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.

Amid the turmoil surrounding Suharto’s downfall in 1998, many assumed that the veil of secrecy over the massacres would be lifted. At the time the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia’s greatest 20th-century novelist and a leftist prison-camp veteran, enjoyed a rare moment of optimism. Now that Suharto had gone, there was no reason the truth had to lie buried with the many dead. But Pramoedya would have been disappointed.

He himself headed a foundation that investigated the killings, exhuming some mass graves, for example. In 2000, a few months into his brief, chaotic presidency, Abdurrahman Wahid (who died in 2009) offered an apology to the victims of the violence, recognising the involvement of members of the huge Muslim social organisation he headed.

It was 12 years, however, before another apology came and it was a local one—from the mayor of the town of Palu on the island of Sulawesi, who had led the local wing of Pemuda Pancasila (PP), a loutish right-wing youth organisation that played a big role in 1965. Also in 2012 Indonesia’s human-rights commission published its own investigation into 1965. It concluded that the campaign, led by the army, amounted to a gross violation of human rights. It urged the government to prosecute perpetrators and compensate survivors, and the president to issue a formal apology. The report was largely ignored. The government rejected it, and hints that Mr Yudhoyono would make an apology for past abuses by the state came to nothing after the very suggestion prompted outraged protests from groups such as PP.

It was around that time that “The Act of Killing” began to be shown at festivals and, online or in small screenings, in Indonesia itself. In October 2012 Tempo, a current-affairs magazine, produced a special issue devoted to a nationwide investigation of the killings. It sold out. A number of books since have tackled the period, including “Pulang” (“Homecoming”), a prize-winning novel by Leila Chudori, a Tempo journalist. But none of this amounts to a national coming-to-terms with the past.

Still buried
That failure to confront the past is not just because it is too terrible. It is also because, for all the transformation of Indonesian politics, some aspects of 1965 still seem too close for comfort. President Yudhoyono, a former general, is the son-in-law of Sarwo Edhie Wibowo who, as head of the army’s special forces, was deeply implicated in the slaughter. The president’s party wants him to be awarded posthumous “national hero” status. The army has neither faced up to its past crimes nor lost influence; PP and other groups still engage in thuggish vigilantism.

Moreover, as “The Act of Killing” shows, the perpetrators of the massacres, though in some cases privately racked by guilt, still present themselves as heroes; and some of the families of the victims still live in fear. As one former killer in the film puts it: “War crimes are defined by the winners. And I am a winner.”