Mary Zurbuchen, a director with the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program, discussed the “inhabited absence” around the events that took place in Indonesia in 1965 and the challenge of characterizing collective memory around those events. While the 1965 events were the foundational violence of the New Order, Zurbuchen questioned whether those events have become merged among younger generations with a more generalized awareness of the abuses that took place throughout the Suharto era.
Up until now, Zurbuchen noted, the emphasis in the public sphere has been on “communist treachery” as the root cause of the violence. There has been no official expression of national regret, and the formal truth-seeking processes have been flawed and insufficient. While there have been a wide range of valuable efforts to understand the 1965 events through oral history, performing arts and documentaries, Zurbuchen observed that there are limitations to personal and anecdotal accounts. First, every year there are fewer individuals still alive who personally experienced the events of 1965. Furthermore, without placing individual experiences in context, audiences to these projects may be moved, but view the stories as simply tragic incidents that don’t really relate to their own lives or to the present. How do we link these stories and memories to the human rights or social issues of Indonesia today?
For Zurbuchen, there are many questions that remain yet to be answered about 1965, and the need for a living process to articulate answers to the questions. For example, what were the institutions that organized and managed political imprisonment? What were the daily routines of prison life? What do we know about how indigenous communities were affected by the opening of prisons? What happened within communities where mass violence occurred? In particular, what ethnographic or social processes were employed to accommodate individuals from opposite sides of the conflict continuing to live in the same community? Zurbuchen described a variety of projects currently being undertaken to create a social history of 1965, and emphasized the important roles that teachers, artists, human rights activists and priests may play in this effort. While there may never be a “singular truth,” Indonesians today may examine the past to shape collective memory.