Commentary | COUNTERPOINT

National trauma and the memory wars of Asia

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

It has been 15 years since 9/11, and America’s nightmare has metastasized beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. It is a bad dream that includes former President George W. Bush’s Iraq War debacle, which plunged the Middle East into its current turmoil. But America’s trauma pales when compared with the traumas it has subsequently inflicted. The seeds of blowback have been sown; a bitter harvest awaits the angry superpower.

In Asia, it’s also difficult to come to terms with national trauma. The scars linger and wounds fester in the collective and individual memories. Problematically, official discourse sanctions a selective remembering. Marginalized traumas linger beneath the surface, lurking between the lines of mainstream narratives, awaiting exhumation. These marginalized traumas are awkward for perpetrators, their vested interests and powerful protectors. For that reason they are downplayed, while more useful traumas are invoked to secure legitimacy, inspire or intimidate.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of China’s Cultural Revolution, a collective madness that cut a ruinous swath through society, ending lives and splitting families on the pretext of purging invented enemies. It followed the even more destructive Great Leap Forward (1958 -61) that triggered a famine killing more than 40 million people. Both pogroms came on Mao Zedong’s watch. The trail of blood left by these disasters implicates the Chinese Communist Party and its indifference toward the people it claims to represent.

These twin debacles remain marginalized traumas — the CCP prefers to dwell on a century of humiliation by imperial powers to justify a muscular foreign policy aimed at regaining regional hegemony. That history is more useful in stoking self-righteous nationalism and conjuring up solidarity while diverting attention from self-inflicted traumas. But these horrors are now being disinterred, intensifying contested memories. Museums are opened and then closed, angry memories are aired and then silenced, while citizens climb over the Great Internet Firewall to find out for themselves the damning information their government denies them.

Indonesia is also having troubles with its major trauma: the massacre of at least 500,000 people in 1965-66 that convulsed the archipelago. The official narrative downplays the number of deaths, and also shifts blame to the communist party, Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI), for launching a failed coup in September 1965. In this telling of the story, the military saved the day, mounting a countercoup led by Gen. Suharto, who subsequently became president. There are numerous holes in this story and it is now acknowledged that Muslim youth groups and right-wing paramilitary groups with the help of the military carried out a “red purge,” slaughtering suspected communists, labor activists and ethnic Chinese. Aside from the death toll, tens of thousands were imprisoned without trial while their relatives suffered from the associated stigma, often in continued proximity to the killers. Shame and fear kept many silent, but now their trauma is being voiced in films, articles and books.

In April, the government hosted a symposium about killings. Proceedings got off to a shaky start when the minister in charge opened by declaring that the government would never apologize. In a deft rebuke, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo instructed him to investigate recent reports about mass graves.

This fitful reckoning began in 2001 when former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid offered an apology to the victims and acknowledged that Nahdlatul Ulama, the religious organization and party he led, was involved in the killings. Since then there have been various investigations and commissions tasked with exhuming this gruesome past, but all have been derailed. The military has a vested interest in maintaining the orthodox narrative, which suggests it saved the nation, and doesn’t want its reputation spattered by inconvenient truths. But the new realties of a vibrant democracy generate pressures to contest and reconsider this whitewashing of the military’s key role in the extermination. A recent crackdown on “communists” signals the military’s unhappiness with this turn of events.

After the symposium, the military countered by stoking anxieties about an illusory resurgence of communism. Jokowi reproached the top brass for detaining and harassing activists on the pretext of their communist sympathies. Subsequently, the military announced plans to train a civilian defense corps, ostensibly to protect against communists, religious extremists and gays. Gays … really?

Parties that have explicit religious agendas have not done well in Indonesian elections, but that hasn’t stopped small groups from imposing their prejudices, advocating criminalization of behavior that has long been tolerated. It’s hard to imagine that Indonesia is suddenly becoming intolerant of sexual diversity and cracking down on the LGBT community, but such is the whirlpool of identity politics where genocide apologists, red-baiters and gay-bashers find common cause.

National Resilience Institute governor and retired Lt. Gen. Agus Widjojo, son of one of the six generals killed by the PKI in 1965, thinks it is time to probe the military’s role, earning him the ire of former colleagues. Owing to his role in the reformist movement in the 1990s that lead to the military’s withdrawal from politics, he enjoys considerable moral stature in Indonesia. But it’s not only Indonesians who think it is time for a forthright reckoning.

In The Hague in July, the International People’s Tribunal 1965 (IPT 1965) found Indonesia guilty of crimes against humanity and that the army and affiliated groups were guilty of genocide. The IPT 1965 also endorsed the findings and recommendations of two major domestic inquiries into the killings that call for reconciliation and justice based on criminal investigations into the bloodbath.

Finding the truth is required to rehabilitate surviving victims and their relatives, and puncture the cocoon of impunity enjoyed by perpetrators. It is time for Indonesia to excavate the buried truths and embrace a remembrance that restores dignity to the nation and its victims.

When will America do the same?

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.