by Jemma Purdey,
Dr Jemma Purdey is a Research Fellow in the Faculty of Arts and the Australia Indonesia Centreat Monash University
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At the height of the Cold War, Indonesia’s Communist Party (PKI) was a significant force in national politics, with a growing following and increasing support from President Sukarno as he sought to share in what appeared would soon become a significant political power base. In late September 1965, attempts by a small group of PKI-backed generals to stage a coup were foiled and in its wake, an army-led assault against the PKI and its sympathisers was unleashed with fury and horror. Over the coming months and years, an estimated 500,000 people across the archipelago were killed and the PKI and all ‘leftist’ groups were decimated.  If not killed, their leaders and cadres alike were arrested and imprisoned without trial for up to thirteen years, most famously on the prison island of Buru in eastern Indonesia.

The killings themselves, which scholars increasingly have evidence to link directly to the armed forces, were also carried out by civilians under varying degrees of instruction from the military. Whilst evidence exists of militia engaged by the army to carry out the rounding up, torture and killings, it is also known that the atmosphere of the time allowed for local resentments and vengeance to be settled without fear of recrimination.

Under the New Order military-backed regime that prevailed following the purging of the political left, the official version of the events of 30 September 1965 and the subsequent mass killings, torture and imprisonment of communists and those deemed to have communist sympathies, could not be contested. Over a decade since the fall of this regime, new narrative spaces are opening up, but very slowly. This is a complex and contested history about which scholars, and activists acting on behalf of victims and survivors, continue to be challenged.

A conference on the mass killings in Indonesia in 1965-66 held on 30 August across two main sites in Jakarta and Melbourne, with participants also in Vancouver, London and Copenhagen, marked another important step for both scholars of this highly contested history, and activists fighting for truth and justice for its victims and survivors.

‘After the Act of Killing: Historical Justice and 1965-66 Mass Killings in Indonesia’ sought to build on momentum which has been growing over the past fourteen months, to open up this period of Indonesia’s history and recognise the suffering of its victims.

In Jakarta, over one hundred people attended the conference at STF Driyakara where they heard from panellists including the nation’s leading historians and activists working for a revival of a truth and reconciliation process for the victims and survivors. Sitting in the front row of the audience from very early in the morning until its conclusion late in the day, was a group of now elderly women, former political prisoners and survivors, each deeply engaged in this process of seeking truth and some form of justice.

Newly emerging truths

New interest in the 1965-66 narrative within Indonesian politics and the media began in mid-2012 with the publication of a series of highly important reports and investigations. The first of these was the Commission for Human Rights’ (Komnas HAM) report on the killings released in July 2012. Amongst its comprehensive findings about the nature of the killings themselves, which it found were carried out in a systematic way by the military across the archipelago, the report called for a national apology for the victims and survivors.

At almost the same time, American film maker Joshua Oppenheimer released his extraordinary film, The Act of Killing. A chilling documentary set in Medan, North Sumatra the film features a group of ageing former gangsters and self-confessed murderers who killed and tortured suspected communists in the mid-1960s. The producers chose to avoid the censors in Indonesia and thereby the risk of a banning, by not releasing the film into mainstream cinemas. Instead it has been shown to audiences in hundreds of guerrilla screenings across the country and is now available widely through pirated DVDs and on the internet. Internationally the film has received high acclaim, challenging audiences with its graphic and boastful recounting and re-enactments of the killings by the men who carried them out.

This was followed on 1 October 2012 by major newsmagazine Tempo’s publication of a special double edition titled ‘Executioners’ Confessions’, which included interviews with perpetrators – the executioners themselves – from ‘civilian’ groups including the militia arm of religious organisation, Nadhlatul Ulama (NU) amongst other groups.

As Indonesia historian and advocate for survivors and victims, Ron Hatley, has written about these new contributions to the historiography of this period, “for perhaps the majority of communities, and for the nation as a whole, truth-seeking has just begun; undoubtedly more will begin with the revelations of these three new documents” (Inside Indonesia, n112).

The August conference followed another held in Canberra in early 2013, which brought together many Indonesian researchers and activists focused on reviving the truth and reconciliation process and challenging state-sanctioned versions of the history of this dark period.  This latest effort was an attempt to further progress those relationships established between scholars in Australia and Indonesia, and to bring the conversation up to date; where are we now? And, where do we go next?

A major theme across the conference was the teaching of this history to present and future generations. Although the New Order’s official version of the events of 30 Sept/1 Oct 1965 and subsequent ‘justified’ annihilation of the communist party is no longer prescribed for all school children to hear and experience in the national curriculum, there is not yet an agreed alternative history being taught in its place. Some teachers of history are encouraging their students to go out and discover for themselves the ‘truths’ available and make their own minds up, but this is a small and limited experience.

As Ariel Heryanto recounted in his paper tracking responses to The Act of Killing among Indonesia’s youth, there is little or no interest among young people in this past, let alone a desire to seek their own versions of what took place two decades before they were born. Without national leadership guiding a process towards reconciliation and truth-seeking about the mass killings and imprisonments, Heryanto believes there is small hope that it can succeed.  Further evidence of that is the ‘almost’ apology by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono shortly after the issuing of the Komnas HAM report, which in the end failed to materialise as political opposition to the commissions’ findings grew.

Nevertheless, despite the many reasons for pessimism there is a growing sense that a tipping point could soon be reached.  Responses from members of the audience and the speakers in Jakarta in particular, to the papers heard there and from around the world via the webcast, is testament to an enduring commitment to continue this struggle for increased awareness about the killings and eventually some form of justice for its victims.

This local action supported by the work of scholars, is now backed by an international campaign launched by the UK-based group Tapol, led by its founder Carmel Budiardjo, herself imprisoned for several years as a communist sympathiser. The Tapol campaign, ‘Mohon Maaf’ or ‘Say Sorry’ is, its director Paul Barber told the conference, focused internationally with the intention of using pressure from outside Indonesia to push the government towards making an apology to the survivors and victims.  It is hoped that momentum from the international response to The Act of Killing, which exposes worldwide audiences to the brutality and horror of these events for perhaps the first time, will produce a significant global movement calling for an apology. Tapol’s strategy, like that used by Amnesty International in its campaigns, relies on the idea that Indonesia’s concern about its international standing will push it towards making this small, although highly significant gesture.

The ‘say sorry’ movement across countries with histories of gross crimes against humanity has gained some traction in recent times, including Australia’s own apology to the Stolen Generations in February 2008. Closer to the Indonesian situation and possibly influential, are recent apologies issued by the former colonial power, The Netherlands, for atrocities committed during the Indonesian struggle for independence (1945-49). In December 2011 and again in September this year, the Dutch have extended apologies for mass killings of civilians during the revolutionary war and have paid compensation to the victims’ relatives. The timing of this most recent apology at a ceremony in Jakarta on 12 September is regarded by observers in Indonesia and overseas as highly significant in the context of growing demands for Indonesia to make reparations to victims of its own state violence.

This recent conference, although not without technical hitches (unsurprising perhaps for such an ambitious offering), was the first on this subject to connect speakers and audiences in Indonesia to the rest of the world. Some speculate that this was also the largest conference on this subject held in Indonesia so far. In many ways it was a brave effort, which in the past may have meet with significant protest. As a sign of the changing mood, perhaps, this was thankfully not the case this time.

Well-known Indonesian blogger and columnist Ibrahim Isa said of the impact of the conference, “In the midst of an atmosphere which is swinging between hope and uncertainty [about a Truth and Reconciliation process], the teleconference at STF Driyarkara yesterday proved one thing: social and cultural reconciliation in society can still be achieved” (9 September 2013).

One of the most important outcomes from all these recent endeavours is indeed the sense this is a shared concern. This period in Indonesia’s past must continue to be investigated and its multiple truths revealed and re-presented within the Indonesian national story.

The proceedings of the ‘After the Act of Killing’ conference can be viewed on YouTube and the program downloaded here.

Jemma Purdey was one of the organisers of the conference.

Citation: Jemma Purdey, The 1965-66 mass killings in Indonesia: Recent developments towards historical justice. Australian Policy and History. September 2013.


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