Jakarta. Joshua Oppenheimer, the director of the award-winning documentary “The Act of Killing,” about the 1965-66 anti-communist purge in Indonesia, has struck again with his follow-up film “The Look of Silence,” which last week won the Grand Jury Prize at the prestigious Venice International Film Festival.
While “Killing” explored the still sensitive topic through the eyes of the perpetrators, “Silence,” which will be released on Nov. 28, does so from the perspective of the survivors.
Through the documentary, Oppenheimer and his anonymous team remind the audience that the crimes of that dark period remain unresolved, with little being done to bring clarity to the Indonesian people and closure for the victims.
“When the state doesn’t do its work, it’s time for expression to take over,” says Haris Azhar, coordinator of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence, or Kontras, a human rights advocacy group.
He says although the purge occurred decades ago, it still mattered, given that up to half a million people may have been killed in the military-sponsored pogrom against suspected members and sympathizers of the Indonesian Communist Party, or PKI.
“It might have happened a long time ago, but it’s big and we can still see the crumbs are still everywhere,” Haris says.
An oblivious society
In the documentary, the mother of a victim says there is no use in raising the issue now, and that the victims will get their revenge in the afterlife.
“I don’t want to remember it,” says Kemat, a survivor of a massacre in Dili Serdang, North Sumatra, in 1965.
“It’s already covered up. It’s up to God to punish those who hurt our family and friends.”
Forgetting — or in some cases forgiving — is not exclusive to those who were hurt, but also to the perpetrators.
“I don’t like deep questions,” says a former death squad leader in the film when asked about the massacre. “It’s over now.”
Another tries to make some sense of it.
“If we keep asking the same questions, it will happen again, sooner or later,” a former leader of a killing squad, who now holds a prominent position in a local legislature, says firmly.
Bonnie Triyana, a historian, admits that Indonesians are dismissive of the past.
“Ours is an oblivious society. For nearly 50 years nobody has ever taught us what really happened in 1965. Almost nobody knows that there were millions killed. They only know that some high-level generals were brutally murdered,” Bonnie says, referring to the alleged PKI abduction of the generals that sparked the purge.
“The brainwashing has been going on for so long and has influenced almost every political decision. The New Order felt the need for an enemy so that it could cling to power, when in fact it was not communism or the PKI that ruined the country — it was corruption and restrained democracy.”
Bonnie says talking about the tragedy is still important.
“Of course it’s important. Those saying that talking about the tragedy will only reopen old wounds are mostly the perpetrators. They’re afraid,” he says.
“It’s not about rebuilding communism, defending anyone, or reopening old wounds. It’s about justice. People were killed and the state sponsored it. They have wives, husbands and children. Where’s the justice? We need to push the discussion and call for action so that in the future people will not be as negligent and will respect other human beings and humanity.”
In 1984, the New Order released “ Penghianatan G305/PKI ” (“The Treason of the PKI’s Sept. 30 Movement”), a propaganda movie accusing the PKI of kidnapping and murdering seven generals as part of a coup attempt.
That story has long been debunked as a cover for the military’s own successful coup against then-president Sukarno, but the movie continues to color Indonesians’ perspective of the PKI, its supporters, and communism in general.
Patrya Pratama, a graduate of the London School of Economics, remembers watching the movie on state television every year until the third grade. He says it conditioned him to balk at the very thought of communism. Though he still objects to the ideology today, his reasons are more rational.
“I’ve never agreed with the PKI or communism in general,” Patrya says, “but the reason is different now. I used to hate them because of what the movie showed me and the New Order’s propaganda. Now that I’ve learned about what communism really is, I still dislike it, but with a whole different reason, not because the alleged atheism or cruelty.”
It’s still uncommon to talk about the tragedy, Patrya says. “Even now, people still think that discussing the 1965 tragedy means that you support communism.”
He says that as long as Indonesians reflexively reject communism without really understanding why, “it will be really hard for us to apologize for the massacre.”
For the survivors, just the recognition that they were never villains is enough.
“Unlike the perpetrators, we are not asking for our brothers fathers, mothers, relatives, victims to be made as heroes even though some of them deserve it,” Adi Rukun, a brother of one of the victims, says in a press statement for “Silence.”
“We just want the perspective [of us] as bad people as described in students’ history books to be stopped. We want the label of being a despicable group or traitors to be stopped.”
Bonnie says even this is unlikely, and doubts that education alone will suffice to reverse the decades of propaganda.
“It’s different from Munir’s case where people know about it but just neglect it,” he says, referring to the 2004 murder of human rights activist Munir Said Thalib.
“In the PKI case, people don’t even know about what really happened since they didn’t get the right version of history. Even now, when we try to tell them, they’re reluctant to accept it. They refuse the new information. The stigma has been there for years and it’s created a sense that those murders were reasonable and therefore not a crime.”
Achieving a real resolution — legal recognition, restitution, and even an institutional apology from the state — will be much more complicated, Bonnie says.
In November 2012, the Attorney General’s Office rejected a plea by the National Commission on Human Rights, or Komnas HAM, to launch an inquiry into the purge.
Komnas HAM’s report, which includes interviews with 349 eyewitnesses, declared the massacre a gross human rights violations, but stopped short of naming any perpetrators. That, the AGO argued, meant a formal investigation could not be done.
“We’ve done what we could,” Bonnie says. “There’s been a lot of research into it. Legally, the process was stopped abruptly. Now we only can hope for the political will to continue the case. We need recognition and it requires legal consequences. Just accepting that the did massacre happen isn’t enough.
“It’s a state matter,” Bonnie added. “It’s not attached solely to the government. The government changes every five years. This problem is bigger than that.”
Human rights law expert Frans H. Winata notes that any action by the government will require the formation of a truth and reconciliation commission.
“G30S/PKI, Talangsari, Tanjung Priok cases — none of the human rights abuses of the past can be solved if the government doesn’t want to form a commission of truth and reconciliation,” he says, adding that an attempt to do so by the late former president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid was halted by the military.
“The very first thing to do is to form the commission. Let them find the perpetrators, then we can pardon the mid-level ones and put the masterminds on trial. Without it, nothing will ever get resolved, especially when those who are involved are still lingering near the power holder.”
Even making an institutional apology is hardly plausible, Frans says. “Without the commission, it’s impossible for the president to announce an apology from the state. It’s like corruption — nothing would ever happen if there’s no KPK,” or Corruption Eradication Commission.
Optimism in the new generation
There were at least three elements of Indonesian society involved in the massacre: the military; grass-roots organizations such as Pemuda Ansor, Nahdlatul Ulama’s youth wing, and thugs-for-hire Pemuda Pancasila, as seen in “Killing”; and political parties, namely Golkar.
All three still wield enormous power in Indonesia. Activists and experts acknowledge the difficulty in revealing the truth because these forces will try to block any attempt to get to resolve the issue.
But there is optimism that the incoming administration of President-elect Joko Widodo will prompt an inquiry and reconciliation, given his lack of ties to the New Order.
There is also the factor of Joko’s patron, Megawati Soekarnoputri, who has for decades tried to exonerate her father, Sukarno, of New Order accusations that he sided with the PKI.
“Joko once promised that his government will conduct an ad-hoc trial for human rights violations,” Bonnie says. “I guess we can only wait and see.”
Haris of Kontras believes the optimism must be dialed back.
“Let’s not talk about optimism or pessimism. We’re now facing a time of political transition. Joko has to sit with his team to talk about human rights issues. Let’s not rush things,” he says.
In the mean time, civil society organizations are still pushing for reconciliation.
Victor Da Costa from the Indonesian Association of Families of Lost Persons, or IKOHI, says his CSO and others like Kontras are trying to get the government to show some political will to tackling the issue.
“Even after Komnas HAM’s recommendation was rejected, we’re still pushing the government through pressure and lobbying to make it a main agenda. We demand rehabilitation from the state and for the truth to be revealed,” he says. “Especially when we see that there has been no significant improvement in SBY’s term.”
Many have suggested that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will not and cannot do anything because his father-in-law, the late Gen. Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, was one of the generals who spearheaded the anti-PKI purge.
IKOHI is also trying to tackle the decades of propaganda through education. The organization holds regular discussions to set history straight and try to get rid of the stigma against the victims.
“We can’t explicitly change the curriculum, so we conduct discussions for youths, teachers and students. It may be limited, but we do it continuously, so hopefully it can set the record straight,” Victor says.
IKOHI says it aims for the younger generation, because trying to sway older Indonesians seems unlikely.
“For those aged above 60, it’s difficult. They have their own political and historical resistance. That’s why we hope the next generation, who will later fill the public space, will right the wrongs,” Victor says.
Bonnie shares the same sense of optimism about the next generation of Indonesians.
“I’m confident with today’s generation. They are open for this kind of discussion,” he says.