This year marks the 50th anniversary of Gestapu, the murky events in Indonesia that precipitated a massacre of several hundred thousand people in 1965-66 that constitutes one of the most murderous convulsions of the 20th century.
This national trauma remains unresolved within Indonesia as competing narratives sow confusion about what happened and blur responsibility. Even though the top-level officers involved have all died, the powerful military opposes a full accounting because it would inevitably tarnish the institution and undermine its credibility and self-appointed role as guardian of the nation. This is the unfinished business of President Suharto’s “New Order” (1967-1998).
The taboo on allocating and admitting responsibility was broken in 2000 when President Abdurrahman Wahid made a public apology to the victims, acknowledging that groups affiliated with the Islamic organization he headed, Nahdlatul Ulama, were involved in the massacres. However, much else remains shrouded in denial and mystery.
Last year’s election of President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, has raised hopes that Indonesia may begin pursuing justice for the numerous crimes and human rights abuses committed under Suharto when the military, assorted paramilitary groups and the police engaged in a reign of terror.
Candidate Jokowi promised to promote justice for past human rights violations, but has not delivered thus far. In May, the attorney general announced the establishment of a nonjudicial mechanism to look into past human rights violations and constitute a “reconciliation committee” representing victims’ families, civil society groups and relevant government agencies. The attorney general dashed hopes for accountability in stating that criminal investigations and prosecutions would not proceed in these cases due to a lack of evidence. But closing the door to prosecution is a recipe for perpetuating impunity. At the very least, the government owes the surviving relatives a full reckoning of what happened and that can only happen if it starts looking under the rocks and sees what crawls out.
This committee is empowered to look into seven cases of gross violations of human rights, including the massacres in 1965-66, the mysterious killing of alleged criminals in the 1980s, various killings and disappearances toward the end of Suharto’s rule and more recent abuses in Papua. These are all sensitive cases and tagging perpetrators remains risky and fraught with political ramifications. Indeed, Jokowi’s opponent in last year’s poll, Prabowo Subianto, has been implicated in some of the incidents under review. How far can the commission go in establishing the truth, and will Jokowi give it the political backing necessary to gather evidence? Can there be reconciliation without justice?
Time will tell if this is just an empty gesture, but there has been no better chance to find out what happened and who was responsible. And this is essential to heal festering wounds and restore dignity to those who have lost so much. It will require persistence and a willingness to corner powerful actors in the state security apparatus that rely on intimidation and violence to protect their secrets.
There have been other efforts to uncover the truth. For example, East Timor and Indonesia tried to overcome the scars inflicted during Indonesia’s prolonged occupation (1975-99) by establishing a bilateral Committee on Truth and Friendship (2005-09). President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2004-14) accepted the findings of gross violations of human rights, but it’s fair to say that the prolonged deliberations did not promote much reconciliation because the CTF met institutionalized resistance from the Indonesian military and raised expectations among East Timorese for justice and accountability that were not met. The East Timorese leadership chose not to pursue justice, and accepted an incomplete reckoning because it believed it was more important to develop a future-oriented relationship with its giant neighbor and saw more benefit from establishing trust and nurturing cooperation than in prosecuting perpetrators.
Elsewhere, in December 2013, Aceh’s government passed legislation calling for the establishment of the Aceh Truth and Reconciliation Commission to look into that region’s long insurgency, but it has yet to be established.
The national Parliament set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but it also never got off the ground after Yudhoyono failed to appoint members. Subsequently, in 2006, the Constitutional Court of Indonesia ruled the body unlawful. In 2012, the National Human Rights Commission concluded that crimes against humanity had occurred in 1965-66, and that the military command and certain officers bear individual responsibility, but there have been no prosecutions. The findings also implicated the security forces in extra-judicial killings during the 1980s. The commission urged that the perpetrators be prosecuted and that the president offer an apology and compensation to victims’ relatives, but none of this has happened.
In 2004, for the first time school textbooks mentioned the military’s involvement in the large-scale massacres of 1965-66, but the attorney general ordered them burned and restored the old version of the textbook that praised the “patriotic campaign.” Newer textbooks tend to be more critical of Suharto, but remain curiously vague about the grisly mass killings. The perpetrators are very briefly identified as Islamic religious groups and the armed forces, engaged in what are euphemistically referred to as acts of revenge and sweeping-up operations, but the vast scale of the massacres is not mentioned and the killings are not condemned as criminal acts. Although recent scholarship implicates the military in plotting a takeover and purge, the New Order narrative remains resilient: The army thwarted the communist coup and disbanded the communist party while the government prioritized improvement of living conditions.
The Oscar-nominated documentary “The Act of Killing” (2012) captures the mood of that bloody era and the unworried attitude of the killers and their absolute lack of remorse for the horrors they inflicted. Director Joshua Oppenheimer managed to convince some of the killers to re-enact their crimes and they appear very unselfconscious about doing so. It is a riveting depiction of the banality of evil. The murderers in the documentary joyously recall the atrocities they committed, explaining that as the winners they had nothing to apologize for — or worry about. Oppenheimer followed up with another documentary, “The Look of Silence” (2014), that focuses on a traumatized family finally confronting a man responsible for a relative’s death during the maelstrom. Both films enjoyed a wide viewership online in Indonesia.
The exhumation of this past continues as media investigations, books and novels about this trauma prove popular among Indonesians too young to have been eyewitnesses, but still interested in finding out what happened and why. It is a sign of the times as Indonesia struggles with this reckoning and continues its democratic transition, the new touchstone for national identity in the post-Suharto era.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.