Last week passed like any other in the vast archipelago, but 50 years ago an attempted coup d’état set in motion a genocide that left 500,000, or likely even more, dead.
On September 30th, 1965, a group calling themselves the 30 September Movement arrested six of the highest-ranking generals in the country. By the morning of October 1st, all six generals were dead and the Movement – which included members of the Presidential Guard of Indonesia’s founding father, Sukarno, and other military units near Jakarta – had taken key points in the capital surrounding Merdeka (Freedom) Square and declared that they were protecting the president from an CIA-backed coup.
Within hours, the little-known Major General Suharto had taken control of the army, talked down the troops surrounding the president, and declared that he would destroy the ‘counter-revolutionary forces’ that were quickly associated with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).
While there was only marginal evidence of Communist involvement, the subsequent genocide of the political left in Indonesia was 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” by the CIA.
The massacres, which began in Java before spreading to Sumatra, Bali, and elsewhere, has been thrust into both the Indonesian and international spotlight of late due to the success of filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion pieces “The Act of Killing” (2013) and “The Look of Silence” (2015). The former, which followed a group of perpetrators reenacting their crimes was nominated for an Academy Award but more importantly was screened for hundreds of Indonesia’s leading citizens.
In interviews and a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Oppenheimer, an American who currently resides in Copenhagen, takes care to stress two critical aspects of killing spree. First is the fact that the “many perpetrators still hold power throughout the country” have created a false narrative surrounding the event (that “communists” are to blame and they are heroes for defeating it) and a “climate of fear in which corruption and plunder go unchallenged.”
On a national level, the genocide tore apart the ideological triumvirate of nationalism, religion, and communism that had supported Sukarno and ushered in the 33-year regime of Suharto. Suharto and his military partnered with religious leaders in violently propagandizing communism and any political opposition. While the dictatorship ended amidst the economic turmoil of the Asian Financial crisis in 1998, its corrupt practices and hierarchies remain intact in industries across the country.
On a more local level, the one Oppenheimer portrays so deftly, the gangsters (or as they refer to themselves, ‘free men’) and paramilitary groups that committed the atrocities remain embedded in the political system and the families who were targeted 50 years ago remain economically and politically disenfranchised.
Second, Oppenheimer makes sure to highlight American and British involvement in attempting to bring down Sukarno who they viewed as too friendly with communism. While the American military provided equipment and training to their Indonesian counterparts, the CIA provided lists of thousands of targets with alleged ties to communism.
Equally as troubling was the response of Western media outlets who, while barred by the Indonesian government from direct reporting in the country, were spoon-fed headlines by their governments feared a communist-led government post-Sukarno and thus backed the military and Suharto’s intervention. Perhaps the most damning story came from Time, in which the massacres are described casually under the headline “Vengeance with a Smile.”
In the article, written as the purge was slowing down, Sukarno is a “swaggering demagogue” who, while not a communist, made “the Kremlin seem like a neutralist”. Meanwhile Suharto, who steadily siphoned power away from the Sukarno until he replaced him in early 1967, is described in terms palatable to an American audience already programmed to fear the ‘Reds’. Most notable is the assumption throughout the piece that the coup was led by the PKI. This was Suharto & co.’s official line but there are several theories behind the actual motivations of the 30 September Movement.
One of the more controversial theories was laid out shortly after the events by two Indonesia scholars at Cornell University, Benedict Anderson and Ruth McVey, in what has become known as the Cornell Paper. Anderson and McVey say that the Movement was the work of a small group of junior officers who, as they claimed on the morning of October 1, were protecting their president from generals who were collaborating with the CIA and the PKI had little to no prior knowledge.
An even darker theory by Professor Peter Dale Scott suggests that Suharto himself was involved in the attempted coup and was backed by the CIA. Scott cites circumstantial evidence like the fact that Suharto’s command building on the east of Merdeka Square remained un-occupied on October 1st; that the units involved were commanded by Suharto’s allies; and finally, that the generals killed were all Suharto’s superiors and presented obstacles to his taking power. In other words, everything seemed planned for Suharto’s ascension.
The truth is a mystery. As Oppenheimer puts it, “the extent of America’s role” – and thus Suharto’s – “remains hidden behind a wall of secrecy: C.I.A. documents and U.S. defense attaché papers remain classified.”
For years during the Suharto regime, a film brutally depicting the deaths of the generals at the hands of the evil communists was broadcast on national television and screened in classrooms on September 30th. While this propaganda has stopped and President Joko Widodo (aka Jokowi), who was elected in August 2014, made campaign promises to move towards investigation and reconciliation of human rights abuses, there has been little evidence of a shift in the government’s policy of silence.
Jokowi, who has faced several scandals over what must have been a very long first year in office, has had to ally himself with the military-business complex that was built during the Suharto years. These are the folks that have an interest in the status quo and are unlikely to want to see the truth come out.
Nations whose identity is tied to patriotism can have a hard time admitting mistakes and failures. Indonesia’s dark past is more complicated than the good-evil dichotomy of countries like Germany and South Africa who have come to terms with their sins. Professor Robert Cribb of Australian National University has explained “the killings had an elusive character that has militated against close analysis.”
While projects like Oppenheimer’s can peel away the initial layers of silence, it must be left to the Indonesian people to continue the conversation, sort through the deepest layers of pain and suffering, and come to terms with their genuine history in order to remember, even 50 years on, what this anniversary is truly marks.