The Touchy Historiography of Indonesia’s 1965 Mass Killings: Intractable Blockades?

By Bernd Schaefer

The violence of 1965–66 is both a domestic and an international issue. It cannot just be reduced to the fact that Indonesians were killing Indonesians, and therefore labelled an Indonesian affair and an Indonesian tragedy. That is only part of the story. It is also an international story: many countries bear responsibility, particularly the United States and its various allies at that time, first and foremost the United Kingdom, but also Australia, West Germany, Canada, France, and others.


Can there be a Truth Commission on 1965?

The following section will discuss the major intractable barriers that currently stand in the way of an Indonesian truth commission and then try to address them from the perspective of what a truth commission might do. It would have to take the form of a historical commission because many witnesses, actors, and perpetrators are no longer with us, so a truth and reconciliation commission (which is usually formed pretty close to the actual events) would be more difficult. A historical commission is not directly related to the actual date of the events in question and can potentially establish a wider scope.

The intractable barriers begin with access to information. To do something substantial on this issue, Indonesian archival records from the period are needed, but these archives are not being opened. Elite groups block access to ensure that Indonesian files are not open to research—even though they are available in the archives, and some Indonesian archivists would be willing to share them. Another issue is the Chinese files, which would provide valuable information to understand the 1965 events more fully.

If there was a commission to address these events, it should seek a broad scope so as to prevent either side from dismissing the inquiry. This means a commission should look into the period of 1963–65, the last two and a half years of Sukarno’s time in power, and the policies of those years. Consequently, it could examine in detail those two very fateful days in 1965, 30 September and 1 October. After 2 October, the military seized power, which led to the formation of a military dictatorship. Beyond that, there are the atrocities committed over more than a year and the systematic massacres, the total victims of which we still do not have precise numbers, but which were likely between five hundred thousand and a million.

Each of these periods is important. The period between 1963 and 1965 establishes the international context—the
extent to which Indonesia was at the crossroads of the Cold War, and why the events of 1965 became an international issue. This was a period in which for the first and only time the Indonesian government, in alliance with China, was a global player with a clear political and ideological agenda. It had a huge communist party, the world’s third-largest (after the Soviet and Chinese parties) in terms of membership, with hopes of succeeding Sukarno in power. Meanwhile, the Indonesian army was also waiting to determine the post-Sukarno future. While Sukarno was still in power, numerous international events made Indonesia a country of focus for the United States in particular and for its Western allies in general. Sukarno was believed to be seeking a close alliance with China and trying to establish a third global centre of geopolitical gravity alongside the Western world and the Soviet bloc. This putative third bloc was essentially the anti-Soviet communist bloc, led by China, seeking other Asian governments as allies. The PKI was very much in the Chinese camp, which turned out to be one of its greatest strategic mistakes. In this period Sukarno’s policies increasingly antagonized the West, starting a conflict with Malaysia and its British allies. China and Indonesia also moved towards an alliance, a horrifying prospect for the United States. These years are vital if we are to understand what followed.

After the fateful days of 30 September and 1 October, the army took power, initiating a series of massacres. Western governments’ archival files from the time, and even Western media reports, hailed the military takeover as the biggest Cold War success of the Western camp because it succeeded in transforming Indonesia from its previous pro-communist leanings to a pro-Western orientation, thereby laying the groundwork for the permanent eradication of the PKI and thus any prospect of communism coming to power. Many confidential documents from Western sources reveal a concern that after Suharto established his regime in October he might fail to seize this great “opportunity” to destroy the Communist Party. Indeed, there were concerns that the army did not kill enough
communists, and that Suharto might not deliver the final blow to the PKI. Of course this is a case of stunning international complicity, actively supported by US, British, and other intelligence forces. This international complicity is a vital part of the story.

The question is whether there is a chance to establish a commission, which must be primarily Indonesian. This cannot be imposed from the outside, although foreigners may consult or be involved in some marginal way. If a commission broadened its scope by looking into the events in their context, rather than leaving things out on the grounds that it might offend one side, and if it was able to consult Indonesian archival records, it could address the conspiracy theories that still abound in Indonesia about the roles of Sukarno and Suharto, Chinese and Soviet involvement, and American agency. This is a huge challenge, one that begins with the co-operation of Indonesian elites and those in the still-powerful Indonesian army.

Otherwise, we risk being stuck in the situation where there are meetings of survivors, where there is internal discussion, but those who take part in it are in danger of reprisals. International involvement could help reduce that danger. One thing is certain: only the recognition of historic facts and truly sincere respect for the suffering and dignity of countless Indonesians will beget understanding and, perhaps, steps toward reconciliation.

Excerpted from Flowers in the Wall: Truth and Reconciliation in Timor-Leste, Indonesia and Melanesia. Click here to download the full chapter via University of Calgary Press.