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The Army and the Indonesian Genocide

The Army and the Indonesian Genocide

Book Review
AFA2 Trump in Asia

This review is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 2: Trump in Asia. To read the full issue subscribe or buy the issue.


The Army and the Indonesian Genocide: Mechanics of Mass Murder
Jess Melvin 

It has been the mystery of a lifetime. What really happened in Indonesia in the early hours of 1 October 1965 and the months that followed? It started with rebel troops seizing the centre of Jakarta, then an army countermove. By the time I first went backpacking across the archipelago, five years later, it was all over: the revolutionary president Sukarno out of power, the once-triumphant Partai Komunis Indonesia obliterated, a stolid pro-Western general named Suharto the new president.

Western governments accepted the version put out by Suharto. The PKI had lunged for power, using sympathetic officers led by a Lieutenant-Colonel Untung to seize the top army generals, allegedly because these high-living, pro-American officers were about to overthrow Sukarno. The rebels drove them to a communist training camp at Lubang Buaya (Crocodile Hole), where the prisoners were tortured, sexually mutilated and executed before a crowd of frenzied PKI members. But the obscure Suharto had quickly rallied loyal troops.

Over the following weeks, a wave of killing erupted, as ordinary people turned on PKI supporters in revulsion at the party’s “coup attempt.” It was all “spontaneous.” Estimates of the dead went as high as two million, but the smashing of the largest communist party outside the Soviet Union and China was worth it for Washington, London and Canberra. It was “the West’s best news for years in Asia,” said Time magazine. “With 500,000 to one million sympathisers knocked off,” said Australian prime minister Harold Holt, “I think it is safe to assume a reorientation has taken place.”

When I returned to Jakarta as a freelance correspondent in January 1975, it was starting to look a bit embarrassing. Suharto had shown his authoritarian colours by crushing anti-corruption protests and arresting many of the liberals who’d helped him come to power. The dead were invisible, but hundreds of thousands of PKI members and alleged sympathisers were still in camps.

In 1976, we foreign journalists were invited to watch a group of low-level prisoners, young men and women with serious, careworn faces, take oaths of allegiance to Indonesia before being released after a decade of imprisonment without trial. At the end of 1977, we were flown to the island of Buru, landing on a former Japanese airfield marked with craters from Allied bombing in World War II. A launch took us on a Conradian journey upriver to a settlement of barracks and dry fields, where suspect intellectuals were held for re-education in Suharto’s New Order. Men with the ragged appearance of peasants turned out to be publishers, journalists and academics. The novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer showed me the corner cubicle in his barracks where he was allowed to write. In the coming two years, nearly all of Buru’s prisoners were released, although kept under constant surveillance. A few decided to remain. The local crocodile population, once decimated by the starving prisoners, has returned.

Foreign scholars had meanwhile started questioning the creation myth of the New Order. The rebel colonel Untung had been one of Suharto’s commandos parachuted into Dutch New Guinea in 1962. Suharto had attended his wedding. And why was Suharto left off the abduction list? Some readily named Suharto as the dalang (puppet-master). Yet the PKI’s general secretary, Dipa Nusantara Aidit, was in close touch with Untung, through his secret agent “Sjam.” Why did this pair fire up Untung to act? Did they discover a genuine plot among the generals? Or was Sjam a double agent?

Recent work by scholars John Roosa and Taomo Zhou in US and Chinese diplomatic archives show the army and the PKI each waiting for the other to strike first. Untung gave the army its excuse. As Australian scholar Jess Melvin notes in this elegantly written new book, based on her prize-winning doctoral thesis: “It is hard to imagine the military could have come up with a more perfect sequence of events if it had tried.”

Melvin doesn’t reveal the innermost mystery of 1 October 1965. But through 3000 pages of top-secret documents she found while researching in post-tsunami Aceh, she has exposed the army’s plotting before, during and after the Untung move. Her trove includes the year-end report for 1965 by the Aceh region military commander, Brigadier General Ishak Djuarsa. It details how civilian death squads were formed ahead of 1 October and launched soon afterwards against Aceh’s PKI rank and file and Beijing-aligned ethnic Chinese. Djuarsa was acting on orders passed down the army command to “exterminate to the roots” the communist base. It is a powerful addition to our knowledge about the 1965–66 events.

By year’s end, Djuarsa reported 1941 cases of public killings to army headquarters. Soldiers carried out many of the killings, though Melvin writes that “the actual act of killing would be delegated as far down the chain of command as possible.” Djuarsa, touring Aceh’s towns from 7 October, stirred civilians, telling them that if they did not participate in the killings, they could expect to be punished or even killed themselves. He reported that, after hearing him speak in town squares, “the people of Aceh straight away moved to exterminate the PKI.”

Melvin has also collected harrowing accounts from survivors and perpetrators. In Takengon, in the coffee-growing highlands, PKI suspects were confined in local halls, then taken out at night, sacks over their heads and hands bound, to isolated sites, where they were shot or slashed, their bodies pushed down the mountainside. A witness named Kadir saw the execution of Sambami, the wife of a doctor, who was shot clutching her newborn: “The bullet passed through the body of the child and then into Sambami. They died together, Sambami screaming for her child.” As for the perpetrators Melvin interviewed, “their greatest regret was that they had not received more recognition for their actions.” Melvin’s documentation destroys the argument that the killings were beyond the control of the army, or were at all spontaneous.

A central question arising from the book is: how typical was Aceh? Melvin shows convincingly that the army called the shots throughout. Because of the army’s frontline status in Sukarno’s “Crush Malaysia” campaign, and the PKI’s local passivity, military commanders were able to put plans into operation as soon as Suharto telegrammed news of the Untung “coup” on 1 October. Elsewhere in Indonesia, similar operations had differing timelines. In Central Java, Suharto had first to quell garrisons that came out for Untung by sending in the army’s RPKAD special forces (now known as Kopassus). These commandos then instructed local Muslim, Christian and nationalist organisations on how to carry out mass killings. In late 1965 and early 1966, this built into an outbreak of mass murder that choked rivers and filled ravines with bodies, extending to East Java and Bali.

Another question hangs over the use of the word “genocide” for the killings. The 1965–66 army operation aimed to “exterminate to the roots,” and Melvin argues that the designation of the PKI as “atheist” makes it a protected religious group under the 1948 convention – and Indonesia’s complicity subject to international criminal jurisdiction. She is not alone in applying the term. On the fiftieth anniversary of Untung’s putsch, former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans called the slaughter “the least studied and least talked-about political genocide of the last century.”

As this grim anniversary approached, I was back in Indonesia, and it appeared the nation was at last starting to talk about it. Survivor groups were agitating for redress. A mayor in Sulawesi erected a memorial at a local killing site. The magazine Tempo published a book-length report; scholars such as Baskara T. Wardaya detailed accounts of mass killings, torture, imprisonment and rape; Joshua Oppenheimer’s award-winning documentary The Act of Killing was widely viewed.

The new president, Joko Widodo, promised a full inquiry, and in April 2016 his government sponsored a “National Symposium on the 1965 Tragedy.” However, his top security minister, Luhut Panjaitan, a former Kopassus general, disputed that large numbers were killed and asked where the mass graves were to prove it. A claque of retired generals and Muslim hotheads protested against further inquiries outside the presidential palace.

Today, activists trying to excavate suspected gravesites are still harried by local security agents. Ultranationalist preman (vigilantes) break up PKI survivor meetings. Army commanders and Muslim groups declare communism is somehow still a threat in consumerist Indonesia. As president, Widodo attends the annual commemoration at the Crocodile Hole, where the museum still shows schoolchildren the army’s false story of 1 October. Suharto’s New Order is still alive.

The term “genocide” can get backs up rather than encourage openness. Melvin thinks Washington, London and Canberra “have been able to escape scrutiny for their own roles in this atrocity” and should open their intelligence files on the events. “It is farcical to believe the Indonesian state will spontaneously initiate a meaningful truth-seeking, let alone justice-seeking, investigation into these dark events without serious pressure being applied,” she writes. She is right: for now, the truth only trickles out and the record further darkens.

Hamish McDonald


AFA2 Trump in Asia

This is a book review from Australian Foreign Affairs 2: Trump in Asia. To read the full issue subscribe or buy the issue.