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Indonesia 50 Years On, Still Black and White

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 2/11/2015 Rio Helmi

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 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 cancellations, ostensibly deliberated on and "suggested" to the festival committee 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.
Finally, despite the bans on sessions that were specifically focused on '65, none of the speakers who attended were intimidated. If anything the theme seeped into nearly every discussion about human rights or political repression. As veteran journalist Michael Vatikiotis who now works in conflict resolution put it in his summing up of this year's festival:

In the end, however, two things happened: there was plenty of discussion about the mass killings of 1965, and a great deal of healthy debate about the state of freedom in Indonesia.

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.
2015-11-02-1446470684-8754936-11885328_1052532614765505_728226539282043873_n.jpg © Provided by The Huffington Post 2015-11-02-1446470684-8754936-11885328_1052532614765505_728226539282043873_n.jpg Bringing down the flag at dusk on Indonesia's Independence day, via Rio Helmi
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.
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 underhanded 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.
For example, when discussing the victimization of those associated with communism, it is important to note that prior to '65 Indonesian Leftists were very aggressive in their jockeying for controlling power over the archipelago. We even saw this in the context of literature. 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 recalls that Pramoedya took to wearing a pistol on his hip. Not a few writers suffered repression during LEKRA's heyday. The fact that this is hardly ever discussed when talking about Pramoedya points to the lack of nuance in the whole conversation about '65. If we are going to talk about the conditions that allowed certain parties to manipulate the situation and perpetrate genocide, we need to acknowledge all the factors from all parties involved.
But none of these factors in any conceivable way justify the barbaric, bloody violence of what followed after that fateful night. It is important for Indonesia as a nation to have open dialogue: to really understand how it happened. To be accountable, 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 this week, that the discussion is not even about communism, it's about human rights.
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 and expect to get away with it. All of these things and more have happened since 1965. As Indonesian human rights activist Galuh Wandita pointed during one of her panels at the festival "We keep sweeping things under the carpet, but (now) we can't even sit on the carpet as it is so lumpy!"
What is happening is not just sweeping it all under the carpet, it is also passing on the relay baton of intimidation and impunity to the next generation. As Vatikiotis points out in another 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 Indonesians need to move forward from paranoid, mindless fear-mongering on to admitting the many nuances of the situation, and the deliberate 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.

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