A monument to the generals slain in the failed coup. Photo: Vital Photography.

A monument to the generals slain in the failed coup. Photo: Vital Photography.

Fear of the future explains failure to grapple with the past.

With each passing year, the memories of violent death dim the way that old photographs lose their colour.

It’s now been 50 long years since that night in Jakarta on 30 September when seven Indonesian army officers including six generals were slaughtered by rebel troops, unleashing an orgy of violence across much of Java and Bali where it still remains unclear if more or less than a million people died.

The victims were for the most part ordinary Indonesians from towns and villages across Java and Bali, killed cruelly and without mercy, usually cudgeled or strangled in the middle of the night, on the merest hint of communist sympathy.

Most would have joined some communist party organised activities – with a membership of at least three million, it was one of the largest political parties in the country and had the tacit backing of President Sukarno, the nation’s founder. Many of the victims were educated, as it was believed that intellectuals were prone to communism sympathies. You faced death merely if you wore spectacles.

For three long decades, the victims suffered in silence. Every year to mark the attempted coup on 30 September, President Soeharto’s New Order government showed a dramatic reconstruction of the events on that fateful night which portrayed the murdered generals as heroes, and the communist plotters as brutal killers, staying silent on the mass killings that followed.

There was hope for a reckoning of the past after 1998, when Indonesia threw off the authoritarian yoke and finally embraced the democratic system envisaged by the country’s founding fathers.

But liberal democracy has proven a weak tool for either justice or reconciliation in Indonesia. The media’s ability to chronicle Indonesia’s tragic past has not resulted in a collective commitment to establishing the truth or holding those responsible accountable.

Instead, the victims have been tortured further – promised some form of recognition in the form of a national apology, only to be told that the killings were justified by an aggressive conservative establishment that continues to stand by its anti-communist beliefs three decades after communism collapsed.

When he was President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono endorsed a National Human Rights Commission report into the killings. The voluminous report recommended action to provide redress to the victims. Yudhoyono contemplated a national apology, but met with fierce resistance from within the ranks of the military and the Islamic establishment, whose members carried out many of the killings.

Perhaps this was a vain hope; Yudhoyono’s own father in law, Sarwo Edhie, was the Special Forces General ordered to initiate the crackdown on communists and their sympathisers. To make matters worse, before the end of his Presidential term, Yudhoyono mulled a proposal to make Sarwo Edhie a national hero.

A re-enactment from the failed coup of 1965 at Indonesia's national monument.

A re-enactment from the 1965 killings at Indonesia’s national monument.

There was renewed hope that Indonesian President Joko Widodo, popularly elected last year and with no links to the old conservative establishment, would finally address the issue. Contemplating an apology for human rights abuses was one of the many vague promises he made as he rode to power. But as the 50th anniversary approaches, his officials say the President has more pressing issues of social and economic development to attend to.

The army remains a strong pillar of the establishment and seems unwilling to make amends for its bloody past. Indeed, there is still anger in military circles about the alleged communist involvement in the deaths of the generals. “We are victims too,” one former military officer once told me.

Neither do the Islamic organisations implicated in carrying out the killings want their role highlighted by any move to apologise for the past. News of Joko Widodo’s decision not to issue an apology this year came after a meeting with Muhammadiya, the country’s second largest Muslim organisation.

Behind the excuses, the disappointment and the failure to address what the rest of the world considers a forgotten genocide, lies a profound fear of the future. “What did the Communists want?” asked a conservative figure at one meeting to discuss reconciliation during Yudhoyono’s administration. “They wanted land reform.” Then he asked: “Do we have land reform today?”

Fear of social change in a society still plagued by inequality perhaps explains why anti-communists protests still happen each time political leaders contemplate addressing the mass killings. The poverty rate may have halved in the last 15 years, but income distribution has become much more unequal; about 40 per cent of the country’s 250 million people still live on less than $2 per day

Threats to social cohesion could also be a factor preventing accountability. Javanese society in 1965 was composed of a more balanced mixture of Christian and Muslim communities; the communist party made gains in the Christian community, and anti-communist sentiment found root among Muslims.

It is no secret that much of the actual killing was carried out by Muslim youth gangs and militia, encouraged and armed by the army. Afterwards many Christians converted to Islam to escape suspicion and further harassment. The legacy of accelerated Islamicisation since then has weakened the traditional cultural mechanisms for maintaining harmony between faiths, and religious conflict is on the rise.

Opening up these old wounds, many Indonesians argue, will only highlight modern inequalities and reinforce social divisions that already frequently result in conflict. So why rock the boat?

The old photographs may fade and the images of death and immense suffering on such a massive scale all but physically disappear, but the collective social trauma lives on in the Indonesian psyche. It appears in the creative works of writers like Leila Chudori and Laksmi Pamuntjak who were born just before or after the killings. It has been vividly expressed by some of the actors themselves – both killers and their victims – in the films of Joshua Oppenheimer.

What photographs hide is how people feel; deep down many Indonesians feel ashamed about a period in their history they can’t erase. This dark spot on the past clouds their vision of the future.

Michael Vatikiotis is a writer and peace mediator whose novel ‘The Painter of Lost Souls’ dwells on the challenges of remembering Indonesia’s violent past.