Retas Sejarah

Annie Pohlman // Telling Stories about Torture in Indonesia: Managing Risk in a Culture of Impunity

It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of civilians were tortured by members of the security forces in Indonesia throughout the New Order regime (1965-1998). This authoritarian, militarist regime seized power following an attempted coup in Jakarta on 1 October 1965. In the aftermath of that coup, elements of the Indonesian military took the opportunity to eradicate their main political rivals, the Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, or PKI) and all those associated with it. Between October 1965 and March 1966, it is estimated that half a million PKI members and associates were murdered, while a further million were rounded up and held in political detention. Of those detained, hundreds of thousands are estimated to have been interrogated and tortured between 1965 and 1970.

While the killings and mass detentions that followed the 1965 coup represent the single largest case of mass atrocities, over the thirty-three years of the regime, there were other comparable cases of large-scale state violence. Ten years after coming to power, the New Order regime invaded East Timor and occupied the country for twenty-four years. Throughout the occupation, there were frequent cases of crimes against humanity, including mass killing, rape and torture, as well as famine and other humanitarian disasters. Members of the East Timorese resistance were targeted by military campaigns and thousands of resistance members, their family members, communities and other civilians are estimated to have been tortured by Indonesian security forces throughout the occupation. Torture was also frequently perpetrated against civilians and those considered “subversive” or “rebellious” in other parts of Indonesia, in particular, the militarized zones of Aceh and Papua. As a legacy of decades of state violence, torture and ill-treatment are endemic within the country’s security apparatus in post-New Order Indonesia.

This paper investigates issues of danger and risk brought to bear in a large research project that documents the physical, sexual and mental forms of torture perpetrated against civilians throughout the New Order regime in Indonesia. The project relies on survivor and eye-witness testimonies collected through oral history interviews conducted across several regions of Indonesia and Timor Leste. In this paper, however, I focus on the violence of 1965-66 and problematize the collection of testimonies about experiences of torture at the hands of State agents in Indonesia. I examine the process of collecting these testimonies and address some of the many issues raised during the fieldwork. In particular, I explore how the dangers and risks involved in telling stories about torture in Indonesia are spread across space and time in the testimonies of survivors. These included dangers of revisiting events long past but intimately remembered, the hazards of speaking about the dead, as well as the more urgent, political and social risks posed by giving testimony in Indonesia today.

To highlight how themes of risk and danger became a central part of telling stories about violence under the New Order, I begin by outlining some of the military regime’s measures to suppress dissenting versions of Indonesia’s history, including the effects of these measures on the regime’s many victims. I then discuss some of the contexts in which I interviewed survivors about their experiences, drawing specific attention to the dangers remembered and recounted in testimonies. These dangers, however, are not only those remembered but also those that persist in recreated forms in the present. To reveal some of these present dangers, I recount one incident at length which occurred during my fieldwork in Central Java that highlights the ongoing risks associated with talking about a suppressed past in Indonesia.

The New Order and Three Decades of Silence

Ibu Lani: The military wanted to be in control. They wanted it so that the people wouldn’t resist or fight back. Of course they were in control for a very long time. Everyone was made stupid. They were all made stupid for so long, they were in power for so long because the people were all stupid. They were terrified.

Ibu Nana: Because if you’re afraid, then you aren’t brave enough to speak out.

Ibu Lani: No one was brave enough to speak up. No one was ever brave enough again […] because the killings were terrible. The public were terrified. By showing off the violence like that, by showing people what could happen, it was frightening. Terrifying. If you frighten people, you make them stupid. If they’re stupid, they won’t criticize you or resist. That was the aim of it all.

Ibu Nana: Our lips were sealed by those events. By that savagery.

Ibu Lani and Ibu Nana are survivors of the killings and arrests that swept across Indonesia in 1965-1966. Both were members of Communist organizations and both lost members of their families in the massacres. They were also both arrested and detained as political prisoners. In detention, they were interrogated, tortured and sexually assaulted by members of the military and police. After nearly ten years in political detention, they were finally released and returned home to their villages, both in the highland areas of West Sumatra.


Continue to original article (PDF) >>


Submit comment