JAKARTA — Indonesia on Monday convened an unprecedented discussion of anti-communist massacres in 1965-66 that brought together survivors and representatives of the military that orchestrated the atrocities.
Protesters who say the two-day conference will help revive communism scuffled with police outside the tightly guarded venue, in a sign of the deep divisions within Indonesia over what rights groups say was one of the worst atrocities of the last century.
Researchers estimate that the military and religious groups killed half a million people in the attacks on communists and sympathizers that ushered in the 32-year rule of the dictator Suharto.
Conference organizer Agus Widjojo, a retired general, said at the meeting that Indonesia is “torn apart” by the massacres and called for the government to establish a commission for truth and reconciliation.
Within Indonesia, widely accepted accounts of the era gloss over the deaths, and descendants of Communist Party members are stigmatized and face legal discrimination that prevents them from holding government jobs.
But the conference, being held at a hotel in Jakarta, the capital, has the backing of government figures and was opened by the Cabinet minister in charge of security and political affairs, Luhut Pandjaitan. Indonesia’s attorney general, police chief and justice minister also attended.
The killings began in October 1965, shortly after an apparent abortive coup in which six right-wing generals were killed. Suharto, an unknown major general at the time, filled the power vacuum and blamed the assassinations on Indonesia’s Communist Party, which was then the largest outside the Soviet Union and China, with 3 million members.
“Let’s open this history together so we can all find out what has been wrong in our national system, why this nation could have the ability to commit mass killings,” said Widjojo, whose father was one of the generals killed.
Abdul Rashid, 71, was one of the thousands who escaped death but suffered years of imprisonment without trial or exile in remote corners of Indonesia because of a tenuous connection to the Communist Party.
Rashid’s crime was joining a youth group in South Sulawesi province that didn’t advertise its links to communists. Four years later, when he was 21, he was seized by troops while teaching an elementary school class, and lost more than a decade of his life to detention and exile.
“I still remember how a dozen military troops pushed into my class,” he said in an interview. “They pushed in and pointed their rifles at me in front of my students.”
After being freed, a special stamp in his identity card made life difficult, stigmatizing Rashid and his family and making it hard to find work.
“This stigma is a too heavy burden,” he said. “There are so many innocent people who became victims of a black history. I want this stigma to be ended.”
Despite government backing for the conference, Pandjaitan, the security minister, said there would be no government apology to victims and also questioned whether estimates of the death toll were accurate.
“I believe that this meeting will produce positive results to build our nation in the future,” he said. “We must be able to create peace with our past. But don’t ever think that the government will offer any apology.”
Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the two-day symposium by itself is not sufficient to come to terms with a buried past.
“At the least, what the government can do is stop discrimination against the victims—the survivors and their children and their grandchildren,” he said. Millions of people are affected by a 1981 presidential decree barring communists and their descendants from serving in the police, military or civil service.
Before the conference, rights groups urged the United States to release all of its secret files on the massacres, which could help reveal facts about the period.
Declassified documents held at the National Security Archive of George Washington University show that the US Embassy in Jakarta was aware of extensive killings in Java and other parts of Indonesia and passed lists of communists it had compiled to Indonesia’s military. It also organized the supply of radios to the military and secretly gave money to a military-linked group involved in the repression.
At the time, the US viewed Indonesia as a bulwark in its efforts to thwart the influence of the Soviet Union and China in Southeast Asia.
An embassy communication to the Department of State on April 15, 1966, about the number of deaths said: “We frankly do not know whether the real figure is closer to 100,000 or 1,000,000 but believe it wiser to err on the side of the lower estimates, especially when questioned by the press.”