A Bloody Past: On Censorship in Indonesia

(First published in Words Without Borders, 17 December 2015.)


ON October 23, I received news from the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival: due to warnings from local police, the festival had to cancel sessions related to 1965 anti-communist massacres and their aftermath. I was shocked and outraged, especially after attending successful discussions and book launches on 1965 at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, where Indonesia was the focus country. Those events were sponsored by the Indonesian Ministry of Culture and Education.

In 1965, the Indonesian communist party was the biggest outside Soviet and China; the country’s president Sukarno was left-leaning and wanted to keep Indonesia’s natural resources under national control. On September 30, an alleged communist coup took place and failed. The military, aided by civilian vigilantes, waged a violent campaign against all supposed communists, killing and imprisoning millions. Out of the bloodbath a new regime was founded: the New Order, authoritarian and militaristic, with Soeharto as president.

The regime continued to demonize so-called communists by equating them with atheists and debauchers in order to gain support from religious Indonesian people for further suppressing all communism-related activities and organizations. Beyond the fight against communism, the New Order built much of its legitimacy on delivering economic growth, gained in part by sharing Indonesia’s natural resources with Western countries. The regime came to an end when massive student protests in 1998 compelled Soeharto to step down and brought forth an era of democratic reforms, commonly referred to as the Reformasi era.

Back in Ubud, the chief of Gianyar police in Bali told CNN Indonesia, “We have suggested that sensitive issues—such as those related to the Indonesian Communist Party, or to race, religion, ethnicity, and other identity groups—not be included in the festival’s program.” The police chief also cited a 1966 regulation that bans the spread of communist ideology and Marxism-Leninism in Indonesia as a reason for the police’s objection, even though the events canceled had more to do with giving survivors the space to speak up about the discrimination and other ordeals they had suffered by being labeled “communists” and nothing to do with spreading communist ideology.

The Ubud festival was not the first to suffer from police interference. In February, civilian groups working with the police broke up a discussion with the victims of 1965 violence in Bukittinggi, West Sumatra. In September, under pressure from Salatiga police, the Christian University Satya Wacana in Central Java pulled from circulation its student publication Lentera after its latest issue highlighted human rights violation in 1965.

Naturally, many question the police’s role in the massacres. Before 2001, the police were part of the Indonesian military. According to Jemma Purdey and Katharine McGregor, editors of Translating Accounts of the 1965-66 Mass Violence in Indonesia, many survivor accounts detail police involvement in screening and rounding up, detaining, and torturing suspected communists. Nevertheless, anti-communist sentiments are a legacy of the New Order that still runs strong in Indonesia. Many people sincerely believe that raising issues related to 1965 might spread much feared atheism and disturb public order.

When the festival organizers informed me that my book launch was one of the events canceled, I was puzzled. My novel From Now On Everything Will Be Different tells the story of a young man and a young woman seeking personal freedom at the time Indonesia started to break free from authoritarian rule in 1998. My novel mentions 1965 only once in passing. Its translation into English was also subsidized by the Indonesian Ministry of Education and Culture.

I explained to the organizers what my book was about, hoping that a mistake had been made and the police had not extended their objection to books related to 1998. The festival conducted an internal review of my novel and decided to hold off on the launch because, “the novel contained references to real events that could cause controversy,” according to comments the festival’s Indonesia program manager, I Wayan Juniartha, made to the Jakarta Post. Presumably, he referred to my descriptions of the 1998 student protests and the anti-Chinese riots and rapes.

During the New Order, a few ethnic-Chinese tycoons close to Soeharto controlled a large portion of Indonesia’s economy. This created resentment against the ethnic-Chinese in general, aggravating the prejudice against them as non-native Indonesians and non-Muslims. In ’98 when the New Order government was threatened, the ethnic-Chinese seemed like an easy scapegoat to divert people’s attention. Provocation, orchestration, mob mentality, and negative perceptions of the ethnic-Chinese contributed to the riots, arsons, and rapes.

It is curious, however, if those descriptions now became a problem for the authorities. The subject of the 1998 rapes has long been raised in literature and films, and most of the data I used in my novel was already published for years in various periodicals.

Throughout the Ubud festival, writers and speakers whose sessions had been canceled responded in various ways to this censorship. Saskia Wieringa, with her publisher the Indonesian Feminist Journal Foundation, held her book launch independently at an Ubud café. Human Rights Watch researcher Andreas Harsono reminded the audience that in the Reformasi era we could ask for documentation from the police listing the reasons they objected to the events, and then use legal channels to challenge those reasons. The Ubud festival wrote letters to the media, who in turn drew international attention to the issues of censorship, the events of 1965, and freedom of expression in Indonesia. Around two hundred writers signed petitions condemning the authorities’ interference with the festival’s program. I wore T-shirts printed with different extracts from my novel each day of the five-day festival. Each of those responses carried its own interests and risks, but they all had one thing in common: the will to protect freedom of expression in Indonesia.

Since the fall of the New Order, Indonesia has taken steps to guarantee freedom of expression. First, the Human Rights Law was passed in 1999, followed in 2000 by the second amendment of the constitution, which added a chapter on human rights that also guaranteed citizens’ right to free expression. In 2005, Indonesia ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Another major success took place in 2010, when the Constitutional Court, a remarkable fruit of Reformasi efforts, struck down a 1963 law that gave the Attorney General’s office the authority to ban books.

Unfortunately, laws that contradict the above have also been passed. There is the 2008 Anti-Pornography Law, criminalizing eroticism in the visual, literary, and performing arts. This law, along with fear of upsetting fundamentalist Islamic groups, drives some writers and publishers toward self-censorship (although some practice it due to their own conservative leanings). Still, many others continue to work despite this law.

Hardline organizations such as the Islam Defenders Front have also protested against writers, publishers, and literary events that they deemed to be corrupting the morality of the nation by bringing up sexuality, especially homosexuality. At times they threaten to bring large crowds to cause mayhem unless the literary events are canceled or the books pulled from circulation or burned. The police often refuse to guarantee security and safety, and instead blame the writers or organizers for inciting the crowd’s anger.

Threats against writers, journalists, and literary events come not only from the authorities or extremist groups, but also from powerful individuals and corporations. A panel called ‘For Bali’ about large-scale water and mangrove reclamation plans, big business, and the environmental movement Bali Tolak Reklamasi (Bali Says No to Reclamation) was also canceled at the Ubud festival. Defamation charges are often used to silence criticism and accusations. Under the Electronic Information and Transaction Law 2008, one can be arrested and jailed for mentioning online, even in private chats, that someone was corrupt or involved in a crime.

Furthermore, there is the 1965 Law on Defamation of Religion, which is often used to limit unorthodox practices and expressions of faith. Writers and publishers have been threatened or prosecuted with the violation of this law for publishing materials that were deemed, for example, offensive to the prophet Muhammad. This law was reviewed in the Constitutional Court between 2009 and 2010, but was upheld after much controversy.

In a country as diverse as Indonesia—with hundreds of ethnicities and many faiths, and with an authoritarian history, it can be difficult to talk about controversial issues; it can likewise be easy to think that stability and the economic growth that comes from it should be prioritized over open discussions that make everyone feel included, especially minorities and survivors of human rights violations. After all, it was what we had been taught during three decades of New Order: stability was achieved through suppression of dissenting voices; diversity was celebrated superficially through traditional dances and costumes, but discussions regarding the reality of relationships between various ethnicities, religions, races, and other identity groups were discouraged.

In Reformasi era, Indonesians could more openly express their ethnic or religious identities and advocate for their group’s interests and values, but it appears we haven’t learned how to do so without imposing our values on others. For example, the movements of political Islam that were strictly limited during the New Order have seen their influence steadily rise since Reformasi, but Islamic organizations such as the Indonesian Ulama Council, which has the authority to define what are considered orthodox practices of Islam in Indonesia, seem to want to use their increased freedom to curb the freedoms of other groups. In March, they issued a fatwa against homosexuals, which included the death penalty. In September, a couple of politicians called for a ban on a web series exploring the daily life challenges of a gay couple; the producers swiftly took down the series due to personal safety concerns.

To build a stronger society, Indonesians need to talk about our differences and connections in a way that is honest, sensitive, and inclusive; we need to talk about how we can redress shameful calamities in our history and achieve reconciliation. To make this possible, the state needs to guarantee safe environments for discussions and creativity by consistently prosecuting those engaging in illegal acts of intimidation. It is a difficult demand, as long as the government still refuses to acknowledge the killings in 1965 and the rapes in 1998.

Nevertheless, I have faith that Indonesians will keep on fighting to protect our space of creative and journalistic freedom, as shown by the variety of responses by the people affected by the recent censorship of the Ubud festival. Writers, journalists, and literary festivals can play an important part in providing material and guidance for discussion of these matters, throwing attention on them, and creating the space to have them. I expect all of us—individuals, organizations, businesses—to fight a little bit, in line with the risks we’re able to take. I believe if we stand up, even a little, we inspire courage in many others, and show the authorities that censorship in fact brings more attention to the issues that they wish to sweep under the rug.

Am I not afraid? I’m always afraid, that’s why I write. By writing I stop feeling afraid.

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