Gesture, Memory, Trauma, Censorship: A Personal Reckoning with Indonesia’s Histories



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Three young Indonesians on a street. Two of them are Republican volunteers from Sulawesi, members of the armed youth organization KRIS, on leave in Yogyakarta, December 1947. / Photo by Hugo Wilmar (Dutch National Archives/Spaarnestad Collection).

In this personal text, Sabrina Citra navigates between colonial memory, postcolonial state narratives, and a reckoning with the fabricated, if not fictitious, dimension of nationhood after the fight against colonialism has ended. Through a mindful look at gestures and rituals, she articulates how this mythology is inscribed within the memories of their bodies.

Being of a diaspora had afforded me the distance to think about my Indonesian-ness, while being raised in Jakarta has granted a closeness to the community and land that automated a sense of belonging to the nation. I had believed that “nationhood” would articulate my relation with the motherland (encapsulated in the national language as Ibu Pertiwi), rather than an “identity” that must be explicitly defined. However, the first years of living abroad had enforced an assertion to recognize my national identity by the demands of state administration, as my Indonesian-ness had been reduced to the passport that I had carried and my precarious status as an “immigrant.” The following instances had awakened me to the volatility of “nationhood” as a concept that affirmed my being. Upon my return to Jakarta, my identity became a subject of criticism among my community for I had been deemed “less Indonesian” for challenging national epistemologies, in particular national history and language. These collective experiences have clarified (or rather, complicated) my ideas of “belonging”’ in the context of nationhood. In this text, I sought to explore it through the encounters and experiences that I had with the histories of Indonesia. 

At the age of nine, my mother often narrated stories of decolonisation against the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the Japanese. She described their battles in folklore, claiming their victories to be God-given: “They came in with their firearms and all we had was our bambu runcing. Under the name of God, our people raised their spears and went into battle. Imagine this, these spears of bamboo had brought us freedom! Logically we don’t even stand a chance against their ‘military’ power. All that firearm pales in comparison to the spirit of our people. That is what I know to be a miracle, Sabrina. That is God’s miracle for Indonesia.” These stories had been likened to the narratives of creation within mythology, propelling the violences that had been endured by the nation’s forebearers as necessary sacrifices to birth a postcolonial Indonesia. My mother’s ritual of storytelling had inherited a belief in the “sacred” genealogy of nationhood.

The trajectory of her stories aligned with the narratives of national history that signified colonization as the phenomenon that had unified the different ethnic groups across the archipelago to reclaim their Indonesia.

The urgency for independence had established the nation-building project to (re)build a postcolonial Indonesia that removed colonial influences within their proclamation of an Indonesian identity. This involved the destruction of any public symbols that valorized colonial rule (across Jakarta), as well as the creation of a national history, language, monuments, and museums. Decoloniality had materialized in Indonesia’s newfound culture, forming a “rooted” expression of a national (read: Indonesian) identity.

Identifying as an Indonesian did not come without the terms and conditions that demanded an adherence to its civic duties. The years of schooling had molded me to become a “good,” law-abiding citizen through civic studies, when I was taught to memorize legislative documents and its regulations, the Constitution of Indonesia and Pancasila (“philosophy” of Indonesia), as well as a range of patriotic songs and its accompanying histories. The range of these materials explicated the multiple contexts of statehood that demands its citizens to adhere to their specific duties, adjusted to each setting. To this day, I cannot recall any moment that required me to recite or remember the Constitution, Pancasila, or any legislative policies beyond examinations, but the memory of songs had proved useful for flag ceremonies. My teachers had taught us the lyrics for the national anthem and patriotic songs about the national flag—such as “Berkibarlah Benderaku” (“Fly Free, My Flag”) by Ibu Sud in 1947—which were eventually sung during its procession. When the flag was raised, participants were required to maintain an upright posture and salute the flag while singing the national anthem. The following gestures have been tradition within the flag ceremony, which has been unchanged for decades since the nation’s independence in 1945. These rituals of remembrance had been imposed to accustom Indonesians to realize their moral responsibility (towards their forefathers, as well as for one another) to remain in unity.  

Upon reflection, the national histories had proven the existence of an Indonesian historiography that blends oral, textual, and visual narratives with embodied experiences which broadened the temporality of historical knowledge to exist beyond its recollection of “past events” towards its enlivenment in present-day time. Granted, I do not want to ignore the political context within the following narratives that instrumentalized history to materialize a nationalist mode of belonging, but I want to recognize the physicality that is demanded from historicizing.

Our bodies have become sites of praxis or what I loosely refer to as a “living archive” that utilizes memory as a vessel to contain the entangled relation of knowledges that merges its distant past with its present-day reactions and receptivity. 

I had sought to implement the following mode of historicizing to understand my family’s experiences in colonized Indonesia. My Oma (“grandmother” in Dutch) refused to speak on the matter because it had triggered unwanted memories of her family, but my Opa (“grandfather” in Dutch), who grew up during the Japanese Occupation, was willing to share the stories that he remembered. He recalled his history in fragments: blending his ‘mundane’ experiences with Japanese soldiers alongside their cruelties that he bore witness to. He was always happy to recall the memories of the former: “At school, we would have Senam Pagi (morning aerobics) everyday before class would start. Did you know a Japanese soldier would lead our routine? And he would go “Ichi, ni, san!” (“One, two, three!”), he said as he gave me a demonstration of his exercise routine from seventy years ago. He credited the Japanese for inciting his hobby of exercising, which he believed was one of the habits worth inheriting. My questions regarding the latter issue had always made him uncomfortable, but he was insistent on sharing the memory that he could recall. He had always been grateful for his young age, as it had saved him from Rōmusha (Japanese colonial system of forced labor) and he briefly spoke of his friends who he barely saw since they had been enlisted to partake in forced labor: “I only saw them when I had gone home from school. They would typically go home in big groups but one day, I saw one of my friends return home by himself and he wore nothing but a rice sack.” 

I had learned from my conversations with my Opa that there exists a difficulty within the retelling of traumatic histories in Indonesia due to the two reasons: firstly, there is a disability to recall past experiences among those who had endured and lived through these histories and, secondly, censorship remains rampant in the publication and writing of histories that discerned the violences of the nation. Beyond the context of colonial occupation, there had been stories that were either lost or removed in articulating the periods of mass violence in Indonesia, ranging from the Papuan referendum, the 1965 murders of hundreds of thousands of Communist party members and their affiliates, as well as ethnic violences that were endured by Chinese-Indonesians.

It is a privilege to have encountered academics and artists such as Brigitta Isabella, FX Harsono and Betty Adii of Udeido Collective whose works have offered clarity towards the insularity of national history. Their research challenges the image of an equal, just, and united Indonesia produced in its narratives (that we have naturalized) , excluding  any experience, events, and memories that were deemed unsuitable to the trajectory of nationhood, including the violence that is faced by marginalized communities. This began with Mba Brigitta who produced a paper entitled “Hantu Topeng Kelono, Hantu Burung Kasuari, dan Hantu Ngung Ngung Ngung Cakcakcak: Tiga Hantu Tari Yang Bergentayangan Dalam Narasi Identitas Kebudayaan Nasional” (“The Ghost of Kelono, The Ghost of the Kasuari Bird and The Ghost of Ngung Ngung Ngung Cakcakcak: Three Ghosts of Dance that Haunt the National Cultural Identity”), where she positions herself as a ghost to produce critical re-reading of dance performances that were deemed a threat against the “wholeness” imbued in the aesthetics of a national identity. 

Following this, Pak Harsono searched across Java to find the mass burial sites of Chinese-Indonesians who were victims of ethnic cleansing, which had eventually led him to encounter their families who retold the stories of their fathers and mothers’ deaths. The oral histories had acted as inspiration for his numerous works called Berziarah ke Sejarah (Pilgrimage to History) and Memelihara Hidup, Menghentikan Hidup (Preserving Life, Terminating Life), where he produced his own reflections with the lost memories that he had(n’t) inherited as a Chinese-Indonesian. 

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A vision of nationhood in Markas Laskar Rakyat (The People’s Basecamp) by Sudjojono (1964).

On the other hand, Betty took it upon herself to utilize her installation called Dystopian Reality: The Agony of Existence to raise awareness of what she calls the “power dynamic” of the militia that had endangered the lives of Papuan women. In a letter that she had written to me, she articulated her intention to materialize the “realities from memory and collective trauma” that had never been inscribed in the narratives of nationhood. I had presumed the importance of recognizing the categorization of their work in the fields of art and cultural studies, as I believe that these fields  have granted them the freedom to safely explore these topics and they would risk censorship, if it were produced in a different context. 

To publicly detail histories that challenge the very idea of “nationhood” has become a difficult exercise for Indonesians, especially those who are disconnected from their own memories. I have embodied its belief as I have been bound by my birthright to Ibu Pertiwi, carrying her histories as my own. Even as I write this, I feel a guilt for failing to provide you, reader, the “truth” of the (violent) histories contained from the public sphere. My positionality as an Indonesian writer does not grant me the liberty to place myself as a “voice of clarity” to write on their behalf, as I only stand as a witness of their memories. I can only hope that there will be a time for them to choose their way of remembrance. ■