The Violent Mysteries of Indonesia

Beauty Is a Wound

by Eka Kurniawan, translated from the Indonesian by Annie Tucker
New Directions, 470 pp., $19.95 (paper)

The Act of Killing

a film directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

The Look of Silence

a film directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
Drafthouse Films/Participant Media
Rohani, an Indonesian woman whose oldest son, Ramli, was killed as a suspected Communist in the mass murders of 1965–1966, in Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary film The Look of Silence


Two extraordinary documentary films by Joshua Oppenheimer, shot in Indonesia over a period of ten years, begin with the same terse statement:

In 1965, the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military. Anybody opposed to the military dictatorship could be accused of being a communist: union members, landless farmers, intellectuals, and the ethnic Chinese.

In less than a year, and with the direct aid of Western governments, over one million “communists” were murdered.

The army used paramilitaries and gangsters to carry out the killings. These men have been in power—and have persecuted their opponents—ever since.

One might quibble with the numbers: some say half a million were killed, some say two million, but we will never know precisely; only the Germans kept meticulous records of their blood lust. In some places the army took a direct part in the slaughter, but mostly it left the nastiest jobs to local thugs. Exactly what started the violence is still contested: a failed coup by army factions supported, possibly, by the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), or a power struggle inside the armed forces.

What we know for sure is that Sukarno, the first president of Indonesia, had become a major Asian player in the cold war and his erratic behavior seriously worried Western powers. He saw himself as a revolutionary “president- for-life” who would resist Western imperialism and neocolonialism in league with China, North Korea, and the Soviet Union. This led, in the early 1960s, to a military conflict (“Konfrontasi”) with the newly independent Malaysia, which Sukarno regarded as an antirevolutionary cat’s paw of British interests. At home, with the Indonesian economy in some chaos, he edged ever closer to the PKI.

The Indonesian armed forces were mostly fiercely opposed to the Communists. It is at least plausible that the initial coup attempt in 1965 was a way for Sukarno and left-wing sympathizers to consolidate his power and control the army. In the early hours of October 1, six generals were murdered. Having been spared this fate, the young and highly conservative Major General Suharto staged a countercoup just a few hours later. That he was strongly backed, and perhaps actively assisted by the US and Britain, should be no surprise. Lists of known Communists were allegedly handed over by US officials. Most of them were no doubt killed in the orgy of anti-Communist violence that lasted until early 1966. But many victims were poor peasants who barely knew what communism was. Popular prejudice against Chinese merchants led to ethnic pogroms as well. Suharto became president in the following year, the PKI was banned, and Sukarno lived under house arrest until his death in 1970.


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