Disturbing the troubling silence
It must be galling for Indonesian historians to see outsiders like Canadian Geoffrey Robinson poaching in their paddock with splendid success.
Many locals fear to hunt themselves. If they beat the undergrowth too vigorously to flush out the events of 1965, they’re likely to be accused of fomenting strife or being painted as sympathisers of the still banned Communist Party.
Foreign academics face similar risks but are less vulnerable; if things get hot they just fly home to campus calm, while their Indonesian counterparts may face threats to their careers, their reputations, their persons even.
Such is the power of propaganda, wielded so effectively by second president General Soeharto, that Robinson spends space dissecting the techniques in The Killing Season.
Despots everywhere seeking to turn their image from persecutors to protectors will find this a textbook in rewriting history.
That was never the intention of the professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, but his research is so thorough the details are clear.
The first step is to gag the press and declare an emergency to by-pass the rule of law. The second to publish only one story which can’t be independently checked, the third to organize mass supporting rallies chanting one simple slogan.
Then determinably ram the lies hard in schools and the cowed media year after year till they’re considered an established truth and doubters damned as heretics.
In January 1966 American academics Benedict Anderson and Ruth McVey were among the first to question the army’s techniques and version of what happened on the night of 30 September 1965. Six generals and a lieutenant were murdered in Jakarta, allegedly in a Communist Party bid to seize control of the nation.
This was at the height of the Cold War. Australia and the US were still fighting in Vietnam in a failed bid to stop Communism sweeping south, so did the West engineer left-leaning founding President Soekarno’s fall and Soeharto’s takeover?
The Cornell University researchers were banned from Indonesia but their scholarship – later known as the Cornell Paper continued, alerting the world to the genocide that followed the attempted coup.
Robinson acknowledges his colleagues whose dogged pursuit of the truth has resulted in two separate versions of the past – the one accepted by most Indonesians and the absolutely different story understood by foreigners.
There’s no shortage of books published overseas about the coup, but none quite so engrossing as The Killing Season. Robinson writes that his interest began at Cornell in the 1980s:
‘I am still sickened and outraged –all the more so because the crimes committed have been all but forgotten and those responsible have not yet been brought to justice.’
Why? Because some of the guilty are still alive and their families hold such powerful positions in society that they can continue to prevent justice from being served.
But they can’t stop people like Robinson speaking out and his writings getting into the Republic. Now they can be read by the new generation, better educated than their parents, less likely to uncritically swallow the government’s line.
This has always been that the killings of an estimated 500,000 real or imagined Communists, which followed the alleged coup, were spontaneous reactions by outraged peasants who hated the godless Marxists.
This story has now been well buried by Robinson and others – like Australian Dr Jess Melvin – who state categorically that the slaughter was carefully organized by the army.
This was done through a secret police group called Kopkamtib (Komando Operasi Pemulihan Keamanan dan Ketertiban - Operational Command for the Restoration of Security and Order.)
The men swinging the machetes and firing the rifles supplied by Kopkamtib weren’t just pious Muslims – Christians were also involved.
Robinson reports an account of a meeting in Flores, a largely Catholic island, where the army officers distributed names of people to be ‘secured’. He quotes an anonymous source:
‘(This) was the moment that Catholic leaders started losing their grip, or to put it more strongly, they had already abandoned Catholic principles.’
In Jakarta a Jesuit Dutchman Joop Beek, who may well have been a CIA spy, organised Catholic Action students to stamp out Communism, which they did with great fervor.
The killings are often described as ‘executions’, which sounds swift, legal even. But many prisoners were viciously tortured, with women being mutilated and raped. How could such things happen in a culture of respect and conservative values?
Some participants look back with guilt and regret; others justify their actions by saying the times were so turbulent issues were black and white – for us or against us. The army had created an environment dense with hate.
Survivors were sent to forced labor camps, like remote Buru Island. Here the writer and Nobel Prize nominee Pramoedya Ananta Toer was held for 13 years along with 12,000 others, mainly intellectuals and creatives.
Robinson, who was formerly with Amnesty International, calls Buru a ‘concentration camp’ and ‘penal colony’. The New York Times label was ‘Soeharto’s Gulag.’ The government’s terms are ‘resettlement project’ for ‘political rehabilitation.’ The prisoners were never charged, and after release were watched and restricted.
Robinson has listed the many individuals and organizations moving Indonesia towards reconciliation. But other forces have been pushing back arguing that the past should be forgotten. This is ironical when every year the nation remembers those killed by the Dutch, though not those murdered by fellow Indonesians.
For a while it seemed President Joko Widodo was inclined to side with the HR activists.
That hope slipped away with his 2016 appointment of Wiranto as coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs.
Robinson claims the former armed forces commander has said the 1965-66 violence was ‘legally justifiable’, which doesn’t mean it was morally right.
Wiranto cites no court decision to back his view; it means nothing to the victims’ families seeking recognition that the State systematically committed terrible wrongs on its citizens.
Though most will die before that happens, they’ll know writers like Robinson will keep the issue alive until the demands for truth get too loud to ignore.
The Killing Season, by Geoffrey Robinson Princeton University Press, 2018
First published in Asian Currents 18 February 2019; http://asaa.asn.au/disturbing-the-troubling-silence/