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Revealing documentary on how Indonesia sees 1960s mass killings
Publication Date : 20-09-2012
Here is a new film that should stir more controversy in Indonesia than the trashy "Innocence of Muslims", one that every concerned Indonesian must watch: "The Act of Killing" is a documentary about the brutal mass murders that happened in this country more than four decades ago as told by one of the surviving perpetrators.
But as telling as the details are of how the killings were carried out by the central character in the film and his cohorts in Medan, North Sumatra, the documentary, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last week, is even more revealing about how Indonesians regard that tragic episode of their history.
The movie by British-based producer Joshua Oppenheimer tells of how not only one of the murderers, a gangster, happily recounted his part in the killing, but also how he has continued to live unpunished and how the nation regards people like him as a hero.
Impunity for mass murderers and then treating them as heroes are not the attributes Indonesia wants to portray as it tries to claim its place among the great nations of the world.
The initial reaction in Indonesia to the news of the Toronto screening was predictable: Attack the messenger, with one man who was featured in the movie considering lawsuits against Oppenheimer for filming without his consent.
In all fairness, we should be thankful to Oppenheimer for raising the issue and prompting the nation once and for all to confront and deal with its ugly past.
For more than four decades, the nation has tried to erase the killings from its collective memory. There are no accounts of them in the official history textbooks and any attempt to rewrite the history has been blocked. Yet, military officers who led the killing campaign had been on record as bragging that up to 2.5 million people were slaughtered.
The killings in 1965/1966 were triggered by a bloody power struggle which began on the night of September 30, 1965. The group that set off the chain of events leading to the mass murders of communists was dubbed by the military "Gestapu", the Indonesian abbreviation for September 30 Movement.
Oppenheimer is guilty for oversimplifying that episode as a military coup, when the reality is far more complex. Admittedly, the military, with Gen. Soeharto at the head, came out the eventual winner in the power struggle and Indonesia fell under authoritarian military rule for the next three decades or so.
Indonesians' knowledge and understanding of the events of 1965 have inevitably been shaped by the military accounts. A three-hour drama called the "Betrayal of Gestapu/the Indonesian Communist Party [PKI]", which linked the coup with the communists, was screened on September 30 every year by the state-run TVRI television station. It only stopped after Soeharto stepped down in 1998. Since then, there have been genuine attempts to rewrite history around the power struggle and the purge of the PKI.
President Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid issued an apology on behalf of the Nahdlatul Ulama, an Islamic organisation that took part in the killing of communists. Wahid, who passed away in 2009, tried to launch a truth and reconciliation commission but the effort was quashed by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as soon as he came to office in 2004.
The National Commission on Human Rights in July released its findings of the 1965/1966 killings and concluded that the state was responsible for gross violations of human rights and crimes against humanity. It calls on the government to reopen the investigation, prosecute the perpetrators and compensate victims of the killings and their descendants. It also recommends that President Yudhoyono issue an apology for the rights violations.
The initial reactions to the report reflect the nation's attitude. While the majority of the population was indifferent, some groups opposed the recommendations. Wahid's own Nahdlatul Ulama was among those that have openly rejected the idea of a state apology.
Although the government has never openly admitted the killings, when confronted, the official line would be that the communists had also been responsible for brutal killings as they locked horns with the military and religious organisations to grab power. Most Indonesians believe Soeharto and the military saved Indonesia from falling into communist hands, and that the massacres were the cost the nation had to pay.
It is also clear from their attitudes that many Indonesians fear the communists or rather their descendants will stage a comeback, not so much of the ideology, which has been discarded worldwide, but seeking revenge for the ill treatment that they and their parents received.
In other words, the perpetrators are still haunted by the ghosts of their own victims, something that the central character in the "The Act of Killing" also openly admitted.
That is all the more reason why this movie should be mandatory viewing. Indonesia needs to come to terms with its past before a healing process can take place.
If only there was a way of making everyone watch "The Act of Killing" just once the way we had to watch Betrayal every year under Soeharto, maybe Indonesia could start an open debate about that tragic episode in the nation's history.
It is unclear whether this movie will pass the government censors, but if not, Indonesia will be missing out on a golden opportunity to redeem itself and build a better future worthy of great nations.
If Indonesia fails to seize on this opportunity, the rest of the world will. The documentary has already received rave reviews. Don't be surprised if it goes on to win an Oscar in March or other major awards. Indonesia, and the nation's attitude, will be in the spotlight as this movie travels around the world.
Let's hope that the movie makes it here as the distributors plan later this year. For Indonesia's own sake.