Monday, April 21, 2008

Teaching history in Indonesia: the 1965 case

This article was originally published in Van Zorge Report on Indonesia: Commentary & Analysis on Indonesian Politics and Economics Vol.VIII-Number 12. July 2006

The history story in Indonesia: The ‘1965’ case
By Yosef Djakababa*

The New Order version
Indonesian historians are now facing the problem of writing and teaching the “new” history of Indonesia. During former President Soeharto’s New Order regime, an indoctrination style of teaching that centred on militaristic achievements dominated the way history was taught inside Indonesia’s schools. The military theme was prevalent and usually focused on the heroism of an individual who fought against the Dutch colonizer, but at the end was always defeated.
The point of the history lesson was to show that Indonesians have always longed and fought hard for their independence.

Moreover, the teaching style also intended to show that for centuries Indonesians had always maintained their fighting spirit and bravery in resisting the colonizer. Yet, the manner in which history was taught heavily implied that the nation could only achieve its independence through armed struggle and not by other more diplomatic means.
The inclination to depict the nation’s history in this manner caused achievements in other areas such as education, trade, and diplomacy to be simply ignored or sidelined. In addition to that, students were never encouraged to think critically about history and discussions or the questioning of the past was seldom if ever practiced in the classroom. As a result, history never went beyond memorising countless names, dates, and events.

Nevertheless, despite the lack of objectivity and critical content in schools, history during the New Order maintained a certain consistency in its portrayal of the nation’s past, as it glorified the achievements of certain military figure like Soeharto and his regime, while at the same time the historical narrative sought to undermine the regime’s enemies. This was carried out in order to justify and legitimate the New Order’s existence. An example of this is the way the regime presented the Lubang Buaya incident in its official history.

Lubang Buaya refers to the events surrounding September 30, 1965, and according to the New Order’s version, it was when the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) orchestrated and killed six high-ranking army officers and one middle-ranking officer in order to gain power and establish a Communist state in Indonesia. Therefore, to achieve these goals the PKI needed to eliminate its major enemy, the Indonesian Army. The deaths of these army generals triggered a series of chaotic events and widespread unrest in the country ensued. (Lubang Buaya literally translates to mean “alligator hole” and is a reference to the well at Halim Air Base where the generals’ bodies were dumped sometimes between September 30 and October 1st.)
In the New Order version, General Soeharto succeeded in preventing the PKI plan from materialising by acting swiftly and decisively in destroying the PKI organisation and its members, thus saving the nation from the threat of the evil Communist. In the 18 months following the thwarted coup, hundreds of thousands and perhaps even one million PKI members and sympathisers were slaughtered throughout Indonesia, particularly in Bali, Central Java, and East Java. Former President Soekarno was also implicated in the incident and rapidly lost power, later transferring his authority to Soeharto. Following that, the New Order portrayed the army and in particular Soeharto as the savior and guardian of the nation. At the same time, the regime downplayed Soekarno role in Indonesia’s independence struggle.

For years, the regime glorified this particular event and used it to justify its continued existence. The glorification of Soeharto’s role in the Lubang Buaya incident was disseminated not only through the educational system but also through films and intensive annual commemorations. Despite the fact that the regime undertook massive efforts to ensure that people remembered the Lubang Buaya episode, they deliberately ignored the massacre that followed it.

Under the New Order, it should also come as no surprise that there was never any discussion concerning the thousands of individuals that were accused and punished without any legal recourse for their alleged involvement in the PKI or in the killing of the generals. Such a system allowed the New Order to marginalise any potential individuals seen as a threat to it. Any representation of that was absent from history books and also never brought up publicly during the New Order.

Shifting interpretations
After the fall of Soeharto in 1998, different interpretations and information about Lubang Buaya began to emerge. Former political prisoners began talking about their experiences in public while at the same time the publication of new books and formerly banned academic studies on Lubang Buaya and its aftermath became increasingly available to the public. Since 1998, the opening of the press has also helped in bringing new interpretations of history to light, as the media continues to cover the debate surrounding the history of 1965.

The media’s coverage of that debate has also generated discussions on other disputed events in Indonesian history, including the Supersemar incident when Soekarno allegedly issued a letter to Soeharto calling for the disbanding of the PKI in March 1966, while also legally transferring power from Soekarno to Soeharto. Soeharto’s alleged role in the March 1, 1949, offensive in Yogyakarta has also been scrutinised.

While the political openness following 1998 has allowed for unrestricted public debate over the nation’s past, it has not come without some difficulties. There is now a palpable confusion among people on what actually did occur some 40 years ago. Teachers are having a difficult time explaining this disputed history to their students, as so many interpretations are now available to the public. Furthermore, much of this new information challenges the histories still found in the textbooks that students are using.

The ongoing debate has certainly been beneficial to Indonesia’s youth in opening their minds up to a more critical version of Indonesia’s history and has at the same time created the need for a rewriting of the nations’ past. A group of senior and junior historians are now writing these new history volumes, which are yet to be completed. There are indications, however, that there has been some disagreement within the group on how certain topics should be approached and thus presented in the books.

Although the books are not out yet and many teachers have been forced to improvise their approach, there has been a real change in the way teachers are addressing historical issues. Much of the regurgitation of the New Order’s purported contributions to Indonesia, which are found in older textbooks, is no longer occurring; there are of course some instances where teachers do rely on them. But increasingly teachers are encouraging their students to study history in a more critical way by drawing on their own experiences and any outside materials they might have read concerning past events.

Despite the fact that the new books are still being edited, there already have been some subtle changes to history textbooks in Indonesia. Regarding the history of 1965, the most recognisable difference is in the writing of the movement’s name that was allegedly responsible for kidnapping and killing the army officers. Under Soeharto, the movement was referred to as G.30.S/PKI, or the September 30 Movement of the Indonesian Communist Party. Now, as the exact role of the PKI in the events of 1965 remains a mystery, many of the school textbooks and newspaper articles simply write “G.30.S” and no longer include “/PKI” when referring to it.

Some of these same textbooks also contain different versions of the event, complete with analysis on each of the versions. That is a much different method than was found under Soeharto when only the official version of events was allowed to be printed in the textbooks. Furthermore, there are some textbooks that now finally mention the mass killings of the alleged Communists and Soekarno sympathisers. That sort of information clearly never made into the New Order history books.

Official version still resonates
The encouraging changes to the teaching methods and textbooks have not, however, necessarily meant a change in public perceptions about Indonesia’s past and particularly the events of 1965. Despite the confusion and challenges caused by the new and emerging historical interpretations, the majority of Indonesians still strongly believe the New Order version regarding 1965. The fact is that most Indonesians still perceive communism and Communists as evil and, therefore, that it is acceptable to kill them.

While years of propaganda and intensive indoctrination by the New Order regime has indeed convinced many that its version is true, it can be argued that the origin of anti-Communist views in Indonesia does in fact pre-date the New Order. But the writing of history in any country changes and evolves in relation to the current political context, societal norms, and the needs of the state. As we see in Indonesia, changes to the local political climate and changes within a more global context have allowed many historical interpretations to surface. While that may be true, these transformations in the writing and teaching of history do not guarantee that societal perceptions of history will inevitably be altered, as we see in Indonesia with the events of 1965.

Dueling interpretations will continue
Parties who have an interest in how the official history is presented in public will continue to negotiate until their side is accommodated and their views are folded into the country’s ever changing historical narrative. But due to the very nature of history, where the process of searching for the truth is in fact endless, there will always be parties that are unsatisfied and feel left out and misrepresented. In Indonesia, the events of 1965 continue to be debated and negotiated; the official history of 1965 has yet to be settled and how it will be represented, at least for now, in Indonesia.

There is an oft-cited statement that “history is written by the winner.” Regarding the history of 1965 in Indonesia, it remains unclear who will be the winner and who be the loser as the process of debate is ongoing. But as contexts change and narratives develop, the loser might someday become the winner.

*The author is a PhD candidate in History At the University of Wisconsin-Madison.