This week marks 50 years since the worst massacre in Indonesia’s history, when six military officers were killed as part of an alleged leftist uprising, leading to a crackdown that killed at least 500,000 people. Thousands of intellectuals, teachers, union members, members of the women's movement and other civilians from all walks of life were harassed and killed as a result.
Unlike other mass killings in places like Rwanda and Cambodia, Indonesia has never made an attempt to explore what happened or hold those responsible accountable.
Critics say the time has come for the government to close that chapter, by opening its books. But not just the government in Jakarta -- advocates are also demanding the U.S. government let the public see its archives from the time period.
With Indonesian president Joko Widodo visiting Washington this month, a U.S. senator is preparing a resolution that would urge declassification. Supporters say this would not only bring to light U.S. involvement and responsibility, but also pile pressure on Indonesia to support victims through a truth commission.
Shedding light on 'virtually unknown' killings
Critics accuse the CIA and other spy agencies of tolerating, if not explicitly aiding, the murder of up to a million suspected communists in Indonesia during the Cold War.
“I think it can be shown that in the absence of support from those governments, and in a somewhat different international environment, the mass killings and incarceration would not have happened,” UCLA history professor Geoffrey Robinson said Wednesday in a talk at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) to coincide with the anniversary.
Amid this inaction and “long-term silence” in Indonesia, Robinson noted the mass slayings are “virtually unknown” outside the Southeast Asian country. This is despite a death toll rivaling that of genocides receiving far more attention, from Rwanda to Srebrenica.
“In their sweep and speed and their profound political implications,” he said, “the events of 1965-66 were comparable to some of the most notorious campaigns of mass killings and imprisonment in the postwar period.”
The resolution introduced by U.S. Senator Tom Udall this week urges Indonesia to create a truth and reconciliation commission to address the crimes committed during that period, and for the U.S. government to declassify and release relevant documents.
Professor Robinson mentioned three aspects of the anti-communist violence in Indonesia that diverged from some of the common patterns seen in other massacres. It was not driven by a supposed utopian dream, as in Pol Pot’s Cambodia. It did not erupt amid a broader war, which was the case in Bosnia. And it was not ethnic cleansing of the sort seen in Rwanda or the holocaust.
In some of the other genocides, survivors underwent a healing process that Robinson said has not been available to Indonesians because the government does not own up to its history. Long after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge, for instance, Cambodia is finally prosecuting perpetrators through an international tribunal. And after Hitler’s large-scale slaughters, Jews shared their stories and heavily shaped the narrative that has been remembered about the holocaust.
'Culture of silence'
By contrast, Amnesty International said Indonesians face harassment and threats if they try to “expose the mass crimes.”
“A chilling culture of silence has prevailed in Indonesia,” the rights group said in a statement timed for the 50-year anniversary.
That might be changing. Anton Alifandi, an Indonesian analyst at risk consultancy IHS, is not optimistic his country will apologize to survivors. But he said free speech has expanded since the 1998 ouster of President Suharto, the general who had led the anti-communist purge of the 1960s.
“People are now free to talk about it,” he told VOA after the SOAS talk. “There’s no official redress for victims, but in terms of airing their views, there’s no problem.”
Still, the victims’ side has been drowned out by the military, which remained dominant in the wake of the massacre. After using the threat of a communist takeover to kill suspected sympathizers, Robinson said, the military went on to control the media and textbooks to write its own history since 1965.
Commanders have been able to get away with this, he said, in part because they had broad public support during the mass killings. Civilian militia groups were responsible for part of the carnage, with the military directly inciting villagers to bear arms in some areas. In others, there was enough socioeconomic tension that villagers didn’t need much incitement, according to Elizabeth Pisani, author of Indonesia, Etc.
“The military was the spark plug, I think,” she said.
This week in Indonesia, President Joko Widodo confirmed the government has no intention of apologizing for the killings 50 years ago. In remarks to reporters, he said the country must ensure that it does not happen again.