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Indonesia Wrestles with Troubled Past

UCLA conference examines a nation's challenge of reviving a collective memory

By Jean Roth

In May 1998 massive demonstrations forced the resignation of Indonesia's President Suharto, bringing an end to his ironhanded 32-year "New Order" period. Under his paternalistic regime, the military and state security apparatus exercised unrestrained powers to suppress dissent and imposed policies that violated the rights of its citizens. The official nationalist discourse fabricated a state-engineered representation of history that both obscured the regional and cultural histories of Indonesia's vast archipelago, and censored discussion of the violence and repression - most notably the mass killings of 1965-66 - that were part of the New Order's legacy.

"History and Memory in Contemporary Indonesia," a two-day conference sponsored by the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies and International Studies and Overseas Programs (ISOP) on April 6-7, will explore the current challenge facing Indonesia to revisit the Suharto years and resuscitate its collective memory after more than three decades of silence, secrecy, distortion and manipulation of history for political ends.

Conference topics will address how the country's past is being spoken, written and represented in post- authoritarian Indonesia: current efforts to examine human rights abuse, new cultural and artistic reflections on the New Order, public intellectuals and the shaping of historical discourse, and issues of documenting private memory in the search for truth and justice.

Mary Zurbuchen, visiting scholar at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies and organizer of the conference, explained the dilemma with which Indonesia is struggling: "Along with the growing conviction in Indonesia that the violence, corruption and abuse of power under Suharto need full and public accounting, there are indications of commitment at the highest levels of Indonesia's new government to redress past wrongs. Still, the process is a daunting assignment, coming as it does at a moment when the state's relations with its citizens are undergoing profound redefinition, and while regional separatism, ethnic conflict, economic malaise and political scandal run high."

Zurbuchen pointed out that the discussions emerging from "History and Memory in Contemporary Indonesia" have implications that reach far beyond Indonesia. "Other Southeast Asian countries are also struggling to come to terms with violent pasts. I believe that our work on historical memory in Indonesia will contribute to the broad and growing international field of transitional justice and truth-seeking," she said.

"History and Memory in Contemporary Indonesia" will take place at UCLA in the Deutsch Room, Fowler Museum of Cultural Anthropology, from 8:15 a.m.-4:45 p.m., Friday, April 6; and from 8:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 7.

Center for Southeast Asian Studies