Landmark talks held on Indonesia massacres

A still from the recent film, the Act of Killing, about the 1965-66 massacres. Source: Vimeo

Indonesia’s leaders have taken part in an unprecedented meeting to discuss the killing of half a million supposed communists and their supporters 50 years ago.

Security Minister Luhut Panjaitan said Indonesia must make peace with its past, while he ruled out an official apology.

Victims and members of the security forces attended the meeting.

The massacre began in September 1965 after an apparent coup was blamed on the Indonesian communist party. Only China and Russia had larger communist parties at the time.

Conference organiser Agus Widjojo, a retired general, told the meeting that the slaughter had “torn apart” Indonesia and called for a truth and reconciliation commission to be established.

Widjojo said: “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.”

Widjojo’s father was among six right-wing generals whose murder during an unsuccessful coup was blamed on Indonesia’s communists.

It remains a deeply contentions period. Hundreds of police officers with armoured-personnel carriers were on standby outside the hotel in central Jakarta where the meeting was held, in anticipation of possible protests by Islamic and paramilitary organisations that took part in the killings.

Effendy Saleh, 78, who spent 15 years in prison after 1965 because he was a union activist whose group was allegedly affiliated with the Indonesian Communist Party. He was never put on trial and denies committing any crime.

“Reconciliation means the 1965 survivors can be accepted and viewed as ordinary citizens,” he was quoted saying by the New York Times. “If people know you as being a ‘1965 person,’ you have nothing.”

The military, paramilitaries and religious groups killed an estimated 500,000 people as the former dictator Suharto rose to power. The Cold War was raging and the western media largely ignored one of the world’s largest, post-1945 slaughters.

The victims included intellectuals, ethnic Chinese Indonesians and countless others with no links to the communists. Greed at neighbours’ possessions motivated many killings.

Suspected communists and sympathisers were hunted down, tortured and killed. About 100,000 more were imprisoned without trial or exile across the vast archipelago on tenuous evidence of communist links.

Officers led by a colonel in then-president Sukarno’s palace guard was accused of trying to launch the coup.

In 1966, Sukarno was forced to hand emergency powers to General Suharto, who took over as president the following year and ruled as a dictator for 31 years.

Descendants of supposed Communist Party members are still discriminated against and are banned from holding government jobs, including the police and military, despite calls for reform from human rights groups.