The nomination and possible victory of Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” at today’s Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood will put immense pressure on Indonesia to confront and solve a dark part of its history, observers say.
The documentary, which has already picked up a raft of awards worldwide, shines a light on the purge of at leaf half a million suspected communists and their sympathizers by the Indonesian armed forces and state-backed death squads between 1965 and 1966.
The government’s own independent human rights watchdog issued a call in 2012 for a formal inquiry into the atrocity, but the government has balked, with senior officials reiterating the official line that the purge was ultimately good for the country and that the past should not be dug up.
“Indonesia will face a lot of pressure worldwide if the movie wins the Oscar, as billions of people across the globe will either watch it or read the news,” Bantarto Bandoro, a senior lecturer at the Indonesia Defense University, said on Sunday.
Aleksius Jemadu, dean of Pelita Harapan University’s School of Social and Political Sciences, said the government could no longer pretend that the atrocity would be forgotten by history.
“It’s time for Indonesia to admit to the acts, bring the offenders to justice and become a proud nation. The world is watching, and we have the chance to settle the case once and for all,” he said.
However, Bantarto said it was unlikely the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono would deal with the issue, with a new president set to be inaugurated in October.
“The current administration has over the last nine years had no apparent intention of dealing with the 1965 issue. Now they only have a few months left so it is unlikely they will do anything. It’s up to the new government to tackle it,” he said.
Yudhoyono himself is married to the daughter of the late Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, one of the military chiefs who led the purge. Sarwo’s son, Pramono Edhie Wibowo, is the likely presidential candidate from Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party.
Bantarto said that if Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo of the opposition Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) won the presidency, there was more likely to be a fresh and serious attempt to uncover the truth behind the atrocity.
The PDI-P is chaired by Megawati Soekarnoputri, the daughter of Sukarno, the president at the time of the purge, which was widely seen as being orchestrated by Suharto, then a military general, to topple him from power. Sukarno was later accused by Suharto of defending the alleged communists and jailed.
“Megawati will want to clear her father’s name and legacy,” Bantarto said. “If the PDI-P is in power then there’s reason to believe there will be a new investigation.”
But if the presidency goes to the Golkar Party’s Aburizal Bakrie or the Great Indonesia Movement Party’s (Gerindra) Prabowo Subianto — a former son-in-law of Suharto — then efforts to address the purge will face a dead end, Bantarta said.