A collective memoir documents the experiences of 15 men and women during the 1965-66 anti-Communist purges in Indonesia that left half a million people dead.

Dancers acted out the gathering of rice as a solitary voice intoned a harvest song. Members of the audience joined in; most knew the words.

Then women in military uniforms stormed the stage and “assaulted” the dancers, while a man dressed as a woman rapped. In the end, bodies lay about inert, and a sober audience applauded.

The performance celebrated the release of Breaking the Silence, a collective memoir of 15 men and women who experienced the anti-Communist purges in 1965-66, which left at least 500,000 people dead and ushered in the 32-year rule of President Suharto and his “New Order.”

It is one of the darkest periods in modern Indonesian history, and the least discussed, until now. The new book is part of an emerging examination of a long-suppressed subject. In November, Sang Penari, a film that depicts a love story in that tumultuous time, was released. A weekly news magazine, Tempo, recently ran a special report on an army commander who had spearheaded efforts to wipe out the Indonesian Communist Party, known as the PKI for its initials in Indonesian. The purges have been the focus of academic seminars, personal memoirs and even puppet shows.

Looking for stronger evidence

This week, members of the Indonesian human rights commission, known as Komnas HAM, met with dozens of survivors to discuss a continuing investigation. The commission's vice chairman, Nur Kholis, said that the panel had collected testimonies from 350 people who had suffered abuses but that it was struggling to find stronger evidence, in the form of documents and photographs, before submitting a report to the attorney general.

For decades, the period was shrouded in what Geoffrey Robinson, a historian at the University of California, Los Angeles, calls “enforced silence”.

It began with a coup attempt against President Sukarno on Sept. 30, 1965, in which members of a group calling itself the Sept. 30 Movement, or G30S, killed six top generals. Suharto, then a general, helped put down the putsch and took control of the army. He blamed Communists for the revolt and led a campaign to purge the country of party members and other leftists. In the months that followed, security forces, local militias and vigilantes hunted down and killed thousands of people.

Extensive censorship

After Suharto became President in 1967, censors routinely screened books, films and other media for mention of the killings, said Robinson, whose book The Dark Side of Paradise focussed on the post-coup massacres in Bali. A popular uprising helped oust Suharto in 1998, and slowly and unevenly the silence began to crack.

In 2004, the Education Ministry removed passages from textbooks that played down the killings, casting them as part of a patriotic campaign.

That did not last. In 2007, under pressure from the military and some leaders of Islamic-based parties in Parliament, the attorney general ordered the new books withdrawn for disturbing public order. In some places, they were publicly burned.

Ratna Hapsari, a high school teacher and the leader of the Indonesian History Teachers Association, continues to try to revise the country's curriculum, calling it “very restricted”.

More accounts surfaced. In 2006, the independent National Commission on Violence Against Women sponsored a documentary in which high school students videotaped interviews with survivors. There were scattered Indonesian screenings of 40 Years of Silence: An Indonesian Tragedy, a 2009 documentary by the U.S. anthropologist and filmmaker, Robert Lemelson, that examined the impact of the killings on four families in Central Java and Bali.

In 2010, the Constitutional Court struck down a law used to ban books about the coup on the grounds of their “potential to disturb public order”. Works can still be banned for being provocative or misleading and textbooks must still link the Sept. 30 Movement and the Communists but the repeal expanded the space for public discourse.

Ultimus, a small publisher based in Central Java Province, has released more than a dozen accounts by survivors.

“These books are something new,” said Baskara Wardaya, a co-founder of the Center for History and Political Ethics at Sanata Dharma University, which holds seminars, history-writing workshops and discussions to address past human rights abuses.

Usman Hamid, an adviser for the International Center for Transitional Justice, a legal aid group that has been collecting survivor testimonies, said that many senior military officers and former members of Islamic groups that were accused of participating in the killings resisted efforts to bring this part of Indonesian history into the spotlight.

The same holds true, Usman said, of some political parties that currently dominate Parliament, reflecting the influence still wielded by Golkar, the party founded by Suharto that has been part of the governing coalition since he was ousted.

There are obstacles on the survivors' side as well. Decades of persecution against anyone associated with the Communists is difficult to overcome, said Robinson, the historian. The ban on Communist organisations enacted in 1966 remains in effect. The Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence, or Kontras, recently produced a graphic report detailing the nearly two dozen statutes that still bar former political prisoners from employment in fields like education and the military.

Even so, more and more are speaking out. Putu Oka Sukanta, the editor of Breaking the Silence, was held for 10 years without trial for belonging to the Institute of People's Culture, a literary and social movement associated with the PKI. Now 72, he said that sharing accounts of the time, particularly with the young, was “an expression of fighting to become human again”.

Djoko Sri Moeljono, 73, was also among the hundreds of thousands of artists, academics and trade unionists jailed as leftists.

Arrested in 1965 for being a trade union member and a graduate of a Sukarno-supported metallurgy program in the Soviet Union, he spent six years in a labour camp and then was exiled to a remote island until 1978. He now shares his memories in discussions organised by universities and nongovernmental groups.

A fuller picture

Younger Indonesians now find themselves grappling with a fuller picture of a bloody history.

“We were taught that PKI was really something evil,” said Lely Cabe, 30, an Indonesian employed as a cultural officer at the Goethe Institute, the German cultural centre that celebrated the release of Breaking the Silence. “Now the younger generation is asking why.”

Taris Zakira Alam, 17, a great-niece of the painter Itji Tarmizi, who was accused of being a Communist sympathiser and spent much of his life in hiding, said it was important not only to discuss the purges, but also to make amends to the victims.

As members of the younger generation, “we have to fight for this”, she said. — New York Times News Service

Keywords: Suharto

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