On Friday, 23 October, at 4pm, the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival notified the Herb Feith Foundation that the events it was sponsoring related to discussions and representations of the legacies of the 1965 violence in Indonesia were cancelled because of police pressure. This included a book launch, a photo exhibition and three discussion panels.
As coordinators of these programs and editors of the translation series scheduled to be launched, we were surprised and shocked by the cancellation. Why were these and other events in the UWRF program at which 1965 was to be mentioned or even hinted at suddenly the target of scrutiny from the authorities and considered to be a threat to security, 50 years after the violence took place?
The translated books scheduled to be launched in Ubud on 27 October, the eve of the festival opening, and discussed in a panel session two days later, are Forbidden Memories: Women’s Experiences of 1965 in Eastern Indonesia; Breaking the Silence: Survivors Speak About 1965-66 Violence in Indonesia; and Truth Will Out: Indonesian Accounts of the 1965 Mass Violence.
As the titles reveal, the books tell previously little-heard – if at all – accounts of the violence from this period in Indonesia’s history; stories suppressed by decades of continued fear and oppression. It is curious, however, because these books were all published in Indonesia some years ago, are freely available, and have been reviewed in national media.
The purpose of the translated book series is to expose international audiences to Indonesian voices about this traumatic period in their nation’s history.
The books survey diverse Indonesian views of the 1965 violence, including military and police officials implicated in the violence, an army historian, Muslim and Christian religious officials, plus survivors of the violence, and wives or children of victims. Together, these testimonies provide a deeply complex picture of the conditions, both local and national, personal and political, under which these acts of terror and violence were carried out and their lasting impact.
Translated by Jennifer Lindsay and published by Monash University Publishing, the books aim to restore the dignity of the victims of the violence and to examine it through the lens of humanity.
The editors of Forbidden Memories and Truth Will Out, Dr Mery Kolimon and Dr Baskara Wardaya respectively, are highly regarded academics working in Indonesian universities. Both have established international and national reputations for their work on addressing the legacies of 1965 violence. The editor of Breaking the Silence, Putu Oka Sukanta, is an acclaimed novelist and writer originally from Bali. He was imprisoned for 10 years without trial by the New Order regime because of his membership of a literary organisation considered too close to the Indonesian Communist Party. In the past 17 years, he has produced many films, novels and edited collections examining the impact of the 1965 violence.
A second panel in this program was dedicated to a discussion of literary works that take up the theme of 1965. This panel included a younger generation of Indonesian writers, the internationally renowned authors Eka Kurniawan, Ayu Utami and Linda Christanty. Its purpose was to think about how literary representations of this history can lead to greater understanding.
The third panel featured historians/activists from the Bali-based organisation Taman 1965, dedicated to confronting stigmatisation of survivors and fostering human dignity. They planned to discuss and perform songs from their latest cultural memory project called Prison Songs. Scheduled to speak here, too, was researcher and activist Galuh Wandita, of the Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR) organisation, who was to talk about her organisation’s projects helping survivors deal with the legacies of 1965. This includes AJAR’s participatory based research with women survivors of the 1965 violence, which culminated in the photo exhibition that was to be exhibited throughout the festival.
The official reason for the police pressure to cancel our events and others at the festival has only recently been revealed to us in media reporting of statements from the Indonesian police. These include the ridiculous accusation that our events might have promoted the spread of communist ideology in Indonesia and that only “competent” persons should be allowed to discuss this history.
Neither our events, nor the books featured, included discussions of communist ideology. Moreover, we cannot think of more competent people to speak on this topic than these Indonesian writers and researchers.
The question we think the Indonesian government needs to answer is why isn’t it possible to mark the 50th anniversary of this violence in Indonesia with open public discussion of Indonesian views about this past?
This article was originally published in The Age on 26 October.