By CT Wong
Forty eight years have gone by. Many a tree would have grown and withered. However, the story of May 13 and the stories of those buried in a mass grave have hardly been told.
Rather, the world has abandoned them, not only the dead, but also the survivors. If not for the recent controversy over the possibility that the cemetery would be turned into a car park, we might have continued to delude ourselves into believing that we do not have a dark and violent past.
History has a strange way of returning to tell a hidden story.
The derelict cemetery was recently tidied up in a so-called beautification project. Ironically, it cleanses painful memories in the process. The wild undergrowth and the slanting and fallen tombstones ought to have been retained to preserve a sense of tragedy.
The mere sight of a mass grave in 21st century Malaysia is enough to disorientate us into asking how it was possible that mass killings akin to the genocidal massacres in Nazi Germany, Rwanda or Pol Pot’s Cambodia could happen in this land of ours. Casting our sight into history, homo sapiens of whatever ethnic origin are all capable of committing mass atrocities.
But why May 13, 1969? Why only at that time and place, and why only these groups of people and not others? Should these questions be asked by only one ethnic group and not the others? Are we afraid to ask these questions even though it is for the sake of our own and future generations? Can we ask these questions as human beings and not as mere members of a particular ethnic group?
It is said that there are two things we cannot face directly: the sun and death. The sun can blind our eyes and the terror of death can overwhelm us emotionally. In a curious twist of fate, the natural terror of death in people has been turned into an instrument to terrorise them with the threat of a repeat of May 13 if the existing hegemonic structure is disturbed. Blaming the victims serves only to mask moral accountability. It reveals moral cowardice.
It is painful for the survivors and those who lived during that violent time to recall the grim memories. Pain did not end on May 13, 1969. The pains of despair, of helplessness, of hopelessness are buried in the hearts of those who survived. Time does not heal. The pain and suffering of the survivors have not even been acknowledged by the authorities, not to speak of moral responsibility.
The first step towards social justice and reconciliation is acknowledgement of the suffering of the dead victims, and that of the survivors, whoever they may be. Without compassion in our midst, our multiethnic and multireligious society will be built on fragile ground, if not quicksand. This is a basic requisite of civilisational ethics.
When compassion is strong enough, no one will defend the indefensible except the guilty parties or repeat offenders. No one will sacrifice the lives of others in the name of race and religion except the perverted.
As one reflects on that dark period, one inevitably has to confront the shadow within one’s culture and psychological make-up. The dark shadows of the perpetrators, the leaders, the followers, the bystanders, the willing executioners, all demand deep intellectual understanding and exploration.
It takes great moral courage to accept a great moral wrong. When violence is used against the innocent, it dehumanises both the victims and the perpetrators. With compassion for the victims of May 13, we can begin the journey towards justice and reconciliation, thereby restoring human dignity to those who committed the wrong and those who were wronged.
This is our struggle for meaning, the meaning of a violent past. Until we gaze into the dark shadow of our own psyche with all the associated ideological, social, cultural and historical factors, without scapegoating others, we will not be able to find out why our people are capable of mass atrocities, why the conscience of those involved have been hijacked.
May 13 was a great moral wrong. It must be seen and remembered for what it really is. The dark shadow within one’s psyche, culture and history must be embraced so that the greatness of a civilisation can be reborn.
A wrong diagnosis will lead to a wrong and harmful prescription. We deserve to know the right causes of our violent past. The purpose is not to apportion blame but to construct a rainbow community, where the greatness of each civilisation shall have its own rightful place and share the same space. The synchronous use of the spiritual resources of each civilisation ought to be sufficient to prevent a recurrence.
The first step and the last step is to develop a compassionate society that transcends self-centredness and to listen keenly to the true meaning coming from the violent death of the innocents in the mass grave.
Wong Chee Tuck is a FMT reader.
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