Cracks in the Wall: Indonesia and Narratives of the 1965 Mass Violence

30 September and 1 October mark the anniversary of the Indonesian military’s seizure of power in Indonesia in 1965, which began an organized wave of killings by the Indonesian military and their supporters. To mark the anniversary of the killings and the ongoing campaign to tell the true story of what happened in 1965-66, we will share a series of resources, starting with Baskara Wardaya’s analysis of the different narratives in operation – on that seeks to silence, and one that seeks to break silences.

By Baskara T. Wardaya

If we were flowers
You were the wall
But in the wall we have planted seeds
One day we will grow together
With the conviction: you have to crumble
In our conviction
Everywhere tyranny has to crumble
—Wiji Thukul, “Bunga dan Tembok” (Flower and Wall)

When, in the early hours of 1 October 1965, six top Indonesian generals were abducted and killed in the capital city of Jakarta, most Indonesians were taken by surprise. Of course, the events did not come out of the blue. But thanks to the scarcity of media and the censorship that was soon imposed, it was difficult for the general public to monitor developments from one moment to the other. Only later did they learn that in addition to the generals who were violently murdered, a lieutenant was also killed, along with the daughter of one of the generals. Three of the generals were killed in their homes, while the other three were still alive when they were brought to the southern outskirts of the capital before eventually also being killed. Their bodies were then dumped in an unused well in a village called Lubang Buaya, not far from Jakarta.

As it was not immediately clear who actually masterminded these bloody events, a variety of information, rumours, and speculation circulated in the first days following the violence. One group, which called itself the September 30th Movement, claimed responsibility, declaring that its main intention was to save President Sukarno from a government takeover that they believed was about to be launched by a council of generals in the Indonesian National Army (TNI).  The September 30th Movement’s main members were three army officers—Lieutenant Colonel Untung, Colonel Abdul Latief, and Brigadier General Soepardjo—but others may have been directly or indirectly involved, including the top leaders—but not the rankand-file members—of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).

Before it was clear who was responsible for these killings, a group of army officers under the control of Major General Suharto—who was then the commander of the Indonesian army’s Strategic Command—declared that the PKI, the army’s political archrival, was the mastermind of the bloody events. Suharto and his group then waged a propaganda campaign saying that the PKI had not only plotted the kidnapping and killing, but also planned to launch a coup d’état and abandon the reigning political ideology of Pancasila (or Five Principles) in favour of “godless” communism. The propaganda campaign also spread the rumour that women members of the PKI mutilated the bodies of the generals while dancing erotically around their dead bodies.

Though it was at best half true, the campaign was effective in spreading anti-communist sentiment among Indonesians, especially on the islands of Java, Bali, and Sumatra (particularly North Sumatra). Under the leadership of Lieutenant General Sarwo Edhi Wibowo, of the army’s Special Forces Command (then known as RPKAD, now Kopassus), military units were dispatched from Jakarta to other parts of Java, Their goal was to transform anti-communist sentiment into collective violence against those accused of being members of the PKI or of being communist sympathizers. Under the provocation and coordination of army units, civilian groups apprehended, arrested, tortured, and killed those who were thought to have played a role in the killings of the generals in Jakarta—although most of them never personally set foot in the capital city.

The mass violence against alleged communists started in Central Java around the third week of October 1965. In November it spread to East Java, and in December similar violence took place on the island of Bali. The violence also occurred on a smaller scale in other parts of the country, continuing until 1968. In the end, it is estimated that somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million civilians were killed in the violence, mostly in the last three months of 1965. Many more were tortured, imprisoned, exiled, and discriminated against.

Beginning in early 1966, a phased takeover of national leadership took place in Jakarta, in which the left-leaning President Sukarno was gradually pushed from power. Slowly but surely he was replaced by none other than General Suharto. Suharto gave himself the responsibility not only of maintaining order, but of presiding over political matters as well. To this end, he made himself acting president and then, in 1967, president.

Suharto’s ascension to power was soon followed by militaristic and authoritarian-style government. Moreover, Suharto’s government implemented policies favourable to foreign investment. During Suharto’s presidency, many major Western corporations did business in Indonesia, exploiting the country’s rich natural resources and favourable market potential as one of the most populated nations on earth. Suharto would rule Indonesia for the next three decades, before he himself was pushed out of power in 1998 in the midst of social, economic, and political upheaval.

Viewed in a broader context, the gory events of 1 October 1965, and the mass violence that took place afterwards, were not simply a matter of crime and punishment. Realizing that the mass violence against suspected communists did not only involve mass killings but also torture, incarceration, destruction of property, exile, and even the revocation of citizenship, it was clear that the violence was more than a spontaneous act of revenge,
as was often claimed by the Suharto government.

Despite common claims, especially in the West, that the violence was part of the Indonesian custom of “running amok,” it was clear that the violence was actually carried out in stages, each of which involving planning, coordination, and control, especially by the army’s Special Forces Command. As historian John Roosa writes, “the typical pattern was for the victims to be detained first, taken out at night, trucked to an isolated spot in the countryside, shot, stabbed or bludgeoned to death, and then left in unmarked mass graves or dumped in a river. … Cold-blooded executions, not frenzied mob attacks, accounted for most of the deaths.” Such a pattern
in no way indicated that the acts of killing and torture were simply expression of spontaneous traditional customs. Douglas Kammen and Kate McGregor argue that attacks on the PKI were only the first stage of a plan to reorganize Indonesian society from the people-oriented and anti-foreign-investment regime of Sukarno to an elite-oriented society with close ties to Western business interests. In their words, the mass violence that spanned from the second half of 1965 to the end of 1968 was a “counter-revolution” that aimed “to curtail the mass mobilization and popular participation unleashed by the national revolution; to destroy the social bases of Sukarno’s left-leaning political system, called Guided Democracy; and to establish a new pro-Western military authoritarian regime.”

In a still broader context, the 1965 violence in Indonesia had strong international dimensions. Bradley Simpson, for instance, demonstrates that, more than just national political upheaval, the 1965 mass killings in Indonesia and their aftermath “were a form of efficacious terror, an indispensable prerequisite to the overthrow of Sukarno, to Indonesia’s reintegration into the regional political economy and international system, and to the ascendance of a modernizing military regime.” In Simpson’s words “the mass violence against the Indonesian Left … had a political and economic logic apparent to officials in London, Washington, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Moscow and elsewhere.”

Reprinted from Baskara Wardaya’s chapter in Flowers in the Wall. The chapter goes on to explore the clashing narratives of 1965 and popular efforts to bring the discussion out of the shadows. Click to download the entire chapter via University of Calgary Press free-book