A. Lin Neumann
We hear a lot about the greatness that is just around the corner for Indonesia, and much of it rings true. There is a palpable sense of becoming in the air, as if the country has woken up from a long slumber and is finally finding its way. “There is just a bit more swagger in our step,” one wealthy young businessman told me recently.
Much of this, of course, is simple economics —a huge domestic market with sufficient buying power insulates the country somewhat from the shocks that are battering Europe, the United States and parts of Asia.
But there is more to greatness than rising GDP and tall buildings. Part of any nation’s greatness is surely the ability to come to grips with its own history. By this measure, Indonesia’s official blindness over the events of 1965 and other dark chapters of abuse have fallen far short.
That has now changed. This week, the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) declared after a four-year investigation that the persecution and murders of alleged Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) members after the failed 1965 coup was a gross human rights violation. The body noted incidents of murder, slavery, forced eviction, torture, rape and other abuses committed by the military in the name of fighting communism.
The commission shied away from naming names — they are easy enough to find in history books, most of them written abroad — but it did say that military officers from the time should stand trial, if any of them are still alive. The agency at the center of the killings, the commission concluded, was the shadowy Operational Command for the Restoration of Security and Order (Kopkamtib), which Suharto himself commanded from 1965 to 1967 and used as a vehicle for his rise to power.
The details of the supposed communist “coup” attempt that led to the ouster of President Sukarno and the ensuing violence that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who were accused of being leftists were covered up for decades, despite the horrors of the brutality.
In a 1978 article in the New York Review of Books regarding 1965, Cornell University scholars Benedict Anderson and Ruth McVey cite an internal report made by the US Central Intelligence Agency on the events that swept over Indonesia that year.
“In terms of the numbers killed, the anti-PKI massacres in Indonesia rank as one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century, along with the Soviet purges of the 1930s, the Nazi mass murders during the Second World War, and the Maoist bloodbath of the early 1950s,” the CIA report concluded. “In this regard, the Indonesian coup is certainly one of the most significant events of the 20th century, far more significant than many other events that have received much more publicity.”
Despite the facts, about all that most people here seem to have been told is that Sukarno was followed by Gen. Suharto and the New Order regime, and the whole thing was kind of messy.
In ordering the Attorney General’s Office to follow up on the commission’s conclusions, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono set the legal process in motion and made good on his own belief in reconciliation. In citing the need for a “just, factual, smart and constructive settlement,” Yudhoyono noted the experiences of South Africa, Cambodia and other countries that have had to contend with a dark and violent legacy.
Indonesia is no longer the perilous place it was for the first five decades after independence. Government power now changes hands peacefully and democratically. The many problems the country faces are discussed openly in the media.
Coming to grips with history can be unsettling. But during a time when Indonesia is finally coming into its own, the country should deal with the horrors of 1965 — and other chapters of abuse.
The Komnas HAM report could spur the kind of national introspection that will deepen Indonesia’s understanding of itself. And out of that process, a measure of greatness might emerge.
A. Lin Neumann, founding editor of the Jakarta Globe, is the host of the “Insight Indonesia” talk show on BeritaSatu TV.