Revisiting an Indonesian massacre 50 years on
Anti-communist purges starting in 1965 killed 500,000 people – and now survivors are challenging the official narrative.
No one told Soe Tjen Marching about the anti-communist killings.
Growing up in Surabaya, East Java, under the dictator Suharto’s “New Order”, her schoolbooks told her that in the dark of night on September 30, 1965, an Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) cadre kidnapped and murdered six army generals in an attempted coup.
When then-Major General Suharto mobilised the military to crush them, he came out a national hero – and reaped the rewards in a 31-year dictatorship over the country.
It wasn’t until Marching’s father passed away four months after Suharto’s fall from power in 1998, that her mother told her he had been a political prisoner in the 1960s, tortured for his “leftist” ideology.
Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of the so-called failed coup blamed on the PKI. It is still a matter of historical debate who killed the generals and who gave the orders.
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During the escalating Cold War, Indonesia of the 1960s saw intensifying political tension under Indonesia’s founding president Sukarno, a PKI sympathiser. Sukarno integrated communism with religion and nationalism into his governing ideals in 1960.
The rise of communism alarmed the United States and the CIA kept close watch. The rupture unleashed by the September 30 events turned communists from a formidable political power to an enemy to be exterminated.
What the official history omits is the extent of what ensued: how the army and civilian squads rounded up, killed, and tortured not only communist party members, but anyone accused of ties to the political left.
Marching’s father survived. But the Indonesian National Commission for Human Rights estimates more than 500,000 people were killed in the wake of 1965, with hundreds of thousands more imprisoned.
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After decades of fear and silence, people are finally talking. The commission officially declared the purges “crimes against humanity” in 2012 – the same year that “The Act of Killing”, a documentary from director Joshua Oppenheimer about the perpetrators, was released. The film’s companion, “The Look of Silence”, premiered in Indonesia last November.
As Oppenheimer’s films reveal, many of the perpetrators remain in power at both local and national levels. But slowly, survivors and families of victims are starting to come forth, their counter-narrative sparking perhaps the greatest battle yet over the control of Indonesia’s history.
The youngest child of five, young Marching always sensed something wasn’t quite right.
“When I asked for any letters or birth certificates or whatever, it was always complicated because my father changed his name,” the writer and activist said. “As a child, you try to find out what happened.”
Oppenheimer said families kept secrets to avoid being branded as communists.
“I think that millions of Indonesians are living in families where there are secrets,” said Oppenheimer. “They’ve lived with stories, loss, and trauma that their parents were afraid of telling, because they didn’t want to impart the stigma that still comes with being related to a victim, being related to a communist.”
Marching’s father was imprisoned between 1966 and 1968 at Kali Sosok in Surabaya, where up to a dozen prisoners were cramped into cells built for two.
“My elder sister said that when she visited my father in prison, his back was totally ruined, he couldn’t walk, and they thought he was going to die,” Marching said. “They were tortured and they were not fed, so a lot of people died.”
Marching decided to share her story against the wishes of her mother, who still lives in fear. She began meeting other families of victims or survivors, and founded the solidarity group Keluarga ’65. She is currently writing a book with testimonies from survivors and families, including her own.
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At first, Marching said, the death threats scared her. “I got threatened hundreds of times: ‘I will rape you, I will murder you, I will slaughter you,'” she said.
More often, however, people simply accused Marching of being a communist, which is still legally considered antithetical to the Indonesian nation. The People’s Assembly Decree No 25 of 1966 bans “all activities that spread or develop Communist/Marxist-Leninist ideas or teachings”.
This perceived antagonism between Islam and communism is historically rooted in political rivalries, including between PKI and the Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), said Kevin Fogg, a researcher of Islam in Southeast Asia at Oxford University.
“Bitter discord between NU and the PKI became especially heated in the late 1950s, after the communists made major advances in the 1957 provincial elections … and after the PKI began proposing – and sometimes executing – actions to confiscate land,” Fogg explained in an email.
“Much of the animosity towards communists was practical politics, but these actors could later rely on religious rhetoric to retroactively justify what they had done,” Fogg said.
Government-sanctioned school textbooks directly link PKI to the failed coup and killing of the generals.
An attempt to revise that – the 2004 school curriculum removed references to PKI when detailing the September 30 events – was short-lived. In 2007, the attorney general’s office banned textbooks that do not represent “historical truth”, leading officials to burn thousands of textbooks that failed to mention PKI.
“This official history not only teaches children in effect that the victims deserved to be killed, it stigmatises millions of survivors, legitimising violence against a whole segment of society. This is intimidation and incitement masquerading as a history lesson,” Oppenheimer said.
In Indonesia, anti-communist rhetoric is still widely used both to legitimise the current establishment and as a malleable scapegoat for the country’s problems.
“Anti-communist rhetoric absolutely still holds power today,” Fogg said.
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Hope for justice exists for survivors and victims’ family members. Some government officials have officially apologised for the tragedy, including Palu Mayor Rusdy Mastura, who stated in 2013: “This nation must learn to acknowledge mistakes in the past.”
But on the national stage, things look bleaker. Human rights activists have pushed for President Joko Widodo to formally recognise and apologise for the killings. But so far, the president hasn’t delivered.
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Stacked against powerful pressure from religious factions and the military, survivors and victims’ families are taking matters into their own hands.
A coalition of human rights activists and lawyers announced in August the plan for an International People’s Tribunal on 1965 crimes against humanity in Indonesia, slated for November 11-13 in The Hague.
The tribunal will, for the first time, convene an international panel of judges and examine cases based on witness testimony, investigations by the National Commission on Human Rights, as well as reports from the media and researchers.
“That is not only a powerful statement in defiance of the government’s silence and in critique of the government’s silence, it’s also a counter-memory,” Oppenheimer said.
Marching admitted, however, that while the tribunal is a historic step, it’s unlikely to put anyone behind bars.
“We are not going to prosecute anyone. We’re not that scary, to be honest. This time, our aim is just to say: Yes, this is mistaken, the government should apologise, the history has been manipulated – and that’s it really,” she said.
For victims, the struggle for justice is far from over.
“Of course it’s not easy because the New Order cronies are still in power,” Marching said. “But it’s your choice whether you want to keep quiet and give up or keep going. I refuse to be frightened.”
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