Vol. 5, No. 2 (2009): 21–42.
Since the end of Suharto’s rule in 1998, Indonesia’s official history has been contested, especially by former political prisoners from the 1965 period, who had previously been regarded as the regime’s enemies. In challenging the New Order regime’s historical accounts, these former prisoners have written, and in some instances published, their memoirs, as well as taken part in oral history projects. This paper examines the genre of ‘prisoner memoirs’ and oral history work, which have flourished in the post-Suharto period. It surveys some of the common themes and motivations among such works and draws upon interviews with expolitical prisoners engaged in both memoir-writing and oral history projects. The paper also charts how such a genre and method can assist with documenting more of Indonesia’s post-independence period from a diverse range of sources. Writing on Indonesia’s post-independence history has posed many difficulties due to the New Order regime’s representation of the Sukarno period as constituting a ‘political mistake’. The end of the Cold War, however, has generated more interest among scholars in how Southeast Asian leftist movements and organisations dealt with questions of ideology and mobilisation in the nation-building phase of the 1950s and 1960s. Mindful of the numerous challenges of working with long-suppressed memory, this paper argues that ‘prisoner memoirs’ and oral history work can become a significant source for analysing the post-independence period, specifically the 1965 events in Indonesia. The paper outlines how, in the case of the 1965 mass killings, oral history sources can play a role in enabling researchers to understand the contours of the violence, the nature of participation and witnessing and ways of resisting participation. The case of Indonesia’s killings has been little analysed compared to other instances of mass violence.
Vannessa Hearman is a researcher and PhD candidate in the School of Historical Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia. She is working on a research project on the relationship between Islam and the politics of memory in post-authoritarian Indonesia. For her PhD dissertation, she is examining the mass killings and political violence in East Java from 1965-1968, focusing on political transition and violence affecting the area in that period. She has longstanding research interests in human rights issues in Indonesia and East Timor and has previously researched perceptions on truth and reconciliation among 1965 political prisoners. Between 2000-2002, she worked for the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) as an interpreter. Originally trained in economics and economic history, her Masters in Asian Studies from the University of Melbourne analysed private sector participation in post-conflict reconstruction in East Timor.