Indonesia’s 1965-66 Massacres Remain a Divisive Issue

By Dessy Sagita 1 October 2013

JAKARTA — As Indonesia’s 1965 communist purge is under the spotlight with the screening of “The Act of Killing” across the United States and other parts of the world, the country commemorates its state ideology Pancasila, as a unifying force, but many Indonesians still struggle to come to terms with its darkest history.

While human rights activists and historians have boldly asked for the government to immediately form a fact finding team to unveil the perpetrators responsible for the massacre in the aftermath of the so-called G30S/PKI coup attempt as part of the efforts to come to terms with the past, many people are still opposed to such an attempt, saying the nation needs to look forward rather than get stuck in the past.

“The government must have the courage to form a fact finding team to unveil the truth behind this tragedy and announce the results to the public,” J.J. Rizal, a historian from University of Indonesia told the Jakarta Globe on Monday.

Up to the middle of 1965, the Indonesian Communist Party, known as PKI, was one of the major forces in Indonesian politics beside Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, the Army and Islamic groups such as Masyumi and Nahdlatul Ulama.

G30S/PKI refers to the killing of six Army generals during an alleged coup attempt on Sept. 30, 1965 blamed on PKI.

On Oct. 1, the Army announced Pancasila had prevailed over a coup attempt by communists, hence giving way to today as Pancasila Sanctity Day. The two events then marked the beginning of a communist purge, which Indonesia’s National Human Rights Commission (Komnas Ham) recently declared as crimes against humanity.

More than a million people accused of being PKI members or sympathizers were killed from 1965 to 1966, while millions other suffered extra-judicial detention and discrimination.

On the pretext of his claimed success in getting rid of the communist threat, Gen Suharto then took power from Sukarno to begin what became known as the New Order.

Rizal said Indonesia would not be able to move forward as long as the country did not disclose what really happened during the years.

“We will stay in the dark, attacking each other, slandering people’s name because no one is brave enough to dig what really happened even though there have been so many studies discussing this so-called coup,” he said.

Director Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary “The Act of Killing” describes the slaying of communist party members in North Sumatra in gory detail, and the chilling documentary has made waves at film festivals worldwide.

Haris Azhar, the coordinator of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) said Indonesia must immediately investigate the truth behind the tragedy to be able to make amends to the victims and to stop social discrimination against anyone allegedly involved in the movement.

“We must know what happened and the state must admit to what happened and to make a proportional and proper apology to the victims. Only then can we start the rehabilitation process for those whose lives have been discredited forever because of the incident,” Haris said.

However, he said, it was unlikely the Indonesian government would be willing to reveal the truth about what happened.

“Some of those people who were responsible for the tragedy are still here, they are still enjoying their existence, and the 1965 tragedy is a dark secret they don’t want anyone to touch because it could jeopardize their comfortable positions,” he said.

“At the same time, because the tragedy was unbelievably brutal and sadistic, the government would not want to admit what really happened. I don’t think they could bear the shame,” he added.

Haris said unraveling the facts behind G30S/PKI would not be difficult with more open communication and access to documents.

“We just cannot keep repeating a one-dimensional, approved interpretation of the story, when we can get information from alleged perpetrators, victims and witnesses and make our own conclusions. We owe this to the victims,” he said.

Who’s Responsible?

“There’s no point asking who’s the most responsible for this horrific tragedy. There has been no definite effort to prove that,” Asvi Warman Adam, a historian from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) told the Globe.

“The most important thing is that we know who benefited from the tragedy and who suffered the biggest loss. It is obvious Sukarno suffered the biggest loss because he had to give up his position as president, while Suharto gained the most because most of his competition in the army were eliminated,” he said.

“The perpetrators are not individuals, they are a combination of influences from inside and outside the country,’ he added.

“As long as we refuse to acknowledge the truth we will always blame Suharto, Sukarno or anyone else without knowing who was really behind it. We need to put all these questions to an end,” he said.

The government, however, is reluctant to investigate the tragedy. When the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), the author of a report on the mass killings, urged early this year the Attorney General’s Office to investigate what it called evidence of gross human rights violations, the law enforcement agency declined, saying the testimonies of 349 eyewitnesses were not substantial enough to warrant legal action.

The nation’s coordinating minister for political and security affairs Djoko Suyanto showed little interest in meeting calls for an official government apology, stating “We can’t just apologize without taking a good, long look at what really happened during the 1965 incident.’’

Meanwhile, Priyo Budi Santoso of Golkar Party, a party used by Suharto to stay in power, totally rejects any investigation into the tragedy, advising Indonesians to “just forget it, and move on.”

“There is no use in pursuing it. We have many other issues to deal with,” he said.


Other than reconciliation and rehabilitation for the victims, Haris said, Indonesia must build a social system that does not discredit people’s association with the coup or PKI. Propaganda was used by the New Order regime to portray those associated with the PKI as criminals, explained the Kontras coordinator.

Rizal agreed it was time to stop the use of terminology associated with the tragedy as terms of abuse.

“We should stop using the words like ‘treason’ or ‘Gerwani’ [Gerakan Wanita Indonesia, or PKI’s women’s wing] to insult people,” he said. “To be able to re-write the false history we need to start using the victims’ perspective in telling the stories instead of the perpetrators’ point of view.”

Asvi said the government effort to reverse the propaganda had been inconsistent, especially at the education level.