A message from the UWRF Founder & Director

Posted: 23 October 2015

This story is an extended opinion piece penned by our Founder & Director, Janet DeNeefe, in regards to yesterday’s announcement regarding the cancellation of several UWRF 2015 program sessions. It was printed in today’s (October 24) Sydney Morning Herald. 

Twelve years ago, the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival was born of a terrorist attack in Bali; one that took many innocent lives in a tragedy that shocked us all. Led by the mantra that the pen is mightier than the sword, we created an international event that would bring issues to the table in a neutral space, where open discussion about big ideas and important stories could take place. This became part of our mission as a Festival; to bring people together, Indonesians and internationals, in open dialogue. And it seemed necessary for this region.

Since that time, the Festival has flourished. People, thirsty for knowledge about Indonesia, have flocked to Ubud every October, while Indonesians, seeking a place for discussion about local issues, have joined the crowds. We have had discussions about all we believed necessary in what now seems like an Indian Summer of Free Speech. Visitors have been surprised and thrilled at the openness of sessions and we have been proud to deliver a Festival, year after year, of such substance.

But now, in a surprising and extremely saddening turn of events, for the very first time our Festival’s panel sessions have come under scrutiny from local authorities. After many meetings and attempted negotiations, the Festival’s permit – our license to operate – was finally granted on Wednesday with the warning that should we hold sessions dedicated to honoring the victims of the mass killings of 1965, we risk having it revoked.

This is not a decision we have taken lightly. After extensive discussion between the Festival team, and the many other people who have dedicated their time and resources to raising awareness of this very important issue, it was decided that these sessions should not go ahead. Whilst we pride ourselves on being a platform for freedom of creative, literary and artistic expression, we had to consider the many thousands of other people who would have been affected should the entire Festival have been cancelled, just days out from the event.

We have all been proud of Indonesia’s democratic reputation up to date but there now seems to be a new code of behaviour among the powers that be. This has never happened before and it does not bode well. It comes at a time when I believe Indonesians were hoping for some sort of reconciliation and recognition of this violation of human rights, to what has been described by the CIA as “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century”. It is extremely disappointing and some might even say cowardly that the Government is refusing to confront this national tragedy. With the new-found freedom of speech in recent years, many works concerning 65 have been published, were launched and even discussed at the Festival. The doors were slowly opening but now it seems this has come to an almighty halt.

I first arrived in to Bali 1975, just over ten years after the killings. There were silent whisperings then, and when I returned in 1984, people were still whispering, at night only, because the perpetrators were still living among them. I have heard snippets of sad stories, here and there, but 1965 still remains a relatively hushed topic; a deep wound that is only superficially healed. After living in this community for so many years, and seeing the attention to death rituals, cremations where the preparation can go on for weeks, I know the greatest issue for the Balinese is simply completing these death rites. Bodies were never returned to the families and none of these rituals were upheld; a tragedy of immense magnitude for the Balinese.

We are also sorry for those whose sessions have been cancelled, for all the work that has been done up to date. But I believe these panels might find better platforms in safer homes right now. The sheer fact that the panels have been stopped will only draw more international attention to them, and rightly so. Indonesian writers will surely react to this disappointing news because, after all, they are the outspoken ones who write to be heard, who will stand in the frontline to reveal the truth.

More than anything I feel sad for all those Indonesians who were affected by 1965, all those victims who are unlikely to see justice or any sort of compensation for this huge scar on the face of this new regime.

In the meantime, the Festival is steering a course around this mine-field and keeping its eyes open to what we hope will not become a permanent treacherous path. Censorship and writer’s festivals don’t mix, just like oil and water.