Spectre of censorship casts a shadow over Ubud festival

Subiyanti, one of the subjects of cancelled Act of Living exhibition, whose father was a political prisoner on Buru Island. Photo by Anne-Cecile Esteve for AJAR.
Subiyanti, whose father was a political prisoner on Buru Island, was one of the subjects of the cancelled Act of Living exhibition. Photo by Anne-Cecile Esteve for AJAR.

 

The Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF) was forced on Friday to cancel planned sessions on the 1965 massacre and its aftermath following pressure from local authorities. While festival organisers had been under pressure about the program for some time, they were eventually warned that if the sessions on 1965 went ahead, they risked having the festival’s permit revoked.

 

The news of the forced cancellation saddened me more than anything else. As the daughter of a former political prisoner, I know how difficult it is to speak about experiences of 1965 in the public sphere in Indonesia, where these stories have been shrouded in silence for so long. The sessions that were to be held in Ubud are in that light particularly important, as they were discussions of 1965 in Indonesia, by Indonesians.

 

The cancellation affects a number of sessions at the UWRF, including the launch of three books, three discussion panels, a photo exhibition curated by Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR) and a screening of Joshua Oppenheimer’s acclaimed documentary The Look of Silence.

 

Jemma Purdey and Katharine McGregor, editors of the Herb Feith Foundation series “Translating Accounts of 1965-66 Mass Violence in Indonesia”, which was to be launched in Ubud, expressed shock and disappointment at the forced cancellation, stating that “Indonesian voices on 1965-66 have again been silenced”. Activists also quickly condemned the cancellation, calling it an attack on freedom of expression and critical thinking.

 

According to the local chief of police, Farman, the 1965 panels represented a security threat, and contradicted the 1966 regulation prohibiting the spread of communist ideology (TAP MPRS XXV/1966). The Look of Silence, meanwhile, could not be screened as it had not passed the government censorship process.

 

The books that were to be launched in the Herb Feith Foundation series were all published in Indonesia between 2011 and 2013 and were all written by Indonesian authors.

 

Putu Oka Sukanta, a former political prisoner and the editor of one of the books, Breaking the Silence: Survivors Speak about 1965-66 Violence in Indonesia, said that he deeply regretted the cancellation of the sessions at UWRF, and commented that “these books have already been in circulation for a long time”. Sukanta’s work has been widely discussed in Indonesia, including in national media.

 

Neither is this the first time that the Ubud festival has included events on 1965. In 2012, for example, the festival looked at the legacy of author and former political prisoner Pramoedya Ananta Toer, even using the title of his most famous book, This Earth of Mankind, as that year’s theme. In 2013, the festival screened Joshua Oppenheimer’s first film, The Act of Killing.

 

This is what makes the forced cancellations this year so extraordinary. The cancellations appear to be part of a broader attempt to silence discussion of the 1965 events and their aftermath in Indonesia. They also reflect an increasingly confident security sector sensitive about the attention 1965 is receiving on its 50th anniversary.

 

This month also saw the forced withdrawal of the Satya Wacana Christian University student magazine, Lentera, which had published an edition on the killings in Salatiga, Central Java. A number of involved students were taken to the police station and interrogated, as according to police, the magazine had caused “social unrest”.

 

In a tragic story earlier this month, Indonesian immigration officials arrested and deported Tom Iljas, who wanted to visit a mass grave in West Sumatra, where the remains of 1965 victims were buried, including his father. Iljas, who is 77, became stateless after the 1965 events and acquired Swedish citizenship 15 years ago. Local immigration authorities claimed that he was filming a documentary about anti-communist violence and placed him on a blacklist of people banned from entering the country. Iljas has insisted that his visit was private in nature and that all photos taken were to document the journey for his relatives in Sweden.

 

Earlier this year, planned screenings of The Look of Silence were cancelled in Indonesia, including on university campuses, following pressure from local authorities and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI).

 

The past few years have seen increased attention to 1965, both in Indonesia and abroad, intensifying this year, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary. The Indonesian government has reportedly “not been pleased” with how the killings have been marked, and has responded through censorship.

 

Not only are such measures an excessive restriction on the freedom of expression, they also have no place in a country that fought hard for human rights to be recognised after the fall of authoritarianism 17 years ago. Sadly, the government’s actions show that the repression Indonesians experienced in the Soeharto era is not just a distant memory.

 

In censoring events such as the Ubud festival, the government continues to deny an open discussion by Indonesian writers and researchers on how they seek to better understand this traumatic past. Sadly, the actions of the authorities represent yet another attempt to look away from a dark chapter in Indonesian history, and show that the state is unable, and unwilling, to deal with that legacy.