Researcher at the Graduate School of Humanities, Leiden University
In the preface to the textbook Sejarah Nasional Indonesia (Indonesian National History, 1990), historian and former education minister Nugroho Notosusanto draws a comparison between the coming into being of Indonesian standardized history and the growth of a single majestic tree.
He argues that it is deep rooted in the past and can gradually provide a shade of truth for the nation’s future. Furthermore, its objective and scientific nature will create nothing but balance and harmony in the process of national development.
His analogy, however, is knotty (pun intended). It is knotty especially at the notion that history is singular, which could imply that other versions of narratives must not chime in and disrupt the telling of the great national tale.
Mind you, that proud Sundanese would object to and feel saddened by Mohammad Yamin’s historical narrative of Gajah Mada, the prime minister of the Majapahit Empire, who he constantly glorified as a national hero, peacemaker and unifier of the Nusantara archipelago.
Sang Mokteng Bubat, a historical roman dubbed factual by many Sundanese, deals with this issue of singularity, mainly in the constantly avoided history about relations between Sunda and the Majapahit kingdom.
It argues that Gajah Mada’s unification was actually the origin of colonial rule imposed by non-Europeans in the archipelago. But no matter how historicalSang Mokteng Bubat might be, this tale disrupts the official written history and is, thus, skipped over.
Similarly, the bleakest moment in our history is passed by in silence.
Almost all Indonesian written history in Indonesia skips over the mass killings of the communists and left-wing sympathizers after the aborted coup blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in 1965.
Take the obligatory read, Pendidikan Sejarah Perjuangan Bangsa (the History of the National Struggle) for example. We were so accustomed to this that we thought the historical events presented in the book were all thorough, truthful and, most importantly, heroic.
I can clearly recall when my fifth grade teacher had my classmates and I role play, assuming the roles of heroes in an ongoing plot to crush the villainous communists.
We were instructed to show admiration for the Army and the people for their outstanding success in crushing the September movement of the PKI and to believe that the anti-communist purge was the right thing to do in order to support the national struggle and to march toward a just and prosperous society under Pancasila.
We were also instructed to believe that Soeharto was a hero who had so much love and respect for his people and his country.
This was all clearly stated in the book. As for the massacre, the book remains silent.
Never did we learn from history books that the purge meant the butchering of more than half a million of our brothers and sisters.
Had I known that crushing the communists could mean plucking out their nails with pliers, slitting their throats and guts, like what happened to Adi Rukun’s brother in the movie Look of Silence, I would not have taken the role of the heartless heroes.
Clearly, I was misinformed about this, and about many other things. And clearly, I was not alone.
It was only years later, when I resorted to reading fiction, that I found our history textbook was principally used to justify the evil of the regime and served as a tool to ascribe onto others all wickedness that it did not wish to recognize in itself.
The history book was so cleverly crafted that readers were in constant denial about the genocide.
Furthermore, readers even became nostalgic about the regime’s heroism and never found it necessary to unearth the atrocities that it had buried.
This could be one of the many reasons that reconciliation among us is never within easy reach.
In fiction, however, the killings are made clear. Ahmad Tohari in the Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk (Dancer of Paruk Hamlet) trilogy narrates a description of the mass killings in Central Java and the close cooperation between the army and paramilitary groups.
I personally never knew about this political cooperation until years after Soeharto fell.
Mencoba Tidak Menyerah (Trying not to Surrender) by Yudhistira ANM Masardi vividly portrays the systematic massacre and politics of fear through the eyes of a small boy who is searching for his father after he was made to disappear due to his affiliation with the communists.
This too was a piece of information that actually took place but was never widely studied in schools.
Ashadi Siregar centers his novel on students who were annihilated by the army after the aborted coup, while Umar Kayam questions how society has been dehumanized for not having the courage to address the issue.
There seems to be a little bit more freedom in literature to speak about these topics that must not be spoken of. I am now more than interested in finding the reason that Indonesian fictional works could actually do this.
But in the beginning, upon finding out things that I had not known before, I was in some sort of denial.
I thought there was no way that that fiction could speak the truth and be historical. But as I read more and more narratives other than the standardized history, I finally came to the realization that fiction, to some extent, actually did.
Literature, according to Hoadley ( 2005 ), can reveal the coercion and violence exercised by the state over its citizens that has been denied in the nation’s written history. Fiction replaces the role of history.
But this does not suggest that the official history, which is dubbed central, objective and scientific, be sidelined.
I just find it compulsory that the peripheral, subjective and fictional be taken into account and analyzed accordingly, because that was the only access that most Indonesians living under the New Order regime had.
It could be true that fiction did not serve as a reliable source of historical information, but neither did Indonesian historical writings. Our historical writings and fictional works are, anyway, in so many ways equally fictional.
If writing history, as suggested by Nugroho Notosusanto, is similar to growing trees, then let there be more trees and let people learn to choose which tree gives better shade.
The writer lectures at the School of Arts, Padjadjaran University in Bandung and works as a researcher at the Graduate School of Humanities, Leiden University in the Netherlands.
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