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Anniversary Indonesian Communist Party.png

Anniversary celebration for Indonesian Communist Party, Jakarta, 23 May 1965. President Sukarno appears at ease with PKI Secretary General DN Aidit. What happened to all those happy supporters? (AP Photo Photographer : Howard Sochurek,

1965 Today, 56 years after the Indonesian massacres

What to do with the dark pages of our history? There are many episodes in Indonesian history that are in dire need of rewriting and the anti-communist mass violence of 1965–1966 is one of these.The violence that killed half a million people stigmatized and discriminated against former members and sympathizers of the PKI(Partai Komunis Indonesia, Indonesian Communist Party) was taboo during Suharto's army-led regime.The advent of democracy since the fall of the NewOrderin1998 ushered in a new era for the tackling of historical injustices and human rights violations concerning the anti-communist violence. 


Hopes that the mass killing of alleged Leftists in 1965–1966 would be addressed reached their climax when Joko Widodo promised to address human rights issues in his first bid for presidency in 2014. Now, seven years on towards the end of his second presidential term, these hopes have vanished and the task of uncovering lost histories, achieving historical justice,

accountability,and rehabilitation falls once again onto victims, activists, artists,

and Academics. Over 20 years after the fall of Suharto in 1998, the urgency to revisit the discourse of the anti-communist massacres of 1965-66 continues to exist.


56 years after the Thirtieth of September Movement, the 1984 propaganda docudrama of “Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI” is still being broadcasted on some Indonesian television channels. For decades, the focal point of Indonesia’s historiography when it comes to the narrative of the Left is as follows:


On the 30th September several high-ranking generals of the Indonesian Army were kidnapped and assassinated. Prior to this, the PKI had been involved in the Madiun Affair of 1948, the period of Guided Democracy (1958–1965), as well as in the 1964–1965 land occupations in East Java which led to tension and violent clashes.

The involvement of a small group of PKI leaders in the Thirtieth Of

September Movement proved to be fatal for the Left.


The anti-communist massacres of 1965-66 that followed were a taboo topic during Soeharto’s New Order (1966-1998). In the aftermath of the massacres, the regime had built several monuments to maintain the narrative that these killings were justified because the government was protecting the state’s ideology. For instance,  the Trisula Monument was built to commemorate the operation in Blitar under the same name and served as a reminder of the PKI's alleged violence. In Unmarked Graves: Death and Survival in the Anti-Communist Violence in East Java, Indonesia, historian Vanessa Hearman states that PKI members were not the only casualties in this operation, but that civilians were also killed. 


After 1998, the narrative began to shift to the human rights violations in the context of anti-communist violence. Although some people still believe in the looming danger of communism and the official narrative of 1965 has never been truly challenged in the dominant public discourse, the historical injustices under the regime are being acknowledged by academics, intellectuals, and activists. The deaths of over an estimated 500,000 Indonesians in the anti-communist operation are increasingly being discussed and victims are beginning to have the courage to tell their experiences.


Promises to address human rights abuses, especially those that were perpetrated by the government, had been a recurring remark in Jokowi’s presidential campaigns of 2014. However, out of 17 cases of human rights violations, only 8 managed to be processed in court throughout his administration. Even then, it is debatable if those cases were given a proper conclusion. Once again, the 1965-66 massacres failed to be addressed in the public discourse.


Hearman provides detailed accounts of the victims’ experiences. Her focus on human agency makes insightful the crucial relationship between the army and its civilian allies in planning and carrying out the mass killings, particularly the involvement of the NU (Nahdlatul Ulama). It enables the reader to follow the life stories of a small group of people, into prison, into hiding, or towards the creation of new lives under new names and identities. 


Hearman’s approach also gives a face to several members of Gerwani (Gerakan Wanita Indonesia, Indonesian Women’s Movement). Gerwani is portrayed as a dynamic, progressive movement providing women with the opportunity to be part of public life working on issues like education and campaigning against underage marriage and polygamy. Giving people who have suffered and survived a name and a face is important in reclaiming their humanity. It is therefore significant to be able to read their names on a list in the back of the book, even though the majority still felt the necessity to speak under a pseudonym.


Indonesian school books continue to disregard the massacres and the narratives of the victims. The books just repeat politics – regime change was necessary for political stability. But the silence is broken in many other places: a lot of important work is being done by scholars, artists, activists, and activists that are also increasingly accessible to the public through social media and online presences. Justice and reconciliation for victims of the 1965-66 massacres however remains to be reached and official stories continue to permeate institutions within Indonesia. 56 years after the massacres, the urgency to rewrite the history of mass violence continues to exist.


Further reading:

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