“I just wanted to let you know that the UWRF is being censored this year, and we have been told to remove all programs to do with ‘1965’,” she wrote. “Or else next year they will not give us a permit to hold the festival.”
I felt a chill when I read these lines, and a faint sense of absurdity that accompanied the sting. For one, I was on my European book tour, having done almost nothing else in the past one and a half month but speak to German and Dutch audiences about my novel, an epic love story set against the backdrop of the Indonesian anti-communist purges of 1965.
In Düsseldorf or Erfurt, Amsterdam or the Hague, I encountered nothing but genuine empathy and solidarity for Indonesians’ collective struggle to come to terms with our violent past as well as to render tangible justice for an untold many. It was particularly so in Germany, with its experience of national trauma.
This brings us to the irony of current domestic politics. For have Indonesians not, in the past 17 years since the fall of the Suharto regime, enjoyed a measure of hard-earned freedom from fear, censorship, and from restrictions to creativity?
Have we not witnessed the unprecedented burgeoning of new expression, in forms and language so alien to the 32-year pit out of which it was born? Have we not experienced, in the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, a literary forum which for 12 years has been able to keep the “1965” discourse alive without any state intervention?
Have we not pledged ourselves to the quest for alternative histories, for new ways of seeing and thinking about the world? Have we not seen the infrastructure of freedom so long devalued – bookstores, publishing houses, the press – finally standing up for themselves and giving people their voices back?
Indonesian troops control a crowd of students following the abortive coup of 1965. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images
Have we not heard of private screenings – known by the abbreviation nobar(nonton bareng; watching together) – of Joshua Oppenheimer’s film The Act of Killing? Screenings that keep popping up despite crackdowns by the authorities, suggesting that Indonesians know what they want and are resourceful enough to get it?
Up until a month ago, we still tended to look on the 17 years of political and cultural renaissance as a triumph of the collective memory. Or, rather, the failure of Fascism’s central conceit: that domination does not breed resistance to itself.
If the calamity of authoritarianism gave Indonesian democracy its cause, this past month threatens to show that the rifts Suharto tore in our body politic may never be mended. That censorship should coincide with the 50th anniversary of the genocide might be the key to understanding why that is.
However, if in the past month I was tentative in my public discussion of the festival censorship – stopping short, in other words, of saying that there is a rise of neo-anti-communism in Indonesia – it has become harder to do so now. Similar incidents that occurred within a few days of each other smack of a disheartening return to old tropes of official neurosis: taken together, they suggest an eerie revival of the Suharto era.
Take the case of Tom Iljas, a 77-year-old former political exile in Sweden. He was arbitrarily arrested and deported earlier this month for visiting a mass grave of 1965 victims in West Sumatra, in search of the final resting place of his father.
The irony of having been barred from coming home 50 years ago, only to be banished once more in so-called peaceful times, tests the limits of humiliation. In a statement, Iljas and his supporters said: “[J]ust to look at the mass graves of family members we still get terror and intimidation … We recognise that what is happening is the result of efforts for reconciliation and the fulfilment of the rights of victims.”
Even by the standards of post-totalitarian nations, with their lingering paranoia and tendency to be consecrated to the memory of official ideology and legitimacy of power, this incident was quite stunning in its audacity. It was utterly lacking in substance – legal, moral or otherwise.
The other case, no less Suhartoesque, concerns the confiscation and burning of the Satya Wacana University student magazine Lentera. The students produced a special 10 October edition, which explored the 1965 purges in Salatiga. Reportedly, the mayor, police and military complained after the magazine was distributed. The student editors were interrogated on 18 October, and the whole 500-copy print run was torched. Editor Bima Satria Putra told Tempo magazine that the university – incidentally no stranger to reformist activism and progressive thought – was also reprimanded by the police.
“Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings,” Heinrich Heine famously said, and yet, in present day Indonesia, there is something almost caricatural to this offence.
For one, it brings us right back to the second half of the 80s and the first half of the 90s, when you couldn’t count the number of student arrests for producing and distributing “subversive” material. The normalisation of campus life (Normalisasi Kehidupan Kampus) decree of April 1978 and coordinating body for student affairs (Badan Koordinasi Kampus) formed the NKK/BKK policy that forced Indonesia’s system of higher education to its knees. That acronym became shorthand for the death of universities and the death of thinking in Suharto’s Indonesia.
Indonesian troops in Jakarta following the attempted 1965 coup. Photograph: Carol Goldstein/Getty Images
The other inglorious incident that occurred within the past month happens to concern myself, although I would not lose sleep over it. The morning I arrived in Frankfurt, some 10 hours before the opening of the 67th Frankfurt Book Fair in which Indonesia was the guest of honour, the press officer of our National Committee informed me that some Muslim groups had been demonstrating against me and a fellow author in front of one of the ministries in Jakarta.
When I asked whatever for, he replied: “For being at the forefront of the national committee’s alleged active promotion of Communism at the fair.” My first instinct at the time was perversely self-congratulatory in nature. Not for being demonstrated against, but, rather, for encountering some kind of confirmation of a deeply-held personal theory: that in the past 17 years, the great dichotomy that used to characterise the Suharto dictatorship – the state, versus civil society – has been replaced by the increasing aggression of hard-line Muslim groups seeking to force their values on the vast diversity that is Indonesia. Yet I came to this conclusion before the news of the repatriation of Tom Ilyas and the barbaric act committed against the student body of the Satya Wacana University had reached my ears.
Political Islam in Indonesia rarely ever acts alone in its quest for hegemony.
Indeed, there appeared a darker, older supervising power that has kept this process under surveillance all along, and the realisation that this was the case hit me quite hard. For the truth of the matter is that political Islam in Indonesia rarely ever acts alone in its quest for hegemony. Its alliance with the military has seen its members, particularly from the Nahdlatul Ulama, committing many of the killings between 1965 and 1968.
Stoked by frequent evocations of the Madiun Affair of 1948, in which Communist rebels murdered some Muslim leaders before they were defeated, many Muslims were sold on the idea that they were victims of Communist aggression. For many youths, executing Communists was a religious duty.
This symbiotic relationship was demonstrated again less than a month ago at the 50th anniversary commemoration of the murder of six army generals and one lieutenant – part of an attempted coup that was attributed by Suharto to the Indonesian Communist party. At the start of the event, both the Jakarta chief of police and the head of the menacing hardline Muslim group Islamic Defenders Front grandly denounced Communism in one of the starkest public shows of their partnership to date.
I should have realised it then, as I should have heeded an earlier portent: the moment the chief of South Jakarta police turned up with a militant Islamic group at an art centre three years ago, to crack down on a public lecture by the reformist Muslim intellectual Irshad Manji.
However, to say Communism is an empty threat, given Suharto made sure that nothing was left of Communism in Indonesia, is of course to miss the point. Anti-Communist propaganda has worked before as a legitimising basis of power and control, and a variation on it will work again given how deeply conditioned a large majority of Indonesians still are by the old regime’s official history.
What we are witnessing is not the rise of neo-anti-communism per se, even if it seems that way on the surface; instead, anti-communism is merely a pretext for state terrorism and heightened control in the larger, and a more concerning scheme of a re-militarisation of government.
Indonesian students protest in 1966. Photograph: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
To many seasoned analysts of Indonesian politics, this volte-face might come as no surprise. Yet the hard-earnedness of reformasi – the period of democratic transition that followed Suharto’s reign – may have imprinted a certain intractability upon those who had fought for it, if not a downright refusal to accept the possibility of a regression of any kind.
Still. There is no denying the telltale signs. The return to anti-communist rhetoric as a pretext for state intimidation. The return to the culture of fear when there is nothing to fear of except for the healthy probings of historical inquiry that are essential to a nation’s healing.
President Joko Widodo has not helped matters much through his refusal to apologise to victims of the anti-Communist slaughter. His last message on the issue – that an apology is impossible when both sides claim to be victims – may give us no relief. However, despite civil society’s best efforts, it may be the clearest picture yet of where we are in our struggle against forgetting. This does not mean we should lose hope. We may be on the brink of sliding back into the dark ages, but we have always known how to fight back.