Over half a century after a bloody “anti-communist” purge, Indonesians remain divided about the events of 1965-1966, thanks to the 32-year hardline rule by former President Suharto, who both initiated the massacre and ensured that remained absent from official histories.
In the early hours of October 1 1965, six army generals and a high-ranking officer were abducted and murdered in a military-style secret operation. Within hours, Major General Suharto, then chief of Indonesia’s Army Strategic Reserve Command, led a counter operation to crush the September 30th Movement, which had claimed credit for the abductions.
Despite the secret nature and scope of the operation, Suharto named the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) as the main perpetrator, and initiated a purge that would end in the deaths of an estimated 200,000 to 800,000 people by the time it ended in 1966.
Hidden from history
Boosted by this success, Suharto was eventually made president in 1967 and sustained his “New Order” rule by preserving the spectre of communist threat. Government propaganda demonised the Communist Party of Indonesia, painting members as traitors.
Former political prisoners who had been involved in organisations associated with the Communist Party and their families remain subject to surveillance and discrimination.
For decades, official national history was silent about the murders and the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of people. The Suharto regimes’s version of history, which highlighted the generals’ deaths but not the purge that followed, dominated school textbooks, annual commemoration days, monuments and films.
This New Order perspective on the 1965 tragedy went unchallenged and became deeply embedded in the ritual of national remembrance.
Coming to light
But official history was unable to suppress local memory. In many villages and sites throughout Indonesia, people knew about the existence of mass graves, and locations where mass killings occurred.
These recollections could finally be voiced after Suharto gave up power in 1998 in the face of widespread student protests against corruption in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Different narratives of the 1965 tragedy began finding their way to public awareness.
Several former political prisoners wrote and shared their experiences of arrest and unlawful incarceration. Some even provided their own interpretation of what actually happened on and after October 1st 1965.
And a number of local and international documentaries – Mass Grave (2002), Shadow Play (2003), 40 Years of Silence: An Indonesia Tragedy (2009) and The Act of Killing (2012) – sparked international interest in the events of 1965-66.
These stories and films have stimulated public debate and discussion about the 1965 tragedy. Indonesians born after the purge became aware of these alternative narratives as they began reading and searching for more information about the massacre. Their reaction has been mixed: some became angry, some were confused, and others didn’t care.
Since 1965, the story of the massacre has been retold and remembered from various lenses. But perspectives from both the Suharto era and the current one remain incomplete.
While the New Order regime focused blame on the Indonesian Communist Party for abducting and killing the six generals, and was silent about the massacre that followed, recent emphasis has only been on human rights violations.
It highlights the mass killings, illegal incarcerations and the impunity of the perpetrators but is less open about acknowledging the events and national situation before killings.
Both perspectives are incomplete, reflecting a certain interest or agenda. And, after more than 50 years, the 1965 tragedy remains the most contested and controversial event in modern Indonesian history.
There’s no consensus on how to deal with this past violence but if Indonesia is to at least attempt to prevent such a tragedy from happening again, reconciling the views of the two sides is essential.
Since the fall of the New Order, there have been personal and group-level efforts to begin a dialogue between the descendants of those who were politically in conflict with each other in 1965: former political prisoners and anti-communist groups.
These dialogues illustrate a commitment from both the sides involved to build mutual trust while trying to find ways to achieve reconciliation.
In April, a historic government-sponsored symposium was held in Jakarta for two days. It attempted to investigate the 1965 tragedy using a historical approach – one that looks at both the local and international picture at the time of the massacre – with the goal of coming up with recommendations for dealing with this troubled chapter of the nation’s past.
This was the first time the various opposing camps were hosted in this manner. But it remains to be seen whether the current administration will follow up the symposium’s recommendations, or indeed make any indication of next steps.
Healing the national wound left by the 1965 tragedy and reconciling the Indonesian population will require a narrative that prioritises not just explaining what happened from one of two polar perspectives. Rather, it needs an honest, and – as much as possible – objective narrative that can help people to understand the nature of the tragedy, along with its terrible consequences.
Only then can lasting peace and reconciliation prevail.