Reconstructing the history of the anti-communist violence in East Java, Indonesia

Reconstructing the history of the anti-communist violence in East Java, Indonesia

On 30th September 1965, a group of army officers and soldiers called the Thirtieth September Movement abducted and killed seven army officers, and disposed of their bodies in a disused well, at Lubang Buaya, on the outskirts of Jakarta. While predominantly a movement of progressive soldiers and officers, the Thirtieth September Movement, as John Roosa has shown, did involve a small secretive section of the Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, PKI), the Special Bureau, and party chairman Aidit. The group had believed it was attempting to prevent an army coup against President Sukarno. Whether a coup was indeed on the horizon, the army’s response to these killings was decisive.

The then-chief of the Army Strategic Reserves Command, Major General Suharto seized upon the tenuous link between the Thirtieth September Movement and a small section of the PKI to begin an anti-communist suppression campaign from early October 1965. The PKI was, at that time, the world’s third largest communist party. Indonesian army officers were opposed to the PKI during Sukarno’s Guided Democracy (1959-65). To support the destruction of its erstwhile political rivals, the army and its institutions spread lies and conducted misinformation campaigns in 1965 onwards that have, according to sociologist Ariel Heryanto, come to be accepted as fact in Indonesia. These lies included that members of the leftist Gerwani (Gerakan Wanita Indonesia, Indonesian Women’s Movement) tortured and sexually mutilated the seven army men, and that communist youth gouged out the victims’ eyes. Communists were portrayed as atheists who planned to slaughter religious believers and who were immoral and sexually deviant. The army portrayed its activities as being the defence of the Pancasila, the state philosophy, from communist atheists. Today, in an age of increased awareness of political hoaxes, Heryanto has described Suharto’s New Order regime’s version of events at Lubang Buaya as perhaps the most powerful and destructive hoax in Indonesia’s postcolonial history.

When in 1968 Suharto officially replaced Sukarno as president, as Chief of the Armed Forces, Suharto had overseen operations that had consumed half a million lives and led to the detention, mostly without trial, of hundreds of thousands of members and sympathisers of the PKI. The New Order regime he inaugurated spoke little of this mass slaughter and political persecution. The victims were buried in mass graves, and thrown into rivers, wells, caves and the sea. Some disappeared from prisons and detention centres, never to be seen again.

As a person born in Indonesia at the height of the New Order, I was part of a generation that had had no knowledge of the killings. We were born into a world cleansed and traumatised by the violence, and by the defeat of a dream, however naïve it might have been, a dream that was shared by many Indonesians of a prosperous, advanced, and dignified nation. Our parents shielded us carefully from talk about relatives and friends who had been imprisoned or disappeared and warned us not to utter certain words like PKI or Gerwani. My generation was also that of the primary schoolchildren taken on an outing to view a new film, the now discredited crude propaganda movie, The Treachery of the Thirtieth September Movement/PKI. This frightening film became annual viewing on television until 1998 when the regime fell. My own later activism in Australia in the 1990s in support of the Indonesian democratic movement generated a curiosity within me to investigate the absence of a strong left movement in Indonesia. Having seen over time the corrosive effects of long years of covering up the truth, not least on those closest to me who are unable to mourn or recall happy memories of the mid-1960s, I was motivated to delve deeper into the events of 1965.

When the New Order collapsed in 1998, there was a flow of new research, oral history collections, public talks and seminars, art exhibitions, films and literature exploring the anti-communist violence, made possible by the creators approaching the survivors of this violence. New possibilities for research into 1965, dubbed by Heryanto as ‘the biggest hoax of all,’ emerged as a result of Indonesia’s democratisation. The book I went on to write aimed to challenge this version of events by conducting a study on the PKI in East Java (where I was born), a province where civilians also committed the violence, a fact that helped fuel the hoax that the anti-communist operations were a horizontal, people-to-people conflict. According to the army propaganda, the people spontaneously rose up to fight the Godless and dangerous communists.

Map of East Java (by Chandra Jayasuriyan)

In the 1960s, East Java was one of Indonesia’s poorest provinces. It was a politically mixed province and also constituted the heartland of the NU, Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation. I discuss in my book how the PKI built itself into a formidable force in the province. A distinguishing feature of East Java was the high degree of involvement of civilians in the killings and the size of the death toll. A paramilitary group linked to NU, the Multipurpose Brigades of the NU youth wing, Ansor carried out executions and round-ups of leftists with or for the army. It is estimated that some 200,000 were killed and 25,000 detained in this province. A key section of my book discusses how the violence was encouraged and sustained by the army and some religious leaders as told by narrators from different sides of politics; and in turn how perpetrators and those in ‘implicated’ communities of NU supporters in East Java made sense of their own involvement in, or eyewitnessing of, the violence.

The suppression of the Indonesian Left did not immediately lead to power being ceded to the army, however. Political scientist Vedi Hadiz has pointed out that it was ‘easy to forget’ that the process of establishing the New Order was ‘a rather long and drawn out process’. A protracted struggle ensued between President Sukarno, his supporters, and non-army sections of the Armed Forces on one hand, and on the other, those who welcomed a change of regime including some intellectuals, Muslim groups such as Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, and the army. Some of my interviewees who had avoided capture became politically active again as the killings subsided from early 1966 by joining the Sukarno Brigade, a body initiated by Prime Minister Subandrio to express support for Sukarno. My book examines how the power struggle affected the leftists in hiding or in detention, who were hoping for a swift end to the crisis.

The killings and imprisonment did not completely eradicate the PKI and its sympathisers. For this reason, my book was as much about the survival of those who journeyed into hiding and into detention, as well as the death of hundreds of thousands. In a country where the left movement had been strong, with the PKI claiming 20 million members (in a country of just over 120 million), the anti-communist drives could not have eradicated this movement in just a few months. Army reports of ‘underground PKI’ in 1966 to 1968 might have been exaggerated, but were not completely baseless. While open campaigns could be organised in support of Sukarno, the PKI carried out underground work to investigate ways of protecting what remained of its cadre base.

Although it has often been suggested that the PKI leaders abandoned the rank and file to their deaths, the PKI in fact reorganised and elected a new national leadership under Politburo member, Sudisman. The new leadership turned to the East Java branch in its efforts to identify a suitable hiding place and to explore the possibilities of building a resistance movement to Suharto. Through oral history interviews, those who went into hiding told me of how the party was being reorganised in the small towns of East Java, involving painstaking, slow journeys from villages into larger towns to find and make contact with leftist sympathisers. The establishment of the PKI’s South Blitar base constituted their most important attempt to regroup following the massacres.

But in Indonesia the spectre of anti-communism never went away as Heryanto has pointed out. Anti-communism has become ingrained through decades of propaganda. In addition, in the post-authoritarian era, no comprehensive package of policies and actions was ever enacted that signified Indonesia’s break with that authoritarian past. Now President Joko Widodo, the man who pledged in 2014 to tackle past human rights abuses including the 1965 case, seems to be turning back the clock. Last year, he participated in a public viewing of the propaganda film, Treachery of the Thirtieth of September Movement/PKI and told Detik media outlet that seeing the film ‘was important in order to know the dangers of communism and the PKI’. As the fifty-third anniversary of these massacres approaches, there have been calls, such as by former defence minister, Gatot Nurmantyo, for widespread public viewings of the film. While the New Order regime’s version of history has been partially exposed as a hoax, the struggle of Indonesians to generate a more truthful history continues, as well as the struggle to find the unmarked graves and to discover what happened to missing loved ones.


Featured image: Statues of three soldiers and a peasant woman at the Trisula monument, Bakung, Blitar District. The monument commemorates the anti-communist operations in 1968 in the area. Photo by Vannessa Hearman.

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