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Murdering army, silent church
Inside Indonesia - April-June, 2016
The meeting with Reverend Mery Kolimon (born in 1972) takes place in the theological faculty of UnKris, the Christian University in Kupang, the crowded provincial capital of West Timor. The grounds of UnKris are bustling with activity, but in her office, Kolimon is cool and collected. Our conversation alternates between Indonesian and Dutch – a legacy of her study at the Theological University of Kampen in the Netherlands.
On her desk lies her book, Forbidden Memories: Women's Experiences of 1965 in Eastern Indonesia. Mery explains the process of researching the book. 'Actually we were already late with our survey of women who were imprisoned or whose children or husbands had been murdered. Most of the survivors were already old. Some did not want to talk. "I don't know anything", they said. "Too painful". Or they said "OK, but only if you can bring back my husband or children".
On 30 September 1965, six generals were kidnapped and killed in Jakarta. General Suharto blamed the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party). Rumours were spread that members of the progressive women's organisation Gerwani had held a sexual orgy at the murder scene and mutilated the men. An official autopsy, long kept secret, refuted this construction of the event. What followed, in all corners of Indonesia, was a wave of violence and a witch hunt against the PKI, against its allied mass organisations such as Gerwani, and against anyone else suspected of leftist sympathies. It is estimated that at least one million people were killed under the direction of the army; hundreds of thousands were jailed for years without any form of trial. State propaganda and violence created a climate of fear that is still apparent. The survivors still suffer the stigma of having been 'involved'.
The survey in East Nusa Tenggara was conducted by JPIT (Jaringan Perempuan Indonesia Timur), a network of women activists engaged in women's, religious, and cultural issues. They collaborated with clergywomen and theological teachers.
Mery Kolimon: 'I asked our students to participate in interviewing. Some of them retreated under the pressure of their parents. "We send you to a theological faculty to become a minister, not to get involved in dangerous things". In the beginning some of the interviewers suffered from nightmares, because they had heard stories about colleagues in Java and Bali being intimidated for research of this nature. But luckily we ourselves never had problems.'
Covering up the past will not bring peace
Forbidden Memories, edited by Mery Kolimon and Liliya Wetangterah, contains harrowing stories from people living on the islands of Timor, Sabu, Sumba and Alor. Most people there are Christian. The women who were interviewed were members of the largest Protestant church communities, the GMIT (Gereja Masehi Injil di Timor, Timorese Evangelical Christian Church) and GKS (Gereja Kristen Sumba, Sumba Christian Church). An important goal of the investigation was to establish the role of the church and to work towards change. Mery Kolimon writes in her introductory remarks: 'For far too long, the church has been under the influence of the state. It still has not recovered from the collective trauma fully enough to be able to take part in the struggle for democracy and social justice in Indonesia.'
Just prior to the 1965 coup, East Nusa Tenggara province was suffering from a terrible drought leading to famine. The PKI and the BTI (PKI-allied farmers' union) organised food aid for the farmers. This made them more popular. The BTI registered the names of people receiving aid. That's why not only the official members of the PKI but also many people who received aid were branded as communists. On the island of Alor, widows of murdered men had their heads shaved. For hours they had to stand publicly in the hot sun, and some were sexually abused. The widows were supposed to have been infected with the communist virus. Their punishment was meant to serve as a lesson for the community to never resist the Indonesian state (even though the PKI was at the time a legal party, supported by the president).
On Sabu, most teachers were members of the PKI or Gerwani. The murder of a number of male teachers and the dismissal of female teachers caused a dramatic decline in the quality of education on the remote island. On Timor, the Gerwani women were generally well-educated. Here too, they lost their jobs and society turned its back on them. Their children – as in all of Indonesia – could not become civil servants.
All the regional reports produced by the Forbidden Memories project urged the church and society to restore the rights of the victims. Sometimes the church had in the past branded them as 'sinful women' who were made to confess their guilt in public. They were excluded from Holy Communion, could not become a member of the local church council, and their children were not allowed to become ministers of the church. The church had not protected the victims. "Thank God, there are no more communists", was all too often the reaction then', says Kolimon. Local culture and religion were destroyed because they were seen as 'atheist' and therefore 'communist'.
Many people suspected of communist sympathies, or even their surviving relatives, felt forced to convert to Christianity if they adhered to a native religion. Early in 1966, a Dutch missionary wrote from his station in Sumba to the reformed churches in Holland about the conversion of those belonging to the native Marapu religion: 'Perhaps we must be thankful that God thus crowned 1965 with his blessing.'
Besides talking to the victims, the interviewers also talked with perpetrators. 'Often they are still proud of themselves for saving the church and the nation', says Kolimon. 'A minority have come to another view and now say they are very sorry.'
She is silent for a while. Then she tells a personal and rather shocking story. 'You know, my father was a perpetrator too. He was a policeman in Soe, in West Timor. At the end of 1965, the police were instructed to empty the prison and to shoot all criminal prisoners. On the instructions of the civil authorities and the army, the police had to kill all communists, 'to defend the nation'. After two years of participating in the massacres, he was a mess, wrestling with his conscience. He became temperamental and began to abuse my mother. In 1969, my family decided it was time my father should undergo a ritual. He was led to the river, where he had to drink a few drops of blood from a butchered dog. They made the sign of the cross with dog's blood on his forehead to cool down the hot blood in his body. That seemed not to be sufficient, so they approached a faith healer. My father told me later that only then he felt his peace of mind coming back to him'.
'It took many years for my father to be able to talk about those traumatic events. Some of my family members were absolutely opposed to opening the wounds of the past, let alone contacting the children of the victims. They said our father actually had not acted on his own initiative, but had only followed orders as a policeman. If he had refused, he might have been killed himself. On the other hand, one of my sisters, for example, did not oppose the idea of contacting the children of victims'.
'All Indonesians have experienced the consequences of the tragedy of 1965', says Mery Kolimon. 'As victims, as family members of victims, and as perpetrators. We are inclined to think that peace will come if we leave it alone. But it's the other way around. The ghost of the past will keep on haunting us. That is why, though it is hard, we must try to beat this collective trauma. Here in East Nusa Tenggara, the church has to openly recognise its silence and its complicity'.
Meanwhile, the survivors are convinced that reconciliation is only possible if not only the church but also the Indonesian state recognises its own guilt towards the victims, and completely rehabilitates their reputations.
The reactions of the PGI (ecumenical Indonesian Council of Churches) and of the GKS to the publication of Forbidden Memories were very positive. But, as Mery explained, 'our own chairman of the synod of the GMIT, thought at first that this was too sensitive. He suggested just praying together with the women. But they wanted first to receive recognition of the violence they had experienced, and of the lack of support. First reconciliation, and then we will pray – that was their motto. And that is what happened. The women are gaining power. They are meeting every two months to pray and talk about their experiences. And they invite other survivors to overcome their fear. To convince them that they are not the instigators of the evil but the victims'.
Mery Kolimon, Liliya Wetangterah and Karen Campbell-Nelson (eds), translated by Jennifer Lindsay Forbidden Memories, Monash University Publishing, 2015.
[Willy van Rooijen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance journalist in the Netherlands. This piece is translated with permission from Nederlands Dagblad, 2 November 2015.]