During about five months, from late October 1965 until March 1966, approximately half a million members of the Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, PKI) were killed by army units and anticommunist militias. At the time of its destruction, the PKI was the largest communist party in the non-communist world and was a major contender for power in Indonesia. President Sukarno's Guided Democracy had maintained an uneasy balance between the PKI and its leftist allies on one hand and a conservative coalition of military, religious, and liberal groups, presided over by Sukarno, on the other. Sukarno was a spellbinding orator and an accomplished ideologist, having woven the Indonesia's principal rival ideologies into an eclectic formula called NASAKOM (nationalism, religion, communism), but he was ailing, and there was a widespread feeling that either the communists or their opponents would soon seize power.
The catalyst for the killings was a coup in Jakarta, undertaken by the September 30 Movement, but actually carried out on October 1, 1965. Although many aspects of the coup remain uncertain, it appears to have been the work of junior army officers and a special bureau of the PKI answering to the party chairman, D. N. Aidit. The aim of the coup was to forestall a predicted military coup planned for Armed Forces Day (October 5) by kidnapping the senior generals believed to be the rival coup plotters. After some of the generals were killed in botched kidnapping attempts, however, and after Sukarno refused to support the September 30 Movement, its leaders went further than previously planned and attempted to seize power. They were unprepared for such a drastic action, however, and the takeover attempt was defeated within twenty-four hours by the senior surviving general, Suharto, who was commander of the Army's Strategic Reserve, KOSTRAD.
There was no clear proof at the time that the coup had been the work of the PKI. Party involvement was suggested by the presence of Aidit at the plotters' headquarters in Halim Airforce Base, just south of Jakarta, and by the involvement of members of the communistaffiliated People's Youth (Pemuda Rakyat) in some of the operations, but the public pronouncements and activities of the September 30 Movement gave it the appearance of being an internal army movement. Nonetheless, for many observers it seemed likely that the party was behind the coup. In 1950 the PKI had explicitly abandoned revolutionary war in favor of a peaceful path to power through parliament and elections. This strategy had been thwarted in 1957, when Sukarno suspended parliamentary rule and began to construct his Guided Democracy, which emphasized balance and cooperation between the diverse ideological streams present in Indonesia.
The PKI, however, had recovered to become a dominant ideological stream. Leftist ideological statements permeated the public rhetoric of Guided Democracy, and the party appeared to be by far the largest and best-organized political movement in the country. Its influence not only encompassed the poor and disadvantaged but also extended well into military and civilian elites, which appreciated the party's nationalism and populism, its reputation for incorruptibility, and its potential as a channel of access to power. Yet the party had many enemies. Throughout Indonesia, the PKI had chosen sides in long-standing local conflicts and in so doing had inherited ancient enmities. It was also loathed by many in the army for its involvement in the 1948 Madiun Affair, a revolt against the Indonesian Republic during the war of independence against the Dutch. Although the party had many sympathizers in the armed forces and in the bureaucracy, it controlled no government departments and, more important, had no reliable access to weapons. Thus, although there were observers who believed that the ideological élan of the party and its strong mass base would sweep it peacefully into power after Sukarno, others saw the party as highly vulnerable to army repression. A preemptive strike against the anticommunist high command of the army appeared to be an attractive strategy, and indeed it seems that this was the path chosen by Aidit, who appears to have been acting on his own and without reference to other members of the party leadership.
In fact, the military opponents of the PKI had been hoping for some time that the communists would launch an abortive coup, believing that this would provide a pretext for suppressing the party. The September 30 Movement therefore played into their hands. There is evidence that Suharto knew in advance that a plot was afoot, but there is neither evidence nor a plausible account to support the theory, sometimes aired, that the coup was an intelligence operation by Suharto to eliminate his fellow generals and compromise the PKI. Rather, Suharto and other conservative generals were ready to make the most of the opportunity which Aidit and the September 30 Movement provided.
The army's strategy was to portray the coup as an act of consummate wickedness and as part of a broader PKI plan to seize power. Within days, military propagandists had reshaped the name of the September 30 Movement to construct the acronym GESTAPU, with its connotations of the ruthless evil of the Gestapo. They concocted a story that the kidnapped generals had been tortured and sexually mutilated by communist women before being executed, and they portrayed the killings of October 1 as only a prelude to a planned nationwide purge of anticommunists by PKI members and supporters. In lurid accounts, PKI members were alleged to have dug countless holes so as to be ready to receive the bodies of their enemies. They were also accused of having been trained in the techniques of torture, mutilation, and murder. The engagement of the PKI as an institution in the September 30 Movement
In this context, the army began a purge of the PKI from Indonesian society. PKI offices were raided, ransacked, and burned. Communists and leftists were purged from government departments and private associations. Leftist organizations and leftist branches of larger organizations dissolved themselves. Within about two weeks of the suppression of the coup, the killing of communists began.
Remarkably few accounts of the killings were written at the time, and the long era of military-dominated government that followed in Indonesia militated against further reporting. The destruction of the PKI was greeted enthusiastically by the West, with Time magazine describing it as "The West's best news for years in Asia," and there was no international pressure on the military to halt or limit the killings. After the fall of Suharto in 1998, there was some attempt to begin investigation of the massacres, but these efforts were hampered by continuing official and unofficial anticommunism and by the pressure to investigate more recent human rights abuses. President Abdurrahman Wahid (1999001) apologized for the killings on behalf of his orthodox Muslim association, Nahdlatul Ulama, but many Indonesians continued to regard the massacres as warranted. As a result, much remains unknown about the killings.
Many analyses of the massacres have stressed the role of ordinary Indonesians in killing their communist neighbors. These accounts have pointed to the fact that anticommunism became a manifestation of older and deeper religious, ethnic, cultural, and class antagonisms. Political hostilities reinforced and were reinforced by more ancient enmities. Particularly in East Java, the initiative for some killing came from local Muslim leaders determined to extirpate an enemy whom they saw as infidel. Also important was the opaque political atmosphere of late Guided Democracy. Indonesia's economy was in serious decline, poverty was widespread, basic necessities were in short supply, semi-political criminal gangs made life insecure in many regions, and political debate was conducted with a bewildering mixture of venom and camaraderie. With official and public news sources entirely unreliable, people depended on rumor, which both sharpened antagonisms and exacerbated uncertainty. In these circumstances, the military's expert labeling of the PKI as the culprit in the events of October 1, and as the planner of still worse crimes, unleashed a wave of mass retaliation against the communists in which the common rhetoric was one of "them or us."
Accounts of the killings that have emerged in recent years, however, have indicated that the military played a key role in the killings in almost all regions. In broad terms, the massacres took place according to two patterns. In Central Java and parts of Flores and West Java, the killings took place as almost pure military operations. Army units, especially those of the elite para-commando regiment RPKAD, commanded by Sarwo Edhie, swept through district after district arresting communists on the basis of information provided by local authorities and executing them on the spot. In Central Java, some villages were wholly PKI and attempted to resist the military, but they were defeated and all or most villagers were massacred. In a few regionsotably Bali and East Javaivilian militias, drawn from religious groups (Muslim in East Java, Hindu in Bali, Christian in some other regions) but armed, trained, and authorized by the army, carried out raids themselves. Rarely did militias carry out massacres without explicit army approval and encouragement.
More common was a pattern in which party members and other leftists were first detained. They were held in police stations, army camps, former schools or factories, and improvised camps. There they were interrogated for information and to obtain confessions before being taken away in batches to be executed, either by soldiers or by civilian militia recruited for the purpose. Most of the victims were killed with machetes or iron bars.
The killings peaked at different times in different regions. The majority of killings in Central Java were over by December 1965, while killings in Bali and in parts of Sumatra took place mainly in early 1966. Although the most intense of the killings were over by mid-March 1966, sporadic executions took place in most regions until at least 1970, and there were major military operations against alleged communist underground movements in West Kalimantan, Purwodadi (Central Java), and South Blitar (East Java) from 1967 to 1969.
It is generally believed that the killings were most intense in Central and East Java, where they were fueled by religious tensions between santri (orthodox Muslims) and abangan (followers of a syncretic local Islam heavily influenced by pre-Islamic belief and practice). In Bali, class and religious tensions were strong; and in North Sumatra, the military managers of state-owned plantations had a special interest in destroying the power of the communist plantation workers' unions. There were pockets of intense killing, however, in other regions. The total number of victims to the end of 1969 is impossible to estimate reliably, but many scholars accept a figure of about 500,000. The highest estimate is 3,000,000.
Aidit, who went underground immediately after the failure of the coup, was captured and summarily executed, as were several other party leaders. Others, together with the military leaders of the September 30 Movement, were tried in special military tribunals and condemned to death. Most were executed soon afterward, but a few were held for longer periods, and the New Order periodically announced further executions. A few remained in jail in 1998 and were released by Suharto's successor, President B. J. Habibie.
It is important to note that Chinese Indonesians were not, for the most part, a significant group among the victims. Although Chinese have repeatedly been the target of violence in independent Indonesia, and although there are several reports of Chinese shops and houses being looted between 1965 and 1966, the vast majority of Chinese were not politically engaged and were expressly excluded from the massacres of communists in most regions.
Outside the capital, Jakarta, the army used local informants and captured party documents to identify its victims. At the highest level, however, the military also used information provided by United States intelligence sources to identify some thousands of people to be purged. Although the lists provided by the United States have not been released, it is likely that they included both known PKI leaders and others whom the American authorities believed to be agents of communist
Alongside the massacres, the army detained leftists on a massive scale. According to official figures, between 600,000 and 750,000 people passed through detention camps for at least short periods after 1965, though some estimates are as high as 1,500,000. These detentions were partly adjunct to the killingsictims were detained prior to execution or were held for years as an alternative to executionut the detainees were also used as a cheap source of labor for local military authorities. Sexual abuse of female detainees was common, as was the extortion of financial contributions from detainees and their families. Detainees with clear links to the PKI were dispatched to the island of Buru, in eastern Indonesia, where they were used to construct new agricultural settlements. Most detainees were released by 1978, following international pressure.
Even after 1978, the regime continued to discriminate against former detainees and their families. Former detainees commonly had to report to the authorities at fixed intervals (providing opportunities for extortion). A certificate of non-involvement in the 1965 coup was required for government employment or employment in education, entertainment, or strategic industries. From the early 1990s, employees in these categories were required to be "environmentally clean," meaning that even family members of detainees born after 1965 were excluded from many jobs, and their children faced harassment in school. A ban on such people being elected to the legislature was lifted only in 2004. A ban on the teaching of Marxism-Leninism remains in place.
Although the 1948 United Nations Convention on Genocide does not acknowledge political victims as victims of genocide, the Indonesian case indicates that the distinction between victims defined by "national, ethnical, racial, or religious" identity on the one hand and political victims on the other may be hard to sustain. Indonesian national identity is defined politically, rather than by ethnicity or religion, so that the communist victims of 1965 and after, constituting a different political vision of Indonesia from that of their enemies, may be said by some to have constituted a national group.
SEE ALSO East Timor; Kalimantan; West Papua, Indonesia (Irian Jaya)
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