The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, September 30, 2019


The national wound weeps still                                

Shakespeare knew what he was doing when he opened Macbeth with three witches on a blasted heath chanting enigmatic predictions.

So did the devil script-writer for the Lubang Buaya (Crocodile hole) fantasy when he set the ghoulish scene for the 1965 Indonesian coup, casting an orgy of dancing nudes castrating six murdered generals.

It’s the primeval male terror – sibylline women de-sexing potent men and destroying masculine power. The only fightback is demonization.  Fed to a prudish public the images are repulsive and compelling.  Even more so in Java where the supernatural lurks in every dark cranny.

Published post mortems revealed no violation of the generals’ genitals.  Lubang Buaya was a disused well used to dump the bodies, not the lair of leviathans.  But the lurid tale is too deeply buried in the nation’s psyche to be exhumed by facts.
If maliciously spreading fake news can be dubbed a success, the myth of the Communist Gerwani women mutilating the nation’s guardians has to be judged ‘one of the most effective propaganda campaigns in modern history’.
That’s according to Dutch sociologist (and ‘militant anthropologist’) Saskia Wieringa, and Indonesian feminist lawyer Nursyahbani Katjasungkana.
They estimate one million killed and another million imprisoned following the coup; the impact on a country then with around 100 million citizens meant hardly a family or neighborhood would have escaped untouched.
Propaganda and the Genocide in Indonesia: Imagined Evil is the latest in overseas publications in English focusing on the events of 30 September.  Both authors played major roles with the prosecution at the International People’s Tribunal (IPT) on 1965 Crimes against Humanity Indonesia, held in The Hague almost four years ago.
Their research led to a scrutiny of the state’s brainwashing of millions through a ‘campaign in which Communists were painted as atheist, hypersexual, amoral and intent to destroy the nation’.
In fact many so called Reds were deeply religious and most were dedicated nationalists.  However they wanted land reform and redistribution of wealth.  These mild ambitions were often enough to warrant death sentences.
The victims didn’t face trial. Their ‘crimes’ were by association. Moms who’d sent their children to a kindergarten run by someone with community concerns became suspect.
The IPT report concluded that ‘the State of Indonesia must be held responsible for mass killings, imprisonment, enslavement, torture, enforced disappearances and sexual violence.’  It also found the US, the UK and Australia were complicit.  However neither Indonesia nor the allegedly conniving countries were represented.

The Indonesian government loudly rejected the report’s conclusions, and all official moves towards openly confronting the past have slipped into silence. Even though the truth has been tipped into mass graves along with the victims, the bones keep clawing to the surface to haunt the present.

There are ironic parallels with the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Chinese authorities have also tried to smother knowledge of the Beijing slaughter of maybe thousands of pro-democracy citizens by the People’s Liberation Army.

Although dedicated to ‘the younger generations who grew up in a climate in which history was distorted and critical analysis made suspect,’ the chances of inquisitive teens finding this book aren’t good.  

It’s been published in Europe in academic English; the hard-copy costs more than Rp 2.2 million, the e-book version ‘from’ Rp 340,000.

This is a problem, because Imagined Evil collects and sifts the events leading up to the ‘coup’ and packages them well.  Having so much compact information is valuable for fact-hungry but time-starved readers.

It analyses the ‘why’ theories and the aftermath.  The 1965 violence was the worst of many berserk events in this nation’s short history, but it wasn’t a stand-alone, raising the embarrassing question:  Are Indonesians basically brutal?

In the absence of alternative texts on school library shelves, generations have grown up with just one version - the 1984 film The Betrayal of G30S/PKI, No chance of avoiding manufactured history – the kids had to watch this gruesome falsehood every year.

After the 1998 fall of President Soeharto there seemed hope for exposure and reconciliation. Fourth President Abdurrahman Wahid apologized for the mass killings and unsuccessfully tried to get the ban on Communism lifted.

Almost 20 years ago the Majelis Permusyawaratan Rakyat (People’s Consultative Assembly - MPR) proposed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That led to the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in 2000 as a restorative justice NGO dedicated to building ‘fair, democratic and inclusive societies’ but has yet to stir.

Genocide defenders argue that the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI) was a gang of traitors victimizing ‘innocent’ Muslims, who could only be saved by the heroic army.  And if the Reds hadn’t been purged they would have rooted-out anti-Communists.  It was kill – or be killed.

The authors have  detected similarities between events now and half-a-century earlier, concluding that resistance to reconciliation is driven by the military and radical Muslims arguing apologies will welcome back Communism. They write:

 ‘The lid should remain on the box – the truth must not be revealed. Shady political manoeuvres, corruption and the very real threat of Islamist terrorism have created an atmosphere in which the ghost of Communism has been revived and anti-communist conspiracy theories flourish.

‘A mixture of sexual slander, now directed at LGBT groups, and the bogeyman of the revival of Communism, has been concocted as a toxic potion to sway Islamic masses.’

The final chapter is the most worrying as it reveals hoax and hate campaigns are being foisted on army recruits and youth attending mosques:  ‘It is surprising how easy it is to conflate Communism with human rights, and it is a struggle to defend the pluralism and diversity that used to characterize Indonesia.’

Routledge, London, 2019
210 pages

First published in The Jakarta Post 30 September 2019

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