Truth Telling from "Below": Indonesia Trauma Testimony Project

Truth Telling and Collective Memory of 1965 Mass Violence

The mass violence of 1965 is a dark part of Indonesian history. The struggle for power under the pretext of eradicating communism claimed many victims from civil society. They were arrested, exiled without due process, even raped and murdered-without any judicial process to date. On the other hand, the state issued discriminatory policies that cornered victims with social stigmas that burdened their daily lives. More than 55 years have passed, but there has been no resolution effort or formal recognition from the state of the truth of the incident. In 2016, the government had committed to resolving cases of human rights violations in the 1965 mass violence. But until now, there has been no concrete output from this commitment - either in terms of truth-telling or restoring the rights of survivors. 

The truth is now scattered in the stories and testimonies of survivors, witnesses and perpetrators who were directly involved in the events. As time passes, these living witnesses are getting older, along with their memories that fade and eventually disappear when they must close their age. This condition urges civil society to take part in documenting the long series of events of the 1965 mass violence that took place in the midst of the regime change from the Old Order to the New Order. This documentation is an important lesson so that future generations can continue to remember and participate in protecting the mass violence from repeating itself in history. 

In the Basic Principles and Guidelines in the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law released by OHCHR, the process of collecting and verifying facts to encourage full disclosure of the truth must be carried out to fulfill victims' right to reparation. Strengthening the documentation and archiving system is one of the first steps that needs to be taken to realize the disclosure of the truth about the 1965 mass violence and other mass violence events. Documenting and archiving are also important aspects that must be fulfilled to ensure that collective memory related to the history of the 1965 mass violence events is not consumed by time or repressed by the ruling regime.

Good documentation and archive management also gives civil society access to evidence-based campaigning and advocacy work with accurate and accountable findings of fact. Truth-seeking initiatives can also operate on a strong and authentic foundation, with publicly accessible sources of information, and in line with the opening clauses of the 1945 Constitution and Law No. 39 on respect for human rights. With strong evidence and authentic facts, civil society can also actively urge the state to formally disclose the truth and provide equitable victim rights restoration schemes. Therefore, efforts to document and archive the events of the 1965 mass violence are important work with a complex agenda, requiring synergy and collaboration with various interested parties. 

Preserving the Collective Memory of 1965 through Documentation and Archiving Work

The work of documenting and archiving the events of the 1965 mass violence has been done through many public initiatives with a solid goal; to preserve the collective memory of Indonesia's dark history. However, these initiatives are often carried out in a fragmented manner with considerable risks related to data security and sustainability. The Indonesia Trauma Testimony Project (ITTP) seeks to fill this niche by initiating a collective documentation and archiving mechanism - together with communities of victims, survivors, witnesses, and civil society organizations directly involved in the work of organizing communities of victims and advocating for past human rights violations. 

"What ITTP does is the same as garbage collectors - we collect and store memories and knowledge that people don't think should be stored. Many archives related to the 1965 events were lost, destroyed after the historical actors died. Families often do not want to keep these archives because of deep trauma," said Sri Lestari Wahyuningrum, one of the initiators of ITTP. 

ITTP aims to collectively document and archive testimonies and important documents related to the 1965 mass violence, with strict security mechanisms (both in terms of physical security and security from other threats that could potentially eliminate these documents). In the process, ITTP facilitates discussions between various parties who have been working to uncover the truth - from civil society in human rights advocacy, victim assistance, research, to survivors and their communities. ITTP collaborates with human rights advocacy networks, researchers, and victim communities to intensively collect testimonies, documents, and archives related to the 1965 Violence in various regions in Indonesia - from Sumatra, DKI Jakarta, Central Java, DI Yogyakarta, East Java, Bali, NTT to Sulawesi.

Building the infrastructure capacity to securely store documentation and archives is also a major focus of ITTP. The tropical climate, which tends to be humid, means that documents and archives stored without a strict security system have the potential to be damaged or destroyed. In addition, the awareness to take archiving seriously is not strong enough. Many organizations are busy doing documentation, but skip the maintenance process that often requires technological updates from time to time. 

"The problem is often that there is no capacity to maintain. Data that used to be collected in the form of diskettes, recorded testimonies on cassettes, should be recorded and re-stored using technology that is updated every time, so that it can always be accessed and not lost to time. On the other hand, it is difficult to create an archiving model that is always updated - because itis not cheap and the issue is not interesting enough to support. There is more focus on retrieving data rather than supporting the process of maintaining data," said Sri Lestari Wahyuningrum. 

To address these infrastructure issues, ITTP built a partnership with the National Library of Australia (NLA) to support the initiative of documenting and archiving the collective 1965 Violent Events. The NLA already has an excellent archiving and utilization system, enabling secure management of documents and archives with open accessibility to the public.  

Revealing the Truth, Building Solidarity

ITTP as an initiative from civil society is present to fill the niche of responsibility to reveal historical truths that should be done by the government as the authority. Through this documentation and archiving initiative, ITTP does not only focus on document and archive management work, but also builds solidarity between human rights advocacy workers, researchers, and victim communities to jointly maintain collective memory related to the 1965 mass violence. This collective awareness can be a starting point for more massive truth-telling, whether related to the events of 1965 or other historical moments. This collective memory and awareness can be a candle of change to prevent the recurrence of state violence and bloody conflicts in Indonesia's history. 

Author: An Nisa Tri Astuti

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