Australian Outlook

Rewriting the Erased

26 Aug 2021
By Duncan Graham
FX Harsono,

There are maybe three million ethnic Chinese in Indonesia.  Although that’s a minuscule 1.2 percent of the population, it’s often claimed they control around 70 percent of the economy.

US law professor Amy Chua identified Chinese Indonesians as “one of the market-dominant minorities in the world.” They’ve also suffered hate and discrimination.  One artist is using his personal experiences and imagination to change attitudes.

As a Catholic, FX (Francis Xavier) Harsono knows the reality of the gospel verse:  A prophet is not without honour but in his own country. “I’m well known overseas and in the international art community,’ the contemporary multi-media creative said in an online interview from his home in Yogyakarta.  ‘But here in Indonesia, I’m almost invisible. My work isn’t market-friendly.” Nor politically palatable to a government obsessed with economic development, for Harsono focuses on discrimination and human rights. In 2015, when winning the prestigious Dutch Prince Claus Award, the Indonesian’s works were described as “an expression of pro-democracy dissent of the experiences of ethnic minorities … often inspired by the repression and feelings of otherness he has encountered in his country.”

For the past two decades Harsono, 72, has been researching the killings of Orang Tionghoa locals during the 1945-49 revolutionary war against the Netherlanders. The Dutch used the euphemism Politionele Acties (police actions).  Indonesians called them Agresi Militer Belanda (Dutch Military Aggressions).

The colonialists were determined to retrieve the East Indies archipelago they’d overseen and plundered for more than three centuries. Young Indonesians inspired by President Soekarno’s proclamation of independence after the occupying Japanese lost the Pacific War, were equally resolved on achieving Merdeka (freedom).

Harsono said the Indonesian government’s account of the savage conflict is set in “black and white.” It has brave revolutionaries running a prolonged guerrilla campaign against the Royal Netherlands Indies Army.

At one stage the Koninklijk Nederlands Indisch Leger (KNIL) had more troops in Indonesia than the allies had fighting in Vietnam, though many were reluctant conscripts lacking the drive of their opponents. The war cost an estimated 100,000 Indonesian lives against 6,000 plus Dutch dead.

International pressure on the Dutch to withdraw intensified, particularly from Australia, Britain, and the US which threatened to stop Marshall Plan rebuilding aid. One billion dollars had already been donated, but around half had been used on the Indonesian campaign.

The KNIL committed war crimes which are documented. There have been inquiries, apologies, and a little reparation. But Indonesian mobs also killed wantonly and there’s been no accountability. Harsono said brutality was committed by militia in rural areas where the more disciplined Indonesian soldiers had no sway: “There’s a dark history of massacres of civilians which is little known. It’s my job as an artist to pay homage to the victims, help educate people so the same things don’t happen again and again.”

The flame that lit the hate was explained by veteran guerilla Artawi, 92, who lives in a village on the lower slopes of Mount Semeru.  He recalled ambushing KNIL soldiers on patrol: “Although most people supported independence a few remembered the Dutch had built roads, railways, schools and hospitals and wanted the colonialists to remain. So they spied.” Not all informants were ethnic Chinese, but they became the scapegoats.  All wars are ghastly but conflicts that pitch neighbours against each other can be the vilest.

As a child in the East Java city of Blitar, Harsono saw images taken in 1951 by his photographer father Oh Hok Tjoe of mass grave excavations. The shots of almost 200 victims show skulls and bones which were later given proper burials. Harsono studied at Yogyakarta’s prestigious Institut Seni Indonesia (Academy of Indonesian Arts) and helped found the Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru (New Art Movement) in 1975.

Harsono recalled his dad’s pictures after the artist had become an international name, so set out to tell the world of the atrocities. At the time, he’d been outraged by rapes and murders of ethnic Chinese during the 1998 Jakarta riots which forced second president Soeharto to quit. “I was so angry till I remembered my Catholic beliefs and turned to forgiveness and my art,” he said. The result was a set of prints Thy Kingdom Come now displayed in a West Java church.

So far Harsono has identified the mass graves of 1,764 victims spread across nine villages and towns in East Java, and Yogyakarta:  “There are still many victims who have not yet been identified, graves dismantled and damaged, and burials unknown.” He’s made a compelling video of his search – nDudah. In Javanese, it means “to excavate.”  Another video, Writing in the Rain, was screened in New York’s Times Square in 2018. Only a few sites he’s listed have memorials. In Malang (East Java), 30 men and women were herded into a noodle factory, tortured, and burnt to death on 31 July 1947.  Apart from a report to the UN, there’s no other evidence.

Harsono has also encountered silence. “Respondents I spoke to warned there are no guarantees they’ll be safe and free of discrimination. Some people know of the past but don’t want to talk so this oral history could be erased from the collective memory.  As an artist, I have a responsibility to be the nation’s conscience.” One of his performance videos is titled Rewriting the Erased. “I talked about reconciliation at a seminar in Melbourne in 2018.  A petition was signed and sent to Jakarta – but nothing has happened.”

Harsono said the discrimination he’s suffered has been state-sanctioned and mainly last century when President Soeharto ruled. The laws have since been scrapped.

He was forced to change his name from Oh Hong Bun to something more “Indonesian.”  He can’t speak Mandarin – when he visited Beijing, he was told he wasn’t Chinese. When he sought a passport to take up an artist-in-residence position in Australia the “fourth or fifth-generation citizen” alleged he had to pay a bribe of Rp 500,000 (then about US $200) to a corrupt immigration officer who’d seen a race code on his ID card. The riots of May 1998 following Soeharto’s resignation, the 2016  conviction and jailing of Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) for “blasphemy,” plus arrests for alleged religious insults have added to the fears.

“Despite what I’ve learned about our past, I’m optimistic that race relations will improve and that the mood is being led by the young,” Harsono said. “There are civil organisations like the Gusdurians (named after the liberal fourth president Abdurrahman Wahid, aka Gus Dur), and religious groups supporting tolerance and pluralism.  But we need to re-write the histories and tell the truth.”

Duncan Graham is a journalist and author locked down in East Java.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.