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High time for Indonesia to face its dark past

In his book The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen said that while the perception of justice is varied among societies, we naturally cannot tolerate injustice. That being said, human beings have a common idea of what qualifies as injustice and respond strongly against it.

This time of the year reminds me of a visit to a museum in Sydney, Australia, a couple of years ago where there was a special exhibition about the lost generation of Aborigines and how it took decades for the Australian government to officially apologize for that matter.

Let us return to Indonesia. Any generation that grew up during the Soeharto regime is familiar with the mandatory watching of the film G30S and the tone of condemnation against any affiliation with communists, which was somehow used as justification for any mistreatment that we, as a nation, committed against our fellow citizens. 

For years, young generations of Indonesians have been kept in the dark about our heinous past, where we stripped our own people from their life, dignity, family, future, citizenship and equal and fair treatment. The previous sentence oversimplifies the suffering of millions of Indonesians because the list of sins is so long. But I cannot continue in detail about what we have done as a nation without feeling despair and ashamed. 

Thankfully, these following people and organizations have shown us the other side of the story through their works and efforts: the Coalition for Justice and Truth (KKPK), Joshua Oppenheimer and his team through the film The Act of Killing, ELSAM’s documentary The Bacem Bridge: The Story of Survivors of 1965 Tragedy, the special edition of Tempo last year, “The Executioners’ Confession 1965” (Pengakuan Algojo 1965), the regular Thursday peaceful demonstrations (Aksi Kamisan) organized by Kontras, as well as Komnas HAM’s investigative report into 65-66 Massacre released by the previous Commission in 2012. 

These examples show that it is high time for Indonesia to face its dark past. We, as a nation, must acknowledge that during a period of time, we failed to protect our people. 

Failure to do so will only create further problems as a cycle of unresolved injustice perpetuates further injustice. Our nation has never learned from its past. We have always resorted to violence to solve our problems. We have seen this for years, a vicious circle that has no end. 

As a nation, we have claimed that we adhere to justice, the rule of law and that we are a strong proponent of human dignity. Yet we condoned the killing, summary executions, illegal detentions, slavery, torture, rape, enforced disappearances, forced evictions discrimination and persecution of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of our own people during the communist purge.

Regardless of the pros and cons about what the reason behind it was or who the real culprit was, we as a nation did nothing to stop those acts.

Have we done anything? If not doing anything qualifies as doing something, then the answer is “yes”. For those who do not understand that I am being sarcastic, we have not done anything substantial to right our wrongs, even during the last two presidential terms. 

At the same time, we witnessed the Dutch take responsibility for their past mistakes in two important cases: Rawagede and Westerling. Both cases show us how a country can use judicial or non-judicial means to address its dark history with dignity.

This nation needs to take measures, be it judicially or non-judicially, to address the crux of the matter. We cannot just sweep it under the rug just because we do not like to admit our own faults. As a nation, we have a moral responsibility to acknowledge our past mistakes, to remedy them, and to try our best to prevent similar mistakes from happening again. 

Such measures should reflect our nation’s consciousness to guide us through turbulent times without forgetting the real meaning of being a nation. 

That is more important than any excuses, such as the fear of financial costs or any political maneuvers to win a favorable place in the upcoming election. 

Many survivors have perished without any chance of redress or just to see their names rehabilitated. There are still more waiting for the nation to recognize their grief, loss and suffering. They do not have much time left. Will we still persistently refuse to do nothing?

The writer is program coordinator at the Human Rights Resource Center (HRRC) and a member of the Indonesian Civil Society Coalition for the International Criminal Court (Indonesian CICC).


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