By: Duncan Graham/Kupang
Mery Kolimon reckons Indonesian Christians should learn from the revolutionary socialist Karl Marx.
That statement is a red rag to a bullish government, so jinxed by the phantoms of massacred victims that it’s distracting public inquiry with warnings of a return by the communist bogeyman.
The recommendation sounds like the ravings of a radical yet to understand the nation’s turbulent history, you need to understand the lurking fears and hate.
But Kolimon is a middle-aged married mother of three with a doctorate in theology. She’s an articulate advocate, firm but not combative, politically aware and personally scarified by the brutal past.
Her research so challenges the official version of history that she was bumped off the program at last October’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. If that was supposed to cripple her credibility, it failed. Soon after she was elected leader of two million Protestants in the archipelago’s eastern islands.
Had the festival been run by locals and staged in Jakarta, Kolimon believes it would have been hard for the police to shut down discussions about the atrocities following the September 30, 1965 coup.
Of the 12-year old Ubud festival, local police chief Farman was quoted as saying the ban was “for the benefit of the people. The spirit of the festival is not to discuss things that would just open old wounds.”
Said Kolimon: “Tensions have certainly risen since the forum was banned where I and others were to address the topic of (1965) Bearing Witness.
“But that experience has also told us that we need to build a global community seeking justice for the victims of violence everywhere.
“I was angry and disappointed. I wanted people to hear what I had to say. I know young people in particular are keen to learn the truth about the past. Strangely we’d already run public discussions around Nusa Tenggara Timor (NTT – Eastern Islands) with no interference.”
The sudden police action in Ubud silenced the speakers but amplified the issues. It shifted stories about a literary event from the ho-hum arts sections to news page headlines around the world.
Kolimon was on the bill as co-editor of the translated edition of “Forbidden Memories – Women’s Experiences of 1965 in Eastern Indonesia” published by Australia’s Monash University.
Kolimon, 44, was born after the pogrom that brought second president Soeharto to power, taking an estimated 500,000 lives in an anti-communist purge. But her quest for truth is more than academic; her late father was a police officer ordered to take part in executions of communists. He killed 17 men but suffered a tormented conscience.
She discovered her parent’s awful secret as a highschooler and later exposed the story as “Memecah Pembisuan” (Breaking the Silence), a book that split her family. She said her siblings have since reconciled following their father’s search for forgiveness.
“Forbidden Memories” is a collection of searing interviews by Kolimon and her colleagues with women who recalled the horrors. It tells how husbands, fathers, brothers and sons were rounded up and shot, their bodies buried or dumped at sea.
Few were party members (communism was not illegal before the coup) or even active supporters. Many were arbitrarily condemned because informants claimed they harbored anti-government views. It was also a handy way for feuding neighbors to settle old scores.
Some women were also found guilty by association, imprisoned, tortured, sexually abused and then had their heads shaved. The widows were kicked out of their jobs and shoved back into a fearful society that discriminated for decades.
The book claims the church was complicit in the purge by not speaking out or ministering to prisoners, and by accepting government claims about communism. Pastors demanded alleged members publicly confess their “sins” to be allowed communion.
Kolimon said the research had been published to give the victims a voice, to raise awareness of “this dark shadow over the nation … this humanitarian tragedy.” She also wants to start reform of the religious institutions because the church “lost its critical voice.”
Now she is standing on a more substantial platform than the Ubud festival following her win as Synod Moderator for the church in NTT against two male candidates.
In her Kupang office, photos of Kolimon’s 11 predecessors stare down from a wall. Most look somber and authoritarian. All are men.
She considers the International People’s Tribunal held at The Hague last November another reason for the government’s attempts to ignite anti-communist hysteria.
During the 2014 presidential election campaign, successful candidate Joko “Jokowi” Widodo offered voters the Nawa Cita (Sanskrit for nine goals) agenda; this included a pledge to address the claims of victims of historical abuse.
When this didn’t happen the tribunal took evidence. The panel of judges concluded the Indonesian government was responsible for the massacres and oppression that followed the coup.
The government has refused to recognize the IPT. Attorney General HM Prasetyo was reported as saying: “We solve our own issues. There is no need for other parties to be involved.”
Kolimon believes the army and others are worried by the overseas attention. “Whatever they say they are facing a big challenge with people seeking reconciliation,” she said. “I want to meet the president and ask him to be consistent in his promise of reformation.
“We will support him in developing a stronger civil society after decades of an authoritarian state.”
Despite her extra authority as leader of NTT churches, Kolimon says the situation for activists has become “so dangerous” since the Ubud festival closure.
“There’s been no direct attack, but we can feel the tension, I’m protected somewhat by my position, but maybe the victims are not so secure. It’s very important to be careful, but not to panic.
“The authorities say they are against a communist revival. Radicals and communists and LGBT causes are being bundled together. I’ve even been called a communist. Can you imagine it? What’s happening? This is crazy – but this is my country now.
“I can’t prove it but I think my phone is being tapped. Just before my election (as Moderator) the TNI tried to stop us showing films on Rote (the island next to Kupang). We were so afraid, but we went ahead.”
In the “Forbidden Memories” epilogue Kolimon writes: “It is high time that Christianity in Indonesia … thinks seriously about the possibilities of learning from Marxism rather than perpetuating hatred towards it.
“Openness to this will allow the church to become more sensitive to people’s suffering and to show a clear attitude about where the church stands.
“Specifically in the context of global capitalism today, which tends to exploit the poor, the church can take important lessons from Marxism which will help to enable it to carry out Jesus’ teaching about serving those who are marginalized.”
Later this month [July] she will speak at a seminar in Melbourne. She claims that reconciliation is not just an issue for Indonesia but must also involve the US and Australia. Both nations applauded the fall of first president Soekarno because they feared he was getting too close to communism, and may have assisted with names of members to be targeted.
“Some people think that peace will come so long as we leave things alone,” Kolimon said. “The opposite is true – we’ll continue to be haunted by ghosts of the past. We must try and heal this trauma which is affecting the whole nation.”