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Setting History Straight

by Armando Siahaan

On March 28, 2007, hundreds of protesters under the umbrella of Gerakan Anti-Komunis, or the Anti-Communist Movement, arrived at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences in South Jakarta aboard Metromini buses.

They had come to publicly denounce the institute for allegedly seeking to revive communism in Indonesia, an ideology that President Suharto sought to wipe out in the late-1960s when he introduced to the country what was later to become known as the New Order. There was one particular person the demonstrators were looking for: Asvi Warman Adam.

Recalling the day in his cozy home in Pondok Gede, East Jakarta, Asvi did not see the incident as discouraging.

“A lot of groups oppose what I have been doing,” said the 54-year-old historian, who still sometimes receives late-night phone calls threatening his wife and children. “That means my work has made an impact.”

The protesters demanded that Asvi discontinue his efforts to correct mistakes in the version of Indonesian history that is widely accepted and taught in state schools.

Following the fall of Suharto in 1998, Asvi dedicated himself to the intellectual movement he calls pelurusan sejarah, or the straightening of history.

He believes the ruling powers have attempted to absolve themselves of responsibility for the past by presenting untruthful accounts as historical fact. “Indonesian history was written uniformly by men in uniform,” Asvi said.

In what he terms the militarization of history, Asvi said the New Order regime wrote and controlled the version of Indonesian history that is conveyed through school textbooks, national monuments and museums.

Asvi saw the breakdown of the authoritarian regime in May 1998 as an opportunity to create a more accurate, scholarly and impartial picture of Indonesian history, a process that he considers to be an essential part of the democratization of the country.

“By having more than one understanding of history, people can debate and discuss which version makes more sense. This helps in forming a critical and democratic society,” he said.

Asvi has written numerous books, articles and essays debunking the New Order regime’s accounts of historic events, particularly the circumstances surrounding the unsuccessful coup of Sept. 30, 1965, which led to the political demise of the founding president, Sukarno.

The New Order said the coup was orchestrated by the Indonesian Communist Party, using that to justify an anti-Communist purge in which more than half a million people may have been killed.

“The 1965 incident was a watershed in Indonesia’s history,” Asvi said. “Looking at it politically, economically, and culturally, it brought about drastic and fundamental changes.”

The official account of the 1965 coup is a salient example of the way in which Suharto used history to condone his iron- fisted rule, Asvi said.

For years, he said, the coup was used to awaken a fear of “the enemy,” meaning anyone who opposed the government.

“History was merely used to legitimize his [Suharto’s] accession to power and consolidate his rule,” Asvi said.

His books include “Suharto Sisi Gelap Sejarah Indonesia”

(Suharto, the Dark Side of Indonesian History), “Seabad Kontroversial Sejarah” (A Decade of Controversial History) and “Membongkar Manipulasi Sejarah” (Unraveling History’s Manipulation).

Earlier this year, Kompas published an anthology of articles Asvi has written for the newspaper. It has so far sold more than 10,000 copies.

Events in Indonesian history that Asvi is currently re-examining include the attack on Dutch troops in Yogyakarta on March 1, 1949, and the Jan. 15, 1974, Malari incident — abbreviated from Malapetaka Lima Belas January, or the Tragedy of January 15th — in which Suharto’s men quashed a mass student protest, turning it into a bloody riot.

In June, Asvi will be a speaker at a conference, titled “The Indonesian Killings Revisited, 1965-66,” at the National University of Singapore, joining renowned Indonesianists such as Robert Cribb, Anthony Reid and Kate McGregor in the largest meeting of scholars on the subject.

In much of his work, Asvi not only refutes the New Order’s version of events, but also looks at history from the point of view of victims.

“History cannot be written just by the winners, we should also give the other side a chance,” said Asvi, referring to the victims of the 1965-66 anti-Communist violence.

In terms of the people’s reaction to his sort of struggle, Asvi believes that he has seen significant progress since the advent of the reform era.

“For 32 years, there was a taboo against questioning the government’s version of history,” Asvi said. “Now they’re being offered something unheard of. Society wants to know what has been kept hidden from them.”

Asvi did not begin his academic career as a historian. He graduated from the University of Indonesia in 1980 with a degree in French literature and, after a short stint working as a sports journalist for Sportif magazine, became a researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences in 1983. A year later, he was invited to teach Indonesian language at a university in Paris.

It was in France that he became interested in history. Aside from teaching, he decided to pursue a doctorate at Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Socialies. Under the tutelage of the renowned Asianist Denys Lombard, Asvi spent six years writing a dissertation on the relationship between the Dutch East Indies and Indochina during the colonial era.

In 1990, he came home to reassume his position at the institute of sciences.

Six years later, Masyarakat Sejarawan Indonesia, or the Indonesian Historians Community, designated him as the head of education affairs.

When Suharto abdicated in 1998, Asvi was contacted by newspapers, academics and members of the public, who challenged him to re-examine the New Order version of Indonesian history.

That same year he was invited by a Christian group — a group of men and women in their 60s and 70s —to speak to victims and survivors of the anti-Communist purge of 1965-66.

“They asked me to tell them about the September 30 Movement,” he recalled. “At the end of the lecture, you could see that sorrow was not the only thing emanating from them. They were very eager to know what actually happened.”

After he delivered his speech, some of the victims came up to him and gave him about Rp 30,000 in rumpled notes, collected by the victims, thanking him for his willingness to share his thoughts with them.

“It was a moment when I felt like I had to help them,” he said.

“For victims like them, the straightening of history is a healing process. Not a single day passes when I don’t think about them.”

Asvi said that determining the identities of the masterminds of the 1965 coup was secondary to doing something about the impact of the suppression that followed, which has had an inter-generational impact.

“I have a friend, a political analyst,” he said. “After decades of knowing him, only recently did he reveal to me that both of his parents were [exiled during the 1960s].

"Millions of people had to hide their true identities due to their association with a communist past.”

Before he met the victims, Asvi said, his journey into the world of history was merely for academic purposes. But for the past 10 years, he has written his articles with empathy for the victims of a dark chapter in Indonesian history.

“History should no longer be exploited as an instrument of oppression. It should be utilized as a means of liberation,”

Asvi said.