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Sumardi, 44, a Karawang resident says the days when Karawang villagers repeatedly found bodies from the penembakan misterius (mysterious shootings), or Petrus, in the area of Citarum River, Karawang, West Java, remain fresh in his memory.

“I remember it was 1984, and I was 16. We found bodies floating in Citarum River maybe once every two days, some of them had tattoos, some had no tattoos at all,” he said.

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The National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) announced on Tuesday that the summary execution-style killings between 1982 and 1985, known locally as penembakan misterius (mysterious shootings), or Petrus, were a gross violation of human rights as they involved systematic extra-judicial killing, torture and abduction.

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Oral history is a technique with its very own history (see Thompson, 1988). It is regularly defined in this era as some variation of, “the recorded reminiscences of a person who has first hand knowledge of any number of experiences.” In reviewing the literature, I have discovered seventy definitions of oral history, many of which are overlapping. For ease of understanding this paper, the notion of recording participants’ memories in some form seems to fit. Early in the last century, oral history focused on interviewing elite persons such as generals, famous artists or scientists, great leaders of nations, or anyone who surfaced as distinctive within a given community. At the same time local individuals who had a strong memory of a town, city, state, or region were sometimes seen as knowledgeable in terms of historical events. Thus, it is helpful to view oral history itself on a continuum. On one end, the most sophisticated individual elite may be interviewed, while on the other end we have the most ordinary everyday citizen. Each has much to tell us as we come to understand society in all its complexity.

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In keeping with the overt symbolism that marked political monuments in Suharto’s New Order, the Department of the Interior on Jakarta’s main square was ornamented with a giant kentongan. A kentongan is an instrument made from a hollowed branch that is struck to give off a sound. Kentongan have been used by neighborhood watches (rondo) in Java’s towns and villages for centuries as devices to keep thieves away, to call forth populations for territorial defense, and to keep people alert and ready toward off threats to community well-being. Hung by a mosque, in a guard house, or in front of the village head’s house, it is the quintessential technology for community policing. The kentongan at the Department of the Interior, by virtue of its size and location, would seem to represent a departure from the strictly local connotations of village kentongan. This grand kentongan was undoubtedly meant to provide the many thousands of kentongan in the nation’s villages and towns with a new center with which to resonate. Through a sort of crude symbolism, the installation of this kentongan signified the subordination of local security apparatuses to the overarching security framework provided by the state.

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The question “What does working through the past mean?” requires explication. It follows from a formulation, a modish slogan that has become highly suspect during the last years. In this usage “working through the past” does not mean seriously working upon the past, that is, through a lucid consciousness breaking its power to fascinate. On the contrary, its intention is to close the books on the past and, if possible, even remove it from memory. The attitude that everything should be forgotten and forgiven, which would be proper for those who suffered injustice, is practiced by those party supporters who committed the injustice. I wrote once in a scholarly dispute: in the house of the hangman one should not speak of the noose, otherwise one might seem to harbor resentment. However, the tendency toward the unconscious and not so unconscious defensiveness against guilt is so absurdly associated with the thought of working through the past that there is sufficient reason to reflect upon a domain from which even now there emanates such a horror that one hesitates to call it by name.

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It seems to me not unnecessary to keep on reminding students of the far-reaching changes which psycho-analytic technique has undergone since its first beginnings. In its first phase—that of Breuer’s catharsis—it consisted in bringing directly into focus the moment at which the symptom was formed, and in persistently endeavouring to reproduce the mental processes involved in that situation, in order to direct their discharge along the path of conscious activity. Remembering and abreacting, with the help of the hypnotic state, were what was at that time aimed at. Next, when hypnosis had been given up, the task became one of discovering from the patient’s free associations what he failed to remember. The resistance was to be circumvented by the work of interpretation and by making its results known to the patient. The situations which had given rise to the formation of the symptom and the other situations which lay behind the moment at which the illness broke out retained their place as the focus of interest; but the element of abreaction receded into the background and seemed to be replaced by the expenditure of work which the patient had to make in being obliged to overcome his criticism of his free associations, in accordance with the fundamental rule of psycho-analysis.

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