Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, August 6, 2012

Explaining Indonesia's "Collective Amnesia"

Last week, the Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights released a report declaring the purge against communists in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt in 1965 was a "serious human rights violation." In response, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono instructed the attorney general to launch an investigation to follow up on the report.

There were some squabbles in the beginning, when the House Deputy Speaker Priyo Budi Santoso raised the ire of human rights activists by suggesting that Indonesia should stop investigating past human rights violations. Hailing from the Golkar Party, which is closely associated even today with Suharto's new order, Mr. Priyo of course does not want further investigations into this dark past. At this point, Golkar is generally leading in public opinion polls, with many analysts predicting Golkar to win handily the 2014 national election. The last thing it needs is to have Suharto's guilt exposed.

Yet as this Foreign Policy article noted, public reactions were muted. Furthermore, the article makes the provocative argument that:

Anyone wondering why the systemic culture of impunity, and with it the culture of violence, are so notoriously strong in Indonesia, may have found the answer this week. They are deeply embedded, along with the nation's collective amnesia.
Really? Is there such thing as a "culture of violence?" How do we know there's a "culture of violence" when we see it? While Indonesia does have its share of violence, notably the uncontrolled vigilante groups comprised of religious fanatics and various forms of police brutality, it could, however, be argued that these are symptoms of weak state institutions.

Besides, think about the United States in the 19th century or Hitler's Germany. The United States in the 19th century was a fairly violent society. Germany under Hitler put millions of Jews in the ghetto and later the concentration camps where they met their demise. Yet, we rarely hear that a "culture of violence" exists today in the United States or Germany. And to the extent that violence does occur in both countries, such acts are usually explained as the work of extremists and outcasts in society. Could such a culture disappear overnight?

It is not that culture does not matter, mind you. Properly defined, it could explain, for instance, why Singapore's bureaucrats perform better compared to Indonesia's (e.g. stronger adherence to rule of law, better work ethics, etc.) Violence, however, is poorly defined and has overly broad causes and implications (e.g. poor policing, state's passivity). In short, in my view, "culture of violence" is simply an easy way out, an answer to a question that in the end does not illuminate us at all.

To get a better understanding of this so-called "national amnesia," let's review some of the forces and events surrounding the tumultuous political scene in 1965.
  1. The political situation in Indonesia in 1965 was thoroughly toxic, with sharp polarization dividing the political landscape. At that time, the Communists were seen as ascendant thanks to their strong organization. It needs to be stressed, however, that the majority of members of the Communists weren't true believers, but rather people who saw the communists as the only entity truly concerned with the poor, while the rest of political elite were seen as out of touch, arrogant politicians. 
  2. The Communists had a terrible relationship with the Moslem organizations, notably the Nahdlatul Ulama and the Mohammadiyah. These organizations abhored the communists in part because the Communists were considered atheists, and also in part because of differences over land ownership. Moslem organizations were landowners -- not unlike the Catholic Church during the French Revolution--while the Communists were all for redistribution of the ownership of the land, and often stressed the need to do so violently. 
  3. Tension was high, with both the Communists and their opponents resorting to vicious rhetoric. The Communists, for instance, declared that "the Motherland is pregnant and going to give birth soon," which was seen as a forewarning that they would launch a revolution. At the same time, the Moslem clerics warned of an upcoming holy war.
  4. The military was badly split. While the officers professed their loyalty to President Sukarno, some were accused as less than loyal, such as professional and staunch anti-Communist generals such as General Yani and General Nasution. Other military men, such as Colonel Untung, were seen as totally devoted to Sukarno. There were also those considered as indoctrinated and too close to the communists. These last two groups were convinced that the "less loyal" officers were planning to carry out a purge after Sukarno passed away.
  5. Sukarno was sick, with doctors believing that he would not live very long, adding to the uncertainty of the situation.
In the evening of September 30, 1965, the pro-Sukarno and pro-Communist factions of the military struck and tried to arrest and bring those "less loyal" to trial. Due to a host of blunders, including miscommunications, the suspected generals ended up dead.

The death of the generals, in turn, validated the fear of the anti-Communists that the Communists were capable of anything and would massacre their opponents. At the same time, the anti-Communist officers rallied together under Suharto and launched a counterattack. The problem was that they had to cover a huge area with few soldiers.

In the end, the anti-Communist officers ganged up with the anti-Communist religious leaders and youth groups to launch a bloody purge against the Communists. It was a bloody and messy affair, resulting in many deaths, with death count ranging from as low as 50,000 to as high as 3 million people. Of note, the religious and youth groups actually conducted many of the killings.

This is a reason there has been a "collective amnesia." Yes, the killings were horrific. But it is likely that many people actually saw them as part of a war, which did not need any accounting for the horror unleashed in that period.

Moreover, consider that many of the current political elite have connections to those involved in the killings. Sarwo Edhie, the commander of the battalion responsible for some of the massacres, for instance, was a father-in-law of Indonesia's current president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. As noted above, Golkar Party, which is expected to end up in 2014 as Indonesia's largest political party, commonly uses President Suharto in its campaign gimmicks. Even the PDI-P could also be implicated, as then President Sukarno had a hand in approving the failed "coup" that led to the bloody counterattack. With this in mind, then, there has been a longstanding collective political incentive to sweep the brutality and violence under the rug.

It's no surprise that people have developed a "collective amnesia."

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