Book Review: Truth Will Out. Indonesian Accounts of the 1965 Mass Violence, edited by Baskara T. Wardaya SJ

in Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde / Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia

Baskara T. Wardaya SJ (ed.), Truth Will Out. Indonesian Accounts of the 1965 Mass Violence, Translated by Jennifer Lindsay. Clayton: Monash University Publishing, 2013, xliii + 179 pp. ISBN 9781922235145. Price: USD 39.95 (paperback).

‘Truth Will Out’ is an important book containing a collection of personal accounts on mass violence in Indonesia following the 1965 coup. It starts with witnesses from diverse backgrounds (a member of the military forces, two Muslims, a follower of Javanese mysticism, and a Catholic) who were sometimes standing very close to the actual perpetrators. Then it gives voice to a group of survivors (including a former freedom fighter, a Chinese man, a man who was arrested and imprisoned without a clear cause, a member of the communist youth group Pemuda Rakyat, two relatives of a political prisoner, and a woman accused of being a member of the communist women’s organisation Gerwani). The interviews have been collected during a collaborative oral-history project of the Centre for History and Political Ethics (Pusat Sejarah dan Etika Politik/PUSdEP) of the Sanata Dharma University in Yogyakarta. Baskara, initiator of the oral history project, and Ronnie Hatley, academic consultant of the PUSdEP, both wrote separate introductions on the methods and socio-political aims of the book. Being a historian and ordained Jesuit priest, Baskara stresses in his conclusion—rather humble, and probably inspired by his Christian values—the importance of questioning ‘where we ourselves stand’ when dealing with ‘1965’; he does this without mentioning the problem of impunity and without acknowledging the importance of repairing injustice. Even so, his words are not empty. As in the last section of the book, his call for self-reflection have indeed been taken up by Y. Tri Subagya and G. Budi Subanar, who critically study the role and position of the Catholic hierarchy and laity in Yogyakarta during 1965 and the following New Order-years.

With its many authors and complex structure, the book can be read in different ways. Following the observation of Jennifer Lindsay in her ‘Translator’s Introduction’, it can exemplify how in the post-New-Order-era, a group of Indonesian scholars and human rights activists, based at an Indonesian academic institution and mostly educated under the New Order, are dealing with a terrible aspect of their history. But the book also reconfirms the power of oral history as a method, developed in the 1960s in order to give the socially marginalized a voice in history. The testimonies in this book furthermore show that for the interviewees, the act of remembering can also be part of a survivor strategy. Prisoners were often able to carry on thanks to the memories of people dear to them, who they left behind when they were being arrested. The account of the ex-political-prisoner from Buru island nicknamed Al Capone moreover shows that remembering the names of prisoners, transports, organisational structures, and acts of violence, including executions, provides him with a kind of witness-agency. Against this background, Baskara speaks in his introduction of the ‘victory of memory’.

The key outcome of the book is, however, that it shows the very existence of a thriving historical culture in Indonesia with regard to ‘1965’. There might still be a climate of enforced silence, but more and more people are interested in listening to the stories of survivors. The audiences may still be small, and there may be many Indonesians who remain convinced that communism is a threat for contemporary society, but collecting memories of survivors is obviously no longer self-evidently equalled to the spreading of communism. This book furthermore shows that especially among those who experienced this episode of mass violence, as a survivor or witness, there exists a strong need for a better understanding of what had actually happened. Without exception, people interpret their memories and give meaning to them. Some see political tensions among the elite as the main cause of the violence, whereas others stress the role of—manipulated—economic problems, the international context of the Cold War, or the transgression of religious laws.

As a result, this book not only convincingly confronts the official state version of the 1965 ‘tragedy’ with counter narratives, and thus proves the insufficiency of this master narrative, but also contributes to the important realisation that this same master-narrative was and is an integral part of the violence itself. Clearly, this does not mean that each new story brings us closer to a history that is ‘more truthful’, as Hatley argues in his introduction. On the contrary, the book leaves the reader with the awareness that it is important to move beyond merely collecting counter memories, and start creating new master narratives on ‘1965’. Personal accounts—like those collected in ‘Truth Will Out’—are of pivotal importance in this context. As most of the interviewees are based in Yogyakarta and Central Java, the reader can trace certain cross-references between diverse accounts. The collected memories thus can help to create what Baskara has called ‘relational space’ by connecting people with ideas, events and sites through time and space. The construction of such an integral history of ‘1965’, covering the whole of Indonesia, would be the real victory of memory.

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