By: Our Correspondent

Bali’s prestigious international writers and artists’ festival has agreed to drop several sessions dealing with the massacre of hundreds of thousands of people in 1965 in Java and Bali after a threat by the Indonesian government that the entire festival would be shut down if they didn’t.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the massacre, which ultimately brought the strongman Suharto to power and ushered in more than 30 years of political repression. The censorship of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival is said to be the first time in the 12-year history of the event, an embarrassment for President Joko Widodo, who leaves for the United States on Sunday for a five-day visit to present Indonesia’s new face to Washington, DC.

The festival, to run from Oct. 28 to Nov. 1, is expected to feature more than 165 authors from 25 countries including Michael Chabon, Anuradha Roy, Teju Cole and others. 

“As always, the heart and soul of the Festival is the Main Program, where the big ideas and global issues are diced out in fiery panel discussions, talks and intimate conversations,” the festival website said. “As this year our theme is 17,000 Islands of Imagination we will touch on the 1965 massacre, regions such as Aceh and Papuastorytelling through cloth, and much more.”

“It is extremely disappointing and some might even say cowardly that the government is refusing to discuss this national tragedy,” one of the festival organizers told local media. “It’s almost like censorship has become fashionable overnight again,” she added.

Three panel sessions discussing the mass killings, a screening of multi-award-winning director Joshua Oppenheimer’s chilling film The Look of Silence and art exhibit and book launch The Act of Living have been pulled, festival director told local media.

The massacre was precipitated by the murder of seven Indonesian army officers by rebel troops. That unleashed an orgy of violence across much of Bali and Java, in which ordinary Indonesians from towns across the two islands were strangled or cudgeled in the middle of the night over any hint of sympathy for communism.

Much of the killing was carried out by Muslim youth gangs and militia, encouraged and armed by the army. Afterwards many Christians converted to Islam to escape suspicion and further harassment.

In 2012, Oppenheimer made a documentary film about individuals who participated in the killings. The film, The Act of Killing, won the 2013 European Film Award for Best Documentary, the Asia Pacific Screen Award, and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 86th Academy Awards. The Indonesian government, however, was outraged by the film and a presidential spokesman denounced it as not accurate. The Act of Killing was screened last year at the festival, which may have raised the military’s hackles.

In an email to Fairfax Media, Oppenheimer said he suspected the censorship is “all part of a broader crackdown on freedom of expression. It’s really upsetting. I fear it is a reassertion of power by the shadow state. I hope I’m wrong.”

“Fear of social change in a society still plagued by inequality perhaps explains why anti-communists protests still happen each time political leaders contemplate addressing the mass killings,” author Michael Vatikiotis wrote in Asia Sentinel in September. “The poverty rate may have halved in the last 15 years, but income distribution has become much more unequal; about 40 percent of the country’s 250 million people still live on less than US$2 per day. Threats to social cohesion could also be a factor preventing accountability. Javanese society in 1965 was composed of a more balanced mixture of Christian and Muslim communities; the Communist Party made gains in the Christian community, and anti-communist sentiment found root among Muslims.”

Opening up these old wounds, many Indonesians argue, will only highlight modern inequalities and reinforce social divisions that already frequently result in conflict.  So why rock the boat?

There was hope that with the passing of the Suharto era and the arrival of liberal democracy, there would be some sort of recognition, possibly a national apology, or that Joko Widodo would address the issue.

Instead, the government has grown sterner, refusing all attempts to discuss the issue. It now appears that an international writer’s conference on Bali is a victim.

The organizer told Fairfax Media the cancellation of the festival events about 1965 would open up a huge international dialogue. “You can’t silence something like that – sometimes these things are needed because they bring things to a head. This is almost like our look of silence – by not holding these sessions there is a powerful message.”