, pp. 257–277. This section quotes pp. 266–267. We should note that in all the states she discusses the primary perpetrator of violence was the state, as also was the case in Indonesia in 1965.

3 Nguwongke is a Javanese words meaning to view or treat someone as a person, or in a humane way.

4 Another exception is the effort by many young members of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) together with the survivor support and advocacy group ‘Syarikat Indonesia’ to bring about reconciliation at a grass roots level in their communities.

5 The recommendations of the Commission include: ‘The Government adopt the decision of the United Nations General Assembly of December 2005 regarding “Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law” as the foundation for a national reparations program for victims of the 1965 tragedy. In this program, the concept of reparations would include the right to restitution, namely to restore the victim to her condition before the violation occurred, including the restoration of liberty, fundamental human rights, identity, family life, citizenship, residence, work, and possessions; compensation for economic damages proportionate to the violation suffered; institutional reform to ensure non-recurrence of violations; and satisfaction that includes cessation of violations, admission of the truth, the search for the whereabouts of the disappeared–including the exhumation of mass graves–an official declaration or judicial decision that restores the dignity of the victims, an official apology, sanctions against the perpetrators, and respect for the victims through commemorations and monuments.’ [p.186]

Truth Will Out: Indonesian Accounts of the 1965 Mass Violence

   by Dr. Baskara T. Wardaya SJ