May 13 and national reconciliation
|Josh Hong | May 13, 09 12:06pm
|‘The worst of all historiographies is plainly state historiography, and governments rarely confess to having been criminal.’ – Pierre Vidal-Naquet, French historian.
Today marks the 40th anniversary of May 13 1969, the fateful day that saw scores of innocent lives lost in tragic events that were shrouded in myth, fear and misunderstanding.
As Farish Noor puts it, ‘whatever happened in those tragic hours was not a nationwide experience and as many a PAS leader would love to tell us, when Umno bigwigs were cashing in on the racial backlash that largely took place around Kuala Lumpur, multiracial peace and harmony prevailed in Kelantan, then ruled by the Islamic party. Dato’ Asri Haji Muda (photo), the menteri besar, directed all the penghulu to extend help and protection to the non-Malays in the state whenever necessary, saying, ‘Saya tidak mahu ada pertumpahan darah di Kelantan ini.’
In fact, I don’t have to go as far as to Kelantan in order to re-live multiracial peace. Back in Kampung Bukit Seggeh, a tiny Malay village in Malacca, the sole coffee shop that was owned by my maternal grandparents continued to receive villagers in the aftermath of the May 13 bloodshed in the capital. The same smiling and friendly faces of the Malay patrons could not be more comforting and assuring.
Despite its limited scale, May 13 subsequently assumed national significance as the ruling elite at the time was bent on exploiting it to stay in power.
Four decades on, details of the killings exacted by both the Malays and the non-Malays are sketchy at best, and the populace is often warned not to talk about it in public to avoid inter-ethnic discord. The powers-that-be have been highly successful in creating an indelible mark in the people’s minds, making ethnic division and mutual distrust a permanent feature of our national identity.
I agree Malaysia must overcome the historical wound so as to truly embrace peace, but this cannot be achieved unless and until the wound itself is healed. I too believe much of the joy and love that Malaysians enjoy as a nation is genuine and more than just skin-deep, but this should in no way stop us from finding out the truth in order to foster greater national reconciliation.
M’sia at a crossroads
It is no denial that Malaysia is at a crossroads today, with both the Barisan Nasional and the newly emerged Pakatan Rakyat offering the country visionary futures of their own. Be it 1Malaysia or Politik Baru, politicians on both sides of the political divide must first demonstrate their will to come to grips with the country’s past so that our nascent democracy can grow further and move forward.
I would argue more onus would be placed on the BN because revisiting May 13 will inevitably touch on the crucial role played by the highest echelons of Umno, such as Harun Idris, the controversial menteri besar of Selangor said to have agitated Malay youths in response to the marching Chinese who had openly called for the Malays to “balik kampong”.
Coming to terms with the past is no easy business, for it invokes painful memories, fears and even hatred. Given the racial character of May 13, it would seem difficult to push for a truth-finding commission to uncover the hidden facts behind the tragedy. Many are also afraid that, with the wounds reopened, more ethnic animosity may ensue.
Members of the Royal Malay Regiment, for instance, allegedly charged into the largely Chinese crowd on the streets, with deadly consequences. An in-depth inquiry will surely arouse hard feelings between the Malays and the non-Malays.
It is precisely these concerns that drive one to say ‘let bygones be bygones’. The ruling elite is even more than happy to close the chapter and move on so that those involved in orchestrating – or covering up – the incidents will never have to be brought to book.
However, by not confronting the unexamined, unacknowledged and unforgiven past, we allow it to return and haunt us time and time again. Only by opening the wounds, cleansing them and pouring balm on them will the nation be fully healed and made whole.
To avoid the pitfall of ethnic enmity, we must ensure that finding out what happened on May 13 is nothing about settling scores but everything about forgiveness. Even if I were to meet a member of the Royal Malay Regiment who happened to fire at a protestor on that day, I must be prepared to forgive him regardless of the egregious human rights violations that he had committed, for he was merely made to obey the military order.
In other words, this person, young at the time, was a victim of the tragedy like everyone else. One must be wise enough to see beyond his innocent face and realise the evil deeds that an omnipotent state can do. I must also be ready to condemn the racist tone employed by the non-Malays, and seek humbly for forgiveness. Only when we acknowledge the narrowness and selfishness that we all share can we begin to dream of a common redemption.
Neither should material compensation be at the centre of reconciliation. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa has powerfully argued, one cannot possibly compensate a parent whose son has been gruesomely killed in monetary terms, and reparation is nothing more than a symbol of a nation saying, ‘We acknowledge your pain and we offer you this little gift: the right to tell your story with a view to forgiving the perpetrator.’
Given that most of the politicians pay lip service to racial unity, I find it rather ironic that the politically motivated tragedy successfully united all races – only in death.
Another irony is that the authorities at the time even cared to state that the grave was “By the Courtesy of the Malaysian Government”. Perhaps the government can do us another favour by stopping making the history subject a vessel for infusing partisan ideology and twisting historical facts.
There will always be conflicting historical truths presented by different ethnic groups about May 13, and they are all parts of our collective social memory. By offering the chance to share the trauma and to forgive, we may be able to find a middle path so that we will no longer be held captive to the past. National reconciliation is a process that leads to transitional justice, failing which our society will continue to be plagued with faithlessness and oblivion. It is also the best way to tell the politicians in their face that they must manipulate no more the historical wound for political gains.
Truth is often inconvenient, and we tend to hate too much of it. But truth also has the immense power to set us free. Hence, the ultimate aim of a truth-finding commission on May 13 must be national reconciliation, not retribution or revenge. It is a journey that we all must embark, for it is a path from uncertainty to peace, from mutual suspicion to inter-ethnic trust, and from fear to hope. Then, and only then, real joy and peace will prevail indeed.
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