• Print

Uncovering Indonesia’s Act of Killing

AP Images
Soldiers taking suspects to prison during an anti-Communist crackdown in which some 500,000 Indonesians were killed, Jakarta, October 30, 1965

“My grandfather was a professor in Bali in 1965, and he was killed. We don’t even know which mass grave his body was thrown into,” said one of the volunteers, a college student whose father is from Indonesia. In August, she joined a group of scholars and other volunteers at the National Declassification Center outside of Washington for the unprecedented project of examining some thirty thousand pages of newly-declassified documents from the US Embassy in Jakarta. These records add important details to what happened during the 1965-1966 Indonesian massacre, one of the worst, yet least known, mass killings since World War II, in which an estimated half a million Indonesians suspected of being Communists were murdered by soldiers and paramilitary death squads.

The student jumped at the chance to work on this project not just because of her family connection to this history, but also, she told me, because Indonesians need to know what happened and who is responsible—a point echoed by Bradley R. Simpson, the University of Connecticut historian who led the review of the documents.

“Indonesians should be able to tell their own story, and they have a right to see their own government documents,” he said. “Every time more comes out from the US government side, it should make Indonesians demand more.” 

Much is still unknown. What is known is that six generals were killed in the early morning of October 1, 1965, by a group of junior officers who claimed they were forestalling a takeover by a CIA-backed “Council of Generals.” Their putsch failed, and the Indonesian army and the US government quickly blamed the Communist Party of Indonesia, the PKI, which was then the third largest Communist party in the world and an ally of Sukarno, the autocratic leftist president-for-life.

Within days, the army and local paramilitaries rounded up anyone associated with the PKI. Then, mostly at night, those arrested were taken out and shot, beheaded, or stabbed to death. The army’s militias did most of the killings, and their members ranged from gangsters to young men from the country’s two largest Muslim organizations. In addition, hundreds of thousands of Indonesians were imprisoned, and their families, as well as the families of the dead, were shunned. 

The US government offered both direct and indirect support to the army during the killings and considered the bloodbath a momentous victory, shifting the balance of power in Southeast Asia. By the time the killings ended, Indonesians were living under the military rule of General Suharto and its founding myth that the army had saved the nation from the atheistic Communists. Any talk about the killings became taboo except for the official version: the PKI had to be exterminated, and Indonesians themselves supported the mass murder, or even joined in with it. 

In 1998, Indonesians rose against Suharto, and in the years since, a fragile democracy has emerged, making Indonesia the world’s third-largest democracy (as well as the largest Muslim-majority nation). The democratic opening also spurred a renewed scrutiny of the official narrative of the Indonesian massacre. Efforts to uncover the past atrocities gathered momentum when Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, was elected president in 2014 after running as a reformer outside the circle of oligarchs and the political elite that flourished both under Suharto and after his ouster. Jokowi promised to bring open, pluralist rule to Indonesia’s 250 million people, and many hoped that he would end the impunity for past human rights abuses, starting with the 1965 massacre. There was talk of a truth commission or even an apology. 

By this time, the Indonesian massacre had come into focus for many Americans through Joshua Oppenheimer’s astonishing films, The Act of Killing (2013) and The Look of Silence (2014), which looked at this dark chapter in the country’s history, first through the eyes of the killers and then of its victims. When Jokowi visited Barack Obama in the Oval Office in 2015, there were Indonesians who hoped that Obama would help Jokowi by releasing the remaining classified US documents. After all, when he was eight, Obama moved with his mother to Jakarta just after the killings; as an adult, he wrote in his memoir of the secrecy and trauma of that time. It was this renewed public interest in the Indonesian massacre that led the director of the National Declassification Center to call for the unusual declassification of the embassy files. 

This week, Simpson and three other historians of the period released a summary of the most important declassified documents. Although the story they tell is already known in outline, these documents offer a chilling account of how American officials closely monitored the extermination of Communists and goaded the Indonesian army to finish the job. According to Simpson, these previously unseen cables, telegrams, letters, and reports “contain damning details that the US was willfully and gleefully pushing for the mass murder of innocent people.”

A cable from the embassy to the State Department on November 20, 1965, for instance, reports that PKI members in Central Java knew nothing about the October 1 coup attempt, yet they were being rounded up and killed. Another report in late November states that General Suharto is behind the mass killings, and that the indiscriminate detention of Communists has created problems of how to feed and house the prisoners. “Many provinces appear to be successfully meeting this problem by executing their PKI prisoners, or by killing them before they are captured, a task in which Moslem youth groups are providing assistance.” 

By December 21, the embassy reports that some one hundred thousand Communists have been killed, including ten thousand in Bali, and goes on to hail the improved relations between the US and Indonesia as a “fantastic switch which has occurred in ten short weeks.” The killings and arrests went on for many more months. By March 1966, Suharto was in charge, the PKI was banned, and Indonesia became a vital cold war ally for America, receiving huge amounts of aid and investments.

For all the new details, these documents reveal nothing about US covert operations in the months leading up to these events. “We are still lacking the most important stuff from the CIA and DIA [the Defense Intelligence Agency],” says Simpson, who wrote a history of US-Indonesian relations from 1960 to 1968, Economists With Guns (2008). The other historians who reviewed the embassy files are: John Roosa, the author of Pretext for a Mass Murder (2006), one of the most comprehensive books to date on the failed coup and the killings; Geoffrey B. Robinson, whose book on the massacre, The Killing Season, will be published next year; and Jessica Melvin, who is also publishing a book next year on the killings based on her 2014 doctoral study, Mechanics of Mass Murder. Relying on previous declassifications in 2001 and 2015, these historians have established that the US approved covert operations in Indonesia in the early 1960s that sought to strengthen American ties with the army and provoke a showdown between the PKI and the Indonesian military. Until the CIA and DIA files are declassified, the details of those covert operations remain unknown. Since declassification requires an order from either the president or Congress to pry loose those files, it seems unlikely to occur during the Trump administration. 

Even so, the revelations in the Jakarta embassy files are likely to be explosive in Indonesia. The story the documents tell challenges the official narrative of Suharto’s New Order, and this declassification comes at a moment when politics in Indonesia have become sharply polarized. A reckoning over 1965 is very much a part of today’s political struggle. Although there is an appetite, especially among young people, to know more about what happened in 1965, there has also been a fierce backlash from army generals and Islamist politicians who warn that any talk of reconciliation or apology is a plot to revive communism. This reactionary move had already begun when Jokowi visited Obama, and it has only grown stronger. 

Hard-line Islamist groups and the army have shut down discussion groups, book openings, and film screenings about the killings. The democratic era has brought contested direct elections and a vibrant free press to Indonesia, but it has failed to dislodge either the immunity from investigation or prosecution enjoyed by the Indonesian army or the determination of elite politicians and Islamists to enforce silence on the killings. When, in 2016, Jokowi’s government supported a symposium in which survivors spoke in public, there was a counterattack from retired generals and a once fringe vigilante group turned political powerbroker, the Islam Defenders’ Front, or FPI, accusing Jokowi of being a Communist himself. This was the opening salvo in a ferocious political skirmish that continues between pluralist democrats and Islamist populists. 

The FPI, together with a wider network of Islamists, used the race for governor of Jakarta earlier this year to forge a new and potent alliance between the Islamist bloc and the political elite that is opposed to Jokowi. They mobilized hundreds of thousands of people to rally in the streets to “defend Islam” against Jakarta’s then governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is Christian and ethnically Chinese, and a close ally of Jokowi. (Purnama, who is commonly known as Ahok, not only lost the election, but was put on trial for “insulting Islam,” and found guilty. He is serving a two-year prison term.) If this alliance holds, Jokowi’s chances of winning reelection in 2019 could be in jeopardy.

After their victory in ousting Purnama, the FPI and its Islamist allies have stoked a campaign, especially on social media, claiming that a Communist revival is underway and that China is attempting to colonize Indonesia. Last month, police had to use tear gas on a mob that rioted outside the Jakarta office of Indonesia’s Legal Aid Institute after rumors spread that a PKI event was being held there. Even though a recent public opinion survey showed that only 12.6 percent of those polled agree there is a Communist revival, Islamists, retired generals, and right-wing politicians keeping pressing their Red-Scare rhetoric.

Their real target is Jokowi—long accused, falsely, of being descended from Communists. In an effort to protect himself, Jokowi has stopped all talk of investigating the past. This week’s release of the embassy files made headlines in Indonesia, but has so far drawn no comment from Jokowi or other government officials.

The declassification coincides with the heating-up of the campaign for the 2019 presidential election. Professor Simpson could be right that the documents will help Indonesians recover parts of their missing history, and may even push the Indonesian government to release its records of the part played in the killings by the army. But it is also possible that the Islamists, the generals, and the holdovers of the Suharto regime will succeed in quashing any new debate. If that is so, then the public-interest effort to bring to light this bloody episode in Indonesia’s past will serve simply as ammunition for the enemies of the country’s hard-won but precarious democracy.