Posted by: Fadjar Thufail | September 30, 2006

Is “Pelurusan Sejarah” Necessary?

Over the last few years, after the New Order political regime crumbled in 1998, Indonesians have been debating whether we need to rewrite our national history. The major event driving the public debate is the history of the 1965 tragedy when seven army generals were assasinated and when the killing was soon followed by a military operation that resulted in more than 500,000 people massacred. The official history, written and endorsed by the New Order regime, claims that the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was behind the killing and the military merely conducted a legitimate step to curb the communist threat. This official history lasted for a few decades, was taught in schools, and was the source of propaganda films commisioned by the New Order regime with the help from nationalist historians. The collapse of the New Order autocratic regime (1967-1998) has opened up the long-awaited opportunity to challenge the New Order version of the 1965 history. Pioneered by several historians, the term “pelurusan sejarah” was coined, referring to the attempt to correct “the mistakes” that the New Order had relied on writing its own version of the 1965 history. Historians supporting the pelurusan sejarah argue that the New Order’s claim that the PKI executes the killing of the general run against the available historical data, which the regime had covered and had just been made public recently. Pelurusan sejarah seemed to gain necessary political support when they managed to convince the post-New Order government to take the word PKI from the history textbooks for high-school students. The New Order’s version of the killing tragedy on the night of September 30, 1965, was “G30S/PKI.” Despite the major revision, the debate over pelurusan sejarah has remained and some nationalist historians have expressed their concern that eliminating the word PKI would mean disregarding the threat of communism, then and now.

I am less interested in commenting on the historical accuracy of the allegation of a PKI-backed scenario of the killing. Neither am I interested in providing new evidence to support either argument. Over the last few years, books, written by Indonesian historians or translated from American, European, and Australian publications, have mushroomed. These are good sources to assess the historical facts and arguments. I am more interested in commenting on the pragmatic consequences of pelurusan sejarah, which I think has become a major political project in any country that is coping with the legacy of authoritarian past.

Pelurusan sejarah holds an assumption that sejarah (history) has been manipulated and a political and a scholarly step should be carried out to straighten (diluruskan) it out. I do believe that history can always be manipulated but the fact that history is prone to political manipulation does not necessarily mean that there is only one “correct” version of history. Pelurusan sejarah risks of strengthening the politics of historical writing which overlooks agency and produces the same historical version that the pelurusan historians have in fact criticized. The attempt to “correct the mistake” would produce new authority vested on historians who have the capability to identify the “mistakes” and offer different “legitimate” versions. This will launch a chain of pelurusan efforts as other historians will seek other mistakes and other legitimate versions. At the same time, any product of a pelurusan would claim to be the most validated and responsible historical version, and in so doing it simply reenacts the same process practiced by the New Order regime in claiming that its version was the most accurate one. What differentiates the New Order version and the “corrected” version is the legitimacy they evoke. The New Order version constructs its legitimacy through discursive politics of propaganda and education, and the pelurusan version relies on the discourse of scientific objectivity.

I am not suggesting that one should do away with pelurusan sejarah, because it will contradict the pragmatic view I am introducing here. I would like to propose, instead, to open a critical space of dialogue without necessarily assuming that one version contains the most accurate depiction of historical events. The New Order history and the pelurusan effort share the same historical burden. They strive to craft a national history that is politically and morally acceptable. Perhaps the most feasible step to open up the critical space is simply to forget the national history and brush the history against the (political and scientific) grains.



  1. Western history finds its roots in the examples and styles of writers like Herodotus, Tacitus and Thucydides whose works survive after 2,ooo years. Thucydides was an exiled general with access to ‘inside’ information; not much is known of Herodotus except that he was a Greek living in a Persian city and constructed his narrative from the reports of others – his history may have been pelurusan unconsciously; Tacitus was more of a social anthropologist and popular writer. And from these three we have cast the molds for the categories of modern day historians.

    In America, we have accepted ‘history’ somewhat blindly with little regard for the power of primary source materials: eye witness accounts and material evidence. In one sense, history is the legacy of our ancestors and the best of what it is they have left for us; in another sense history is the lights on the run that “guide us in as we prepare to leave our mark on civic affairs”; and literally, history is a marker of what we leave behind when we abandon the need for a chronology altogether.

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