Legacy of the Indonesian killings of 1965

Max Walden in conversation with Prodita Sabarini
AK Rockefeller, "Sukarno"/flickr

Between October 1965 and the early months of 1966, more than 500,000 communists and alleged sympathisers were murdered across the Indonesian archipelago. Self-proclaimed hero of Indonesia’s revolution against the Dutch during the 1940s, President Sukarno had hitherto presided over so-called “guided democracy” by skilfully balancing the demands of right-wing Islamic groups and the military, as well as the members of what was then the third-largest communist party on earth.

As his health deteriorated during the mid-1960s, so did Sukarno’s grip on this delicate balance of power. After leftist generals staged a coup backed by the PKI (Communist Party of Indonesia), a counter-coup by right-wing military officials provided impetus for what the CIA has called one of the “worst mass murders of the 20th century along with the Soviet purges of the 1930s, the Nazi mass murders during the second world war, and the Maoist bloodbath of the early 1950s.”

Under directives by the military establishment, killings were conducted by the army, local militias, gangsters and in many cases civilians killing their neighbours, across the country from Sumatra to Bali. Systemic anti-leftist propaganda and repression of political opposition under the subsequent military dictatorship known as the New Order meant that truth of the event was deliberately erased from Indonesian history books, except as President Suharto’s heroic triumph against a godless, depraved threat to the nation.

In the context of Cold War paranoia, Western governments including the US, Britain and Australia were complicit in the destruction of at least half a million lives and in the rise of military dictatorship. Then-Prime Minister Harold Holt remarked with relief that “with 500,000 to one million Communist sympathisers knocked off, I think it is safe to assume a reorientation [in Indonesia] has taken place.”

Since Indonesia began democratisation in 1998, more political space has opened up to discuss the history of the event, which has come to be simply known as “1965”. Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentaries The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence have significantly raised awareness of the massacres both within Indonesia and abroad.

In its 50th anniversary last year, activists successfully initiated a 1965 International People’s Tribunal in The Hague to act as a sort of grassroots truth commission. This idea was supported by Indonesia’s national human rights commission, Komnas HAM, whose 2012 inquiry into the event has never been accepted by the Attorney-General.  Despite progress in highlighting the atrocities 50 years on, communist politics remain deeply taboo, and victims and their families live with fear and stigma, while perpetrators retain impunity and in many cases remain part of the Indonesian political elite.

Prodita Sabarini

Prodita Sabarini

Prodita Sabarani is the Jakarta Editor of The Conversation. She has previously worked for the Jakarta Post and has written for the Boston Globe and New York Times. She recently contributed a piece on remembering 1965 to the Griffith Review edition entitled “New Asia Now”. Max Walden spoke to her about the 1965 tragedy and its implications for human rights in Indonesia.

Max Walden: Why should people outside of Indonesia know about 1965?

Prodita Savarini: Educating people outside Indonesia, especially from the US, UK and Australia is important so that they can discover that their governments had a role in encouraging the 1965 violence.

Research has shown that the United States provided a hit list of prominent Indonesians to be killed. They also provided radio equipment to help the army communicate and organise the national crackdown. The UK and Australia carried out black propaganda to incite hatred against Indonesian communists, which created fear and distrust with deadly consequences.

These governments keep documents from that period secret. People from these countries should push their governments to declassify these files and acknowledge their collective role in supporting the killings. This may set an example for the Indonesian government.

What impact have Oppenheimer’s documentaries had within Indonesia?

The Act of Killing opened up a larger space in Indonesia to discuss 1965.  It was groundbreaking – prior to this, works on 1965 mostly centred on the experience of victims, but Oppenheimer pointed the lens on the perpetrators. The former death squad leaders were boastful and seemingly blind to the moral wrongfulness of killing helpless civilians. It was so shocking and powerful that it did something that former works on 1965 had not managed to do.

It moved editors of Tempo Magazine, a mainstream media outlet in Indonesia, to begin collecting stories of the killers. The Act of Killing inspired activists in Indonesia to set up the International People’s Tribunal in The Hague.

On the 50th anniversary of the killings we can see that the tide is turning. Official historical accounts of 1965 remain unchanged in Indonesian history books, but the younger generations are increasingly expressing their opinions on this matter.

Is the recognition of human rights abuses like 1965 important for Indonesia’s development?

Part of the problem in Indonesia’s economic development is a weak democratic system. Those who refuse to recognise the human rights abuses of 1965 are in power and they politically and economically benefit from the continuous oppression of regular people.

Human rights problems in Indonesia’s business practices, which keep the poor from enjoying their rights, are part of the legacy of the 1965 violence. For example, workers in plantations in North Sumatra who were becoming sick from being exposed to dangerous chemicals without proper protection were afraid to create a union to fight for their rights to work in a safe and healthy environment. This is how Joshua Oppenheimer first discovered the 1965 massacres. He first came to North Sumatra to make a documentary about the plantation workers. He found out that they were scared to this day because union members were killed in the communist pogroms of 1965.

As Indonesia’s political elite is more focused on resource-based business interests, Indonesia’s policy makers lack long-term thinking and vision to transition into a knowledge-based economy. Due to Indonesia’s weak democratic system, there is no incentive to create good policies that serve the public. Hence, they neglect science, basic research, technology and innovation, which are key to lifting Indonesia from the trap of the resource course.

What role can young people play in raising awareness of atrocities, and more broadly demanding transparency and accountability?

The younger generation – those born after 1965 – have already been crucial in raising awareness. They realise that the “evil Indonesian communist” is a tragic joke.

First, of course, it was they who protested against Suharto in 1998, which resulted in the end of his dictatorship. The collapse of the Suharto regime opened up a space for researchers, artists, filmmakers and victims to talk about the atrocities of 1965.

However, we can do more. I think it’s important for us to talk to our parents and grandparents and learn how 1965 impacted us personally. We should also come together and create a movement to demand transparency and accountability from the government.

What does the future of human rights in Indonesia look like?

I think new technologies and digital media may help improve the future of human rights in Indonesia. The old establishment that wants to keep the status quo by suppressing information about human rights will find it hard to do in the digital age.

More than 70 million people in Indonesia are social media users, and I have seen groups and communities creatively using social media to raise awareness on human rights issues.

Apathy comes from ignorance, which comes from lack of information. When people encounter this information and realise that violence and impunity affects us all, things will begin to change.