Indonesia: Silence marks 50 years since mass killings

Hundreds of thousands of leftists were killed in a four-month reign of terror after a 1965 Western-backed coup.

October marked 50 years since the start of the campaign of mass killing of Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) members and sympathisers in Indonesia. It is estimated as many as 1 million people were killed or jailed during 1965-1966, carried out as part of Suharto's Western-backed military coup.

There is still a culture of silence inside Indonesia that discourages people from speaking openly about the events of 1965. The Indonesian government recently threatened to revoke the permit of the Ubud Writers Festival in Bali if organisers did not cancel a series of talks aimed at exploring this issue. A PKI stronghold at the time, Bali was the scene of some of the worst mass killings.

Green Left Weekly's Mel Barnes spoke to Vannessa Hearman, lecturer in Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney, about how the anniversary is being dealt with inside Indonesia.


Why is there still such sensitivity around the events of 1965?

There are a lot of vested interests in not uncovering what happened with the massacres. When Indonesia began a transition to democracy in 1998, the end result was some of the same elite players still holding power.

For example, the Golkar party, the party of Suharto's New Order regime, is one of the four top vote getters in the last elections. So, that shows you that, despite reformasi [the reform movement], it was limited and didn't really touch the foundations of power in Indonesia.

There were a lot of military reforms, but the military is still a strong force. There are now attempts by the military to be allowed to exercise certain powers via a presidential instruction so it doesn't have to go through parliament. They can be authorised to carry out a direct intervention should it be required. There is an attempt to remilitarise society.

So the limited transition to democracy is one reason.

One of the biggest absences is accountability for human rights abuses under Suharto. If Indonesia was able to make inroads into that, I think it would transform the country and how it deals with human rights abuse in the present and the future.

There have been attempts to try and do something about those abuses, but nothing really thorough. Because of that, certain interests are emboldened into thinking, “if we just wait this out it will return to the status quo before long”.

There have been all sorts of attempts to try to overturn reforms, for example by redrawing the anti-corruption law in parliament to try to shrink the powers of the anti-corruption commission. Indonesians are resisting this, but there are so many struggles that it is impossible for the people's movement to plug all the holes.

There is no consensus [in Indonesia] about what happened in 1965. There are various forces that don't want to even acknowledge the mass killings, or who see the mass killings as a situation of war. They believe if they hadn't suppressed the communists, the communists would have suppressed them.

Many of the people involved in carrying out the killings were later rewarded with privileged positions in the New Order regime. Is it a case of people worried about their pasts coming out?

There are people who have a vested interests in not reopening the past, as they don't want to be portrayed as killers. There are also people who don't want the role of the military to be reopened. It's also about preserving institutions that were responsible, both religious groups and the military.

Victim groups are calling for an apology from the government. How likely is it that this will happen?

There is a group called the Truth and Justice Coalition, which consists of a range of NGOs and victim groups. It set up a “year of truth-telling” in 2012-2013 because they heard [then-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono] was going to deliver an apology to victims of human rights abuses, not just for 1965 but others as well.

They wanted to provide him with an environment in which he felt he could deliver that apology, and sought to create momentum for truth-telling.

They were demanding an apology as long as it was accompanied by a whole range of other things, including a discussion about how victims can be rehabilitated, compensation and so on.

Unfortunately, the apology issue has become tamed by President Joko Widodo [“Jokowi”], who set up the reconciliation committee in May. The government will give an apology, but the problem is an apology in the abstract is not going to discover what the truth was - what happened, who was responsible, where it happened and so on.

The apology has potentially been transformed into a tool to make the issue go away. That's the danger. If you don't talk about what you're apologising for, you whitewash the whole thing and victims end up not having any more claim on the government.

Has the Jokowi presidency had much impact on the state apparatus?

It's important to look at why the military is trying to win more power for itself. Even before we get to the Jokowi presidency, the fact that [Suharto-era military general] Prabowo was able to run - and came within 6% of Jokowi's vote - gave courage to anti-democratic interests in Indonesia.

Suddenly, within several months, we had the situation where meetings of victims of 1965 - so called “communist meetings” - were attacked. Certain forces were emboldened by Prabowo's electoral results.

Within Jokowi's camp itself, there are people with problematic pasts. For example, he appointed [Abdullah Mahmud] Hendropriyono, who was the head of the national intelligence agency, as an advisor. [Former president and chairperson of Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP)] Megawati is very close to military officers, she doesn't want to put the military as an institution offside.

Jokowi has no military links, he doesn't come from the military and no base of support in it. He doesn't have much support inside his own party. He is a PDIP candidate, but that's not his history.

Alliance-wise he's very weak. So there is a certain amount of jockeying for power going on among certain agencies.

There are lots of developments that show he's a bit tentative and wants to keep the military onside. And at the same time, he's moving on West Papua and wants to take action there, but not if it's understood wrongly by the military. He's going about it in a very limited way, which means he can't quite make the changes he wants.

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