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US ‘welcomes’ Indonesian symposium to unveil truth about mass killings

DISCUSSING HISTORY. Indonesia attempts to make peace with its dark history through a symposium on the 1965 killings.

File photo by EPA/Hotli Simanjuntak

JAKARTA, Indonesia – As Indonesia’s government endorses for the first time a public discussion on the state-backed mass killings in 1965, the United States expressed support for the symposium saying the US believes in transparency and openness. 

On Monday, April 18, the first day of the symposium focused on discussing the events of the 1965 massacre, US Ambassador to Indonesia Robert Blake said it was a welcome development.

“We always encourage openness and transparency with respect to past human rights abuses. A lot of policies are in place to encourage partner institutions. That in general is very important to the US government,” Blake said at a panel on foreign policy.

“We very much welcome the initiative to have this state-sponsored dialogue beginning today to cast more of a light on this. Most of you know we have a process already where we routinely declassify documents after a couple of years.”

At least 500,000 people died in the purge across the Southeast Asian archipelago that started after then General Suharto put down a coup on October 1, 1965. (READ: 'Indonesia must do more to provide justice for the 1960s mass killing victims')

Authorities blamed the attempted coup on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).

Security forces, supported by local groups, rampaged through the country massacring hundreds of thousands of people suspected of even weak links to the PKI, and jailing scores of others.

The massacres, sometimes referred to as the Indonesian Genocide, targeted communists, ethnic Chinese and alleged left-wingers. It began as an anti-communist purge initially, starting in the capital, Jakarta, and spread to Central and East Java and, later, Bali.

The current symposium allows victims to talk about their stories and for the military and the government to engage in discussion with the victims.

Obama's help

Last week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said it was time for Indonesia and the United States to tell the truth about the mass killings, which remains one of the worst crimes of the 20th century. 

Historians have affirmed the US backed the massacre but until today – because of previous attempts of the Indonesian government to shut down talks about the 1965 events and the events surrounding it – the mass killings remain shrouded in secrecy.

HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth said US President Barack Obama should be part of the efforts to tell the truth of history. 

"It's time for the United States to come clean about what it knew about the Indonesia killings of 1965-1966," he said, adding Obama has acknowledged darker parts of the USA's past during his presidency.

"President Obama has declassified documents related to Argentina's Dirty War," he said.

He also said the Indonesian government cannot apologize until the truth is revealed.

Blake defended Obama, saying he “has gone a step further and made transparency and openness a central tenet of his administration.”

“In general we very much support opens and transparency. On specific documents, I would refer you to our document experts in Washington, as I’m not sure what are classified and not  (yet) declassified,” he told journalists.

'Still difficult'

Meanwhile, Professor Dewi Fortuna Anwar, who serves as Director for Program and Research at The Habibie Centre and also serves as deputy secretary of the Vice President for political affairs, said she has her personal opinion on the matter as an academic that contrasts with the government view.

“We should not connive to wage war on the past. For Indonesia to go forward we must be able to speak about everything,” she said. 

However, she said, in the government, “there is still some difficulty in opening this chapter.”

“We probably still need more years to talk about this openly,” she said, but added that the government is more open than civil society groups.

The government has refused to apologize for the killings. President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, who came to power in 2015, is viewed as a break from a string of rulers with links to the Suharto era.

But he has so far refused to apologize for the events of 1965.

Speaking at the symposium, Security Minister Luhut Panjaitan – one of President Joko Widodo's most trusted advisers – even 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 apologize to anyone." with reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com