Lessons of history

As Joshua Oppenheimer's brilliant "The Act of Killing" has made its way around the world the past year or so, it has drawn to public attention the gruesomeness of the massacres of mid-1960s Indonesia. The depictions of the horrific ways in which street gangs were able to to lynch those suspected of leftist political leanings, those of Chinese heritage and anyone else with whom the thugs wished to settle scores presented in unflinching terms the terror of the early days of Suharto's New Order era.

Clearly the film is a damning indictment of that dark chapter in Indonesian history, in which a million or more people were killed. But it also serves as a savage condemnation of contemporary Indonesia and the warped values that have become entrenched in the popular consciousness.

Consider the fact that the perpetrators of the crimes in Oppenheimer's film can hold their heads high and be feted on TV talk shows as they recount their past actions, while the victims (and their families) speak only in hushed tones and in fear for their safety. The perpetrators are given political legitimacy, able to move in elite social circles, while the victims are rendered invisible. The dark shame that ought be felt by perpetrators of savagery has been transposed onto their victims.

How did it come to be? It part it shows the remarkable success of President Suharto's efforts to institutionalise his "victor's version" of Indonesian history. The henchmen who carried out Suharto's dirty work were welcomed into the political mainstream and presented as role models. And for decades generations of Indonesian school children each year were subjected to a graphically violent portrayal of the supposed crimes of Indonesian communists, a depiction that left the inescapable conclusion that those forces who opposed the communists ought be treated as heroes. Such an onslaught of propaganda left little room for empathy for the victims of violence.

Last month University of Hawaii political scientist Ehito Kimura was in Jakarta and delivered a fascinating presentation on the history of government apologies around the world for past misdeeds (think the 1988 American apology to people of Japanese heritage for internment during World War II, or Australia's 2008 apology to indigenous children removed from their parents). Kimura made the case that apologies have gathered momentum since the end of the Cold War, with the relaxing of political absolutes during that conflict allowing societies greater scope for introspection and reflection on their own history.

An apology carries considerable symbolic heft, giving victims the comfort of having their pain validated and helping them heal the psychological scars. But it also has practical impact, creating grounds for bringing the perpetrators of violence to justice through criminal proceedings.

Kimura's take on the Indonesian experience was rather dispiriting. Essentially, he showed how the shadow of Suharto loomed large over the legacy of his successors. Most presidents of the Reform Era have done little more than nod to the sins of the past and offered weasel words of consolation, while usually in the same breath talking up the threat posed by victims of the savagery. So successful has been the disparagement of left-leaning victims of violence that modern-day leaders are forced to imply some sort of moral equivalence between the perpetrators of violence and their victims.

Which leads to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who has shown little inclination to offer an apology to the victims of the 1965 violence and their families. Even further from materialising is any effort to bring to the court system the perpetrators of the 1965 violence, most of them now elderly but free. The president has been presented with a hefty report by the National Commission on Human Rights on the case against military perpetrators that urges prosecution, but has dithered rather than acted.

When frustrations at Suharto and his cronies reached boiling point in 1998, it again exhibited itself in bloodthirsty violence, again against Indonesia's ethnic Chinese population. Time and time again in the 15 years since, minority groups have been the victims of thuggish brutality as gangs of young men have felt free to wield violent power over those they oppose. Witness the violence against Christians in Ambon in the early 2000s, the assaults on the Ahmadiyah minority in Cikeusik in 2011, the attacks on the Shia minority in Madura last year and the ongoing campaign against people with liberal values by the Islamic Defenders Front. All carried out with brazen impunity.

Such brutality is not an aberration. Instead, it is a sign of the internalisation of the lessons of Indonesia's history. The events of the past 50 years have shown that brute force is an effective tool for silencing your opponent, and that your chances of getting away with it are high. Just as the gangsters were able to act with impunity in 1965 and emerge as heroes, modern day gangsters are willing to spill blood to terrorise others.

So while the battle against modern-day communal violence focuses on things like improved policing and fostering better intercultural relations, it should also look at the treatment of those involved in the 1965 brutality. An official apology, and efforts to try in court those perpetrators of violence still alive, would go a long way toward giving brutality the stigma it ought to carry. Only by bringing to justice the killers of decades ago will their modern counterparts realise that they will ultimately pay a price for their actions. While those thugs of history skylark in the streets of Medan like they do in "The Act of Killing", thugs of today will continue their campaign of terror.


Unknown said…
Insightful piece. Thank you. Do you think that in 30-40 yrs the Indonesian govt will be considering apologies to the Ambon Christians or the Madura Shia or other victims of more recent times? I can't imagine so. Leadership succession is created in its own image. Leopard. Spots. Am I being pessimistic?

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