It could have been a historical moment for Indonesia.
On Jan. 16 the first film focused exclusively on Indonesian history was nominated in the best documentary category in the 86th Academy Awards. The nomination was the latest in a long list of accolades for Joshua Oppenheimer’s ”The Act of Killing,” a documentary exposing the atrocities of the 1965 communist party purge that birthed the New Order and left as many as a million people dead in a bloody wave of anti-Chinese violence.
The chilling documentary has been screened at some 120 international film festivals, netting 32 awards and earning praise from critics worldwide. But in Indonesia the film has received a cold reception from government officials, who see the documentary as an embarrassment; a dangerous film that fails to portray an accurate picture of the modern nation.
“[Indonesia] is portrayed as a cruel and lawless nation,” said Teuku Faizasyah, the presidential spokesman for foreign affairs. “The film portrayed Indonesia as backwards, as in the 1960s. That is not appropriate, not fitting. It must be remembered [that] Indonesia has gone through a reformation. Many things have changed.
“One’s perception should not be so heavily influenced by just that one film.”
The film focuses on Anwar Congo, a self-described preman (thug) from Medan, North Sumatra. The ageing Anwar guides viewers through his brutal past, coming clean about his active role in one of the nation’s darkest hours. A film buff and murderer, Anwar recreates the killings in graphic detail by approaching the subject through the lens of his favorite film genres.
It’s a dark and disturbing film, one that juxtaposes the natural beauty of North Sumatra with the unsettling confessions of a trio of admitted killers. But those confessions, and the allegations of widespread support of the Pemuda Pancasila (Pancasila Youth) from some of nation’s most powerful men, have riled some in Indonesia.
“We will settle the issues of our bleak past, but it certainly cannot be done in an abrupt way,” Teuku said. “It takes [time]. Can the public accept that?”
Most nations had blood on their hands at some point in time, Teuku said. How can outsiders judge Indonesia when they have similar dark periods in their past, he asked.
“Many countries have similar bleak [moments] in their history,” he said. “Do not label a country so easily. We have to remember the history of slavery in the United States, the aboriginals in Australia, the bombings of Vietnam by America. There are elements of violations against humanity in many other nations.
“One must remember that the problem occurred in the context of the Cold War, a war against communism.”
He also questioned the film maker’s decision to focus on a select cast of characters instead of the larger picture.
“The sources are limited to the few who committed acts of atrocity,” Teuku said. “Is that really sufficient to interpret a significant historical event?”
The nation will address its past in its own time, he said.
“The message that the film is trying to drive at must be treated with caution,” Teuku said. “From the perspective of Indonesia as a nation we are in the process of handling and anticipating the problems of the past in our own way. It isn’t finished but we are in a period of reconciliation. There is no need to be pushed by parties outside Indonesia.”
The nation has tried to come to terms in the events of 1965 in the past. The National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) conducted a four-year investigation into the violence, releasing a comprehensive report last year that called the purge “a serious human rights violation.” The report, which is based on interviews with 349 witnesses, uncovered evidence of state-supported murder, extermination, slavery, eviction or forced eviction, deprivation of freedom, torture, rape and abuse.
“Komnas HAM undertook the investigations,” Imdadun Rahmat, a commissioner with Komnas HAM, said. “Gross human rights violations did occur in 1965. Our recommendations have been passed to the Supreme Court. Yet, up to this point, the Komnas HAM and the Supreme Court have different opinions.”
The commission urged President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to take up the issue. Instead the Attorney General’s Office rejected an appeal to conduct an official investigation into the purge, arguing that Komnas HAM lacked sufficient evidence of a crime.
“The evidence Komnas has gathered was insufficient to justify an official legal investigation,” Attorney General Basrief Arief said at the time.
The investigation stagnated once it was handed to the courts, Imdadun said.
“According to the Supreme Court the available data is insufficient,” he said. “For example, it wants Komnas HAM to be able to find each specific name of those who committed a violation against human rights. In the context of trying to settle the matter, Komnas HAM is coordinating with the Supreme Court. We formed an independent team to resolve the archives which stagnated in the supreme court.”
Human rights groups accused the AGO of cowing to pressure from powerful political groups, calling the refusal a clear example of “the reluctance of the country’s elites to confront its past mistakes and bring those responsible to justice.”
“The tragedy has continued to haunt the nation for 47 years, and will continue to do so unless we come to terms with it,” said Hendardi, a human rights activist, on the AGO’s decision.
The Golkar Party, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and the Indonesian Military (TNI, who have all been implicated in the killings, would likely come out against any effort to prosecute the guilty parties. For some it is a period in history best left forgotten; a moment resigned to the pages of often inaccurate history books rather than the nation’s courts.
In 2004 the Ministry of Education stripped the words PKI from mentions of the September 30th movement. By 2006 mention of the political party was back in.
Decades of misinformation and New Order-era propaganda have obscured the truth in Indonesia. The anti-PKI film “Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI” (“The Betrayal of the September 30 Movement By The PKI”) was played repeatedly in schools and on state-run television. The movie depicted the PKI as a group of bloodthirsty killers, men who tortured army soldiers — cutting off their genitals and gouging out their eyes — in a piece of Suharto-era propaganda.
The lengthy film was compulsory viewing for school children, who were made to write a report about the evils of the communists once a year. But it was just one example of New Order-era lies about the PKI that continue to confuse the populous, historian Asvi Marwan Adam, of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), said.
“It was reported in Berita Yudha (Yudha News), the army’s news outlet, that the PKI committed atrocities such as gouging the eyes and cutting off the genitals of the generals it kidnapped on 30 September 1965,” Asvi said. ”Such things were not proven. It did not happen. It was made to smear the PKI.
“Since the reformation, there have been efforts to revise the history of 1965. The military took exception to this since they were involved in the history.”
Former president Abdurrahman Wahid attempted to repeal a law banning the spread of the communist party in a move widely seen as a step toward reconciliation by human rights groups. But Gus Dur’s words fell on deaf ears. The proposal failed and in 2003, when his term as president drew to a close, the House of Representatives decided not to revoke the law.
Teuku called Gus Dur’s failed proposal an example of the nation’s willingness to address the past — in its own time.
“Look at what Gus Dur has done,” he said. “There is no need to be pushed.”
Komnas HAM said that the public’s perception of the PKI had changed in recent years.
“Now there has been significant improvement, especially with respect to the stigma that the public once had,” Imdadun said. ”In the New Order the stigma was continually reproduced. It created a negative perception. But now, the stigma has gradually eroded.
“The public gave respect to them. The openness of information and freedom of speech produced a number of books which provide an alternative version of history.
“In general, there has been an improvement, but it takes time.”
The commission wants the central government to address all of the nation’s human rights abuses.
“Komnas HAM pushes for a non-judicial push which is restorative in nature,” Imdadun said. “We prioritize reconciliation. This is not only limited to the 1965 incident but also all other incidents in the past. We want the government to issue a statement acknowledging that there really were serious violations of human rights.
“We should be able to forgive and appreciate one another.”
Despite similar goals, Komnas HAM accused “The Act of Killing,” of reopening old wounds.
“The film doesn’t need to be responded to too seriously,” he said. “Otherwise Komnas HAM’s efforts for reconciliation can be crashed by overwhelming resistance from the public. Telling the truth can be done kindly without provoking hatred.
“The methodology [of the movie] is vulgar. It reopened old wounds for victims. Psychologically speaking, watching that movie is not healthy. This is a very sensitive matter. We should be accepting and forgiving of one another.”
Imdadun said the nation doesn’t need the condemnation of international observers.
“We should be free from international allegations that claim that human rights violations in Indonesia happened without any follow-up whatsoever,” he said.
But without a renewed commitment from the AGO and the Supreme Court the matter might never be resolved. Those involved in the killings are approaching old age, meaning that further delay by the courts may mean that those implicated in the purge may die before they can be prosecuted.
There is also a danger of the 1965 PKI massacre succombing to the same fate as numerous other unresolved human rights offenses in Indonesia, from the Petrus killings to the 1998 anti-Chinese riots.
Regardless, Imdadun said, the investigation is ongoing.
“The process is still ongoing in the Supreme Court,” he said.
But some doubt the government’s commitment to investigating the claims.
“There isn’t momentum to have this as a big project,” said Asep Kambali, historian and founder of the Indonesian Historians Community. “So long as the government does not push this to be pursued further, there will be no serious effort.”
Without open access to government files, historians and investigators are unlikely to uncover the truth, Asep said.
“The facts are so limited,” he said. ”Historians and those in the academia have no access. They are not special agents. They have no access to the palace. No access to many places nor the people in that era [and] many eyewitnesses have passed away.”
And even with full access to government records and sources, the entire event is so clouded in propaganda and Suharto-era doctrine that uncovering a truly objective version of the truth is unlikely, he said.
“The heads of the people are full with anti-PKI doctrine,” Asep said. ”It was one way to legitimize mass murder. Only Suharto knows exactly what happened.”
The repercussions of a thorough investigation could be grave, he said.
“There will be terrible consequences if anyone tries to uncover the truth,” Asep said. “This can be likened to a revolution. We already have a paradigm [in place], yet we want to destroy it and reconstruct a new paradigm.
“What will happen is a clash of ideologies. Not everyone will agree. Different perspectives and ideologies will give rise to conflict.”
But what actually happened in 1965 needs to be known, regardless of the consequences, he said.
“History is honest, but it might be painful,” Asep said. “Negative or not, the truth must come out.”
“The Act of Killing,” is available for free download in Indonesia.