Of Reunions and September Putsches

School reunions can be a lot of fun. For most writers and creative thinkers like Debra Yatim reunions are a source of new ideas and old reflections. 

My grade school class of 1967 decided to hold a reunion, after a year of prepping. We held it at the hall that used to be the chapel of our Catholic school.

I realize I tread on murky waters here, mentioning off the bat the denomination of my school. For, so unlike today, in those salad days of Indonesia, religion seldom entered the conversation. You went to a school because it was well-run and it was close to your home and because your mum believed you’d get a good education. The fact that the school probably accepted more pupils from other faiths wasn’t even discussed. No one was keeping tabs, including the nuns and priests who ran it.

In the mid-60s, Kebayoran Baru had become a satellite suburb of the capital with a dearth of schools. A nunnery in Yogyakarta and a monastery right there in Blok B (Kebayoran was divided into blocks following the alphabet, hence the famous Blok M bus terminal we know today) decided to furnish the Santo Johannes parish with a school. Tarakanita Elementary School became that neighborhood school. Most pupils had homes within walking distance of the establishment.

Religion was a school subject, but non-Catholics could sit the class out. Thing is, we all relished tagging along to mass on Fridays as a way of skipping arithmetic class. Some daredevils took pleasure in egging each other on to take communion to see what the host tasted like. When the parish finally had the wherewithal to get a church built, no less than the president of the republic helped pick out the land plot, at the same time wresting big say in how the church’s final design should be, i.e. “with lots of references to Indonesian cultural forms.” This was president Sukarno, who with wife number four, Japanese-born Ratnasari Dewi, came amid big school fanfare to have a look at the finished product and give a few last-minute design notes to architect David Cheng. The church was ordained by the archbishop of Jakarta, Mgr. A. Djajasepoetra JC, on Dec. 19, 1965.

A president interested in the design of a church in the suburbs? Imagine. But then again, he was the same president who held a design competition to erect the official mosque, paying no heed that the winning architect was not a Muslim.  This I daresay describes the Zeitgeist in which our class of 1967 was weaned, a relaxed attitude about faiths as being something personal.

Which is why in the past few days, we’ve looked askance at the nonsensical polemic of whether a movie released in 1984, directed by one of Indonesia’s great dramatists, is worthy to be re-screened.  The head-scratching was for the much more insidious trope hovering in the background: the response to quickly smack down any attempt to revise official history about events that happened on Sept. 30, 1965.

My class of 1967 can claim to have borne at least a few lousy brunt ends of the stick from the whole mess. For an entire week after that date in 1965, we were forced to stay home because things were too dodgy.

The movie Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI (The Treachery of the G30S/PKI) is a docudrama written and directed by Arifin C. Noer at the behest of the army. Sponsored by Soeharto’s New Order government, it was based on an official history of the 30 September Movement (Gerakan 30 September, or G-30-S) putsch in 1965 written by Nugroho Notosusanto, which depicted it as being orchestrated by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). The film portrays a time of economic turmoil, in which six generals are kidnapped and killed by the PKI, purportedly to pre-empt a coup against president Sukarno. General Soeharto saves the day, and afterward urges the community to commemorate those killed and fight against all forms of communism. PKI leadership is shown as ruthless, taking pleasure in excessive violence and torture.

The film was a commercial and critical success, reaching record viewership numbers — but of course: it was compulsory. It was a propaganda vehicle, televised annually on Sept. 30 for 13 years and was mandatory viewing for students. Although the film’s artistic aspects remain well-received, its misrepresentation of history has been heavily condemned.

Subsequent studies in the ensuing half century, including a feminist dissertation by Saskia Wieringa, have proven the official tale had too many gaping holes in it. There was no bloody orgy at the infamous Lubang Buaya. The discredited women’s organization, Gerwani, was in fact a powerhouse for women in the 1950s and 1960s. Other studies repeatedly showed the so-called facts of the event are ripe for revision as new points of view are honed. The polemic was triggered by a closed seminar scheduled for a fortnight ago at the Foundation of the Indonesian Legal Aid Institute (YLBHI) in Central Jakarta, and picketed by a nervous mob outside, convinced that a lone seminar could raise from the dead the ghosts of communism past.

Having opinions was discouraged. We taught ourselves to keep mum about politics.

My class of 1967 can claim to have borne at least a few lousy brunt ends of the stick from the whole mess. For an entire week after that date in 1965, we were forced to stay home because things were too dodgy. When finally school recommenced, headmistress Sister Anuncia had us doff our Catholic-school uniforms, and wear ordinary clothing to wangle out of the demand of the militant Student Front to boycott all education until we could purge the entire country of undesirable elements.  Because of the disruptions, the education system was added to by a whole semester, shifting the school year start to January from the erstwhile September.

Some serious mind-washing was instigated. We became a generation taught to be scared of the shadows on the ground thrown by rustling leaves, instead of being directed to take a long hard look at the tree itself, and more importantly from which direction the gust of wind rustling it came from. It was hammered into us that since the Gerwani regaled in a lewd orgy as they cut up the officers’ genitals on that fatal morning, women were good to be kept in submission.

Having opinions was discouraged. We taught ourselves to keep mum about politics. When we suddenly realized that half of our best friends at school were of Chinese descent with three names, who were forced to change their monikers into “Indonesian” ones, we simply considered the weird law par for the course. Cherry, a classmate of mine who was of Dutch descent, apparently had her uncle and cousins rendered stateless for refusing to change their name, Van Room, into Bachrum. But my chum Ho changed his name into Hermansjah with no qualms.

The reunion was a success because of that wondrous discovery, the Internet.

Our generation managed to escape the brainwashing that occurred with compulsory Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI viewing, because by 1984 we were adults. Seeing as to how information flow had by then become sophisticated, mind-tweaking should not have reached the scale it did during the Suharto years, which makes it all the more confounding to note that, even today, certain parties do not see re-examining canonical history as something desirable.

And then it dawned on me: the generals against the YLBHI discussion are of my generation. They too are products of a generation that cannot say boo to a ghost.

The reunion was a success because of that wondrous discovery, the Internet. We created a dedicated WhatsApp group and went in search of lost friends, though only 60 percent wanted to be found. Wonder of wonders, Sister Anuncia herself and two teachers turned up looking not at all ancient, because they were only 19 and 20 years old when they gave us our education.

Maybe the real value of a 50th year reunion is to remind us how fragile ideas are, and how even with people of differing values, a loving community is possible. We have more skills now to tackle life’s dreams. Yet we are also wiser, understanding that we can let some things just be. TJP

This essay was originally published by The Jakarta Post in October 2017 with the same title.