Fifty years after the Indonesian military led a mass slaughter of people in an anti-communist purge, public debate about the massacre appears to be taboo.
A discussion and screening of the trailer of a film about a song linked to Indonesia’s defunct communist party were cancelled at the last minute at a university campus in Banyuwangi, East Java, this week. The former Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was blamed for a failed coup attempt in 1965, which unleashed the killings of more than 500,000 people by the army and its civilian death squads.
The cancellation took place after army and police officials met with officials of the University of 17 August 1945 in the stronghold of the old PKI.
“The decision was taken to avoid any potential harm caused by the event,” Mistawi, the dean of academic affairs at the University of 17 August 1945, told BenarNews.
A student historical society had organized Wednesday’s event around the trailer for film, titled “Half a Century of Gendjer-Gendjer,” exploring a folk song that was popular with PKI cadres and inspired by a water plant, Gendjer-Gendjer.
The public response was “terrific” after the trailer-screening event was advertised on social media the day before, said Ika Ningtyas, an independent researcher and former journalist who was supposed to be the keynote speaker at the event.
“Organizers got a call from intelligence [officials] to delete the announcement. I just obeyed the order,” said Ika, who spent a year conducting research into the song along with Yuda Kurniawan, a filmmaker who produced the trailer.
The song was written in 1943 in Osing, a language local to Banyuwangi, and its composer, Muhammad Arief, disappeared in October 1965.
The controversial song was allegedly used as a propaganda tool by the PKI. The song was inspired by a famine that struck parts of Indonesia under the Japanese occupation during World War II, when some Indonesians had resorted to eating Gendjer-Gendjer to survive.
East Java saw one of the biggest clampdowns of people suspected of being PKI members or sympathizers during the mass slaughter that gripped the archipelago in late 1965 and 1966.
Those suspected of even weak links to the Indonesian communist party were killed in the bloody campaign that started after General Suharto put down a coup on Oct. 1, 1965 blamed on PKI.
Suharto, who eventually took power from President Sukarno after the failed coup and ruled Indonesia with an iron fist for 32 years, died in 2008.
No apology from government
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who came to power promising accountability for past human rights violations, asserted this week that the Indonesian government would not apologize on behalf of the state to the family members of those who were killed.
The mass killings, which wiped out the PKI and its ranks of cadres, are known among Indonesians as the September 30th Movement (G30S).
“I hope the G30S/PKI [coup] will not happen again in our beloved country,” the Jakarta Post quoted Jokowi as saying Thursday after a ceremony at the Pancasila Sakti Monument in East Jakarta.
“I have no thoughts about apologizing, up until this moment I have had no such thought,” he told reporters.
Human rights group Amnesty International called for immediate accountability.
"Five decades is far too long to wait for justice for one of the worst mass killings of our era," said Papang Hidayat, Amnesty International's Indonesia researcher, in a statement.
"Across Indonesia, victims of the 1965 and 1966 events and their family members have been left to fend for themselves, while those suspected of criminal responsibility walk free."
Sukiman, who was among thousands imprisoned without a trial following the mass killings, said he and his relatives have since lived with the stigma of being associated with the country’s old communist party.
“My grandchildren are often bullied at school by their schoolmates. They called them grandchildren of PKI,” the resident of Blitar told BenarNews.
Sukiman hopes that a national reconciliation and rectification of the history that he and other victims have long been waiting for will occur in the near future.
A historian of State University of Malang, Prof. Hariyono said the government and involved parties needed to sit down and talk to clear the past.
“Let’s review the whole history,” he said.
If all sides are wise enough to review what had happened, they will easily find solutions over the ongoing dispute, he told BenarNews. The stigma haunting families of PKI members, which caused them to be excluded from society and go jobless, is inhumane, he said.
Fatkhul Khoir, coordinator of the Surabaya Regional Commission for The Disappeared and Victims of Violence (Kontras), suggested a court trial to begin the process of what he called history rectification.
“Just imagine, some of the victims are dead and still considered as suspects,” Fatkhul said.
KontraS has pushed the government to set up a special court to try cases of human rights violations.