Indonesians Are Rewriting the History Books Now that They Are Free (But Limits Remain)

Roundup: Talking About History

Ellen Nakashima, in the Washington Post (April 24, 2004):

The Communist Party did it.

For more than three decades, that was the received wisdom in Indonesian classrooms concerning the night of Sept. 30, 1965, when six generals and a lieutenant said to be plotting against President Sukarno were kidnapped and murdered, their bodies stuffed down a well.

But in a high school here one recent afternoon, a teacher drew a diagram on a board with arrows pointing to three possible culprits besides the Communist Party, including Sukarno's successor, longtime dictator Suharto.

During the Suharto era, that diagram could have landed him in prison, said Ali Ramlan, a teacher at Public High School 26. Today, six years after Suharto was forced from power by mass protests, the teaching of history is slowly being freed of state-imposed dogma.

Historians still lack consensus on the circumstances underlying some major events, notably about who was behind the abortive coup of 1965, which led to a purge of suspected Communists that year and the following one and left hundreds of thousands dead. It also weakened Sukarno, opening the way for Suharto to take over.

A revised curriculum scheduled to take effect in July, the first such overhaul since the Suharto era, drops the words "Communist Party" from the section on September 1965, substituting the vague guideline to "compare various opinions" on the event. The new curriculum, begun in 1999, lacks specificity throughout. That poses a challenge for teachers, many of whom are unsure which topics to raise and whether or how to encourage debate.

The impetus for change has come mainly from a freed-up press and television, which are producing images and ideas that make students question the version of events offered by their outdated textbooks. That puts teachers in a dilemma.

"The textbooks say this, but the newspapers say that, and the students don't know which to believe," said Taufik Abdullah, a historian with the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, paraphrasing teachers who have attended his history seminars. "We are experiencing a credibility gap."...

The abortive coup of 1965 is a litmus test of how the teaching of history is evolving in a fledgling democracy. But teachers are shrugging off convention in other ways.

In December 1948, the Dutch invaded the central Java city of Yogyakarta, then capital of the young republic. The standard history text portrayed Suharto as a brilliant young officer who decided to lead an attack in 1949 against the Dutch.

Today, I Wayan Badrika, a textbook writer and high school history teacher across town, offers a different explanation. He said Suharto was ordered to attack by the armed forces commander.

But Wayan, who is revising his latest text for publication next year, said he will not discuss with students or include in his book alternative versions of the 1965 coup attempt until the state informs him what they are.

Opening his unfinished manuscript, he notes that the section on September 1965 is blank. His outline, conforming to the new curriculum, states only: "There are different opinions."


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