For decades, the massacres of 1965 have
been spoken about in whispers – if at all.
Attempts to openly discuss the murder of at least half a million suspected communists in Indonesia have repeatedly been censored, shut down and subject to violent attacks.
But this week, a symposium on the events marks the first time there has been open discussion about this bloody chapter of the country’s past.
As journalists from KBR radio report, there is hope the talks will be a stepping-stone to a broader reconciliation process.
The massacres of 1965 have been described as one of the worst crimes of the 20th Century.
The killings began after an alleged coup, and the death of six army generals, which was blamed on the communists.
Sumini was a local leader of Gerwani, a women’s organization linked to the Indonesian communist party, or PKI, at the time the third-largest communist party in the world after China and the Soviet Union.
She was detained for more than six years for her connection to the party, and recalls the treatment upon her arrest.
“Every time I was interrogated, my feet placed under the table and the interrogators would sit on the table until I lost consciousness. That happened often.”
For more than half a century the events of 1965 have remained deeply sensitive. The truth of what happened, long silenced.
With anti-communist propaganda a key part of Indonesia’s historical narrative, generations of Indonesians have grown up learning the killings were heroic, and justified.
Even a decades long decree that sees 40 million Indonesians banned from jobs in the government and military if their grandparent, or great grandparent was a suspected communist, is still in place.
It’s the reason why this week’s symposium in Jakarta is so important.
The two-day event was an unprecedented public forum for airing the grisly details of what really happened back then – mass executions, kidnappings and rape.
For the first time victims and survivors were given the opportunity to publicly describe the atrocities committed by government and paramilitary troops, and Islamic organizations.
There are still tensions but finally the state has been willing to listen, explains Agus Wijoyo, one of the organizers of the symposium.
“We hope to bring together two parties that are directly related. Both who had a role in government agencies and family victims of former PKI members. But there is so much rejection because the dynamic is very high,” Wijoyo commented.
The government’s willingness to support the 1965 event inspired hope the talks could lead to a deeper reconciliation process, and justice for the victims.
But as soon as the symposium started, it was apparent that some clear lines had already been drawn.
Security Minister Luhut Panjaitan admitted that Indonesia must make peace with its past, but ruled out the government offering any official apology.
“The government has no intention to apologize. We're not that stupid. I would say to you that we knew what we were doing and it was the best for this country,” the Minister stated.
For years the government has resisted any real discussion of the 1965 atrocities.
In 2012 it rejected a comprehensive investigation and report by the national human rights body. At the time, the attorney general said the perpetrators would never face trial.
Some in the human rights community worry this week’s symposium might be used as way to swept the issue under the rug, for good, and avoid a deeper, and more painful, truth and reconciliation process.
Dolorosa Sinaga, from the International People’s Tribunal, says these talks are just the first step.
“We urge the government not to use this symposium as a reason to declare that the problems and cases of 1965 have been completed. We cannot accept it. We in the civil society, the families of the victims, and academics as well, will continue to encourage and urge the government to solve the cases of ‘65.”