It was sometime after Idul Fitri in mid-December 1965, when we were returning home by car from Malang, East Java, to Bandung in West Java, that we suddenly had to stop near a bridge in Central Java. And like everyone else we walked toward the bridge where the crowd stood. To everyone’s great shock, there were about 20 to 30 dead bodies floating in the river ‘ untouched.
There was, in retrospect, nothing special about it since the national media, in particular the army dailies of Angkatan Bersenjata and Berita Yudha, had, by then, already extensively and spiritedly reported the Army campaign to destroy the members and supporters of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).
What was most conspicuous, however, was that none of those villagers were talking to each other in public about what they had seen. Some whispered among themselves. I asked someone there about it, but received no reply. They just watched for a few seconds, then quickly moved and went away. No one dared to approach the corpses.
The villagers apparently understood that they were being exposed to the fatalities of the day, of the fate of their parents, sons, daughters, friends or fellow villagers, who were persecuted and killed simply because they were on the ‘wrong side’.
In other words, the corpses of those alleged communists or left wing activists and their families were to remain there to convey the unspoken message of the local authorities: stay put or be killed.
What happened in that village, of course, was just a microcosm of what had tragically engulfed the whole nation ‘ in particular Central and East Java, Bali, Aceh, North Sumatra and eastern Indonesia.
Today, a half-century later, we hear yet again the same message that preceded and accompanied the mass killings of the mid-1960s: either you kill them, or you’ll be killed if they win ‘ a stereotypical assertion that fallaciously assumes an ‘if-history’ to be real.
In 2003, at the height of the Aceh conflict in Pidie regency, media colleagues and I saw a corpse of a young Acehnese ustadz (preacher) from less than a meter’s distance. He was allegedly responsible for inciting local villagers to help the rebellion.
The dead man was tied to a small tree, his throat cut with fresh blood still visible, at a site easily seen by anyone passing the village. Similar to the 1965 scene, this body was also to remain there until it was found and removed, not by the authorities, but by the locals.
That public showing of corpses in 1965 in Central Java and of the dead preacher in 2003 in Pidie performed exactly the same function as that of a huge number of obsolete marine boats and amphibious vehicles that I saw on the shore in front of the government office in 1994 in Dili, East Timor, that had been there, abandoned since the 1975 invasion.
They all showcase methods to intimidate the locals when a state power is about to break an opposition force, and purge the masses assumed to be the backbone of that opposition.
In short, it’s a classic state problem of how to more or less permanently eliminate its enemy and keep the public silent forever.
Did Soeharto, a former colonial Royal Netherland East Indies Army (KNIL) soldier, learn the method of shaping Rust en Orde (tranquility and order), from the implementation of that motto of the similarly violent Dutch colonial state?
More pointedly, perhaps, the deadly warning ‘kill or be killed’ could also have been inferred from the famous three-hour speech of Himmler ‘ the Nazi architect of the Holocaust ‘ explicating the Nazi’s ‘final solution’ doctrine of ‘rule or be ruled by the Jews’, which they believed would decide the fate of the German race.
Similarly for Indonesia in the mid-1960s, ‘kill or be killed’ was the magic formula of state propaganda ‘ next to the lie that PKI-affiliate Indonesian Women’s Movement (Gerwani) women had mutilated the bodies of the generals – that proved effective to incite hate and anger in those days.
There are reasons to believe that this kind of propaganda may generally still be effective today though not necessarily for the same reasons as 50 years ago.
After all, today’s ruling generation was, for the greater part, educated under the New Order system, and remains ideologically akin to it. Vested interests and religiously motivated groups among the rising middle class may welcome any ideological weapon to fight any perceived threat.
Meanwhile, however, there has been some sort of moral awakening and rise of the politics of memory since the mid-1990s in Indonesian civil society ‘ somewhat parallel to the early phase of the intellectual awakening among history teachers and artists in post-Franco Spain, which led to the adoption of the Historical Memory Law in 2007 to re-assess the tragic impacts of Spain’s 1930s Civil War.
While attempts to dig up mass graves of 1965 were mostly local, articles, books, novels, films and audio visual material showings and public debates were published even before the National Commission of Human Rights’ investigation and media revelations of the 1965 killings in 2012.
Next came the great popularity ‘ despite widespread resistance by groups instigated by local authorities ‘ of Joshua Oppenheimer’s two award-winning films (The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence) about the perpetrators and victims of the 1965 massacres.
That may just be the beginning of an awakening, which may be as inevitable as new generations come and reckon with the inevitable questions. They will inquire as to how this proud nation, which once cited humanity as its motive for national independence, could have allowed such mass killings to occur and leave a legacy of national trauma and impunity for so long.
This is the reason that it is so important to review the 1965 massacres and its impact in order to find the truth before everything else.