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Remembering Indonesia's bloody October

The Indonesian government should apologise and acknowledge the military's mass killings during the New Order era.

Last Modified: 07 Oct 2013 16:01
Jess Melvin

Jess Melvin is a PhD student with the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne.
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Suharto (right) launched an attack on Indonesia's Communist Party on October 1, 1965 [Getty Images]

Forty-eight years ago, on October 1, 1965, the Indonesian military under the leadership of Major General Suharto launched an attack against the Indonesian Communist Party, or PKI. The attack was aimed at seizing state power and sparked one of the 20th century's worst mass killings. To this day, the perpetrators of this violence continue to enjoy complete impunity for their actions.

This, however, is not the story that has been told for the last 48 years. We are told the story of the 30 September Movement's abortive coup attempt and a people driven wild by bloodlust. We are not told the story of Suharto's own effective seizure of state power and the manner in which the military meticulously orchestrated and implemented the killings that followed.

Just as the West would later enthusiastically support General Augusto Pinochet's bloody rise to power in Chile as a triumph over the perceived evils of communism, Suharto was heralded by Time magazine as "the West's best news for years in Asia".

Victims of Suharto's campaign have been treated by the international community as Cold War collateral damage - with Washington, London and Canberra proving themselves to be active accomplices and direct beneficiaries of this denial.

Inside Indonesia, meanwhile, where the killings are etched into the national psyche, one of the biggest problems in breaking through the official stories surrounding the events of October 1 has been proving the military's intention to launch a coordinated campaign of murder. Yet in the course of my PhD research on the mass killings in Indonesia, I discovered a "death map" produced by the Aceh military command and a detailed chronology of the killings prepared by the Indonesian military, along with more than 3,000 pages of classified documents relating to the role of the Indonesian military in initiating and implementing the killings in Aceh province.

Military co-ordination

Until now, the only announcement known to have been transmitted by the military leadership on October 1 was a national radio broadcast made by Suharto at 9pm. Suharto announced that he had "temporarily seized the leadership of the armed forces" and was working to "annihilate … the 30 September Movement".

The 30 September Movement had issued an announcement at 2pm declaring its intention to establish the Indonesian Revolution Council. This announcement was used by the Indonesian military as a pretext for attacking the PKI. It is now known, however, thanks to information found within the official military chronology, that Suharto's offensive began long before the 30 September Movement's announcement.

On the morning of October 1, newly self-appointed Military Commander Suharto, the previously low-profile head of the army's Strategic Reserve, sent a telegram through internal military wires to declare: "There has been a coup under the leadership of Lieut. Col. Untung", leader of the 30 September Movement. This announcement, the chronology records, was received by the Inter-Regional Military Commander for Sumatra, Mokoginta, who dutifully passed it on to those under his command. "Remain calm and in your positions ...", Mokoginta explained, "and await [my] orders and instructions".

These instructions would come at midnight on October 1, when Mokoginta issued a public speech in which he ordered the armed forces to "annihilate this counter-revolution".

Patterns in the killings

Suharto and Mokoginta's directive to "annihilate" the 30 September Movement was not hyperbolic rhetoric. The military leadership was planning a massive attack against its political rival, the PKI, and intended to mobilise the state and society to this end. Over the next couple of days, meetings were held throughout the country to coordinate this and to subordinate civilian government to the military's own command structures.

On October 4, this intention was made explicit when a document signed by Aceh's military commander announced: "It is mandatory for the people to assist in every attempt to completely annihilate the counter-revolutionary 30 September Movement." The military was ordering civilians to kill other civilians.

Two days later, on October 6, the violence began. Military-sponsored demonstrations devolved into the burning of offices, the "disappearing" of people associated with the PKI, and the dumping of corpses in streets. The first phase of these mass killings is best understood as a pogrom perpetrated in a context in which civilians were being ordered to assist the military to "annihilate" anyone associated with the PKI. During this time, many PKI members or those associated with the organisation were "arrested" by civilians or death squads before being "surrendered" to be held in military jails. Many PKI members and their families willingly surrendered themselves to the military during this period in order to escape the violence on the streets, in the hope that they would at least be protected by the force of the law once they were in prison.

About 10 days later, the military intensified its attack, and the full-scale systematic murder of anyone associated with the PKI began. During this second phase the military openly participated in the violence, beginning by releasing small groups of prisoners into the arms of waiting death squads, before directly transporting truckloads of prisoners to killing sites, where prisoners were often forced to dig their own graves before having their throats slit or being shot to death, either directly by the military or by executioners brought in for this purpose.

It is in this manner that approximately one million Indonesians were murdered by the country's military as the international community looked on. This violence was not spontaneous, but rather highly organised and well-documented. Two thousand public killings are recorded by the military's "death map" for Aceh province alone. Government documents record the establishment of death squads and pledge the state's "full support" and material assistance for their activities. A death list from North Sumatra records the transfer of prisoners from military-run jails to members of the Komando Aksi death squad, who proceeded to transport the prisoners to killing sites to be murdered. It is this story that must now be told.

Momentum is currently growing around the need for an historical reckoning of the Indonesian mass killing. The release on September 30 of Joshua Oppenheimer's groundbreaking documentary film The Act of Killing for free download in Indonesia can only continue and accelerate this process.

An official apology by the Indonesian government will be an important step towards demonstrating the Indonesian state's seriousness about drawing a line under the dark legacy of the New Order era. True reconciliation must be accompanied by a rewriting of official narratives surrounding the killings. We can begin by rewriting the story of October 1.

Jess Melvin is a PhD student with the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne.completing my PhD with the title 'Mechanics of Mass Murder: How the Indonesian Military Initiated and Implemented the Indonesian Genocide, the Case of Aceh Province'.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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