1965-66 & Today’s Indonesia

John Roosa, Professor of History at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and a well-known scholar on South East Asia. He is a member of Inside Indonesia’s editorial team and the author of Pretext for Mass Murder: The September 30th Movement and Suharto’s Coup d’État in Indonesia (2006). He is coeditor of The Year that Never Ended: Understanding the Experiences of the Victims of 1965: Oral History Essays (Jakarta: Elsam, 2004). Prof. Rossa recently communicated with Answer Styannes of our editorial team.

Answer Styannes (AS): Your book, Pretext for Mass Murder, offers an alternative explanation on what actually happened from the 30th of September to the
1st of October 1965. Unlike the version of the story spread by Suharto, you do not believe that the 30th of September movement was the responsibility of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).

John Roosa (JR): My argument as to who was responsible for the September 30th Movement is based on a critical evaluation of the entire corpus of existing documentation on the movement and oral interviews with a number of people who were either involved in it or had direct knowledge of it. The chain of reasoning presented in the book culminates in the conclusion that the chairman of the PKI and a select handful of Politburo members – not even the full Politburo – were the leaders of the movement. They believed, however, that their allies in the military would be able to organize a military action on their own; they saw themselves as merely the political advisors to “progressive revolutionary” officers. The dual structure of the movement’s leadership, the split between the PKI leaders and the military officers, combined with the lack of clear communication between the two sides, resulted in a strange action on October 1, 1965, that was highly vulnerable to counterattack. The transcript of the conversation between Aidit and Mao on August 5, 1965, recently discovered by Chinese historians, is confirmation of the argument I presented in Pretext for Mass Murder. Suharto’s army blamed the millions of party supporters and sympathizers for being complicit in this small-scale conspiratorial action that they knew nothing about. Suharto and his generals wanted some kind of justification, no matter how flimsy, for repressing the PKI and overthrowing Sukarno, who had become, in their opinion, too close to the PKI.

AS: The anti-communist purge has often been called the worst atrocity in Indonesia’s history. How do you think the purge has affected Indonesian society?

JR: The repression of the PKI was particularly traumatic. It was not just a matter of mass arrests

and incarceration without trial. It involved mass killing in villages and towns throughout the country. And those killings were usually not ones committed in public, where the identities of the killers and the killed could be known by the public. Most of the killings were disappearances. Detainees were taken out at night in batches and trucked to remote fields, forests, riverbanks, beaches, and bridges, where they were executed. Hundreds of thousands of people – we have no idea of the exact number – just disappeared. Their loved ones were not informed as to what had happened to them.

This kind of terror was unprecedented in Indonesian history. Neither the Dutch nor the Japanese colonial states ever massacred so many people in the archipelago. General Suharto was responsible for these massacres, largely of peasants and workers, that were meant to benefit a small elite of the country and Western investors, such as the companies involved in oil (e.g. Caltex and Shell), mining (e.g. Freeport), and plantations (e.g. Goodyear). Suharto sold off the country’s resources for cheap without building a strong state infrastructure to manage the economy.

I think the difference between pre and post-1965 Indonesia is so great that the country might as well change its name. In building an army dictatorship mortgaged to Western capital, Suharto killed off the ideas of a whole generation of nationalists who fought against the Dutch imperialists. [The year] 1965 introduces a fundamental discontinuity in Indonesian history. One can’t just treat such traumatic violence, to which even the perpetrators perpetually return, as another event in the timeline of national history.

AS: In the last few years, many studies, books, and documentaries, detailing and analysing Indonesia’s anti-communist purge in the ‘60s, have been released. Pretext for Mass Murder is one such, and the recent documentary The Act of Killing is another. Are there changes in how Indonesians think of the issue today – after the release of such studies and documentaries?

JR: The increase in writings and films about the violence of 1965-66 has certainly had a positive effect. For those who want to know and have access to books, magazines, and films, much more information is now available. But the prejudices ingrained for 32 years do not change quickly. Knowing these prejudices, many victims, when speaking to the public, have insisted that they had nothing to do with the PKI and that they had become victims in 1965-66 because of some personal feud or administrative mistake. Even those who were committed communists before 1965 want to pass themselves off as apolitical bystanders who just so happened to become victims. The result is that many Indonesians continue to see the tragedy of the violence as lying in its lack of discrimination; the tragedy seems to be that many non-PKI people were victimized, as if the extra-judicial killing and long- term detention without trial of PKI members were legitimate. It has been hard to argue that these human rights violations are inexcusable.

The censorship still continues. The army’s territorial command (consisting of the Kodams, Korems, Kodims, etc.), an ill-defined, superfluous, and outdated institution for internal policing, still focuses on its original reason for existence: suppressing communism. The army continues to intimidate anyone who makes an issue of the 1965-66 violence. Human rights activists wishing to hold public discussions or openly conduct research on the violence are immediately treated as communists who want to revive the PKI.

AS: My grandfather, who lived in Pekalongan, was killed in the ‘60s due to his association with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). Yet, my mother was very reluctant to speak about it until recently. It was almost like an embarrassment for her to be an anak PKI (the daughter/son of PKI members). I am aware that, as part of your study, you met and interviewed hundreds of survivors of the 1960s abuses in early 2000, only 2 years after reformasi, when discussion on the anti-communist purge was not as open as today. How did you convince them to speak up?

JR: We didn’t try to convince anyone to speak up. If a person didn’t want to be interviewed by us, we didn’t try to convince them to be interviewed. We understand

that people have many reasons for keeping quiet. We found that many ex-political prisoners didn’t want their name to be publicized for fear of the repercussions on their family members. Many of them had relatives who had managed to get government jobs and they feared their relatives would be fired in retaliation. The ‘cleanliness’ laws of the early 1980s allowed the government to dismiss public sector employees just for having a family member who had been a political prisoner.

In some ways the 2000-2002 period was just as free as today, if not freer. The mass movement of 1998, especially the militant student demonstrations against the military, really spooked the political establishment. And then the referendum in East Timor in 1999. The military generals were quite confused and anxious in those years.

AS: There were many other gross human rights abuses that took place during the New Order regime, but due to their secretive nature and the oppressive character of Suharto’s administration, it is difficult to gather more information and to convince the public that these abuses indeed happened. Take the example of abuses in the Central Highlands of West Papua in 1977-79. In that case, human rights workers have to rely on statements and recollections of survivors and witnesses. As a historian, what do you think are the values of such statements and recollections?

JR: Those statements are very valuable. Each one should not be taken at face value. One has to put together different statements, preferably by a variety of people interviewed separately, and reconstruct the basic outlines of each event. Oral sources are, of course, unreliable, but then many written sources are unreliable too. Moreover, many written sources, such as newspaper reports, are themselves constructed from oral sources.

AS: In 2012, the Indonesian Coordinating Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Minister Djoko Suyanto told the media that the mass killings of the ‘communists’ in the ‘60s were justified. It has been over 40 years since the abuses took place, more than 20 years since the Cold War ended, and 16 years since reformasi. Why is the Indonesian government still reluctant to talk about and apologise for what happened in the ‘60s

JR: I think there are a variety of reasons for the continuing refusal to open up a discussion about the
1965-66 violence, much less hold a truth commission about it. One reason is that officers like Suyanto, drilled in Suharto-era propaganda, are not sure what happened, and are worried that any open discussion will reveal the inconsistencies in the stories of the perpetrators. The Suharto regime was silent on the killings and never issued a clear official story; there was no party line. The default position which Suyanto knows is to claim that civilians did the killings on their own, outside of army control. But he also knows that many of the civilian militias who did the killing have stories about how they followed the army’s lead. Deep down, both the military and civilian perpetrators know that the killings were unjustifiable atrocities. All along, they have not wanted people to question their claim that “it was a time of kill or be killed.” They have not wanted people to investigate precisely what happened.

AS: The argument often put on the table by the government, as well as those who do not support the legal and reconciliation processes of the anti- communist purge and other gross human rights violations that took place in the past, is that there is no use of looking back, and that we should focus only to the future, to the development of the country. What do you say to those who believe so?

JR: If only the past really was in the past. In the case of the violence of 1965-66, it is very much with us in the present. One can hardly understand the political economy and the culture of contemporary Indonesia without reference to that violence. Few Indonesians even have a good grasp of what happened and they are already being told to forget about it. We hardly know what we are supposed to forget.

The people who would like to consign the violence to the past are being hypocritical. They just want the victims to be quiet. If they were consistent in that position then they would also call for an end to the state propaganda about the 1965-66 events. One

side has been speaking non-stop in the most vulgar, vicious, and mendacious manner; the other side peeps up for a moment and is told just to forget all about it. The advocates of forgetting haven’t called for the monument to the seven army officers killed by the September 30th Movement, with its falsified history carved into metal on the bas-relief, to be taken down. They haven’t called for the Museum of the PKI’s Treason to be shut down.

AS: In your article, “The Truths of Torture”, you argue that torture was practised by the Indonesian military against so-called PKI members in order to fulfill their “fantasy” on the mass uprising plotted by the party. Now Suharto has gone, the New Order has crumbled, yet torture perpetrated by the military
– and now the police too – remains. Do you think the torture perpetrated by the military under Suharto regime has any relationship with that practised today?

JR: Having practiced torture as standard operating procedure on such a mass scale in 1965-68, the Indonesian military has developed a sense of entitlement: officers think they have the right to torture Indonesians. Just consider what a presidential candidate said last week during the debate with his rival candidate. Prabowo, a former army general, admitted to having ‘disappeared’ prisoners in 1998 and claimed that it was to defend society against bomb-making terrorists. The survivors of that operation, such as Nezar Patria, have reported the torture that they and their fellow prisoners experienced. No one has been punished for those cases of torture and disappearances, which, of course, cannot be justified in the name of security. Their arrests and detentions can be justified but not their torture and disappearance. Prabowo’s “punishment” was an honourable discharge from the army. And now he’s back running for president as the candidate who is “tough” (tegas). Even the retired generals who have been criticizing Prabowo, such as Agum Gumelar, haven’t called for any accountability for the tortures and disappearances for which he was responsible. If the prisoners were killed, then Prabowo should have to reveal the location of the corpses.

AS: One of the aspects of the 60s abuses, often highlighted, is the involvement of the United States, which is also discussed in a separate chapter in your book. In your view, what is the least and the best the United States’ current administration should do in order to address the damage they have caused to many Indonesians?

JR: First, the United States government should follow the call by Senator Mark Udall (D-Colorado) to declassify all of the US government records pertaining to the events in Indonesia in 1965-66. Udall issued the call earlier this year after watching the film The Act of Killing. He arranged for it to be screened at the Library of Congress. The CIA’s records, for instance, on the events, have not been completely declassified. Secondly, the US government should hold its own version of a truth commission about its involvement in the events, thereby setting a good example for the Indonesian government to follow. Such a commission should include an examination of the torture and killing of workers at US-owned businesses.

AS: The Presidential Election is approaching so I just have to ask you this: are you confident that there is hope for legal and reconciliation processes for the abuses in the ‘60s under the new administration, whether it is led by Joko Widodo or Prabowo?

JR: I think there will be some progress if Joko Widodo becomes President. At the very least, we can expect that he support [sic] the victims when they speak up and defend the rights of human rights activists to hold public forums. Under Prabowo, we can expect celebrations of Suharto as a national hero and the continued suppression of all forms of dissent.

AS: Thank you very much for your time and valuable insight. Will we see any more studies on the ‘60s abuses or on Indonesia from you anytime soon?

JR: Yes. My colleagues and I have a large number of articles and books that we’re working on. At least some of them will appear before the 50th anniversary of the start of Suharto’s murderous takeover, in October 2015.