The End of Silence
The mass killings of suspected communists as well as their supporters, families, and friends in Indonesia during the months after the failed coup on 1 October 1965 is an increasingly rich research field that covers more and more aspects of these fatal events and their impact on society. Recently, for example, historians have drawn attention to the question whether there was a central coordination of the killings under the command of those parts of the armed forces controlled by General Suharto.[i] Others would like to have a better understanding of what the contribution and central motives of social and religious organisations were and to what extent their assistance to the army was indeed decisive for the conduct and the consequences of the bloodbath.[ii]
The book edited by Soe Tjan Marching altogether covers a different facet of these events. It intends to give voice and visibility to the experiences, perceptions, and personal encounters of the victims of the violence as well as their offspring. A strong and vivid plea against what Marching calls the ‘genocide of memory’, this book is a collection of 19 carefully selected testimonies of witnesses directly affected by the persecutions, but also of their children and grandchildren, who inherited the social stigma and the painful silence within their families about the seemingly shameful past of their parents and grandparents. Among these testimonies are seven accounts of women that illustrate this book’s particular interest in gender-related questions.
The offence of silence
In her introduction addressed to a general readership not specifically familiar with the mass killings, Marching provides a general overview on who masterminded the coup, how the killings evolved, who the main perpetrators were, and what Suharto’s regime did to silence any fruitful debate about these events after he had effectively taken power in March 1967. For Marching, this chapter of contemporary Indonesian history is mainly about fear in combination with authoritative approval. In this light, the mass murder is primarily a manifestation of fear instilled and instrumentalised by the armed forces, which not only unleashed the criminal collaboration of so many Indonesians but also paralysed Indonesian society for generations. This interpretation leaves probably too little space for deliberate strategies of different societal groups and their material, social, and political interests in the mass murder. For the interpretation of the testimonies assembled here, however, this question is less pivotal.
To the informed reader, this historical overview does not add much that is new, but the background information the editor gives about herself – her father being dragged from the family home by Suharto’s henchmen, Marching herself growing up with a strong taboo in her family around these events – and this remarkable book project is indeed. The book can therefore also be read as a very personal breach of a societal taboo that still defines Indonesia’s present. Consequently, this collection of testimonies is primarily motivated by today’s fears and stigmas around this issue and the increasing danger that the memories of those who anticipated the killings will be lost soon once and forever. What the introduction unfortunately does not provide is a more systematic evaluation of the testimonies or, in other words, an explanation by the editor where she herself sees the main strength of this material on the background of the ever-growing literature. For that reason, let me highlight three areas in which I see the biggest potential of these accounts.
Detainees, women’s views, and the inherited stigma
Besides the hundreds of thousands killed during the anti-communist pogroms, hundreds of thousands more were detained as political criminals and thus suffered from immediate and long-term repression, which determined not only their personal fate but also their families’ future.[iii] In comparison to the numerous publications on the killings, there is significantly less literature and historical knowledge about the experiences of the detainees, the circumstances of their confinement, and the survivors’ life paths after their release. Marching’s book provides some fascinating insights into the biographies of such detainees. Arrested for trade union activism, journalistic investigations, or entirely arbitrary reasons, the persons interviewed by Marching report in an illustrative and moving manner about the various forms of chicanes they were exposed to. In these testimonies we learn about the cynical and humiliating treatment of prison inmates through military personnel as well as civilian guards, the harsh circumstances of forced labour, but also small acts of resistance and avoidance to preserve a certain degree of dignity and self-respect. Although documented before, particularly interesting is the role of religious services, authorities, and instructions as a central element of the government’s ‘re-education programme’.
A second aspect highlighted by the testimonies is the gender-specific experiences of girls and women. Although there is a growing body of literature produced by Western as well as Indonesian scholars on the female perspectives of the mass killings and the consequences,[iv] this remains a research field that needs more and more detailed empirical analysis. The women’s testimonies assembled here illustrate sexual harassment in sometimes unsettling details – routine verbal abuse, relationships of women with prison guards and the pregnancies resulting from these. Also, the continuous social stigma after the release, particularly prevalent against women, is repeatedly described in these biographical statements.
Finally, the stories of the victims’ children and grandchildren constitute a major part of this publication. Some of them witnessed directly the murder of their parents, were born in prison, or grew up like orphans in families that were not their own. Their life stories are moving accounts of a life-long search for reliable information on what happened to their (grand)parents, the personal struggle against the taboos and the silence within their families, and the professional and social discrimination many of them experienced as offspring of former ‘communists’.
To conclude, this book is a rich and fascinating account of first-hand experience with the anti-communist mass killings and their devastating long-term impact on Indonesian society that were exacerbated by the comprehensive propaganda campaigns and strategies of silencing under Suharto’s dictatorship. The book is not only excellent material for generally interested readers, but also a rich primary source for students and lecturers who want to dive deeper into the abyss of 20th century anti-communist violence, mass persecutions, and patriarchal restoration.
[i] For an overview see John Roosa, The state of knowledge about an open secret: Indonesia’s mass disappearances of 1965-66, The Journal of Asian Studies 75(2), 2016: 281-97.
[ii] Cf. Annie Pohlman, Introduction: The massacres of 1965-1966: New interpretations and the current debate in Indonesia, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 32(3), 2013: 3-9.
[iii] Douglas Kammen and Faizah Zakaria, Detention in mass violence: Policy and practice in Indonesia, 1965-1968, Critical Asian Studies 44(3), 2012: 441-66.
[iv] Cf. Saskia Wieringa, Sexual Politics in Indonesia, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002; and Amurwani Dwi Lestariningsih, Gerwani: Kisah Tapol Wanita di Kamp Plantungan (Gerwani: The story of female political prisoners in Camp Plantungan), Jakarta: Kompas, 2011.