Retas Sejarah

John Roosa // Who Knows? Oral History Methods in the Study of the Massacres of 1965-66 in Indonesia

Who knows what the army did with them there – what was clear was that the trucks went off fully loaded and came back empty (Pipit Rochijat, “Am I PKI or Non-PKI”, 1985).

In his wonderful, now classic essay “The Death of Luigi Trastulli,” Alessandro Portelli compares newspaper accounts of the police firing upon a crowd of street demonstrators in a small town in Italy in 1949 with the social memory of that killing. He finds the memories of the town’s working class community, which has eulogized the victim of that shooting in songs and stories, to be in error. Instead of using oral history to figure out “what really happened,” Portelli uses it to think about why people have misremembered the past. Portelli’s later book, The Order Has Been Carried Out, follows a similar procedure. It relies on written records to establish the facticity of an event: German troops occupying Rome in 1944 massacred 355 people as a collective punishment for an attack by the resistance that claimed 32 soldiers.

He explains that he uses written records to “establish a problematic but plausible framework of events, against which the creative work of memory and narrative can be measured and tested.” While Portelli draws upon the interviews to clarify certain details of the massacre and provide a richer historical context, he is particularly concerned with the “creative work” of misremembering. The Italian right-wing and the Catholic Church cultivated a blame-the-victims narrative that attributed responsibility for the collective punishment to the partisans of the resistance. Supposedly, they could have prevented the deaths of hundreds of their fellow Romans if they had surrendered to the Nazi occupiers. Even though the documentary record has consistently shown that the partisans were never given the chance to surrender, this incorrect version came to be widely accepted. Portelli notes that he is “specifically fascinated by the pervasiveness of erroneous tales, myths, legends and silences” and the question of what these “discrepancies and errors” reveal about the workings of social memory.

In researching the massacres of 1965-66 in Indonesia, an oral historian is faced with a very different situation. The written sources are scant and do not allow a reliable narrative of events, or even a simple chronology, to be constructed. We know there must have been thousands of massacres throughout the country but clear, detailed evidence has been compiled for only one of them. The oral historian confronts the particularly challenging task of determining the most basic facts about these massacres, even the validity of categorizing the killings as massacres. There is much confusion among Indonesians and foreign historians of Indonesia over fundamental matters, such as the identities of the perpetrators and the victims, the methods the perpetrators used to kill the victims, and the total number of dead (estimated in the hundreds of thousands). One cannot think about oral history in this case as an exploration of the divergences of social memory from the documentary record, or the analysis of the reasons for “the pervasiveness of erroneous tales”; we cannot yet tell the difference between what is true and what is erroneous. Oral history about the violence of 1965-66 cannot be the supplementing, revising, or reaffirming what is already known from written sources. We know little at the level of what scholars are calling the “micro- dynamics” of mass killing, and even less about the nationwide patterns. Oral historians in Indonesia are burdened with the responsibility of writing the history of the massacres almost from scratch.

Where we share common ground with Portelli is in confronting a social memory that is dominated by a blame-the-victims narrative. Elements of the Indonesian army, working with various civilian militias, massacred supporters of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) as part of their overturning of the entire political system and the consolidation of what they called “the New Order.” The resulting dictatorship of General Suharto (1966- 98) made anti-communism the religion of the state. In the rare, fleeting moments when the killings were mentioned, the victims were blamed for their own deaths. The army-dominated Fact Finding Commission (FFC) concluded from its brief investigations in late 1965-early 1966 that outraged civilians ran amok; they could not control their rage in the face of such a heinous organization. Their “emotions explosively erupted (emosi jang meletus setjara explosif),” while the army did its best to stop them. Neither President Sukarno nor his successor, Suharto, released the report to the public; they preferred silence instead. But the FFC report articulated the army’s standard line that always remained on reserve, ready to be brought up whenever officers felt that they did have to offer an explanation of what happened.

According to the army’s standard line, the communists had made themselves so hated over the years prior to 1965 that “the people” attacked them as soon as they had the chance. There were no organized massacres, only rampages by frenzied mobs who slashed and shot their way through the streets. The killings were just natural, vengeful reactions by patriotic, god- fearing Indonesians to the aggressiveness of the atheistic, traitorous PKI. They were also legitimate acts of self-defense against the threat of further PKI violence. One Harvard-trained Indonesian sociologist has suggested that this was a case of a “prophylactic genocide:” a genocide meant to prevent another genocide. Such is the perversity of the history written by the victors.

This essay will review the contributions of oral historians to our understanding of the massacres while exploring the reasons for the limitations affecting their work. I argue many of the existing oral histories are flawed because their research methods are unsuited to a situation where the event being investigated is so poorly understood. Researchers have hardly known what to look for. If one is to clarify what happened, one has to bore through the sedimented layers of lies, legends, and silences. Investigations require an unusual level of cross-checking of information with a variety of people: perpetrators, victims, and witnesses. Oral historians have focused their studies on local communities – villages, towns, or districts – but have tended not to obtain information from a broad cross-section of “locals.” Some have wound up affirming the absurd myths that the Indonesian army propaganda spread throughout the country at the time of the massacres.

Until the state’s documents become available, if any have been preserved from that time and will be released in the future, oral interviews will have to serve as the primary basis of our knowledge about the massacres. It is thus crucially important for researchers to think about oral history methodology. So far, oral historians have not made the most important contributions to our knowledge. Anthropologists, filmmakers, journalists, NGO activists, and professors at church-affiliated universities – researchers whose approach to the oral interview is usually different than that of oral historians – have been responsible for the real breakthroughs.10 This essay will not discuss at any length the differentia specifica of oral history and its advantages and disadvantages in relation to other approaches. In selecting the literature to consider as oral history for the purposes of this essay, I have been guided by a definition of the field that need not be considered the standard, universal definition. I have chosen writings by people working within the discipline of history who have recorded interviews with individuals who lived through the events of 1965-66. A discussion of the ongoing interdisciplinary dialogue, that addresses both the commonalities and differences in the various approaches to oral interviewing, awaits another occasion.

I take it for granted in this essay that oral history interviewing can lead to worthwhile, reliable truth claims about what happened in the past. A great many oral history books have established that point well-enough by now, against the prejudices of both old-fashioned fetishists of documents and the self-proclaimed “postmodernists” who view the entire discipline of history as a literary enterprise, one incapable of venturing any truth claims.

The “postmodern” trend has perhaps stalled by now: it met its limits when confronting issues such as Holocaust denial where facts obviously matter. In the Indonesian context, where various equivalent forms of Holocaust denial form the mainstream versions of history about the 1965-66 massacres, indifference to the evidentiary procedures of the historical profession seems obscene. In this essay, I foreground the practice of critically evaluating sources as a way of engaging with the critiques of empiricism while still striving to fulfill the old-fashioned desideratum of separating fact from fiction. A historian who is content to report the different narratives circulating in Indonesia (this person says that, that person says this…) and forego the task of evaluating their veracity is doing a disservice both to the dead and to the living. Enough is known already about Indonesian history to know that the people who carried out the extrajudicial killings and disappearances took state power in 1965-66, stayed in power for 32 years, and kept the bloody origins of their rule hopelessly obscure, as a “page of glory never mentioned and never to be mentioned” (as Himmler described the Holocaust in 1943).


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