"it is very important to revise history books, not only those that tell the story of the 1965 events. Many other events have been wrongly recorded and are still used as guidelines for students in school, including material about independence and resistance to colonisation in the early 20th century. Some heroes of the independence movement are still accused of having been rebels. If revisions are not made, the next generation will believe these lies."
Sarita: Linda, your writing covers a vast scope. Your latest book, A Little Blue Bird in Naha; Conflict, Tragedy, Reconciliation talks about tragedy, conflict, peace process and conflict resolution in Southeast and Southern Asia, Balkan Peninsula and Southern cities in the United States, post-conflict transformation in Aceh, the student movement and politics in Thailand, intercommunity conflict in North Maluku and insurgency in Northeastern India. Another important compilation of essays and conflict reports titled Do not Write that We Are Terrorists, has been translated into German and will be published by Horlemann Verlag in September this year. Can you tell me how you came to write about this wide arena of subjects?
Linda: My grandfathers, on both mother’s side and father’s, were very active in politics, well informed, supporting human rights. My mother’s father first introduced me to world politics, a subject of my early writing. The empathy I feel for others has roots in my childhood experience: when Prime Minister of Italy Aldo Moro was kidnapped, I worried along with everyone else. My grandfather brought international issues into our household and spoke about them every day. I joined him watching television, listening to radio news and reading newspapers. Although I never met Aldo Moro, the memory of his death left a deep impression.
The first time I met victims of the war in Cambodia I was still in primary school. Refugees washed up in their boats on the beach near our house. My mother and grandfather took them food. I went with them and saw adults, women and men, small children, in a tragic state. These experiences enhanced my feelings of concern for people who experience the impact of conflict and war. When I grew up I went to Cambodia and interviewed people there and witnessed how the war had destroyed the country. I wrote an essay about Cambodia in my book Do not Write that We Are Terrorists (Schreib ja nicht, dass wir Terroristen sind!).
East Timor, now Timor Leste, was part of my childhood. My grandmother used to shout out “The soldiers are eating people in Timor-Timur!” when I played with my friends too long in the yard. Our house was on the main road, and the army trucks passed by. This frightened me, but it also helped me to realize what was going on in Timor Leste. As a student I joined in their fight for independence; one of my best friends is from Timor Leste.
When I grew up and became a writer and journalist, I visited conflict and post-conflict zones in many countries. I spoke with people living there, listened to their stories and wrote them down to give them a voice, so the world would know what had happened to them: they wouldn’t be forgotten.
Of course, I researched and read many books, in order to write. But I always voice my own opinion, often contrary to that of the general public.
Sarita: How to you deal with trauma in your writings—trauma from childhood, trauma from war and political conflict?
Linda: Writing is part of healing trauma. When I tell stories I share my difficult experiences with others. We may have had the same experiences or perhaps they were different. To the reader who experienced the same, my story might be a way of building togetherness, a step towards a solution, even if we don’t actually meet. Those readers who have not had similar experiences learn the stories exist, and how they should behave. Those who are uninformed often behave badly.
Sarita: How does this relate to your own experiences, as a child, growing up to be a woman in Indonesian society, and does anger play a large role in your life?
Linda: It is not personal anger that goads me to action. I was born and grew up in a very happy family and had a happy life. My parents’ relationship was egalitarian and supportive. They encouraged us to think for ourselves. We were allowed to debate their opinions using our best arguments. Not only the children would apologize when they made a mistake. In my family, apologizing for a mistake was highly valued. But we were also taught not to give up if our objectives were worthwhile. My compassion for others originates from oberving those closest to me—my parents, my grandfather and grandmother, well known philanthropists. Grandfather often brought people in off the street to stay with us, gave them food, money and work. He shared food with the neighbors; my parents did too. I loved having the chance to live with my grandfather, he showed me how to treat other people. As a result I can’t bear to see people in difficulty.
In my family, boys and girls had the same rights; there was no differentiation. Sex and gender were not issues in our home.
Sarita: History in Indonesia as most schools teach it is quite different from what actually happened—for example school history books omit many international dealings, the mass killings that took place after 1965, and the subsequent killings. Do you feel it is important to correct this cover-up and educate young Indonesians about the truth?
Linda: In my opinion it is very important to revise history books, not only those that tell the story of the 1965 events. Many other events have been wrongly recorded and are still used as guidelines for students in school, including material about independence and resistance to colonization in the early 20th century. Some heroes of the independence movement are still accused of having been rebels. If revisions are not made, the next generation will believe these lies. Those who were victims of political crimes are considered to be perpetrators of evil. History books become a mode of propaganda for winners in battles for power. Not only are events of the distant past wrongly told, many stories of the events in the period leading up to the end of Suharto’s rule have been corrupted. A number of people who actually played no significant role are hailed as having been fighters or heroes. I experienced it, so I know exactly what happened.
Sarita: Many other human rights tragedies in Indonesia remain unsolved and unacknowledged. For example the killings of more than 800 civilians in the 1984 Tanjung Priok massacre and the atrocities committed by the army during the occupation of Timor Timur. Do you think these stories will ever be told?
Linda: The military is involved in all kinds of cases of political violence in Indonesia. Every case that involves the military as an institution is very difficult to prosecute and judge. We know the facts, but our laws protect them. This is true irony. At the beginning of Indonesia’s independence, civilians and the military worked together, they fought to establish this nation. In a democratic nation, the military is needed to defend the country from outside threats and protect civilians. But in practice, they often oppose their own citizens.
Sarita: Many of your activist friends were kidnapped by army, jailed, tortured, and lost their lives during 1996. Some of them were supporting Megawati Sukarno’s political party, and yet they were kidnapped by the Indonesian Special Forces under the leadership of Prabowo Subianto Djojohadikusumo, and accused of subversion, a crime punishable by death in Indonesia. Until today a number of these activists have mysteriously disappeared from the face of the earth, leaving their families bereft of hope. How do you deal with your memories of these friends, and the fact that the person responsible for their disappearance ran for President in last year’s elections?
Linda: My most traumatic experience has been losing my friends who were kidnapped and have not been found until today. Seventeen years have passed since they disappeared. Efforts to find them continue, but there have been no results at all. Most of them were people who worked very closely with me. Prabowo was the leader of the Special Forces (Kopassus), one of the units involved in the kidnapping. Members of those units have stood trial and been punished, but Prabowo has not once been summoned to the court. As a leader, he is considered not to be involved, in spite of the fact that his soldiers could not possibly act alone. They were members of an elite force, with a tight system of command. But Prabowo was also not a person who could act alone. He worked for an institution, under control of the Suharto government. Until now this case is considered unfinished. I was not surprised that Prabowo could nominate himself as a presidential candidate last year; he has never been proven guilty by law. Apart from him, there were others involved. But how can they be proven guilty and sentenced? This is very difficult. Impunity still reigns.
Sarita: In January 2014 you went to Den Haag and attended discussions held by the University of Leiden on the subject of the political regime of Suharto and the killings of 1965. This year will be the 50th anniversary and the perpetrators, many of whom are still active in politics, are still in denial. Do you think ‘truth and reconciliation’ are possible in the near future?
Linda: Reconciliation is not the right solution for the political events of 1965. The correct solution is a political solution and human rights crime tribunal. There are many who should be tried, both military and civil. Not only the generals and their soldiers were involved. Clerics and students were also implicated, and Nadhatul Ulama, the biggest mass Islamic organization in Southeast Asia. Artists and intellectuals who supported the military also played a part, a number of whom we know. Some are dead. But we can prosecute those who are still alive. They must be put on trial and sentenced according to their crimes. Initiated by a military coup d’état against president Sukarno, this event was not civil war. It was a massacre following an act of coup. The military and its supporters struck, and then forced people to kill each other. After, those in power and their supporters were the winners. Efforts have been made to connect the 1965 tragedy with the Nazis. But they have nothing in common with Hitler at all. He lost. The New Order and its supporters in Indonesia won, which is why they have never been brought to justice and they refuse to revise the history books.
Sarita: In your Blog of 12 May, 2015 titled "Family History is Political History” you talk about how politics, perpetration of violence against women and racial prejudices affect our homes and families. How do you think this can be addressed within the education curriculum of Indonesian schools towards achieving a more peaceful future?
Linda: Government must include this in the curriculum of schools if they wish to build a nation that is healthy, solid and strong. The time has come.
@for Ubud Writers Festival column in Bali Advertiser
Linda Christanty is an Indonesian author and journalist who has been recognized by Indonesia’s national literary award, the Khatulistiwa Literary Award (2004 and 2010), Awards from the Ministry of National Education (2010 and 2013), and Best Short Stories by Kompas daily (1989). Her essay "Militarism and Violence in East Timor" won a Human Rights Award for Best Essay in 1998. She received the Southeast Asian Writers Award (SEA Write Award) in 2013.