Thirty-nine years ago, on Oct. 1, 1965, an event occurred that was to trigger an earth-shattering upheaval in Indonesia. On that day, seven army officers were kidnapped and gunned down. The details of that incident are well known in Indonesia and have formed an essential part of the history taught in schools and solemnly commemorated every year in the media. However, little attention has been paid to the far more horrific events that followed. As the authors of a book published recently say, the murder of the Army officers 'takes pride of place over and above the mass arrests and killings as the nation's major tragedy. Linking social memory with monuments, museums, ceremonies and books is done in such a way as to remind people of the Sept. 30 abortive coup attempt or G-30-S (as the incident is officially known) while forgetting what happened afterwards.'
Within days of the seven assassinations, the Indonesian Army initiated a purge, with the help of some misguided political groups, which led to the arrest and imprisonment of tens of thousands of people, members of youth and women's organizations, peasants' organizations and trade unions, and members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), accused (but never formally charged) of being involved, directly or indirectly, in the so-called G-30-S movement. Still worse, for six months from the end of October 1965, hundreds of thousands of people were seized from their homes and done to death along the roads and highways, and in the forests of Central and East Java, in Bali and elsewhere. Their bodies were secretly interred or simply thrown into rivers.
While the killings were still in progress, in November 1965, President Sukarno dispatched a team of investigators to the worst hit areas to investigate the scale of the catastrophe. Before the end of the year, the team came up with a figure of 78,000 people killed, knowing full well that this was way below the true magnitude of the massacres. According to some observers at the time, the true figure was likely to be ten times as much.
When I was arrested in September 1968, the total number of political prisoners was thought to be around 70,000 though the Soeharto government refused to provide any figures. I was immediately plunged into a terrifying world, haunted by the screams of people under interrogation every night, being with women who had been stripped naked to humiliate them and force confessions out of them. I saw men dangling from trees by their wrists, their bodies covered with newly inflicted injuries.
Being English by birth, I was spared the agony of being personally tortured. I was luckier too than most of the women with whom I shared months and years behind bars because it appears that the government feared that my continued imprisonment would be an embarrassment. At the instigation of my family in London and with the help of the World Council of Churches, I was released after three years of incarceration and ordered to leave the country.
My late husband was far less fortunate. He spent altogether twelve years in detention before being released without charge. Yet he too could thank his lucky stars that he was not banished to the notorious island of Buru where at least 10,000 male political prisoners, facing barbaric conditions and starvation, were held for up to ten years.
In those days, Indonesia was top of the league for Amnesty International, as the country with more uncharged and untried political prisoners than any other country in the world.
My own banishment to the UK proved to be a blessing in disguise as it gave me the opportunity to campaign for those I had left behind. Even today, more than thirty years on, the images of the women I shared cells with are still powerful. Some were members of the women's organization Gerwani, while others were young girls forced to make false confessions about mutilating the bodies of the assassinated generals (which they later retracted in court after spending more than six years in prison). They also included the wives of PKI leaders held for no other reason than that, as well as women seized off the streets while selling things in the local market for no other reason than allegedly being the chair of a local Gerwani branch.
I vividly remember my doctor friend, the late Sumiarsih, who was accused of giving medical treatment to young men and women who were arrested in a location outside Jakarta that became known as 'Lubang Buaya', where the bodies of the generals had been taken. Like so many other women with whom I spent years in detention, Sumiarsih, who was dubbed the 'Lubang Buaya doctor' by her captors, was banished to Plantungan, a remote camp for women political prisoners in Central Java, and held without trial till the mid 1970s.
Now that Indonesia has achieved something approaching a democratic state, is it not time for these events to be thoroughly investigated and those responsible for the tragedy to be brought to book? The recent decision to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hardly seems the right way forward to deal with such a huge catastrophe. But if this paves the way for victims to come forward and talk about their experiences, to identify the men who maltreated or tortured them, this could be a start towards healing the wounds buried in the hearts of so many Indonesians, the survivors, the relatives of those who were killed or who disappeared, and the offspring of the victims.
Featuring prominently over the tragedy was Soeharto, whose role in these events should form a central part of these investigations. With Pinochet in Chile now facing the prospect of court proceedings for his years of tyranny, and Saddam Hussein now under arrest in Baghdad and likely to go on trial, why is it that Soeharto is being allowed to live a charmed existence, enjoying the proceeds of his family's allegedly ill-gotten wealth?
It is my firm conviction that Indonesia's claim to be a democracy can never be really legitimate as long as this stain on its history is not removed by honest and frank investigations.
The writer is director of TAPOL, the Indonesian Human Rights Campaign, based in London.