Fri, 17 Mar 2000

Our conscience

Indonesia must count as one of the few nations in the world which can remain indifferent to the carnage that saw more than half a million of their own people killed 30 years ago. The regime of president Soeharto, through sinister social engineering, managed to brainwash almost the entire nation into regarding what happened in the mid-1960s as a historical necessity. The line taken by the regime, and by most people in the country today, is that the bloodshed which erupted in the aftermath of the abortive coup in September 1965 was a price worth paying in preventing the nation from falling into communist hands. The economic progress which the regime brought about over the next 30 years helped give further justification for the holocaust.

It is fortunate, therefore, that there is still some sanity among Indonesia's emerging leaders today who have not been completely brainwashed. President Abdurrahman Wahid in a TV interview on Tuesday gave the official green light to reopen the case surrounding the September 30 Movement (G30S), as the 1965 attempted coup is officially referred to, and its tragic aftermath. The President, in his previous role as chairman of the Nahdlatul Ulama, has repeatedly apologized for the role that members of his Muslim organization played in the carnage. Now he is inviting the public to take the initiative to reopen the case and help establish the truth about what really happened back then.

While official history books briefly mention the carnage, not surprisingly they refrain from giving the number of people slaughtered. Vivid accounts of the bloodshed crop up in some literature, including references to Bengawan Solo turning red from the blood of the bodies dumped in the legendary Java river. But these were horrible accounts that our already brainwashed nation would rather forget, or worse still, distort. The death toll, and fuller accounts of the bloodshed, can be found in foreign literature. Their estimate of more than half a million deaths have never been refuted by the authorities to this day.

The general public's acceptance of the tragedy in the mid- 1960s as a historical necessity also explains this nation's penchant for violence today. Here is a regime which not only condoned violence, but was founded upon violence, and sustained its power for the next 30 years or so through violence. Almost every major problem was solved by the regime in the only way it knew how: the use of violence. Society soon picked up this habit, and also began resorting to violence in resolving disputes. The violent instances of unrest which erupted in East Timor, Aceh, Ambon and North Maluku over the past year are not only legacies of the Soeharto regime; they are symptoms of a sick society.

One of the biggest challenges facing this nation, now that it is finally adhering to democracy, is to change society's violent habits. It is a tall order indeed, but President Abdurrahman, who was known first and foremost as a humanist well before becoming a politician, has made the right start. He has now invited members of the public to come to terms with our violent past, inviting them to review the events around the G30S and its bloody aftermath.

Society must now take up this challenge to uncover the truth surrounding what must rank as the darkest page of the nation's modern history. The goal is not to exact revenge, for we would then all be guilty of complicity. In any case, there would be little sense in prosecuting those most responsible. Most of them have died and the few survivors, like Soeharto, are old and sickly.

Society nevertheless has a duty to the victims of that tragic episode and to their offspring, who have equally suffered society's wrath simply because of their kinship. The ultimate aim in reopening the G30S file, however, is to clear, once and for all, our conscience of this collective guilt. Only then can we get on with our lives without being haunted by our past misdeeds.