“History in the age of Reformasi” by Joss Wibisono

Written for panel discussion “Pluralisation of Narratives on the history of Indonesian Independence”, Leiden June 19, 2010.

Applauding the advent of Reformasi, prominent historian the late Onghokham noted that Indonesia started a rage of historical revisionism, unprecedented in its post-colonial age. Of course it all started with the events around 1965 and Soeharto’s actual role in it. Yet, despite a lot of revelations, his role is still shrouded with mysteries. And so the investigation of Soeharto went further than 1965. It also reached his role in Indonesia’s colonial war, namely his conduct during the March 1st 1949 attack on Yogyakarta at the time of the revolution.[1]

Indonesia after Soeharto is undoubtedly very exciting, not only for historians but, more importantly, also for the general public. History became something tangible, which concerns itself with one’s own past and present, even one’s life. History is not merely about dates in the distant past, which pupils had to memorise during Soeharto’s authoritarian rule. History has now become something exciting, something alive and even kicking.


Of importance here is the role of Gus Dur when he, as president, in March 2000, apologised for what his organisations, NU and Ansor, did against the communists and their alleged sympathisers. With his apology, Gus Dur broke the taboo surrounding the mass killings in the late 1960s, when his predecessor, Soeharto, came to power. This is the point when history became a fact of daily life for most Indonesians.

I remember a friend of mine telling me about a meeting she attended in Yogyakarta between members of Syarikat Indonesia, one of NU affiliations, and members of Gerwani, Communists who survived the mass killings. Muslims listened sympathetically to these elderly Communists talk about their sufferings. One of them described in detail how and where she was stripped naked, indecently assaulted, raped and tortured. At this point a younger Muslim woman, member of Syarikat, stood up ashen-faced, stuttered a few unintelligible words and fainted. It turned out that from the account she could identify the perpetrator – it was her own father. History has undoubtedly entered one’s life in post-Soeharto Indonesia.

Journalists and the press also play important role in this development. In fact the friend who told me this extraordinary story is a journalist herself, and she later published her account in a national newspaper. It is through the press that the public historical awareness grows. It is fair to say that historians collaborate easily with journalists in digging the recent Indonesian past. Here we can speak of simbiosis mutualisma between historians and journalists or the press.

Trying to uncover Soeharto’s actual role in 1965, historians and journalists alike are undoubtedly seeking to explain how the past shapes the present, as history is not only about the past. But in this age of Facebook and Twitter, in which everybody is supposed to have his/her opinion in public, history is no more a one-way road from past to present. Nowadays, we walk on a two-way road, in which history is not only how the past shapes the present but also how the present shapes our understanding of the past. Essentially our understanding of historical events is also up for revision when present situations compel us to do so.

Take for example our revolution of 1945, the birth of Indonesia as a nation-state. We all know that nationalism is the key to understanding Indonesia’s independence from colonialism. If indeed this nationalism was to liberate Indonesians from colonial rule, why should there be a regime afterwards in which Indonesian was again subjected to authoritarianism? It is certainly not an exaggeration to state that Soeharto’s Neues Ordnung was more severe than the Dutch colonialism, not only for its numerous killings and illegal occupation of East Timor. Emerging from colonialism with the triumph of nationalism, how does an Indonesian explain this? To answer this we need to investigate our own nationalism when in the name of this nationalism we let Soeharto and his regime suppress East Timorese endeavours to establish their own national state. Indeed our understanding of the present situation, or recent past, may well compel us to revise our own history.

A decade of Reformasi has indeed brought an immense revision of historical understanding in Indonesia, but unfortunately in most cases it is still a one-way process. Revelations by the press only amount to understanding the present as a result of the past. The two-way road is not yet there. In fact, except for Soeharto’s role in 1965, we still don’t feel the urge to revise our history because the present situation compels us to do so. To do so we need to be very critical of our own past.

This is certainly not an easy task. The fact that books are still banned aggravates the situation. And so, despite Onghokham’s optimism, we still have to face Indonesia with insufficiently developed historical conscience, even in this age of Reformasi.

[1] Onghokham The Thugs, The Curtain Thief and The Sugar Lord: Power Politics and Culture in Colonial Java. Jakarta: Metafor Publishing 2003. Pages 149-150.

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