Blog: Genocide. How Europeans and Indonesians talk about dark pasts

While countries that experienced the Holocaust have reached reconciliation, Indonesians are still struggling to acknowledge the mass killings of alleged communists between 1965-1968. Grace Leksana reflects on two recent conferences about the Holocaust and the Indonesian massacre. She argues for analyzing both events within the discourse of genocide studies.

Experts on the Holocaust gathered in Amsterdam on 24-26 September 2015 for the international conference Probing the Limits of Categorization: The “Bystander” in Holocaust History. The main purpose of this conference was to discuss the multidimensionality of the roles and positions of bystanders.

The new focus on bystanders has emerged from the realization that many people saw what perpetrators did to their victims, but took no action. How can we understand these people? As co-perpetrators? Or as victims who were afraid that the systematic violence might be directed at them as well?

There is also the notion that, within a form of systematic violence such as the genocide, no one is really outside the system because the violence itself is structural. Yet, within the system we can still see changing roles and different forms of behaviour. Therefore, it is important to understand the context in which the events took place, in order to comprehend certain behaviours by certain groups of people.

One week later, on 1-2 October 2015, other experts and activists gathered in Amsterdam for another international symposium, , 1965 Today: Living with the Indonesian Massacres. The basic idea was to discuss new frameworks and debates about ‘1965’ and its consequences. Several themes were covered, including historical narratives, institutional legacies, civil society, transitional justice, and education. The conference started with two film screenings and a keynote lecture by Ariel Heryanto. The second day was devoted to paper presentations and discussion.

The first two panels on 2 October pointed out that the violence was organized and structured by the military, while involving actors, including local militia and an international network. The other panels were equally interesting, covering the roles of younger generations, cultural performances, ‘political’ versus ‘non-political’ channels of reconciliation, and social memory.

The conferences were very insightful. They confronted me with critiques and reinterpretations of concepts that I have been taking for granted. Having attended both conferences, I have become convinced that ‘1965’ was indeed a genocide. Still, the violence remains to be under-discussed within the international discourse of genocide, despite the work of national and international scholars on this issue.

An aspect that will be important for comparative discussion is the long repression and impunity in the 1965 case, withholding from Indonesians the sort of reconciliation we have seen in other places, such as Europe, Rwanda or Cambodia. Explaining these differences would be a major contribution to genocide studies.

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