What does it mean to have knowledge about a violent historical event that, for the most part, has never made it into national history books?
I asked this important question during my research in Central Java, Indonesia, where I sought to understand the experiences and perceptions of children and other family members of individuals who were victims of the 1965-1966 anti-communist violence.
I published the results of this study in a chapter of a book titled “The Indonesian Genocide of 1965”. The 1965 killings in Indonesia not only resulted in the death and imprisonment of more than half-a-million people, but also forced its survivors to grapple with knowledge of this bloody past throughout a lifetime of silence, acceptance – and ultimately, resilience.
A genocide that silenced generations
In 1965, the “treacherous” Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) launched an attempted coup that was crushed by the “heroic” Indonesian military – or at least, this was the version the state taught Indonesian students throughout President Suharto’s authoritarian New Order regime (1966-1998), and even well into the 21st century.
As schools taught young Indonesians this narrative, histories that ran counter to it were being suppressed. These included the complex history of the leftist movement in Indonesian politics, but also the bloody, terrifying events following the army’s rise to power in 1965, when at least hundreds of thousands of Indonesians were killed or imprisoned without trial for their alleged affiliation with the PKI.
This violent history remained unspoken and unspeakable in the public sphere during the New Order period.
Many Indonesians even self-censored out of fear – particularly the victims of the violence, and their children and family members. Former political prisoners, those who had most directly experienced the violence, for instance, were subject to various forms of surveillance and discrimination following their release from prison.
Survivors passed along this supposed guilt to their offspring. The state also ostracised these accused “communist children” along with their parents. Many families of victims fell into silence. In many cases, former political prisoners, including those I talked to in my research, tried to protect their children by hiding and never speaking of their past ordeals and sufferings.
During the New Order period, the safest response to anything connected with 1965 was “I didn’t/don’t know anything”. Then, the downfall of Suharto’s authoritarian regime and the dawn of the Reform Era in 1998 emboldened some former victims of state violence to challenge the official version of what had happened in 1965.
Amid the emergence of democracy, the rise of new mediums and platforms of expression, and rising interest among the younger generation, they sought to expose the suppressed facts about the mass killing and imprisonment of suspected communists.
Some former political prisoners and other victims of 1965 began to speak out – including through memoirs such as by journalist and former political prisoner Putu Oka Sukanta, forming advocacy organisations with other former political prisoners such as Yayasan Penelitian Korban Pembunuhan (the Foundation for Victims of the 1965/1966 Killings), and even creative outlets such as the Dialita Choir.
In some cases, they finally started talking to their children and grandchildren about what they had experienced. Suddenly it became possible, with unevenness and still some risk, to state, “I knew/know”.
Grappling with knowledge of the past
Even though more and more former political prisoners chose to speak out, however, there still seemed to be an air of mystery and ambiguity regarding what kind of knowledge former political prisoners and their family members possess.
Did the knowledge involve, as many anticommunists had accused, some sinister inside knowledge of the many treacherous actions of the PKI? Or was it more related to the general knowledge of the history of the Indonesian Left prior to 1965?
Was the knowledge about the terrible state-sponsored violence that impacted so many millions of Indonesians in 1965-1966? Or was it more personal stories and past trauma that children and grandchildren of former political prisoners had acquired from their elders?
Whatever they were, anticommunists label this knowledge as “dangerous”, causing a great deal of anxiety among those Indonesians who defend the state and fear a “communist resurgence”.
What’s clear is that the content of this knowledge and these memories seemed to matter much less to the former political prisoners themselves, or their children and grandchildren. Instead, those that I talked to in my study choose to focus on how to use this knowledge of the past to better their lives, escape stigma and promote justice and accountability in Indonesia.
Sumanto, an elderly man who was imprisoned for six years for his involvement in the leftist youth organisation Pemuda Rakyat in the mid 1960s, told me he was comfortable describing his own sufferings to young, unrelated activists and human rights organisations for the purpose of addressing historical wrongs.
But with his own children at home, he had avoided telling specific stories.
“I place more of an emphasis on making sure that my children have a good work ethic […] so that they can take responsibility for themselves, and not become dregs of society. If they can take responsibility for themselves, then they can help other people.” – Sumanto.
Two children of former political prisoners in their mid-20s told me that hearing their fathers’ specific stories of imprisonment had spurred them to seek more “objective” historical sources on 1965.
And, in a humorous tone, Siti, one daughter of a journalist who was abducted in 1965 described how her son used his knowledge of their specific family history to mischievously challenge his high school history teacher.
“My younger child was eager to be taught history lessons, even before they were taught. He waited impatiently to take his classes so that he could ask the teacher: ‘Ms. Teacher, Mr. Teacher, do you know my grandfather?’ [laughs]” – Siti.
These observations suggest that, at a time when there is an ongoing backlash by conservative forces in Indonesia against reckoning with the history of 1965, we should not see these various forms of “knowledge” practised by survivors and their children as a stain.
They are instead a mark of resilience and a spur towards future action in a struggle for justice and accountability.