Breaking the silence around the 1965 Indonesian genocide

Symbols such as the monument of the slain Indonesian generals continue to propagate Suharto’s version of events to today’s Indonesian youth. Chez Julius Livre 1/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Next year it will be 50 years since a group of middle-ranking army officers abducted the top brass of the Indonesian army.

They had planned to bring them before President Sukarno, as they had heard rumours of a coup. However, they killed the generals instead. The bodies were dumped in a disused well on a training field of the air force, called Lubang Buaya, Crocodile Hole.

To this day mystery surrounds these events. Was it an internal army purge? Was it a failed coup attempt by these officers with limited support of very few members of the Politburo of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI)? Or was it a very successful coup by the one surviving top general, Suharto?

What is clear is that in the end Suharto managed to oust President Sukarno, in March 1966, and the Communist Party was blamed for the murders.

Suharto at the funeral of six army generals. The general waged a relentless campaign to blame the Communist Party for the murders. Department of Information of the Republic of Indonesia, October 2, 1965/Wikimedia Commons

From early October onwards, the army waged a relentless campaign to blame the Communist Party. In particular, they did so by building a campaign of sexual terror around the young girls who had been present at the Crocodile Hole. They were accused of having seduced the generals in a lurid dance (Fragrant Flowers Dance) and of having castrated and murdered them.

The “proof” for these stories came from “confessions” signed after heavy sexual and other physical torture and the taking of nude photographs of the girls in prison.

The autopsy, signed by both Sukarno and Suharto, provided details of the generals’ penises (how many were circumcised) and establishes that they were killed by gunshots. The uniforms displayed in the museum at the site have traces of the blood from those wounds, but are otherwise intact.

A time of killings and banishment

On the basis of this campaign, the Communist Party was painted as an atheist force of evil that had to be annihilated. A massacre followed, the dimensions of which again are not known to this day.

Thousands of unopened mass graves are scattered all over the archipelago. Hundreds of thousands of people were detained for many years in prisons, without trial. Their property was destroyed or confiscated.

Hundreds of thousands of others were fired because they were supporters of Sukarno; their pensions were withheld.

Those who survived the massacre and the prisons were not seen as victims of a murderous army and the many militias trained by them. Instead, they were strongly stigmatised.

Anti-Communist Literature that demonised the political party and its supporters. Davidelit/Wikimedia Commons

The survivors and their families were associated with atheism, perversion and unspeakable acts of depravity. They were banned from universities and government positions.

To this day schools continue to teach General Suharto’s version of these events. After Suharto stepped down children were no longer forced to watch the horrendous propaganda film made by Arifin Nur in 1983. But to most of them the events of 1965 are still surrounded by mystery and stigma.

Just two examples. Last month I gave a lecture at Airlangga University in Surabaya. Afterwards one of the organisers came up to me and whispered:

I feel so sorry – my grandmother was a member of the Communist women’s movement. When she came out of prison in 1979, after 13 years, we regarded her with horror. I had been taught at school she was a whore. We put her away in a small room in the backyard.

She died a few years ago. I have never been able to tell her how I only now finally understand that her organisation was fighting for similar issues I fight for nowadays. Now I am proud of her, but I used to be so ashamed.

A few months ago I attended a seminar in Aachen, Germany, for Indonesian students. We presented our efforts to uncover the crimes against humanity perpetrated against so many innocent Indonesian citizens after the “events of 1965”.

The students were shocked. And they were angry. They realised they had been lied to all these years. They decided to set up their own internal study group to find out about this history.

The two examples deal with educated young people, Indonesia’s future leaders, the country’s most promising intellectuals. If they are only now realising they have been fed with the lies the army propagated around the “events of 1965”, how about the rest of Indonesia’s youth?

A nation in need of truth and reconciliation

Almost all people I meet in Indonesia have a story to tell about that period. A family member who suddenly disappeared. A relative who turned out to belong to one of the army-led death squads.

This past has been hidden from their grandchildren who are now young adults. But how can a people who don’t understand their past confidently face their future?

In November 2012, the National Human Rights Commission published a shocking report that revealed details of crimes against humanity committed after October 1965. The prosecutor’s office rejected the report. No action has been taken.

Fortunately President-elect Joko Widodo has promised during his campaign that he will deal with Indonesia‘s past human rights violations.

The October 1965 massacre counts as one of the largest genocides after the Second World War. Yet it is the only one in which a process of truth-finding and reconciliation has not yet taken place. The trials of the Cambodia and Rwanda massacres are widely known and have helped these countries to heal.

As we learn from South Africa, first the truth must be revealed and then a process of reconciliation can follow. Indonesia too has to start this process.

The Indonesian state is the only one that can fully investigate the extent of the massacre and of other crimes against humanity. These crimes were committed all over the country.

Indonesia’s youth has the right to know what happened in this period. They are the ones who have to build a nation that is no longer burdened with these dark secrets.

A nation that can confront its past can learn from it so that these crimes will never be repeated.

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