The 50th anniversary of the massacre Indonesians aren't supposed to talk about
Nov 8, Jakarta: Each October, foreigners and Indonesians alike gather in Bali, Indonesia for the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival (UWRF). It is an opportunity to be immersed in discussions about literature, art and ideas, all set against the backdrop of Ubud's picturesque, terraced rice fields. Indonesia's largest writers' festival, it was created 12 years ago, in the aftermath of a terrorist attack in Bali. As festival founder and director Janet DeNeefe explains, "Led by the mantra that the pen is mightier than the sword, we created an international event that would bring issues to the table in a neutral space, where open discussion about big ideas and important stories could take place."
This year's festival included discussions with 165 authors from over 25 countries, readings, art exhibits, film screenings and more. What it did not include, however, was a series of planned events that were intended to shed light and foster dialogue on a dark period in Indonesian history in 1965 and 1966, when at least 500,000 people were killed. Facing pressure from the local authorities, the festival was forced to cancel panel discussions on the 50th anniversary of the atrocities, book launches, the screening of the documentary "The Look of Silence" by American director Joshua Oppenheimer, and a photography exhibit of women survivors of the killings.
The reaction to this development, without precedent in the festival's 12-year history, was forceful - particularly among PEN Centres, whose mandates are to promote literature and defend freedom of expression around the world. "Pressure from the Indonesian government to silence discussion of the 1965 massacre signals a worrying deterioration of the right to free expression as well as a misguided effort to erase a horrific moment in Indonesia's history," said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of Free Expression Programs at PEN American. A PEN International statement noted that "Festivals are forums where difficult conversations are meant to take place, and by preventing these conversations, local authorities have undermined freedom of expression and kept old wounds buried." "The Indonesian massacres of 1965 were exceptional in their scale and have had a lasting impact on ethnic relations within Indonesia," said Salil Tripathi, chair of PEN International's Writers-in-Prison Committee.
Within days more than 290 writers around the world, including several guests at the Ubud festival, joined PEN International by signing a statement condemning the interference and urging the authorities to rescind their decision.
During the 32-year rule of General Suharto, which ended in 1998, the massacre was one of many topics were off-limits. The Suharto regime either kept silent about the massacre, treating it as a non-event, or promoted the myth that the army saved the nation from communists. The six-volume "National History of Indonesia" contains one vague and factually incorrect sentence on the killings - and even that did not make it into school textbooks. Indonesian artists and novelists who addressed the issue faced repression over the years. More recently, local organisations have sought to locate the mass graves and assist the survivors, although open discussion of the events is still considered taboo.
Without transparency, there can be little hope for truth, justice, reconciliation, or redress for the families of the victims. The United States and Indonesian governments have been urged to declassify and make public all documents related to the mass killings as a key step toward obtaining justice for those crimes. In December 2014, Senator Tom Udall introduced a "Sense of the Senate Resolution" urging U.S. authorities to release the related documents from their files. Human Rights Watch supports an ongoing campaign encouraging the public to sign a petition in support of the Resolution.
The Oslo Times/Ifex