It was late December 1965 when we on the way home had to stop near a bridge somewhere in Central Java and, to everyone’s shock, saw about 20 dead bodies floating on the river. Decades later, victims of massacres in Timor Leste were reportedly also left for the locals to see, and, in Aceh, journalists, including myself, had testified that at least one body of a tortured person had been presented in public.
The villagers kept silent. They understood they were being threatened – their families, friends and fellow villagers were eventually to be persecuted because they were on the “wrong side” of the political divide. The corpses were thus left to convey the unspoken message: Stay put or be killed.
What happened from 1965 to 1966 was somewhat similar, but much greater in scale. Detention, torture, forced disappearances and killings were rampant but never explained, as they were part of some mysterious plans. The message was simple: They must die.
John Roosa’s Buried Histories: The Anticommunist Massacres of 1965–1966 in Indonesiais a powerful book on those events – on how, that is, the Sept. 30, 1965 abortive coup of less than 48 hours had set in motion a genocide that changed the psyche and the identity of the nation.
The book describes what preceded the events, looks at the political parties, mass organizations and people involved, and shows the consequences of mass disappearances and the propaganda, hate and stigma that continue until today.
It was in the contest for state hegemony in the 1960s that President Sukarno’s project of revolutionary mass mobilization to unite the nation slowly failed amid the increasing competition and tension between the Army and the powerful Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).
Both camps were after the encroachment of state key apparatuses, expanded their networks or the masses and controlled some media. The revolutionary trajectory ultimately failed when Gen. Soeharto used the abortive coup as a pretext to destroy the PKI.
Mass disappearances and killings soon followed, thanks to the effective hate campaign driven by the Army-owned media almost immediately after the coup failed.
The state machine adopted the Army’s version of the coup, and the hate campaign started as early as Oct. 4. The so-called Mental Operation (Operasi Mental) provided guides on the interrogation and torture of alleged communists to produce “truth”. Many felt righteous when involved in acts of killing as a result of the “delusion” of defending their own life (“kill or to be killed”) or/and the nation.
The last five chapters of the book offer a detailed description of mass arrests, disappearances and killings in Riau, South Sumatra, Surakarta and Bali, and the Conclusion. The compelling stories may push the reader to reflect on the wounded psyche of the nation.
Not only the top Army command, but civilian figures, too, played a key role in Operasi Mental and supported Nahdlatul Ulama’s youth wing Ansor and other local militias in the killings. Each locality involved different conditions and different political configurations. But the author warns it would be a mistake to examine them primarily in terms of the local dynamic.
The local paradigm, Roosa argues, needs to be balanced with the early leading role of the Army top brass and local commanders throughout the archipelago. It’s there where one would find the masterminds and rationale when looking for responsibility for the genocide. As one Dutch activist put it (not quoted in this book): “It’s the Army, stupid!”
Like the Army, the PKI, too, had historically contributed to the intensified tensions and violence that ultimately led to the tragic climax with millions of deaths and suffering survivors.
Now, 55 years on, the tragedy has become the aib (shame) of the nation, because – and as long as – it remains unresolved. Critical studies and media reports since 1998 have had little impact on popular narratives. The greater part of society remains caught in the state’s formal thesis that should justify the killings.
National reconciliation will be painful but urgent. Any true reconciliation, South African bishop Desmond Tutu has argued, should be full and truthful; otherwise, it would be false and useless.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose father-in-law led the crackdown on the communists, seemed aware of it in his last term but failed to start a new initiative. His successor, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has promised to resolve nine human right cases, including the 1965 tragedy, but this, too, remains empty as he lacks the courage to follow through.
The April 2016, a symposium on national reconciliation initiated by Lt. Gen. (ret) Agus Widjojo, the son of a slain general in the Sept. 30, 1965 coup attempt, in which the survivors for the first time had spoken in a formal meeting, was greatly praised, but ultimately failed.
“We need a new humanitarian perspective,” Roosa concluded in a recent webinar on the need to change the popular narrative based on the bloody events of September 1965 and after, now dubbed “the narrative of normalized violence”, to a humanitarian perspective on mass violence.
*This article was published in The Jakarta Post, 3 October 2020.