Indonesia’s blood-soaked past

Indonesia remains incapable of addressing its history. Source: YouTube

Indonesian activists are making fresh calls for the international community to expose the murders of more than 500,000 alleged communists and their supporters during a period of bloodshed 50 years ago which has few parallels in the 20th century. 

More people probably died in Rwanda in 1994 but that was heavily covered by the media and the killings have been trawled over since. The slaughter in Indonesia in 1965-66 largely happened below the radar and has still not been properly addressed.

Occurring against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the wider Cold War, the bloody rise to power of General Suharto was little reported in the west. Because communists were the targets, coverage was limited and few non-Indonesians know a state-sponsored campaign was carried out on that scale and that discrimination continues today.

To paraphrase President Franklin Roosevelt, Suharto was a son of bitch, but he was “our” son of a bitch.

Security minister Luhut Panjaitan earlier this year said Indonesia must make peace with its past, but ruled out an official apology.

The massacres began in 1965 after an apparent coup which was blamed on communist officers. With parallels to the botched Turkish coup on July 15, the official response occurred so rapidly and on such a shattering scale, out of all proportion with the original action, that it cast doubt on the official account of events.

The Indonesian Community Party (PKI) was the world’s third largest communist party in 1965 with about 3 million members. No one knows how many were butchered to death.

Now Jakarta is making noises about moving towards a commission for truth and reconciliation.

“Let’s open this history together so we can all find out what has been wrong in our national system, why this nation could have the ability to commit mass killings,” said Agus Widjojo, organiser of a conference on the issue earlier this year.

Widjojo’s father was among six right-wing generals whose assassinations during the abortive coup were blamed on the PKI.

A group of officers led by a colonel in then President Sukarno’s palace guard was accused of trying to launch the coup.

It is estimated that military and religious groups killed 500,000 people as the dictator Suharto consolidated his grip. Some estimates put the number as high as 3 million.

An estimated 100,000 other victims suffered years of jail time without trial or exile on Indonesia’s more remote islands.

Descendants of communists are still banned from government jobs, despite protests from human rights groups.

Wara Aninditari, an activist from Forum 65, said all efforts to encourage a government settlement on abuses were aimed at bringing about justice for victims and survivors of the 1965-66 “tragedy”, as the mass butchery is often called in Indonesia.

It is a curious term that implies victims but no perpetrators and points to some of the issues affecting the current debate.

The demands for reconciliation had nothing to do with any attempts to bring back a communist ideology to Indonesia, as claimed by many parties, she said.

“We have no intention of putting blame on certain parties or bringing up conflicts of ideology. This is a matter of humanity, such as [providing] rehabilitation for the victims and survivors,” Wara said.

It seems bizarre that almost 27 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall that the threat of communism can still be used to justify hiding mass murder.

Last week, survivors of the “tragedy” asked the authorities to allow a UN special rapporteur to independently investigate the massacres.

Despite government inaction, the 1965 Murder Victims’ Research Foundation (YPKP 65) is now calling for a UN probe. It is unlikely Indonesia will agree. Jakarta increasingly sees itself as a major global power and big players do not normally let their domestic disputes fall under international spotlight.

Activists have also called on Washington to release its secret files on the killings.

At the time, the Americans saw Indonesia as an important partner in efforts to counter the influence of the Soviet Union and China in Southeast Asia.

Documents held in the National Security Archive of George Washington University show the extent to which the US embassy in Jakarta knew of some of the killings, AP reports.

The news agency claimed that the embassy passed lists of suspected communists to Suharto’s thugs, supplied the military with radios and secretly funded a paramilitary group linked to the killings.

The International People’s Tribunal at The Hague has ruled that Indonesia committed crimes against humanity. It said Australia, the US and Britain were complicit in the crimes by using propaganda to manipulate international opinion in favour of Suharto. The tribunal’s report said Australia and Britain “shared the US aim of seeking to bring about the overthrow of President Sukarno”.

“They continued with this policy even after it had become abundantly clear that killings were taking place on a mass and indiscriminate basis. On balance, this appears to justify the charge of complicity,” it said.

Australia’s then-prime minister Harold Holt told a meeting at the Australian-American Association in New York that “with 500,000 to one million communist sympathisers knocked off, I think it is safe to assume a reorientation has taken place”.

Suharto reversed the nationalist policies of the previous regime and opened the country to western multinationals and joined the International Monetary Fund in 1967.

It is a sobering lesson that history is written by the winners.