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Global Human Rights Issues

Dialita Choir (Indonesia)

The Dialita Choir, a group of survivors of the 1965 tragedy in Indonesia, is being honored by the May 18 Memorial Foundation in South Korea with a special 2019 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights for "showing the path to reconciliation and healing through music".

Socio cultural movement for peace

Dialita is a community group initiated by women survivors of 1965 political tragedy. Established on 4 December 2011 with only ten members, Dialita had turned into a solid choir with twenty members. An abbreviation of ‘Di atas lima puluh tahun’ or above fifty years old, most of Dialita members are women above fifty years old. In fact, one third of them are already in their 70s. Age does not stop these women from seeing each other and to have gatherings every Saturday. These meetings bring forth social and art activities, such as visiting the 1965 elderly survivors, entertaining and providing supports and comforts for them in dealing with human rights violation cases that seems still far from coming to terms. The meeting with the elderly survivors creates space for the community members, ex-political prisoners of the New Order government, their family members and their descendants to share stories. It strengthens their sense of community and binds each and everyone of them as family.

For these women survivors, a choir becomes a conduit that helps them to heal and to regain their identity. With some singing experiences in the past, Dialita members work together to learn to respect and to appreciate others. Each individual in a choir must learn to produce harmonious melody together as a group, so nobody can stand out on their own.

During the early years since its establishment, Dialita choir sang to collect funding for the elderly survivors who due to various reasons are separated from their families and thus were not attended by their family members. For these elderly survivors the main challenge is to heal from the traumatic past that had destroyed both their physical and psychological wellbeing. Singing becomes a way to rise from hopelessness, to heal the wound cause and to voice solidarity and support. Its songs convey a message of peace and solidarity. Throughout the time, Dialita choir began to receive mountains of public appreciation and acceptance from the audience, not only the younger generation, but also NGOs, government institutions, academicians, youth communities, musicians and many others.

For more than five decades since the tragedy the survivors do not have courage to meet each other. The opportunity came when the New Order regime finally fell in 1998. Many former political prisoners and their families have seized the opportunity to gather and to discuss the human rights violation that took away not only life, but also dignity and all aspects of humanities. Indonesia’s official historiography focuses heavily on the 30 September 1965 movement and blames the Indonesia Communist Party (PKI) for the death of the army officers. This discourse, at the same time excludes gross human rights violation and violence committed against the accused PKI members and other Leftists during the purge in 1965-1968. The fall of Suharto’s New Order regime and the changing political landscape in Indonesia had brought fresh hope for the survivors. The discourse on the 1965 mass violence have been transforming rapidly, and people began to talk about it.

Since the Reformasi, which began right after the fall of New Order in 1998, there have been various demands made of the state to deal with 1965. The state’s single narrative of 1965 began to be contested by other narratives. New evidence and documentation have come forward in relation to the event, and new perspectives have arisen which examine the tragedy not only as a political event per se but also as a case of mass human rights violations. Public discussions are initiated to right the past wrongs and to acknowledge the truth of what happened to many of its citizens and to achieve justice for them. In 2004, Indonesian government published Law No 27 about Truth and Reconciliation Commission. However, this Law, which was expected to open up past cases of human rights violations was revoked after a judicial review by Constitutional Court. In 2016, the Indonesian government under President Joko Widodo shows a glimpse of hope through the organization of an official event – a National Symposium ‘Dissecting the 1965 tragedy’, to talk about the 1965 massacre. This symposium, however, received mixed reactions including protests from anti-communist groups who rejected any efforts to bring about reconciliation for the victims of 1965 tragedy. Due to the resistance from both society and the Indonesian ruling elite, the matter once again become stuck in a deadlock. The resurgence of anti-communist hysteria has returned the situation into status quo.1

As they get older, survivors begin to lose hope. The elderly victims of the 1965–66 mass killings and their descendants, who have been victims of persecution or discriminatory policies by the state for decades, are still not recognised as victims, and to date no reparation scheme has been nationally implemented. Amidst the unfavourable political situation, these survivors turn their hope to arts. Through singing, Dialita wish to preserve hope and to voice out invitation for peace and friendship.

Prison Songs, Songs of Hope

Dialita choir choose to sing songs written inside the prison during 1965-1979. The main objective was to document and to safe the archives that to many are still scattered. These songs have personal stories and each story captured in these prison songs have power to bring everyone closer to each other, closer to long lost memories that have left pain and sufferings to survivors and their descendants.

Unexpected response from the younger audience attending Dialita’s choral performance, especially those who do not have direct connection with the event, provide hope for Dialita members. Young talented Indonesian musicians collaborate with the women choir members to re-arrange the music and create a more easy-listening tones that young people are familiar with. The songs spread and young singers joined the group to promote the songs. The involvement of young Indonesian artists in this collective action is important. They have transformed the prison songs into melodies that fit young audience’s taste and bring these younger listeners closer to personal stories presented in the songs.

These collaborations have resulted in two albums, ‘Dunia Milik Kita’ (The World is Ours) and ‘Salam Harapan’ (Greetings of Hope). Music for the 22 songs covered in these two albums were arranged by young musicians and in the second album, six young professional singers joined the choir to sing the songs. The launch of the albums in Yogyakarta and Jakarta, Indonesia were attended by hundreds of young people. Tickets were sold out.

Dialita’s strength is the lyrics, which are able to invite the younger generation of Indonesians to revisit the history and to explore various personal narratives that have never been taught at school or not available in their history books. Songs invite these young people to emotionally involve with the story, with history that had long been banned from public discourse, history that for more than fifty years are taboo to discuss. To date, there are at least six students who had conducted research and wrote undergraduate theses on Dialita. Postgraduate students and lecturers from universities abroad came to meet with Dialita to speak about prison songs and conduct their research on the topic.

Film directors and artists took Dialita as their source of inspiration. Documentary films, theatrical performance, poems, installation, photo exhibition, music and publications on Dialita appear in various outlets and platforms. Two short documentary films about Dialita (“Rising from Silence”, NHK World TV, 2016 and “Through songs we share our story” (Lewat Lagu Kami Bercerita), DAAI TV, 2017) had received awards as the best documentary films in various festivals.

These publications have introduced Dialita to wider public, especially young audience, both in and outside Indonesia. Dialita, who begins its journey as survivors’ community group, had transformed itself into humanity advocate. Through music, Dialita has taken active participation in the fight for human rights. The choir group has now expanded its networks with various state organizations, such as National Commission of Human Rights (Komnas HAM), National Commission for Women (Komnas Perempuan), NGOs and universities also religious groups. Today, Dialita represents collective action of women survivors who aimed at healing themselves from the traumatic past, and at the same time making the world a better place for the next generation.

“Special Prize for Human Rights” dari 18th May Memorial Foundation

The “Special Prize for Human Rights” granted to Dialita by 18th May Memorial Foundation on 2019 becomes the choir’s source of strength and motivation to keep working on strengthening human rights in Indonesia. This award does not exclusively belong to Dialita. This award is a recognition to the efforts made by survivors of human rights violation in various aspects. Recognition on Dialita’s had help expanding our network, but most importantly strengthening sense of solidarity among victims. It gives Dialita motivation to participate in democratic movement to achieve peace and inclusion.

Dialita is a humanitarian worker with dreams to bring friendships and peace among Indonesians. Our songs echoes, infiltered everyday conversation with discussion about reconciliation and peace so we can, together, lift up the stigma that for more than fifty years have been attached to political prisoners and their family members.

Friendship for Dialita, trespass geographical borders. Acceptance and recognition of Dialita’s works and positive responses to messages introduced in our songs come from people in and outside Indonesia. Dialita gets the opportunity to witness the results of Gwangju Democratic movement, visit the city that fills with history and at the same, receives an honour to share the dreams that Gwangju movement shared with the world. Dialita had an opportunity to learn how the South Korean government provides space of recovery for the survivors, restore the rights of the victims, and rest those who died during the Gwangju uprising in 18th May 1980 at the National Cemetery. Memorialisation in Gwangju, to our concern, can be a model for countries with history of violence to the people. For Dialita, Gwangju is an inspiriting case of how a city can promote local democracy and human rights. Artefacts and archives are made available for public, engaging the public and especially the younger generation with their history and to ensure that it will never happened again in their country. Making human rights way of life in Gwangju is a very important lesson that we have learned together.

Ensuring that the next generation will not be cut off from the history is one of the reasons why documenting human rights violation is crucial. We believe that young people in Indonesia have been exposed to such archives, but we must continue to work together and secure the artefacts and historical facts that currently are still scattered here and there and place them in one location – not only for public education, but most importantly these artefacts may serve as solid evidences to proof state’s involvement in human right violations across the nation.

Gwangju Uprising, lesson for Indonesia

The ‘spirit of Gwangju’ and the success of Gwangju democratic movement to put forth principles of confronting past human rights abuses had opened the eyes of the democratic and human rights advocates across the world. It provides important contribution to the continuity of human rights struggles, efforts to making inquiry into the truth, correcting the wrongful convictions, compensating for the losses, and creating peace within grassroots communities and between victims and perpetrators. It is a long journey for human rights activists, and it often cause physical and mental fatigue. Therefore, we do believe that strengthening solidarity among nations – within regional and international context, in promoting human rights struggle, enforcing democracy and legal certainty and justice for the people, are crucial.

Mass movement and public action in a country has substantial influence on other countries, especially countries in the same region. It may become a model that can be adaptable to local political situation and provide reference for, for example, preventing violations of human rights and to seek help for human rights victims. Gwangju movement has taught us all that a human rights city is more than just philosophy. It is a city – or a country, of human rights governance, “in which members of the city cooperate to improve quality of living for all based on human rights norms” (2011, World Human Rights Cities Forum). For us, Dialita, it’s a place where we can freely participate in every decision making and policy process.

1  Further reading please read