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Untold stories

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Ann Laura Stoler

Political activists and academics these last two years have begun to open frank discussion of events that until very recently were literally unspeakable, at least in Indonesia. They are trying to understand the mass killings in 1965-1966 as something that has a history. The Coup was not about the beginnings of a military-dominated state in Indonesia, but rather the culmination of a politics in which the military and its choice of violences have been present at least since the colonial period. These investigations will lead to new histories that confront rather than circumvent the diverse experiences of those years.

Silences in history, such as those about 1965, are politically imposed. How historical events are framed can encourage later generations to 'remember' certain versions of history and 'forget' others. But this attention to l965 also raises other questions. How will this intense focus on the l965 killings figure on the academic and political agenda today? What possible histories are enabled or foreclosed by this incessant return to l965? Why are some aspects of Indonesia's postcolonial history now more possible to speak about than others?

If the past is a powerful tool in the present, nowhere is this clearer than in how Indonesians choose to remember the internment, torture and mass killings of alleged members of the Indonesian Communist Party PKI and its affiliates. How that history is retold can serve both as a 'weapon of the weak' and as a weapon of elite control. How Indonesians will rewrite that history is still up for grabs.

For many, retelling what happened in l965 serves as a warning. Their question is not 'whodunit' but 'can it happen again'? Others ask whether it is not already happening again, before our unknowing eyes because we do not yet know the right questions to ask.

However, what should be underscored in the question, 'can it happen again?', is not only the 'again' but what constitutes the 'it'. For the 'it' is a moving target, defined by different people in very different ways. For the military and its supporters, the fearful 'it' that may happen again is the rise of communism and a left-wing populism that supports it. But for others, that 'it' is not communism in its cold war manifestation, but rather popular, above-board and public forms of political mobilisation. Afterwards, the New Order regimes named these forms as criminal. For others still, the fearful 'it' is not the 'Untung coup' labelled 'communist', but the repressive counter-coup that followed and that brought with it a form of political control which needed violence to maintain its rule.

Rather than asking about the how and why of the killings and the intrigues within the army, the more important question may be to ask about the conditions of possibility that allowed Suharto to come to power and remain in power for as long as he did. The question then is not so much why l965 happened, but rather how a political culture based on mass violence could have been formed that changed the civil society within a generation.

Many Indonesians and foreigners think that the memories of l965-66 should be allowed to disappear. But this is not a viable option. Whether they want to or not, Indonesians are living that past today. There are strong generational differences between those who lived through those years and a younger generation who have known no other reality than the silencing tactics of the New Order. For this younger generation, schooled with state-sanctioned history books and with access only to bookstores immaculately emptied of ways of making sense of the world into which they were born, liberation from the past can't be attained by forgetting. They want to know how their lives have been shaped by it. Some older people may want to forget, but younger people looking toward the future (including Hilmar Farid in this edition) seem convinced they need to know.

Analysts asking questions about how 1965 is treated in today's public discourse see the 'silencing of the past' as an emblem of the New Order. The regime wielded 'l965' in a language of terror and as a tool of governance - not as a topic of history. This places a question mark over the suggestion that a truth and reconciliation commission, on the South African model, can serve important positive goals. For what would be on trial? If it is the events of l965-l966, then there is little in common with South Africa. Apartheid was a systemic structure of racialised rule. Its truth commission was not confined to any one event. What would have to be on trial would be the sustained terror of Suharto's New Order regime itself.

If it is the New Order for and from which some form of redemption and forgiveness must be sought, the task becomes more difficult. Such commissions must build on personal histories that are possible to speak and to share. People have to be able to tell stories that are grounded and experienced, instead of those scripted with visions of mutilated bodies and rivers of blood. Like massacres, commissions of inquiry (state-run or otherwise) can be moral stories that states tell themselves.

People in Indonesia perhaps turn away from '65 because it was horrific and they want to forget. But maybe there are other times to remember that hold more possibilities for the future. The events of l965 and the Suharto years themselves are only one episode in a longer history, on which many Indonesians may prefer to linger and not turn away.


The current focus on '65, and the histories that situate the l950s as the foreground to it, make all that happened before '65 little more than a prelude, an inevitable outcome. But the 1950s can also be envisioned in another way. Obsession with getting '65 straight may overshadow another past that we have only begun to re-imagine and bring into focus - one in which '65 was not inevitable.

This is not to romanticise popular participation and the viability of a public sphere before the Coup. But it is to note that there was once another civil society in Indonesia, that rapidly changed. Historians who have interviewed those politically active in the l950s show them to be more cosmopolitan, 'modern' and politically progressive than they have usually been portrayed. A researcher in rural central Java notes that villagers in the l970s talked with excitement about the l950s, as 'the years of living dangerously'. It was a time that held promise, because there existed venues for popular participation on the ground. Others report that former members of progressive labour and literary organisations retain vivid memories of a vibrant intellectual and political environment, of which they were a part.

The point is not to reinvent this period as one of full representation and political participation. Nevertheless, the early l950s was a time of much public and very local discourse about land and labour rights, when it was not a crime to congregate in groups of more than three persons on a village road (something that village heads were instructed to prohibit for decades after l965). It was a time when kiosks across Sumatra and Java had pamphlets and books by Marx, Lenin and Shakespeare (as some today in Yogya are brimming over with Indonesian translations of French social theorists such as Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault).

Making room for new histories, that situate the events of l965 as one of many possibilities rather than as a predestined outcome, may be one way of reviving the truth and reconciliation commission in another form. Such multiple histories would give credence to the fact that both political violence and progressive politics were part of a reality that was widely shared. Even before the internet, people participated in circuits of knowledge production that sometimes landed them in the Philippines and Paris as much as in Moscow and Beijing.

Violence is part of that history, but there are other stories of popular participation in social and economic reform that do not reduce to party politics and extreme polarisation on every front. These submerged accounts locate a broader horizon of possibilities, and remind people that there are other histories to write and unscripted stories to tell.

Popular and local histories of the l950s should not be overshadowed by the horrors of l965. Both are part of the multi-layered reality of people who have lived a range of postcolonial moments, who retain different senses of what has made Indonesia's history, and who trust in different ways of telling that story.

Ann Laura Stoler ( is professor of anthropology and history at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA. She is the author of 'Capitalism and confrontation in Sumatra's plantation belt' (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 'Race and the education of desire' (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995) and 'Tensions of empire' (with Frederick Cooper, Berkeley: University of California press, 1997).

Inside Indonesia 68: Oct - Dec 2001

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