International audiences were introduced to Indonesia’s 1965-66 massacre of “communists” by the multi award-winning 2012 documentary The Act of Killing. While the details of what happened remain buried in the depths of time, here’s what we do know.
On September 30 1965, a group of left-wing soldiers calling themselves the September 30th Movement abducted six army generals and a first officer from their homes. A couple of hours later, the movement made a radio announcement that they had taken action to protect the country’s inaugural president, Sukarno, from right-wing generals who they claimed were planning a coup.
Reacting to the vacuum in the army high command, Major General Suharto took the army leadership. He cajoled and intimidated the movement’s troops in central Jakarta to surrender without much of a fight, and then stormed the movement’s headquarters at the Halim Airforce base.
In less than 48 hours, Suharto had roundly defeated the 30th September Movement. At about the same time, the abductees’ bodies were found in an old well in an area known as Lubang Buaya (Crocodile Hole) in east Jakarta.
The army accused the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) of being behind the movement, and of aiming to overthrow the government. This triggered the largest anti-communist purge and mass killings in modern-day Indonesia. Thousands of Indonesians suffered from years of incarceration and torture under the New Order, the regime built by Suharto when he became president in 1967.
An orgy of violence
After taking control of the situation, as well as media outlets, Suharto launched an operation to destroy the PKI and its followers. He dispatched the army’s Special Forces unit to arrest, imprison and kill Indonesians suspected of being members of the communist party.
On the third week of October 1965, an orgy of violence — including arrests, torture and murder — began in Central Java, followed by East Java in November, and continued in December to the island of Bali.
Similar efforts took place in other parts of Indonesia, but mostly on a smaller scale. Between 200,000 to 800,000 Indonesians are thought to have been killed during the anti-communist purge. Many more were imprisoned, exiled, discriminated against and stigmatised.
Under the New Order regime that Suharto subsequently created, former political prisoners had their ID cards marked. And their children were not allowed to enter civil service or the military.
The PKI was indeed destroyed. And the country’s inaugural president, Sukarno was gradually removed from power as the army became the dominant political power in Indonesia. Suharto became de facto president by March 1966 and was appointed acting president by the parliament a year later.
From 1966 to 1998, the pro-Western Suharto dictatorship ruled supreme and suppressed memory of the massacre.
The bloody events of 1965 did not happen suddenly; both domestic and international factors were involved.
Locally, there had been increasing tension among Indonesia’s political elites since the country’s first general election in 1955 (after its declaration of independence in 1945). Out of the approximately 30 political parties that participated, the PKI was one of the major winners, coming fourth in election results.
This PKI gain dismayed and worried many members of the political establishment, especially anti-communist politicians, and the right-wing army leadership.
By the mid-1960s, this situation had created something of a “political triangle” in which three different parties wanted to take control of the country’s leadership: the elected President Sukarno, the PKI and the army.
What happened in 1965 can been seen as the climax of the tension that been building up since the first general election of the Indonesian republic.
The global stage
Internationally, Indonesia was something of a front for the Cold War. Both the United States and the Soviet Union were interested in having the largest country in Southeast Asia in their sphere of influence, especially as Indonesia is quite rich in natural resources.
In this sense, the 1965 destruction of the PKI and Western nations’ support for General Suharto’s New Order government can be seen as part of efforts to prevent Indonesia from joining the Soviets.
After Suharto came to power in 1967, only the government’s side of the story was allowed in describing the events of 1965. Even though only a handful of PKI leadership were involved in the kidnapping, the New Order regime painted the murders of the army generals in 1965 as an attempted communist take over.
The government was silent on the massacre of suspected communists and their sympathisers that followed. And any other version of events was disallowed; former political prisoners were not permitted to tell their stories, and anyone who tried to give a different version of events was pressured or threatened by the government.
Only after President Suharto resigned in 1998 following student protests triggered by the 1997 Asian financial crisis were Indonesians free to talk about what actually happened. Unfortunately, that freedom did not last very long.
Forces connected to Suharto have re-emerged and dominated public discourse on the events of 1965 and 1966. These included several radical anti-communist groups and military or police groups that had benefited from the Suharto government. They often attack forums that discuss topics related to the 1965 events and display anti-communist banners in public places.
Moves to suppress stories deviating from the New Order’s narratives are taking place to this day. To counter them, a growing number of young Indonesians are holding forums on 1965 events despite the risk of being attacked. They also publish writings on 1965-related issues in the media and through the internet.
These young people are standing up in the belief that in order for the country to heal the wounds opened by this traumatic event and move forward as a true democracy, it must acknowledge its dark history, however painful.