The symposium was the first occasion where government officials, former members of the military, survivors and activists discussed the events of 1965 openly. Photo by Baskara T. Wardaya.

The symposium was the first occasion where government officials, former members of the military, survivors and activists discussed the events of 1965 openly. Photo by Baskara T. Wardaya.


Since the fall of the Soeharto regime in 1998, Indonesian survivors, activists and academics have held countless events discussing the massacres of 1965-66. But the national symposium held in Jakarta last week was the first where government officials, former members of the military and survivors discussed this past together openly. It was a rare and remarkable expression of political will to begin to deal with the human rights abuses of 1965.


The symposium was organised by university representatives, the Institute for Peace and Democracy, and the Solidarity Forum for the Nation’s Children (FSAB) in collaboration with Coordinating Minister of Politics, Law and Security Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan, the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) and the Indonesian Press Council.


Support from senior politicians, including Luhut, indicated that the government was serious about its commitment, announced in May 2015, to promote reconciliation for past human rights abuses. Luhut’s opening remarks, however, suggested that the impetus for the symposium was very much linked to a desire to “settle” these cases. He repeated comments made at the time of the International People’s Tribunal on 1965 at The Hague in November last year, emphatically rejecting foreign influence and stating that Indonesia would take care of this issue itself.


By design, the symposium was limited to and driven by a desire to move on from the past. The process of formulating the program and lineup remains opaque, yet we understand that there was considerable debate over the selection of speakers. Lobbying from activists resulted in the inclusion of more survivors in the symposium, although only high profile survivors were designated official speakers.


While the symposium was welcomed by Nursyahbani Katjasungkana, Indonesian human rights lawyer and coordinator of the IPT, and groups like Human Rights Watch, many activists were concerned that it might be used by the government to implement “instant reconciliation” without a proper process of truth telling. This concern was well founded, given Luhut’s recent statement that he wanted the reconciliation process to be finished by May this year.


Despite these weaknesses, the symposium was unique for its potential to advance the case for a program of national accountability, truth telling and reconciliation. For the first time, military and government representatives were prepared to present their views alongside those of Indonesian activists, scholars and survivors of the violence.


The symposium was also significant because it followed a year of repeated shutdowns by police and anti-leftist groups of book discussions, film screenings and festivals related to 1965. Undoubtedly, the support of prominent military figures, including Luhut – a former general – gave this symposium an unprecedented level of protection. Although protesters from the Pancasila Front gathered close to the venue, unlike the many other occasions, this time police held the protesters back.


Yet as activists and victims anticipated, this level of government involvement was a double-edged sword. Leading into its second day, media coverage of the symposium was dominated by Luhut’s opening remarks and his categorical refusal to consider an official apology. “Don’t think the government is going to apologise here and there,” he said. “We are not that stupid. We know what we are going to do and it will be the best thing for this nation.”


Luhut also expressed doubt as to the number killed in 1965, echoing a statement made on day one by retired General Sintong Panjaitan, a former platoon leader of the Army Special Forces (RPKAD) in Central Java. Sintong questioned where all the graves were if the death toll really was as high as 500,000. These statements apparently prompted Jokowi to order Luhut on Monday to find evidence of mass graves resulting from the 1965 violence.


Luhut’s opening comments, together with statements by government and military speakers describing the killings as “horizontal conflict”, prompted the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS) to issue a scathing press release. It condemned the symposium for “strengthening New Order doctrine that distorts the true facts” and “reinforcing discrimination and stigma against victims of human rights violations”.


On the same day, however, other speakers, including academics Asvi Warman Adam and Ariel Heryanto and human rights lawyer and IPT prosecutor Todung Mulya Lubis, rejected the horizontal conflict theory and spoke strongly in support of an official apology. Those involved have acknowledged that the spirit of the gathering was one of openness and frank exchange of views.


Fundamental to the legitimacy of this symposium – with both government and survivor groups – was the involvement of government figures with direct connections to the events of 1965. The first of these was Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) politician Sidarto Danusbroto, who was head of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) and now serves on the President’s Advisory Committee (Wantimpres). Sidarto began his career as a policeman in the Soekarno era and was President Soekarno’s adjutant during the transition to the Soeharto presidency. His proximity to Soekarno, and now Megawati Soekarnoputri, means that he is more likely to be trusted by Soekarno’s supporters. He also remains close to the military, as he twice served as head of the police in the New Order period, when it was still part of the armed forces.


Another of the symposium’s key players, Agus Widjojo, is the son of General Sutoyo Siswomiharjo, who was kidnapped and killed by members of the 30 September Movement in 1965. Agus is a prominent member of the Solidarity Forum for the Nation’s Children (FSAB), which was founded in 2003 to bring together the children of political conflicts, including children whose parents were killed in the 1965 violence. Agus is a reformist general who was appointed governor of the National Defence Institute (Lemhamnas) just four days before the seminar. In his opening remarks he called on all assembled “to be prepared to listen to things we don’t want to hear”.


In a session focused on concepts for resolving gross human rights violations, Agus offered a possible glimpse into the latest government thinking on 1965. He emphasised an approach based on reconciliation, which he stressed includes uncovering the truth, leading to accountability. He remarked that people who had suffered losses or were harmed should receive compensation and reparation.


In the same session, Kamala Chandrakirana, representing a large coalition of activist groups in the Coalition for Truth and Justice (KKPK), reminded participants that the symposium was just part of a long process started 20 years earlier by survivors and civil society groups. The KKPK rejected reconciliation as a starting point, she said, instead viewing reconciliation as the outcome of a comprehensive process, which must include legal responsibility.


By the end of the second and final day of the symposium, the openness with which it had been conducted surprised many, including those who had been very wary of its agenda. A range of perspectives had been heard and candidly debated. Alongside military and government figures and the academics, victims and victims’ families were given the opportunity to speak. Like author Putu Oka Sukanta, they described the trauma they continued to suffer daily. They called for truth, justice and commemoration of this past.


Although there was much that remained unsaid and unacknowledged by the symposium, Sidarto’s concluding remarks brought both a sense of relief and hope that progress had been made. The symposium was “an open forum that could not simply be rejected if all present wanted to resolve the 1965 tragedy in a civilised and satisfactory way (secara baik dan beradab)”. In particular, his acknowledgement of the state’s complicity in the killings (“kita harus mengakui keterlibatan negara”) was a groundbreaking and positive step. Activists and survivors hope, however, that what will soon follow will be a thorough government supported process to address this historical injustice in a substantive way.



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