“My wife was burnt alive in Kutaradja (now Banda Aceh) in the mid-1960s along with 11 members of Gerwani (woman association affiliated with the now-defunct Indonesian Communist Party PKI),” Tjut Husin Fatly told me.
The late Fatly – Pak Tjut as he was known among Indonesian exiles in the Netherlands – was one of the three founding members of PKI Aceh branch (1956). He left for China in 1964 so never knew exactly what happened.
That’s all he could tell when I met him at the residence of the Indonesian Ambassador in Wassenaar, the Netherlands amid, ironically, the celebration of Indonesia’s 60th independence day in 2005.
The truth is Mrs Fatly’s house was ransacked and burnt. She was later killed leaving her preschool-aged daughter in a camp. It was one of at least 1.941 cases of massacre, which Jess Melvin’s study has found in Aceh as part of the planned annihilation (Operasi Penumpasan) of communists.
The tragedy was among the earliest killings that occurred in the aftermath of the September 30 Movement (G30S) bloody actions at the early hours of October 1, 1965, in Jakarta. At least a half million were killed and hundreds of thousands incarcerated throughout the archipelago in what is now known as the Genocide of 1965. Studies have found that the killings were organized and carried out by the Army and its local allies.
Academic research have in the last decade made considerable progress on this subject. Chief among them: John Roosa’s Pretext for Mass Murder (2006) has unravelled what happened in October 1965 and concluded no single party was responsible for the G30S actions; and Geoffrey Robinson’s The Killing Season (2018) provides the most comprehensive account of the killings – when, where, how, why and what impact – throughout Indonesia.
Now Jess Melvin’s The Army and the Indonesian Genocide, Mechanic of Mass Murder (2018), focussing on Aceh, has been marked as “a game-changer”. She uses newly found archival sources to demonstrate that the Indonesian military was deeply engaged in planning and carrying out the mass murder of communist suspects.
The idea of the Army’s planning may not be a bombshell. It must have been assumed by many, but Melvin has for the first time been able to exactly pinpoint in details the killings as part of the centralised, nation-wide campaign; and explain how the authorities used the regional and local security structures to mobilize civil and military units down to the village level; and who along the chain of command in Jakarta and Aceh – Soeharto-J. Mokoginta-Ishak Djuarsa – were responsible for the killings.
This game-changing role is significant both for further study and in terms of its future implications. Most research generally assumed that the Army had cooperated with local Muslim leaders or manipulated them whereas the Army suggested that it responded to their “spontaneous uprising” to contain anger and help them crush the communists.
Melvin, however, argues on the basis of evidence that it’s truly a genocide since “the military leadership both possessed and acted upon an intent to destroy Indonesia’s communist group”. The latter should be defined as “an ideologically constituted (sub)national group” because the target was not only PKI members, but much larger groups that include religious (“Red Muslims”) and ethnic (Chinese) group.(p.289-290) Why pursue a genocide? “The military, after all, had been preparing to launch its own bid for state power on the back of just such a pretext event” i.e. the G30S murder of the generals.
Now, rather than just blaming whoever was to be blamed, Indonesia’s present generations need to see the narrative as a challenge to face and prepare to solve the nation’s political and moral burden by seeking the truth and fighting for justice.
Buru Island in Maluku and other camps and their documents are still there, many women and other victims still alive, forgotten exiles ready to testify, and foreign intelligence documents have been published. Yet, 53 years on, the powers-that-be remain unwilling to seek the truth.
None of the 2019 presidential hopefuls spoke at length about the great tragedy – although it’s a golden chance, indeed, to settle the issue once and for all, which President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo has promised.
For, Jess Melvin’s book, as also Geoffrey Robinson’s, ensures us that the victims of the massacres and incarceration are not statistics. They represent citizens i.e. our compatriots, fellow Indonesians, whose civil rights were destroyed for simple suspicion, the great majority of whom were innocent, legally OK, but happened to be politically on the ‘wrong’ side – something that seriously disturbs so many of today millennials.
For those born in 1990’s and after, it’s a serious matter to be resolved for the sake of the moral standing and future of the nation, therefore, no reconciliation would be worth it without revealing and acknowledging the full truth.
Memory is power. In Spain, seventy years after the bloody civil war (1936-1939), children and grandchildren of the kidnapped babies and exiled families were among the pioneers in search of mass graves, truth and reconciliation.
One intriguing question: Why is it that the Army, being a state apparatus who likes to portray itself as “the saviour of the nation”, was ready to formally and explicitly acknowledge its responsibility for the atrocities in East Timor (Indonesia-Timor Leste Truth and Friendship treaty 2008), but not for the mid-sixties killings?
Both Melvin’s and Robinson’s works thus deserve to be closely studied by everyone interested in the political history of the nation – indeed by both supporters of the Army false thesis, albeit with an open mind, and those who wish to advance the study of genocide.