“They asked me if I was involved in a political movement. I said no, I was a university student and a teacher. But I was kicked and stripped off my clothes. They ordered me to kiss their genitals. I was asked to lie face down and they stepped on me, and they shaved off my head. I don’t remember anything afterwards. Everything went black.”
“My ‘sin’ was that, being a Palace singer, I sang at the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) anniversary party. I was then imprisoned for eight years without due trial, without ever even being convicted guilty in court.”
These testimonies came from women survivors of the state-sponsored purges of communists in Indonesia in 1965-1966. On April 18-19 this week, the nation learned of the atrocities surrounding the event, one of the worst in the 20th century, during a government-supported symposium. The purge is estimated to have killed half a million people or more, many of whom had no connection to communism, and kept hundreds of thousands of others incarcerated for years.
Like so many other political conflicts, women were largely targeted in the campaign of violence, enduring brutality so horrific beyond imagination. The above testimonies were presented during the two-day symposium on the killings as well as last year during the International People’s Tribunal for the 1965 crimes against humanity (IPT) in the Hague. But they only represent the tip of a gigantic iceberg.
In 2007, the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) issued a report on gender-based crimes against humanity, based on the testimonies of 122 women survivors of the 1965 tragedy in Java, Bali, Sumatra, Kalimantan and Buru Island in Maluku.
Apart from torture, arrests without due trial and murders, the report showed that many women suffered violence and torture during the arrests, while in prison and after they were freed. The types of sexual violence they were subjected to range from vaginal, oral and gang rapes; sexual slavery; electrical stun on nipples and genital; vagina torching; to breast mutilation. Camp commanders and military leaders regularly forced sexual intercourse with the women prisoners, including underage women.
The women’s families were not spared the violence as well. Babies were separated from their mothers. In one story cited in the Komnas Perempuan’s report, a woman accused of being a communist was slashed with a sickle while holding her baby. The baby was then left on the rice field.
When they were finally freed from prison, they continued to carry the stigma of being former political prisoners. They had to go through regular screening, could not get married, and were denied their civil and political rights. Those who did get married and have children passed on the communist stigma to their children and grandchildren, making it hard for their offspring to seek education, work and access to health and justice. Most of the victims died without getting closure, never once did they get to tell their stories to the world. Their exact numbers remained unclear.
The women were mostly arrested for the – mostly false – accusation – of being members of Gerwani, PKI’s women’s wing organization that was allegedly involved in an aborted coup in September 1965, which preceded the purges. To this day, events surrounding the aborted coup known by its catchphrase G30S/PKI, which killed seven high-level military generals and led to the rise of the late president Soeharto and his New Order Regime, continue to be shrouded in mystery, thanks to a mix of historical rewrites, fallacies and downright myths.
One of these myths is immortalized in a state-commissioned film on the coup that depicts sex-crazed Gerwani women dancing naked after mutilating the genitals of the army generals. In reality, many of the women arrested had never even set foot in Jakarta, where Lubang Buaya, the place where the army generals were allegedly dumped to, is located.
The propaganda movie called Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI (G30S/PKI Betrayal), which all school students had to watch every year during the New Order regime, had led to the widespread belief that Gerwani women were criminal-minded, hypersexuals, hookers and so on.
Contrary to the myth, Komnas Perempuan reported that Gerwani was a national women organization that focused on empowerment programs such as providing skills for women, eradicating illiteracy, and building kindergarten in cities to remote areas. As one of the members of the Indonesian Women Congress (Kowani), Gerwani worked with other women organizations with different political backgrounds on a range of issues, including ending polygamy by reforming the Marriage Law, protesting price hikes of basic commodities, even film censorship.
Gerwani was also involved in programs to eradicate prostitution, care for abandoned children and distribute relief fund for flood victims. But the relentless state propaganda on Gerwani’s depravity and cruelty made it hard for Indonesians to see the women as victims.
Tales spread by the New Order regime has prevented in-depth and careful evaluation about the atrocities from taking place, the report said. That report was submitted to the government in November 2007, but to this day, not much has been done to follow up on it.
The late former president Abdurrahman Wahid, apologized to the 1965 victims publicly in an interactive dialog broadcasted by state television TVRI. Former Presiden Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had also informed his intention on conducting rehabilitation and compensation to the political prisoners in a meeting with the National Commission of Human Rights (Komnas HAM), but there has been no follow up until his tenure ended in 2014.
The symposium on the 1965 killings this week is a good start to revive the efforts to seek truth and justice, but many are concerned that it would only become a platform of testimonies without real follow up.
In the mean time, there remain various laws and regulations that discriminate victims of the 1965 events. The government also appears reluctant to admit culpability, insisting the government would not issue an apology.
“Apologize? To whom? The generals were killed, the government should not apologize,” Vice President Jusuf Kalla said a while ago.
But it’s not an apology that the survivors are longing to hear.
Said Nani Nurani, the Palace singer and 1965 woman survivor who was imprisoned for eight years without trial: “I don’t need an apology, only legal certainty. Rehabilitate my name and my dignity, so that when I die, my parents would smile, because I have been declared as not being involved in G30S.”
Read Hera’s story on gender gap in government projects.