Katharine McGregor and Jemma Purdey examine the links between the Ubud writers festival cancellations, the police and Indonesia’s massacre of 1965.
The forced cancellation by local Gianyar (Bali) police of panels and other events related to discussions of 1965 at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival last week, has left us asking why the police in Bali, but also elsewhere in Indonesia, continue to censor discussions of this past.
Is this indeed related to concerns about security as the police so often state when they pressure groups to cancel events related to discussions of 1965? Or is something else at play?
The justification given by Gianyar Police Chief Farman for the cancellations was that these events might ‘disturb security’. He stated that no permission had been granted to discuss this topic, that these events would commemorate the Indonesian Communist Party, and/or promote the spread of communist ideology.
This kind of rationale is in fact routine and has a long history in police justifications for warning-off groups of people wanting to investigate, discuss, address or commemorate the 1965 violence. According to Indonesian organisation ELSAM, in the year since October 2014, 27 events related to 1965 have been restricted or banned.
Most recently, on 10 October police asked the editors of Lentera, the student magazine from Satya Wacana University covering the 1965 violence in the surrounding area, to pull the publication and burn all remaining copies. The police interrogated the chief editor of the magazine arguing that it was illegal and not suitable for broad distribution.
In March, police forced the Solo based SEKBER 65 (Joint Secretariat) to cancel a meeting of its members to discuss the provision of government health care with members of the National Commission of Human Rights. The police informed the Secretariat a day before the meeting that they could not guarantee security and safety due to alleged threats from local Islamic groups. The police attended the venue the next day, but did nothing to protect the meeting, instead allowing the protest to proceed.
Despite the opening up of discussions and research related to 1965, police continue to block efforts to address this period in Indonesia’s past, conjuring up old fears and creating new ones among the victims and their supporters. But what are their motivations?
Research into the mass violence of 1965 is ongoing and there are many aspects not yet fully understood. Increasingly, however, through oral history and archive-based research scholars are beginning to piece together more information about who carried out the violence.
Jess Melvin’s forthcoming book Mechanics of Mass Murder: Understanding the Indonesian Genocide as a Centralised and Intentional Military Campaign (Hawaii University Press), for example, details how together with the Indonesian army ‘provincial and district-level Police Commanders were involved in all major decision-making relating to the coordination of the genocide in Aceh’.
The central role of the police in the violence is connected to the fact that they were part of the armed forces until 2001. Since then they have continued to receive some training and work closely with the military.
In the many published collections of survivor accounts now available in Indonesian and also in translation, it is commonly recounted that in the initial stage of their detention, people were asked to report to local police and military police posts for questioning.
After interrogation, which often lasted for days and involved torture and forced confessions as to their involvement in the 30th of September Movement, prisoners were commonly held in military police gaols and/or transferred to prisons and makeshift detention centres. In Yogyakarta, for example, the headquarters of the military police was used to detain and investigate those arrested.
In The Dark Side of Paradise, historian Geoffrey Robinson has documented the direct role of the Chief of Police Intelligence and the Regional Chief of Military Police in Bali in the initial inspection team charged with screening Balinese for alleged involvement in the 30th of September Movement.
According to Robinson, a Dutch journalist who visited western Gianyar in 1966 reported the use of police trucks by local militants to round up suspected communists and take them to another village to be killed. She also reported that people were shot dead in police prisons.
The books in the series we were to launch in Ubud, Translating Accounts of the 1965-66 mass violence in Indonesia, detail the experiences of the 1965 violence from different perspectives. The second volume in our series Breaking the Silence: Survivors speak about 1965-66 violence in Indonesia (Monash University Press, 2014) is edited by the Balinese former political prisoner and writer Putu Oka Sukanta. This volume includes testimony dealing with experiences of police persecution and the role of police involved in 1965.
Gianyar born I Ketut Sumarta, a singer and actor with a small arts and dance group, recounted that he was arrested in 1968 by the police and military police who tortured and interrogated him. After his release in 1977 he was required to continue to report to the police when unsympathetic community members made complaints about him.
Ketut noted that ‘the threat (from police) was always subtle…’ . This demonstrates how police play an ongoing role in the monitoring and intimidation of former political prisoners.
In the same collection is the story of Beny, a former policeman from Soe in West Timor, who confesses to his daughter about his role in the 1965 killings. He testified:
I wanted to become a policeman first of all because of that smart uniform. But it wasn’t just the uniform. The uniform allowed me to protect people who were weak and who stood up for what is right. But experiencing that two years of bloodshed, of people being killed without trial, made me ask – is it true that the police uphold what’s right?
Beny details how the army instructed the police to interrogate, detain and kill suspected members of the Indonesian Communist Party and members of sympathetic organisations. With the military and under their instruction, they arrested and executed people in nearby forests. Beny was one of the few appointed executioners who shot prisoners after they dug their own graves and were beaten and blindfolded.
Beny recounts how members of the firing squads were given quotas – one quota for the army and one quota for the police. He calculated that he himself killed 17 people. His commanders told him he was ‘doing his duty to defend the nation’. All his life Beny has wrestled with his feelings and suffered trauma.
The role of police in enacting censorship in relation to events focused on the history of 1965 must therefore be understood in terms of their own complicity in the violence itself and its aftermath.
These two stories from Breaking the Silence signal the multi-perspective approach that Indonesian researchers and writers take to the topic of 1965 and which was to be discussed in various sessions at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival.
The cancelled panels at Ubud consisted of 11 speakers, all Indonesians, who seek to understand and acknowledge the tremendous impact of this mass scale violence on everyday Indonesians including policemen and their families.
In this process as they reveal the wide web of complicity in the 1965 violence they are most certainly uncovering sensitive truths.
Jemma Purdey and Katharine McGregor, are editors of the Herb Feith Translation Series Translating Accounts of the 1965-66 Mass Violence in Indonesia, Monash University Publishing. Their panels at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival were cancelled on Friday, 23 October.