The year of killing with impunity (Massacres nearly half a century ago still haunt Indonesia)

image1AMONG those watching nervously as Tinseltown celebrates its Academy Awards on March 2nd will be Indonesia’s leaders. They will be hoping that, when it comes to the best documentary category, the Oscar does not go to “The Act of Killing”, a brilliant if deeply disturbing film about the slaughter in 1965-66 that accompanied the birth of the 32-year Suharto dictatorship. Of course, 16 years after the fall of Suharto, no one is suggesting the present government was complicit in the atrocities. But they cast Indonesia in a bad light at a time when it hopes to be cheered as a model emerging democracy. A spokesman for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono accused the film of “simplifying a dark, complicated period of history” and of being one-sided. More pertinently, perhaps, it highlights Indonesia’s own failure even now fully to confront events still shrouded in mystery, ignorance and fear.

The film, directed by an American, Joshua Oppenheimer, follows the now elderly members of 1960s death squads as they recall, re-enact and boast about the killing. Nobody knows how many died. Half a million is a common estimate. Some say many more. Of Asia’s modern killing fields, only Bangladesh and Cambodia compare in the scale of the carnage. In both those places flawed judicial processes at least raise questions about the horrors. Even in China the show-trial of the Gang of Four served to hold a few responsible for the many crimes committed in the Cultural Revolution. In Indonesia no one has been held to account.

The slaughter was a purge of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), accused of attempting a coup, providing the pretext for Suharto’s power-grab. At the time it was the third-largest communist party in the world. It and its ideology were eradicated. The West, watching Asian “dominoes” fall to communism, was largely silent as hundreds of thousands were killed or detained, and welcomed Suharto as an ally. Under Suharto the killings were taboo within Indonesia. History lessons in school skated over them; foreign books on them were banned; the families of victims and political detainees became, says Katharine McGregor of Melbourne University, Indonesia’s “untouchables”. People lived in what Mr Oppenheimer calls a “precarious coexistence” with their families’ murderers.

Any thirst for revenge was tempered by fear and a culture of silence. Take one of Mr Oppenheimer’s Indonesian collaborators (all of whom have remained anonymous for fear of reprisals). He was himself unaware until getting involved with the film of how the terror had affected his own family. The boyfriend of a mysteriously unmarried aunt had disappeared for ever in 1965. A great-uncle had been a PKI member as a student. In 1965 he burned his student card and anything that linked him to this subversive past, including half his books. The man’s own father, a journalist, was tormented by guilt that he did not do enough to protect his leftist friends and in the 1970s sought redemption, helping launch a newspaper that exposed later mass killings. (more…)