Sunday, January 24, 2010

Indonesia still struggling to confront history

There's an interesting Banyan column in this week's edition of The Economist (to which I contribute) about the recent banning of a number of books and a DVD by the Indonesian government.

The Economist argues that the decision to ban the works - which mostly deal with the dark events during and after Suharto's rise to power - stems less from a desire for censorship in general than from a distinct lack of willingness to face up to history.

One of the major stumbling blocks, according to The Economist, is the massacre of hundreds of thousands of alleged communists and leftists as Suharto consolidated his power in 1965-66.

Most of the books in question are histories; guidebooks to parts of that foreign country which the government still wants to keep out of bounds. One tackles the mysterious atrocities that still haunt Indonesia: the massacre of hundreds of thousands of alleged communists and others as Suharto consolidated his power in 1965-66. Few horrors have been so unexamined. In Cambodia a flawed judicial process is at last asking questions about the Khmer Rouge terror from 1975-78. Even in China the show-trial of the Gang of Four served to hold a few responsible for the crimes of the many in the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). But in the villages of Java and Bali people still live side-by-side with their parents’ murderers or their families. And the torrent of bloodshed in which they were bereaved has never been officially acknowledged, let alone subjected to a truth-and-reconciliation commission.

Part of the reason that Indonesia is yet to confront the murky realities of this period is because many members of today's political establishment - including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono - were part of the Suharto regime.

But, as Cambridge historian Rachel Leow (who I met on a recent trip to my alma mater) mentions on her blog, this paranoia about recent history is common to many regimes in Southeast Asia.

On a basic level, this can be explained by the fact that the majority of governments in the region practice or have until recently practiced some form of authoritarian control.

But, more importantly, most of the ruling politicians and parties in Southeast Asia claim political legitimacy on historical grounds, often because of direct links to the anti-colonial movement.

So history is less an academic pursuit than a potential political battleground, which governments with authoritarian instincts want to control.

Incidentally, for those interested in the 1965-1966 political massacres in Indonesia, there is a great collection of essays on the subject in the latest edition of Inside Indonesia, an Australian online magazine.




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