Admitting the ugliness in their pasts is no easier for countries than it is for individuals.
Can a government oversee the slaughter of half a million people and then pretend it never happened? Indonesia proves that it’s possible. Over several months in 1965 and ’66, soldiers and paramilitary units sought out Indonesians suspected of having leftist sympathies and murdered them. It was one of the bloodiest episodes of the Cold War.
What made it even more astonishing was that no one in power ever acknowledged this massacre, either while it was underway or afterward. That denial is now eroding.
“With a clear mind and earnest heart, I, as Indonesia’s head of state, admit that gross human rights violations did happen,” President Joko Widodo declared last month. “I have sympathy and empathy for the victims and their families.”
Facing truths about the past is no easier for nations than it is for individuals. Yet denying reality and repressing memory rarely leads to a healthy mind or a healthy state. Countries that accuse each other of war crimes are often unwilling to confront their own sins. This produces a culture of hypocrisy. Only when countries honestly assess their own behavior do they have moral authority to condemn others.
With 275 million people, Indonesia is the world’s fourth-most populous nation. The massacre there in the 1960s came after the military, reacting to an abortive coup attempt, decided to wipe out Communists and other leftists. Its forces systematically pulled people from their homes and led them to death. After their success, a pro-American general, Suharto, seized power. He ruled for the next 30 years.
During Suharto’s harsh and spectacularly corrupt rule, it was taboo to mention the bloodbath that propelled him to power. That silence continued after he resigned following violent protests in 1998. Over the following decades, however, several books about the massacre emerged, most recently “The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World” by Vincent Bevins, a former Los Angeles Times reporter. It is also the subject of a breathtaking documentary film called “The Act of Killing.”
In making his shattering declaration last month, President Widodo said he will proceed “fairly and wisely” to offer justice to victims and their families. Some activists are urging him to create a “truth commission” that would publicly review the events of 1965-66. Others want the government to release what it knows about the location of mass graves. Thus far Widodo has resisted these appeals. How far he is willing to go — possibly risking reaction from powerful military commanders and other supporters of the old order — remains unclear.
Widodo’s newfound candor might also lead the United States to recognize its own role in the Indonesian slaughter. Declassified documents show that, as the historian Kai Thaler wrote several years ago, “US officials were accessories to this mass murder. The United States helped create the conditions for the killings. It supported, rather than restraining or condemning, the perpetrators. The United States was not alone; British and Australian officials also supported the killings. The United States has never officially apologized, though, for its involvement in what the CIA called ‘one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century.’”
Americans are quick to accuse other countries of atrocities. Usually these accusations are at least partly true. They are less persuasive, though, coming from a country that has rarely acknowledged any major misdeeds. It’s hard to convince the world to follow a “rules-based order” if your country refuses to reckon with its own past.
That reckoning is immensely difficult. Turks have a saying: “Why should we eat sour yogurt?” It’s another way of asking why Turkey, or any country, would want to explore its past crimes and broadcast evidence of its historical guilt to the world.
If Indonesia, the United States, and Turkey were built on the foundation of great crimes, so were other powerful nations including China, Russia, and India. The list of countries with bloodstained pasts could scroll down from there. It would be long. The difference is not only the level of horror they inflicted, but their willingness to admit it.
Germany and Japan represent polar opposites in their approach to this supremely difficult challenge. No country in the world has confessed its past crimes as fully as Germany. The opposite is true in Japan, which insistently refuses to admit the horrors it inflicted on the countries it occupied during World War II.
Don’t expect China to acknowledge the scope of its murderous “cultural revolution,” or India to accept its role in slaughters during partition in 1947, or the United States to investigate what its armies did in Iraq and Afghanistan. Any honest report of these episodes would cast a shadow over the guilty nation. That is the “sour yogurt” that few are ready to eat. Like yogurt, though, it’s good for long-term health.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.