On forgiveness, a response to GM and a call to action for Indonesia’s youth

A week after a groundbreaking national symposium on the 1965 tragedy, I received a message from my friend Febriana Firdaus. A journalist like myself, she lost her grandfather in the anticommunist violence in 1965-1966.

Febri and I are part of a new digital storytelling movement, Ingat65. We provide a medium for Indonesia’s younger generation to collectively remember the communist purges, a dark past that our nation for half a century has been forced to forget through propaganda and deliberate silence in official histories.

That morning, Febri forwarded to Ingat65’s Whatsapp group Goenawan Mohammad’s essay in Tempo magazine, entitled “Maaf” (Forgiveness). In his essay, GM, as the renowned essayist is commonly known, is not convinced President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo should apologize for the 1965 violence.

“For what? For a crime that’s not his, on behalf of a state that’s not his to represent?” Febri highlighted that part with a yellow marker. I see her point.

The symposium, the first official dialogue on the issue since the fall of Soeharto, who rose to power on the back of the 1965 violence, has sparked a discussion on truth and reconciliation. GM’s essay adds to this discussion. But his reasoning, I argue, is unsound.

A man of letters, he referred to many thinkers, including Marx, to reinforce his point that the crime of the “state” in 1965-1966 was not of the current “state” that Jokowi now leads.

“For me, Marx is more correct: The “state” can never be a place for anyone, at anytime. The “state” is always “particular”; it’s merely a tool for those in power in a certain time and certain space. It is not permanent,” he wrote.

The irony is lost on GM when he quotes Marx, whose methodology of socioeconomic analysis was banned in 1966 as part of the systematic destruction of the left.

The “state” that Jokowi leads, one that GM says is not the same with that of 1966, still maintains that ban.

Marx was right. The state is a tool for those in power in a certain time and certain space.

But GM is dreaming to suggest that in 2016 we have broken completely with the New Order.

Even though Jokowi was a mere toddler when the violence happened, he has nonetheless inherited a legacy of impunity that still operates in Indonesia’s politics.

But let’s talk about the subject of GM’s piece: forgiveness. An element for reconciliation, forgiveness is important in post-conflict resolution.

Letting go of resentment is crucial to restoring friendly relations between offenders — perpetrators, accomplices, bystanders — and victims.

GM talks about the kinds of forgiveness that he admires: the martyr-like “pure forgiveness” of Wolter Monginsidi, who forgave his wrongdoers ahead of the offending deed (his own execution), and the unconditional forgiveness of political prisoner Oey Hay Djoen.

According to GM, Hay Djoen, commenting on his peer Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s distrust in the apology issued by the former president and leader of Islamic organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) Abdurrahman Wahid, for NU’s involvement in the violence, wonders what moral right they have to deny forgiveness.

In Hay Djoen’s attitude to forgive unconditionally, GM sees something nobler than Pram’s rejection. Hay Djoen’s forgiveness, GM argues, defies Jacques Derrida’s fear of “conditional forgiveness” that placed “the victim” on a moral high ground.

However, GM failed to note that neither Hay Djoen nor Pram, nor other victims of the 1965 violence, were standing in a position of superiority.

Derrida’s warning that GM quoted on the dangers of “conditional forgiveness” being reduced as a tool for trade for national stability — as in the case of South Africa’s truth and reconciliation process — referred more to an amnesty and not necessarily genuine forgiveness.

Neither Hay Djoen nor Pram had such power to pardon. Unlike in South Africa, where the victims of apartheid went on to hold political power and started the process of truth and reconciliation, in Indonesia the offenders are still in power and have yet to cease their wrongful deeds.

Philosopher Charles Griswold, in his book Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration, notes that to gain true forgiveness from victims, there are several actions that the wrongdoer should do: acknowledge and repudiate the mistake, express regret, promise not to repeat the mistake, express sympathy and understanding for the suffering of the victim, and lastly, present an honest narrative that is not an excuse that can provide context as to why they carried out the offense.

Only then may the victim regain trust, let go of resentment and see the former enemy in a new light. These acts of apology should be made public on a national level to ensure an end to the injustice.

Forgiveness, on the other hand, Griswold notes, should be given on an individual level, lest what Derrida and GM feared might happen — forgiveness that doesn’t serve its genuine goal of renewal of bonds but acts as a form of forced peace-making.

How far are we from seeing these acts of apology in Indonesia? We don’t know yet.

The 1965 tragedy is still a deeply divisive issue. In an explanation about his essay on Wednesday, GM said he would like the state to apologize, if doing so brought about greater national harmony.

The 1965 symposium was an experiment to find out if we can start the process of reaching a national consensus that include all parties — victims and offenders — in the 1965 tragedy, according to one of the initiators, Agus Widjojo, the newly appointed National Resilience Institute chief, whose father was of one of the generals killed in the apparent abortive coup that rose the curtain on the violence.

In a way, in Ingat65, we are conducting an experiment too. We are opening a space for personal reflection to gauge how our generation feels about this issue and how we want our future to look.

Will we be a generation of bystanders (staying silent) or, worse, perpetrators (attacking gatherings of 1965 victims), and continue to perpetuate injustice? Our call now is not to Jokowi (just yet), but to our peers.

The voice of youth is crucial, especially now, when half of the country’s population is under the age of 30. We should find out what happened by talking to our elders.

We should read the many studies by academics and watch documentaries on 1965.

Let’s reflect on our history, decide what we want based on that reflection and together tell our leaders our desires for the future.

For too long, leaders of this country have been servants to themselves. Let’s peacefully bring power back into our hands and make GM’s dream come true.

Let’s make the state represent a new moral identity and really break away from the old guard, whose power came on the backs of extreme violence and the suffering of victims.


The writer, an editor for The Conversation, is the initiator and chief editor of Ingat65. The views expressed are her own.

This article was published in thejakartapost.com on Friday, April 26, 2016 with the title “On forgiveness, a response to GM and a call to action for Indonesia’s youth”. Click to read: https://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2016/04/29/on-forgiveness-a-response-gm-and-a-call-action-indonesia-s-youth.html.

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