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No reconciliation without truth

Published: Oct 01, 2015


Mery Kolimon

The state must explain where my father was murdered, where my brother lies buried. My father was no criminal. He was a member of a party that was legal at the time. He worked hard for people’s welfare. Why was he treated like an animal? He was killed without a trial. We don’t even know where his grave is.

Net Markus, survivor of the 1965 Tragedy, Kupang city, East Nusa Tenggara

The 1965 Tragedy claimed members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and others considered communist as its victim. The state targeted many innocent folk with horrific violence, as scapegoats for its own troubles. A violent stigma has been passed on from generation to generation. Today, fifty years after this humanitarian disaster, the victims and their families still suffer the consequences of that cruelty. 

The 1965 Tragedy did not only wound its direct victims. It injured this country’s entire society. The whole nation was damaged by the Tragedy of 1965. Not only soldiers committed violent crimes. Civilians were also involved. Soldiers organised young people to attack the victims. The PKI was turned into a devil said to threaten national unity. It was precisely this discourse of unity that was used to destroy national solidarity. Afterwards, Indonesian unity became a mere slogan. Solidarity among citizens became an empty mantra, lacking any meaning. 

Impunity is another legacy of the Tragedy of 1965. Criminals became national heroes. Victims became criminals. National history was turned on its head. Violence continued because it was seen as a legitimate way to resolve conflict. Up to the present day, the law and its enforcement are blunted by threats, terror and intimidation from violent groups. The Indonesian judicial system seems to be sick. It is never clear when the law applies and when it can be ignored without penalty. 

This is why a strong conviction has grown among the survivors of the 1965 Tragedy in East Nusa Tenggara province: No full resolution to ‘1965’ can take place without the state confessing that it is responsible for the violence that occurred. Reconciliation among citizens at the grassroots level will have little sustainable impact unless the state openly acknowledges that the victims truly are victims of state violence. They are not, as has been said all along till now, national traitors who undermined Pancasila and the unitary Republic of Indonesia. Nothing less than a state declaration of guilt for the violence of the past, with full rehabilitation of the victims’ rights, will have the necessary healing effect both on victims and on society as a whole to go forward into the future. 

Collecting stories

Research into the 1965 Tragedy in East Nusa Tenggara (NTT) started at a meeting in Kupang in 2010. Its members belonged to a women’s study group called Jaringan Perempuan Indonesia Timur untuk Studi Perempuan, Agama, dan Budaya (JPIT, Eastern Indonesia Women’s Network for the Study of Women, Religion, and Culture). They came from various ethnic and religious backgrounds. One of the research themes they agreed upon was to unearth the stories of female victims of the humanitarian tragedy of 1965. As a first step, we selected just six locations in the province. 

Collecting these stories was difficult. We began by recruiting researchers. They were all women from the two main Protestant churches here, namely Gereja Masehi Injili di Timor (GMIT, Timor Evangelical Church) and Gereja Kristen Sumba (GKS, Sumba Christian Church). Researchers were either ordained ministers or still in training. Not everyone who enthusiastically joined up saw it through to the end. Some pulled out because they were afraid their participation in such sensitive research might endanger themselves or their family. 

Security became an early issue during our preparation. We knew this was a sensitive issue. Not all victims might feel free to talk. We also worried that perpetrators who learned about our research might come to threaten us. We dressed up our research under the innocuous title ‘Women and Service of the Church in the Period 1960–1970’. 

However, our security fears turned out to be groundless. Perhaps this was because the researchers were all female ministers or ministers in training, and all our interviewees were female survivors. The book based on our research was published in 2012. It is entitled Memori-Memori Terlarang: Kisah Perempuan Penyintas Tragedi ’65 di NTT. An English translation will appear with Monash University Press in October 2015 as Forbidden Memories: Women’s Experiences of 1965 in Eastern Indonesia

Today, three years after the book appeared, we have experienced almost no intimidation. On 27 July 2015, we worked together with the International People’s Tribunal 1965 (IPT65), led by Prof Saskia Wieringa and Ms Nursyahbani Katjasungkana, to explain to people in NTT what the IPT65 is  and why it is a good thing. We invited survivors, humanitarian activists, local government representatives, religious leaders, and the media. Though uninvited, a member of the local military garrison also turned up. Perhaps the security forces were interested because JPIT now has a wide network, or because IPT65 had been in the news. In any case, until now nobody has experienced anything unpleasant. We hope it will stay that way. 


Victims and survivors reacted in a number of different ways when JPIT researchers approached them with questions about 1965. Not all were ready for an interview. Some said that nothing they could say would ever change what had taken place. They still felt keenly the loss of loved ones. Some even became angry with us. They saw us as representatives of a church that had taken part in destroying their lives and that of their families. They felt that the church had no right to now come round and ask them what had happened. Others again were ready to talk, but did not want their stories published. They believed it was only right to share life’s burdens with us as ministers of religion. However, they were afraid that the publication might invite new violence against them and their families. This was especially true of those whose children or other relatives were civil servants, who might suffer as a result of their stories. Clearly, the trauma experienced by some victims and their families remains very strong. 

Yet another group, though, welcomed us wholeheartedly. A very old and ailing survivor on Sabu Island told the team from her sickbed about her experiences in those difficult years. She kept on fainting, but she would not stop talking. Afterwards, she said: ‘If the Lord calls me now, I am ready to die, because I have shared my life story’. We heard two months ago that she had passed away. She went peacefully because her story had been published. 

A man who in 1965 had been a civil servant in a government office in Kupang gave us a stack of documents proving that he had not been in the wrong. Although he was ultimately cleared of the allegation of PKI membership, he was still fired without compensation. He told us: ‘I know one day someone will come looking for me [to tell me I was right], because I am certain that the truth will win. I am innocent’. When he died last year, we felt awful. He saw no results from his struggle for his rights with the state. 

It was this last group that is also the most committed to a struggle for recognition by the state. They do not have much left to defend. Sarlotha Kopi Lede, an old grandmother, said firmly: ‘We are used to suffering. We don’t need money or stuff from the state. What we want is our good name back’.

Struggle for recognition

We then invited those who were ready to talk to meet with us once every two months. Not everyone could make it. East Nusa Tenggara is large and has many islands. Those living on Sumba, Alor or Sabu were unable to travel to Kupang. Only people living in and around Kupang joined in regularly. We called these meetings Sahabat Doa Lansia (Aged People’s Prayer Friends). We always prayed together and reflected on a portion of the Bible. But there was something unique about this prayer group. At the end of each meeting, we would share how the struggle for recognition by the state was going, and whether they were getting access to the public services to which they had a right. 

JPIT has also conducted some follow-up research with a number of male survivors. These were victims of torture in West Amarasi, just outside Kupang. These men also turned up to some Sahabat Doa Lansia. 

At one of our bi-monthly meetings, the grandmothers decided we would all go to meet with the leaders of the local government and of the church, to give them a copy of our book. They were determined for the younger generation to hear their stories. At other meetings, the grandmothers discussed ways of enlightening various other sectors within society. They hoped university students would be able to learn that not everything they read in their history textbooks was true. They wanted the students to look at history through the victims’ eyes. 

The struggle for recognition by the state has a long way to go. We have no idea when it will succeed. Who knows when the government will finally acknowledge the violence committed by the state in the past? The grandmothers of Timor are convinced they have a special responsibility to share their stories for the healing of the nation. They believe that state recognition is not merely for their own good, but for that of the whole people. To get there, the grandmothers feel they cannot stop making their demands heard. 

The big healing project

The 1965 violence has shaped all the violence committed by the state since then. The tragedy of 1998, for example, can never really be resolved without starting in 1965. JPIT is now busy with the next phase of its research on women, conflict, and peace. They are working in Atambua, Poso, and Ambon – the latter two are outside East Nusa Tenggara. We have also learned from all this that a pattern of violence similar to the 1965 Tragedy took place in East Timor, not far from Kupang, during the military occupation of 1975-1999. Provocation intending to produce violence and polarisation, stigmatisation, and intimidation – these all combined to destroy solidarity within society. Another resemblance was the use by the military of civilian groups, especially young men, to take part in violent acts. 

We have learned something about communal healing from the local wisdom in West Timor. In the tradition here, healing occurs through telling stories and by putting wrong things back in the right place. This is called naketi. Without rehabilitation and compensation, that is, without the restoration of victims’ rights and restoration of the circumstances that have been so badly damaged by the state, genuine reconciliation cannot be achieved. The recovery of human dignity and national healing demands nothing less. 

The process of stating the truth will certainly be painful. The wounds of the past are like pus in the body of the nation. Only a readiness to press out the pus can lead to real healing. This is a metaphor for expressing the truth and severing the chain of impunity. So long as this decay remains in the body, any step forward by this nation will be burdened by the bitterness of the past. So long as impunity is nurtured, even a repeat of the past is not impossible. 

Mery Kolimon ( is a minister within the Timor Evangelical Church (GMIT); she also teaches at Artha Wacana Christian University in Kupang, and coordinates JPIT. 

This article is part of a debate and should be read in conjunction with 'Reconciliation without Politics?

Inside Indonesia 122: Oct-Dec 2015{jcomments on}

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