Survivors' Stories: Memory of the 1965 Indonesian Tragedy in the Virtual Space

The assassination of high-ranking Indonesian army officers on the October 1, 1965, led to accusations that the Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, PKI) was behind the plot. Under the pretext of securing orders, the military under Suharto executed or arrested all members of the PKI as well as those accused of communism. Historian Robert Cribb1 in his paper entitled “How Many Deaths” writes that about 500,000 people were killed. In this paper, these events are mentioned as the 1965 Tragedy. Furthermore, the military government restricted press publications to control what people read2. The authorities orchestrated propaganda about the collective responsibility of the communists and published a white paper penned by Nugroho Notosusanto, Director of the Historical Center of the Armed Forces, to reaffirm their version of the events3. The military authorities put educational institutions at the forefront of instilling knowledge on their particular version of the 1965 coup d’état. To this day, the History curriculum developed by General Suharto’s government remains the only reference for the public 4.

Le monument Pancasila

Sacred Pancasila Monument, Jakarta.

For more than 30 years, the so-called New Order regime under General Suharto has forbidden any work proposing a different version of history. In Indonesian society, the memory of the 1965 Tragedy seems to have no place. Until today, Indonesian historiography has always struggled with the lack of sources. Therefore, finding an alternative narrative of the events is challenging. This paper discusses actions initiated by scholars, artists, activists, and concerned civilians that include narratives of former political prisoners, as well as their families, whose lives have been affected by trauma and discrimination.

Never again: the struggle of memory against forgetting the mass killings of 1965-1966

After the fall of President Suharto in 1998, many movements have emerged to preserve the memory of the mass killings and arrests of 1965-66, such as the Museum Bergerak 1965 (or the 1965 Mobile Museum) in Yogyakarta, a museum that keeps moving along the time through its collection of artifacts from survivors of the 1965 Tragedy; the Taman (Park) 65, a group formed by the children of survivors in Bali; and the Belok Kiri (Turn Left) Festival in Jakarta. Moreover, every Thursday, victims of human rights abuse, together with their families, activists, scholars, and artists hold a rally called “Kamisan” to remind the government to resolve past human rights violations. Among those in attendance are survivors of the 1965 Tragedy as well as young people, who have become the movement’s main driving force 5.

In addition, several academics and activists have tried to uncover the history related to the 1965 Tragedy. There were also several attempts to bring it to justice, as was the case by the International People’s Tribunal for 1965 (IPT 65) in Den Haag, the Netherlands, in 2015. However, the propaganda continued even after the fall of President Suharto. Since the so-called Reformation era, which began in 1998, all studies, discussions, and film screenings regarding the 1965 Tragedy are under observation. In 2017, a meeting discussion organized by survivors of 1965 at the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (Yayasan Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Indonesia, YLBHI) office in Jakarta was attacked by mass organizations, leading to the disbandment of the event6. Then in 2019, there were raids on books considered communist, and those who possessed them were arrested under the premise of disturbing public order 7.

Under General Suharto’s leadership, the New Order regime banned all forms of work and writing related to Left movements in Indonesia. The government also spread propaganda by stating that everything related to communism was forbidden. Propaganda dissemination was carried out in various ways, ranging from reporting in the mass media to books, films, and formal education in schools. Through ideology, the State instills an aversive attitude towards individuals or groups of people who are seen as threatening its power and, at the same time, develops a collective memory of the 1965 Tragedy. In this way, the State neutralizes its political opponents.

A new way of inheriting memories

As the COVID-19 pandemic drove people to stay indoors, many social movements have transferred to social media. With the digital revolution arriving in full swing at the beginning of the 21st century, internet sources have become available to the public and brought the world closer to people at the click of a mouse. The COVID-19 pandemic period has shown how the virtual world and the physical one are embedded in daily practice. Such development in digital technology has encouraged efforts to move to virtual spaces with various formats and has helped bring social movements to the forefront. More and more human rights advocates and scholars of the 1965 Tragedy have also adopted digital channels to make their voices heard, convey their demands, and offer alternative accounts of the 1965 events to the historical narrative manipulated by the authoritarian regime.

For example, Faith in Speculations (FIS) 65, initiated by Rangga Purbaya and Sirin Farid Stevy with its interactive online cartography; 1965 Setiap Hari (1965 Every Day), which airs interviews with survivors through podcasts; Ingat 65 (Remember 1965) through a collection of young people’s writings; Young Scholars 1965 through online discussion programs; and the 1965-1966 Genocide online library, which collects all related publications. Not to mention the film screenings that can be watched via the internet, such as “A Thousand and One Martian Nights” by Tintin Wulia, “Denoting the Generation: Youth Perspective and Tragedy of 65” by Studio Malya, or the online festival “120 Hours in Distance” which was initiated by Sirin Farid Stevy and friends.

Unlike the previous generation, who focused more on publishing writings, the current generation seems to be taking advantage of technology by presenting their creative works on the internet. Such encounters through virtual spaces encourage people to re-actualize the virtuality of the past in their present time by taking responsibility for the memory of the 1965 Tragedy through reflection on themselves as audiences or spectators. This interaction creates a dialogue between present and past. Virtual memory, then, can be understood as a particular way of thinking about memory practices, which are particularly prominent when looking back at traumatic accounts and trying to remember from a post-witness position 8.

Because most of these new generations were born when the New Order systematically buried the 1965 violence by limiting access to archives and documents, they try to collect information through oral sources. The identity displayed by this generational group is also diverse, not only dominated by academics and survivors. For instance, a discussion forum, Warisan Ingatan (the heritage of memory) has become a ‘melting pot’ for survivors, academics, activists, artists, and concerned citizens. In this forum, dialogues or narrative exchanges between generations fill in the gaps in understanding the 1965 Tragedy.

Image 3

Warisan Ingatan webinar’s posters (Designed by Sirin Farid Stevy). Left top to right bottom: “The story of political prisoners of 65 – who are they?”; “Women fighters behind bars”; “Documenting the history of 1965 through writings and photos”; “Understanding the events of 1965 - Voice of the third generation”.

This kind of action corresponds to what the historian Baskara T. Wardaya describes in a statement: that memory is a relational phenomenon, where narratives pass through time and space, dynamically connecting the individuals, groups, and events 9. The discussions, writings, and works of art in virtual space related to the Tragedy have contributed to build a forum for dialogue across generations to compose and present an alternative historical perspective that could bring a change. Therefore, groups in this virtual space play an important role in the memory landscape by interpreting, shaping, communicating, and even recalling long-buried memories.

By circulating through various pulpits, the work of these groups is able to reach viewers and even open up opportunities for direct interaction. This virtual dialogue becomes a place where people talk about how memories are formed and interpreted through daily interactions, not just recount in detail the sadistic actions that can make people “numb” to violence. The virtual allows us to return to historical events in experiential ways. It offers an engagement with a trauma that we cannot experience for ourselves as real, but which we can feel up close. In addition, the nature of the virtual world in respect to memory attracts people’s attention because it bridges the layers of the past and the present. In other words, virtual space can invite us to face an event that happened in the past. It is also not simply symbolic of tangible things; instead, it leaves an imprint on our world experience 10.

Warisan Ingatan: free the voices by engaging the senses

As time is ticking for the survivors of the 1965 Tragedy as well as individuals who witnessed the tragedy, the need to record their accounts of this period is crucial. Recognizing the urgency of this situation, the forum Warisan Ingatan has called attention to the political urgency of this ongoing memory erasure and has intensified its efforts to document the oral history. This discussion forum was initiated to prevent the irretrievable loss of an invaluable source of historical and identity knowledge. Moreover, Warisan Ingatan seeks an in-depth account of personal experience and reflections, while granting narrators sufficient time to give their full stories as they wish. It is not solely interested in the documentation for its own sake; instead, it creates a meeting place of memories that can be a reference for the public. Warisan Ingatan, therefore, offers anyone who lived through this period and witnessed the tragedy to share their memories and memorabilia, such as objects, photos, or sketches.

Such a method is not that new. Since the mid-1980s, oral historians have progressively attempted to study language as the power that forms oral stories and gives meaning to historical events. In addition, oral narratives provide valuable first-hand testimony about the past, describing events from the perspectives of those who narrate them. Their language, chosen words, tone, and content might, in some cases, mirror socio-political conditions at the moment that may provide an alternative version of history 11. It is also interesting to follow the “creative work” of false memory during the discussion. Therefore, it is important to highlight that oral stories remain fragile in many ways and that we must handle them prudently. Eyewitness stories are sometimes imprecise, biased, incomplete, exaggerated, imaginary, or false. The digitalization of the collective memory will not change the fact that the weight of the events recounted and their legacy, positive or traumatic, is part of the process of the oral construction of the narrative. Therefore, it is necessary to listen to the story and decipher its process of existence.

Nevertheless, these new digital spaces make it easier for people to tell their stories. The accumulation of testimonies then makes it possible to cross-reference stories and validate or invalidate certain information or even entire testimonies. The reinterpretation of oral narratives through the prism of written sources, archives, and audiovisual and photographic corpus is also a necessary and informative task. Moreover, this precious corpus can be preserved and shared worldwide for future generations of citizens and researchers.

Virtual space as a memory practice

We can extend the ideas of inheriting memories to the current context by thinking about how bodily involvement in memory practices can encourage those who have no personal connection to a particular past to become affectively involved in the transmission of their memory. How might the Warisan Ingatan discussion forum encourage audiences to recognize the actual in memory? How does such a virtual discussion forum actively involve the embodied audiences in this re-actualization process, building a collective memory of a past they did not experience? We suggest that virtual social movements are not merely digital works but can help us understand a particular methodology for remembering the past that persists across a range of forms.

The digital world has uncovered something previously entirely hidden from us. This movement has amassed a collection of oral stories from survivors of the 1965 Tragedy, their families, and individuals who were present during the events, providing invaluable historical information that can be used by future generations. The transmission of this responsibility for memory is essential as we approach the post-witness era. In relation to the history of the 1965 Tragedy, virtual space has evolved into a sort of memory practice as well as a medium.

Unfold notes and references
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Cribb Robert, "How many deaths? Problems in the statistics of massacre in Indonesia (1965-1966) and East Timor (1975-1980)" In Wessel Ingrid and Wimhöfer Georgia (eds.), Violence in Indonesia, Hamburg, Abera-Verl, 2001, 82-100.

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Estrelita Gloria Truly, « Penyebaran Hate Crime oleh Negara Terhadap Kebudayaan Rakyat », Université d'Indonesie, Djakarta, 2010.

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Madinier Rémy, « La tragédie de 1965 en Indonésie : une historiographie renouvelée, une mémoire toujours tronquée », Archipel. Études interdisciplinaires sur le monde insulindien, n° 88, 2014, 189-212.

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Tan Paige Johnson, « Enseigner et se souvenir », Inside Indonesia, 4 mai 2008.

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Walden Victoria, « Qu’est-ce que la “mémoire virtuelle de l’Holocauste” ? », Memory Studies, 22 novembre 2019, 175069801988871.

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Eickhoff Martijn, Donny Danardono, Tjahjono Rahardjo et Hotmauli Sidabalok, « Les paysages de la mémoire de “1965” à Semarang », Journal of Genocide Research 19, n° 4 (2 octobre 2017), 530–550.

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Walden, Victoria. “What Is ‘Virtual Holocaust Memory’?” Memory Studies, November 22, 2019, 175069801988871.

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Etter-Lewis, G. “Reclaiming.” In Sherna Berger Gluck and Daphne Patai (eds.), Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History, London, Routledge, 1991.