Indonesia to resolve 'dark history' around anti-communist massacre

Surviving victims of Indonesia's 1965 purges against those believed to be communists attending a symposium in Jakarta on April 18, 2016.
Surviving victims of Indonesia's 1965 purges against those believed to be communists attending a symposium in Jakarta on April 18, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

JAKARTA (AFP) - Indonesia pledged on Monday (April 18) to resolve its "dark history" around one of the worst mass killings of the 20th century, but ruled out a formal apology as victims and officials came together for an unprecedented discussion into the atrocity.

At least 500,000 people died in the killings across the archipelago in 1965-66 but discussing the brutal purge remains taboo in Indonesia. School books omit details of the violence while attempts to challenge the official narrative - that the killings were necessary to rid the country of communism - have been shut down in the past.

Organisers say the two-day symposium in Jakarta, opened by senior ministers, marks the first time the government has backed such a public investigation into the controversial killings.

The rare endorsement for this symposium was welcomed by human rights activists who for years have been pushing for the truth around this bloody chapter to be exposed through dialogue, a formal investigation and an official apology.

But speaking at the event, Security Minister Luhut Panjaitan - one of President Joko Widodo's most trusted advisers - ruled out an apology, saying the government would not bow to external pressure.

"We want to resolve this dark history of our past," he told the hundreds gathered in Jakarta, including victims and their relatives bussed in from across the country.

"We must make peace with our past and it won't be perfect, but there is no thought that the government will apologise to anyone."

The killings began after General Suharto put down a coup on Oct 1, 1965, that the authorities blamed on communists.

Security forces supported local groups in conducting the massacre over several months, with many suspected of even weak links to Indonesia's communist party killed, and hundreds of thousand of others imprisoned, some for years.

Suharto took power after the failed coup and ruled Indonesia with an iron fist for 32 years, keeping public discussion of the events off limits.

Awareness has grown since his downfall in 1998 through literature and films like the Oscar-nominated documentary "The Act of Killing", but the government remains sensitive to the topic, forcing a major literary festival to cancel events related to the massacre just last year.

United States ambassador to Indonesia Robert Blake, whose government has been lobbied to release classified documents related to 1965-66, said the Jakarta symposium would "cast more light" on the events.

He defended the US government's record on transparency, saying many documents related to that period had been made publicly available.