The head of the Indonesian military has banned scheduled public screenings on September 30 of a 2014 documentary commemorating the anti-communist massacres of 1965-66. A directive from General Gatot Nurmantyo instructed the military to restrict any efforts to hold a public screening of The Look of Silence, arguing that it was an attempt by socialist/communist groups to use the events of 1965 as propaganda and aimed to “distort history.” September 30 marks the commencement of anti-communist operations in 1965, and is a crucial date of commemoration in the Southeast Asian nation. Instead, the military held public screenings of a 1984 government propaganda film Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI, with an army spokesman telling media that this was crucial in order to promote the “correct” version of history.
The military’s overt censorship has attracted criticism from human rights groups and civil activists. It also comes just weeks after police cancelled a seminar convened by the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation, titled “Revealing Historical Truth about the 1965-66 Events,” by preventing participants from entering the building and removing banners promoting the event. An anti-communist protest the following day saw protestors surround the Legal Aid office in Jakarta and clash with police when they tried to disperse the crowd. The Alliance of Independent Journalists, an Indonesian press freedom body, condemned police actions and claimed that the forced cancellation of the seminar “raised concern on the situation of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association in the largest democracy in Southeast Asia.” According to Phelim Kine, Deputy Director of the Asia Division with Human Rights Watch, the combined actions of both Indonesian police and the military suggest an “official backpedal” on previously promised efforts to transparently investigate the events of 1965-66, and risks seriously undermining pledges of government accountability.
The actions by police and the military represent a concerted effort by these groups to undermine any attempts at reconciliation and serves to perpetuate old narratives. Following the violent suppression of purported communists in 1965-66, a dictatorship was established under General Suharto in 1967, which lasted until the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s. This period of “New Order” rule was marked by strident anti-communism and attempts to construct an official version of history. The official history of 1965-66 removed discussion on the imprisonment and torture of hundreds of thousands of victims, focusing instead on the murder of high-level generals which instigated the initial suppression. History curricula, documentaries, and official commemorations all upheld this official state history, and together with strict censorship and anti-communist legislation, made it the dominant narrative for generations of Indonesians. The documentary Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI was indeed a key part of this narrative and was required viewing for school students as well as the general population on key dates.
Although the official history was open to interpretation following the fall of Suharto in 1998, these latest government efforts to suppress commemoration of victims of the massacres undermine reconciliation attempts and risk aggravating deeply-felt national wounds. The government must facilitate transparent dialogue between the contending groups, who in many instances continue to remain bitterly divided about the events of 1965-66. By censoring the victims’ commemoration attempts, President Widodo’s government will only delay meaningful progress towards reconciliation. What is required is a rigorous and transparent debate involving both sides on potential strategies for confronting this contested chapter in history. The government needs to realize that lasting peace can only be ensured through genuine reconciliation.