The transition between Sukarno and Suharto was marked some of the worst episodes of violence in the 20th century and was a key event in the Cold War era. A period of mass killings were triggered by a failed uprising by Indonesian armed officers who kidnapped and executed six army generals beginning on the night of September 30, 1965, and continuing into the early hours of October 1. Afterwards then-General Suharto and other top commanders quashed the uprising, which they called an attempted coup orchestrated by the powerful Indonesian Communist Party. The period of instability was dramatized in the film “Year of Living Dangerously” with Mel Gibson and Sigorney Weaver. In a famous speech Sukarno used the term the “year of living dangerously” to exhort Indonesians to prepare for hard times ahead. Fourteen months after Sukarno’s famous the violence began.

Suharto was able to ease Sukarno off the scene with a minimum of bloodshed but then embarked on a ruthless campaign of bloodletting against 3 million Communists and suspecting leftists. An estimated 300,000 to 1 million Indonesians were killed. Even though Chinese were often the targets of the anti-Communist purges most of the deaths were indigenous Indonesians. The CIA called it "one of the worst massacres of the 20th century."

By 1965 Indonesia had become a dangerous cockpit of social and political antagonisms. The PKI's rapid growth aroused the hostility of Islamic groups and the military. The ABRI-PKI balancing act, which supported Sukarno's Guided Democracy regime, was going awry. One of the most serious points of contention was the PKI's desire to establish a "fifth force" of armed peasants and workers in conjunction with the four branches of the regular armed forces. Many officers were bitterly hostile, especially after Chinese premier Zhou Enlai offered to supply the "fifth force" with arms. By 1965 ABRI's highest ranks were divided into factions supporting Sukarno and the PKI and those opposed, the latter including ABRI chief of staff Nasution and Major General Suharto, commander of Kostrad. Sukarno's collapse at a speech and rumors that he was dying also added to the atmosphere of instability. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The circumstances surrounding the abortive coup d'état of September 30, 1965 — an event that led to Sukarno's displacement from power; a bloody purge of PKI members on Java, Bali, and elsewhere; and the rise of Suharto as architect of the New Order regime — remain shrouded in mystery and controversy. The official and generally accepted account is that procommunist military officers, calling themselves the September 30 Movement (Gestapu), attempted to seize power. Capturing the Indonesian state radio station on October 1, 1965, they announced that they had formed the Revolutionary Council and a cabinet in order to avert a coup d'état by corrupt generals who were allegedly in the pay of the United States Central Intelligence Agency. The coup perpetrators murdered five generals on the night of September 30 and fatally wounded Nasution's daughter in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate him. Contingents of the Diponegoro Division, based in Jawa Tengah Province, rallied in support of the September 30 Movement. Communist officials in various parts of Java also expressed their support. *

Book: “The Year of Living Dangerously” by C.J. Koch. Film: “The Year of Living Dangerously, with Mel Gibson, is one of the few Western films set in Indonesia. This movie takes place during Suharto’s rise to power in 1966.

Events Before the 1965 Coup

Tensions under Sukarno rule had escalated by late 1964 to the point that government was paralyzed and the nation seethed with fears and rumors of an impending explosion. In the countryside, especially in Java and Bali, the “unilateral actions” the PKI began a year earlier to forcefully redistribute village agricultural lands had resulted in the outbreak of violence along both religious and economic class lines. Especially in Jawa Timur Province, Nahdlatul Ulama mobilized its youth wing, known as Ansor (Helpers of Muhammad), and deadly fighting began to spread between and within now thoroughly polarized villages. ABRI increasingly revealed divisions among pro-PKI, anti-PKI, and pro-Sukarno officers, some of whom reportedly began to involve themselves in rural conflicts. In the big cities, demonstrations against the West reached fever pitch, spilling over into intellectual and cultural affairs as poets and artists confronted each other with diametrically opposed views on the nature and proper social role of the arts. The domestic economic crisis deepened as the price of rice soared beyond the means of most urban residents, especially those of the middle classes on government salaries, and the black-market rate of exchange exceeded the official rate by 2,000 percent. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Sukarno was furious that the newly formed Malaysia had been granted a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council, and on January 1, 1965, he withdrew Indonesia from the UN, and later from other world bodies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. In April, China announced that it supported the idea, proposed earlier by Aidit, of arming a “fifth force” of peasants and workers under PKI leadership to balance the power of ABRI’s four armed services, and that it could supply 100,000 small arms for the purpose. Then on August 17, 1965, Sukarno, who two weeks earlier had collapsed during a public appearance and was thought to be gravely ill, delivered an Independence Day speech, which addressed joining a “Jakarta–Phnom Penh–Beijing–Hanoi– Pyongyang Axis” and creating an armed fifth force in order to complete Indonesia’s revolution. It seemed to many that the PKI was poised to seize power, at the same time that the whole constellation of competing forces swirling around Sukarno was about to implode, with consequences that could only be guessed. *

On September 27, the army chief of staff, Ahmad Yani (1922–65), who was close to Sukarno and shared his anti-neo-imperialist outlook, nevertheless informed him that he and Nasution unequivocally refused to accept a “fifth force,” a stand that brought them in direct opposition to the PKI, Sukarno, and even some ABRI officers. Air Force Vice Marshal Omar Dhani (1924–2009), for example, had begun to offer paramilitary training to groups of PKI civilians, apparently at Sukarno’s urging. The balancing act was over. *

“Coup” in September 1965

On September 30 and the wee hours of October 1, 1965, a faction of young officers in Jakarta, launched a so called coup by kidnapping and assassinating six top generals, including Army Chief of Staf Yan. Their bodies were dumped in a well near Jakarta’s air force base. The only general earmarked for assassination that escaped was Gen. Abdul Haris Nasution. He survived by famously leaping over a wall—while dodging bullets— from his house into the Iraqi ambassador’s house next door. His 6-year-old daughter wasn’t so lucky. She was left behind and shot to death.

In the early morning hours of October 1, 1965, troops from four ABRI companies, including one from the Cakrabirawa Presidential Guard, deployed in air force motor vehicles through the streets of Jakarta to the homes of Nasution, Yani, and five other generals known to be opposed to the PKI. Three were killed resisting capture, and three were later murdered at the nearby Halim Perdanakusuma Military Air Base, where, it was later learned, their bodies were thrown into an abandoned well in an area known as Lubang Buaya (Crocodile Hole). The remaining general, then-Minister of Defense Nasution, narrowly escaped, but his adjutant was captured instead and also murdered at Lubang Buaya, and Nasution’s daughter was injured in the intrusion and later died. Not long thereafter, Jakartans awoke to a radio announcement that the September 30 Movement (Gerakan September Tiga Puluh, later referred to by the acronym Gestapu by opponents) had acted to protect Sukarno and the nation from corrupt military officers, members of a Council of Generals that secretly planned, with U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) help, to take over the government. The announcement stressed that the action was an internal ABRI affair. At noon a Decree No. 1 was broadcast, announcing the formation of a Revolutionary Council as the source of all authority in the Republic of Indonesia.

Led by one Colonel Untung of the palace guards, the rebels seized the national radio station and took up positions around the presidential palace. The effort was ill-conceived and poorly executed and had little support from within the army let alone the nation as a whole. The group behind the coup claimed they had acted as they did to foil a plot organized by the generals to overthrow the president. [Source: Lonely Planet]

The “coup” is often called the “September 30 Movement.” It ended a few hours after it began when Suharto— head of the army’s Strategic Reserve and the only senior general not targeted— took control of the army, crushed the rebellion and used it as an excuse to seize power and oust Sukarno, who was accused of being too close to the Communists. Suharto became the leader of the military and the effective leader of the country.

Impact of the September 1965 “Coup”

Joe Cochrane wrote in the New York Times, “The purge’s victims were branded as Communist Party members and sympathizers, but they included intellectuals and ethnic Chinese, a mistrusted minority, and were killed by soldiers as well as by civilian, paramilitary and religious groups backed by the Indonesian military. Many of the victims were spirited away in the night and never seen again. Hundreds of thousands more were arrested and held in detention centers for years, and the surviving families of Communist Party members and suspected supporters were shunned. [Source: Joe Cochrane, New York Times, March 1, 2014]

History books refer to the event as an "attempted communist coup" and the officers were referred to as sympathizers of the Communist Party but their no evidence that Communist Party of Indonesia was involved in the coup. The Indonesia novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer wrote in Time: "The communists had 3 million members and supporters at that time. If they wanted to launch a coup, why didn't they just mobilize their branches in cities and towns outside Jakarta. Why was the party leadership caught completely off guard by the kidnapping?”

These momentous events, which triggered not only a regime change but also the destruction of the largest communist party outside the Soviet Union and China, hundreds of thousands of deaths, and a generation of military rule in what was then the world’s fifth (now fourth) most populous country, have long eluded satisfactory explanation by scholars. Debate over many points, both in and outside of Indonesia, continues to be stubborn, polarized, and dominated by intricate and often improbable tales of intrigue. The circumstances and available data are such that a wide variety of explanations are equally plausible. Scholarly opinion has been especially skeptical of the conclusion drawn almost immediately by Suharto (and later the government he headed) and the CIA, that the PKI was to blame for Gestapu. Experts have offered numerous scenarios instead, suggesting that the (anti-PKI) military, and perhaps even Suharto himself, were in fact the real masterminds.

Who Was Behind the 1965 Coup?

There is some debate as to whom led the “coup” and why. Many of the details of what really happened during the coup remain a mystery and many important details revolve around what Suharto knew and when he knew it. The former colonel who led the coup told reporters after he was released form jail in 1998 he "reported the scheme to Mr.Suharto in advance."

Some think the September 1965 attempted coup was orchestrated by lower ranking military officers jealous of the privileges enjoyed by senior generals. Others have said it was masterminded by the PKI (Communists) which had heavily infiltrated the army. Some say Suharto himself was behind it. Suharto was a staunch anti-Communist. "The coup was Suharto's...Suharto needed the slaughter to instill fear in everyone." The night before the coup, Suharto met with the leader of the Communist Revolutionary Council, Abu Latief. What was said during that meeting is still a secret. Latief was still in a Jakarta jail when Suharto resigned in 1998.

Some have suggested that the coup was engineered by the United States and Britain to place blame on the Communists and allow for Suharto, who would turn out to be more friendly towards the West than Sukarno, to take power. Other have suggested that Sukarno participated in it to get rid of the threatening generals.

The extent and nature of PKI involvement in the coup are unclear. The Indonesian army claimed that the PKI plotted the coup and used disgruntled army officers to carry it out. Civilians from the PKI’s People’s Youth organisation accompanied the army battalions that seized the generals, but some claim this was a set up. Whereas the official accounts promulgated by the military describe the communists as having a "puppetmaster" role, some foreign scholars have suggested that PKI involvement was minimal and that the coup was the result of rivalry between military factions.

Although evidence presented at trials of coup leaders by the military implicated the PKI, the testimony of witnesses may have been coerced. A pivotal figure seems to have been Syam, head of the PKI's secret operations, who was close to Aidit and allegedly had fostered close contacts with dissident elements within the military. But one scholar has suggested that Syam may have been an army agent provocateur who deceived the communist leadership into believing that sympathetic elements in the ranks were strong enough to conduct a successful bid for power. Another hypothesis is that Aidit and PKI leaders then in Beijing had seriously miscalculated Sukarno's medical problems and moved to consolidate their support in the military. Others believe that ironically Sukarno himself was responsible for masterminding the coup with the cooperation of the PKI. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In a series of papers written after the coup and published in 1971, Cornell University scholars Benedict R.O'G. Anderson and Ruth T. McVey argued that it was an "internal army affair" and that the PKI was not involved. There was, they argued, no reason for the PKI to attempt to overthrow the regime when it had been steadily gaining power on the local level. More radical scenarios allege significant United States involvement. United States military assistance programs to Indonesia were substantial even during the Guided Democracy period and allegedly were designed to establish a pro-United States, anticommunist constituency within the armed forces. *

More recently, however, a view that has gained credence (originally posited in an early CIA report and raised by captured PKI leaders) is that Gestapu was in fact the result of highly secret planning— secret even within the PKI leadership structure—by party head D. N. Aidit and his close friend since pemuda days in 1945, “Syam” Kamaruzaman (ca. 1924–86), head of the party’s supersecret Special Bureau. For reasons that are not entirely clear but were probably connected with Aidit’s fears that Sukarno was near death and that without his protection the party could not survive, Syam was given responsibility for constructing a plot to neutralize army opposition. It is generally acknowledged that the plans were ill-conceived and so poorly executed that investigators often found comparatively simple errors unbelievable, taking them instead as clues to hidden conspiracies. The movement collapsed almost instantaneously, more from its own weaknesses than as a result of any brilliance or preparation that might be ascribed to Suharto’s response. *

Countercoup and Suharto’s Takeover of the Indonesian Government

After the September 1965 attempted coup Suharto orchestrated a counter-coup and an anti-communist purge that embraced the whole of Indonesia. Hundreds of thousands of communists and their sympathisers were slaughtered or imprisoned, primarily in Java and Bali. The party and its affiliates were banned and its leaders were killed, imprisoned or went into hiding. [Source: Lonely Planet]

On October 1 1965, faced with the news of this apparent coup attempt, Suharto, the commander of the Army Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad), who had not been on the list of those to be captured, moved swiftly, and, less than 24 hours after events began, a radio broadcast announced that Suharto had taken temporary leadership of ABRI, controlled central Jakarta, and would crush what he described as a counterrevolutionary movement that had kidnapped six generals of the republic. (Their bodies were not discovered until October 3.) When the communist daily Harian Rakjat published an editorial supportive of the Revolutionary Council on October 2, 1965, it was already too late. In Jakarta, the coup attempt had been broken, and anti-PKI, anti-Sukarno commanders of ABRI were in charge. Within a few days, the same was true of the few areas outside of the capital where Gestapu had raised its head.

The period from October 1965 to March 1966 witnessed the eclipse of Sukarno and the rise of Suharto to a position of supreme power. After the elimination of the PKI and purge of the armed forces of pro-Sukarno elements, the president was left in an isolated, defenseless position. By signing the executive order of March 11, 1966, Supersemar, he was obliged to transfer supreme authority to Suharto. On March 12, 1967, the MPRS stripped Sukarno of all political power and installed Suharto as acting president. Sukarno was kept under virtual house arrest, a lonely and tragic figure, until his death in June 1970. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The year 1966 marked the beginning of dramatic changes in Indonesian foreign policy. Friendly relations were restored with Western countries, Confrontation with Malaysia ended on August 11, and in September Indonesia rejoined the UN. In 1967 ties with Beijing were, in the words of Indonesian minister of foreign affairs Adam Malik, "frozen." This meant that although relations with Beijing were suspended, Jakarta did not seek to establish relations with the Republic of China on Taiwan. That same year, Indonesia joined Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Singapore to form a new regional and officially nonaligned grouping, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which was friendly to the West. *

Crackdown on Communists After the 1965 Failed Coup

After the September 1965 failed coup the Communist party was banned "amid a purge of suspected leftist carried out by the army and conservative Muslims, who accused the Communist of promoting atheism. The generals who orchestrated the crackdown were secretly aided the U.S. government, which gave them money and supplied them with the names and whereabouts of key Communist leaders.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer wrote in Time: "During the first days of October, Armed Forces chief General Nasution made commando-like speeches on the radio, urging the public to 'destroy the Communist Party root and branch.' After these pronouncements, the murder, looting and burning of the army intensified to the point of insanity. For 13 days after the coup was launched "I watched the army hunt, murder and loot until, finally, I myself became one of the victims. People known or suspected to be communist or sympathizers were slaughtered everywhere they were found—on the steps of their houses, on the side of the road, while squatting in the lavatory. The Indonesian elites had lost their ability to resolve differences peacefully, in the political sphere, and the last word belonged to the group that possessed firearms: the army...On October 13, 1965, it was my turn to be targeted by a pack of armed, masked men. There was no official, written charges...When I was arrested in October 1965, my study was ransacked and all my papers were destroyed, including unpublished manuscripts."

Ellen Nakashima wrote in the Washington Post: “Throughout the early 1960s, bad feelings built between the Communist Party, which supported land reform in rural areas, and small landlords. In October 1965, following the murder of six top generals under murky circumstances, Suharto took control of the Indonesian army. The army then waged a ruthless campaign to wipe out the Communist Party and its supporters, who were blamed for the murders. Though the party members were nominally Muslim in this predominantly Muslim country, their opponents demonized them as bloodthirsty atheists bent on seizing land and power. For a long time, schoolchildren were shown a documentary each year that blamed the generals' murders on the Communist Party, though who really was at fault is still debated by historians. State media reported that Communist women danced as the generals were castrated and their eyes gouged out. Despite autopsies showing no torture or mutilation, the myth has never been corrected in text books or films and still has currency. [Source: Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post Foreign Service, October 30, 2005 /+]

After the crackdown, purge and reign of terror, there were very few Communists were left. Some 600,000 suspected Communist were detained without being charged, many for years. As of 1975, ten years after the Communist coup, the Indonesian government still held 70,000 political prisoners, most of whom were never were given a trial.

Violence After the September 1965 Attempted Coup

In the wake of the September 30 coup's failure, there was a violent anticommunist reaction. By December 1965, mobs were engaged in large-scale killings, most notably in Jawa Timur Province and on Bali, but also in parts of Sumatra. Members of Ansor, the Nahdatul Ulama's youth branch, were particularly zealous in carrying out a "holy war" against the PKI on the village level. Chinese were also targets of mob violence. Estimates of the number killed — both Chinese and others — vary widely, from a low of 78,000 to 2 million; probably somewhere around 300,000 is most likely. Whichever figure is true, the elimination of the PKI was the bloodiest event in postwar Southeast Asia until the Khmer Rouge established its regime in Cambodia a decade later. [Source: Library of Congress]

According to Lonely Planet: Following the army’s lead, anticommunist civilians went on the rampage. In Java, where long-simmering tensions between pro-Islamic and pro-communist factions erupted in the villages, both sides believed that their opponents had drawn up death lists to be carried out when they achieved power. The anticommunists, with encouragement from the government and even Western embassies, carried out their list of executions. On top of this uncontrolled slaughter there were violent demonstrations in Jakarta by pro- and anti-Sukarno groups. Also, perhaps as many as 250,000 people were arrested and sent without trial to prison camps for alleged involvement in the coup. [Source: Lonely Planet]

The American anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote: “Everyone as terrified. A Communist leader’s head was hung up in the doorway of his headquarters, another was hung on the footbridge in front of his house with a cigarette stuck between his teeth . There were legs and arms and torsos every morning in the irrigation canals. Penises were nailed to telephone poles.”

The first victims were Communists. Next were perceived Communist sympathizers. It then escalated into a crack down and settling of scores against ethnic Chinese. The majority of those that were killed were teachers and progressives and ethnic Chinese suspected of sympathizing with the Communists. At its height it was a settling of scores with anyone perceived as an enemy being a target.

One participant in the killings in 1965 who was a member of a Muslim group told the Independent, “I didn’t kill them myself, but someone else did that. They were slaughtered like goats, thousands of them, and afterwards we threw them in a hole or in the sea. The Communists believed there was no God, they were the enemies of religion.”

Uncontrolled violence has played a major role in Indonesia’s modern history. Kerry Brown wrote in the Asian Review of Books, “As Clausewitz famously argued, war is the continuation of politics by other means—and...violence, historically, and in contemporary Indonesia, has performed a continuing political function. Any attempt to understand modern Indonesian history without recognising the prominent role of violence would be incomplete. Part of the cause of this violence derives from the tensions in the impossible complexity of Indonesia—a colonial creation with 17,000 islands (the exact figure seems impossible to calculate) forged by the three centuries of control by the Dutch and the Japanese invasion in the 1940s, and then in the struggle for national liberation after the second world war, and resolved finally by the ‘mystic’ ruler Sukarno and his creation of the ‘new Indonesia’ between 1945 and 1950. It is hardly surprising that there has been so much scope for conflict and strife in a territory that stretches a distance the equivalent of London to Moscow, and which embraces hundreds of different languages, ethnicities, religious beliefs and cultures. [Source: Kerry Brown, Asian Review of Books, May 4, 2005]

Impact of the Crackdown After the September 1965 Coup

The mass killings that took place, mostly between October 1965 and March 1966 and then in occasional outbursts for several years thereafter. Although there are no satisfactory data on which reliable national calculations can be made, and Indonesian government estimates have varied from 78,500 to 1 million killed. of the post-coup death toll vary widely. Adam Malik, who was to become Suharto’s foreign minister, said that a ‘fair figure’ was 160,000. A figure of approximately 500,000 deaths was accepted in the mid1970s by the head of the Operational Command for the Restoration of Security and Order (Kopkamtib) and is widely used in Western sources. [Source: Library of Congress *]

As many as 250,000 persons may have been imprisoned as well. As to who carried out these killings, the available evidence is meager and mostly anecdotal and suggests a complex picture. In some areas, clearly Muslim (in central and eastern Java, predominantly Nahdlatul Ulama) vigilantes began the murders spontaneously and, in a few places, even had to be reined in by army units. In others, army contacts either acquiesced to or encouraged such actions, and in a number of these there was a clear coordination of efforts. In what seems to have been a smaller number of places, army units alone were responsible. People participated in the killings, or looked the other way, for a wide variety of reasons, personal, community-related, and ideological. *

Joe Cochrane wrote in the New York Times, “The party was officially banned, and in an indication of how accepted the official state narrative remains, the men starring in [the fim]“The Act of Killing” essentially confess to mass murder but are viewed by many Indonesians as heroes for their service to the nation at a time when the Communists in Vietnam were gaining ground. In one of the most surreal scenes, the men — invited to depict their sentiments over their actions as they saw fit — danced to a rendition of “Born Free” in front of a waterfall. Schoolchildren are still taught that the Communists brought the violence upon themselves by plotting to take over the country. [Source: Joe Cochrane, New York Times, March 1, 2014]

Whatever the case, the mass killings amounted to a cataclysmic ideological cleansing in which not only communists but also suspected communists (and in some areas miscellaneous other perceived enemies, including Chinese) lost their lives. Violence of this type and on this scale, although perhaps foretold in episodes of the National Revolution, was new to Indonesia. It is perhaps true, as historian Robert B. Cribb has suggested, that after the disillusionment of the struggle for independence, and the deprivations and hostilities of Guided Democracy, Indonesians were “ready for a culprit,” but the fury unleashed seems too intense and too broad to be explained in this way alone. Similar questions about the origins of extreme violence in Indonesia were to arise a generation later, at the end of the regime that in 1965–66 was just beginning to take hold. *

Removal of Sukarno From Power After the September 1965 Coup

The abrupt narrative break of the violent events that immediately followed Gestapu gives the impression that the transition from the Old Order to the New Order (as they came to be called, first by anti-PKI, anti-Sukarno student protesters) was swift. In reality, Sukarno’s power and Guided Democracy policies dissolved more slowly, despite fierce opposition in some circles to his continued defense of the PKI and his refusal to concede that Guided Democracy had failed. Suharto and his supporters were aware that Sukarno continued to have loyal followers, and they did not wish to risk more upheaval, much less a backlash against the army. Military tribunals began holding well-managed trials of PKI figures, and a gradual removal began of ABRI officers and troops thought to be strong PKI or Sukarno loyalists. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In early 1966, Sukarno, still the acknowledged president, was pressured into signing the Letter of Instruction of March 11 (Surat Perintah Sebelas Maret, later known by the acronym Supersemar), turning over to Suharto his executive authority, for among other reasons, to keep law and order and to safeguard the Revolution. The next day, the PKI was officially banned and its surviving leaders, as well as prominent pro-Sukarno figures, arrested and imprisoned. Over the next few months, the new government largely dismantled Sukarno’s foreign policy as Jakarta broke its ties with Beijing, abandoned confrontation with Malaysia, rejoined the UN and other international bodies, and made overtures to the West, especially for economic assistance. The Inter-Governmental Group on Indonesia (IGGI) was formed to coordinate this aid. In mid-1966, the Provisional People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR(S)) demanded that Sukarno account for his behavior regarding Gestapu, but he stubbornly refused; only early the next year did he directly claim that he had known nothing in advance of those events. But by then, even many of his supporters had lost patience. *

On March 12, 1967, the MPR(S) formally removed Sukarno from power and appointed Suharto acting president in his stead. The New Order thus officially began as the Old Order withered away. Alone and bitter, Sukarno lived under virtual house arrest in the presidential palace in Bogor, Jawa Barat Province, until his death in 1970, and he was buried far from the nation’s capital in his home town of Blitar in Jawa Timur Province. *

Failure to Fully Investigate the Violence After the September 1965 Coup

Joe Cochrane wrote in the New York Times, “While Indonesian and foreign academics and journalists have written frequently about the killings that extended over two years, and in many cases question the official state narrative, the issue of communism in Indonesia still touches a raw nerve. Last month, the police in the eastern Java city of Surabaya shut down a book discussion on Tan Malaka, the Indonesian Communist independence leader who was killed by military forces in 1949, after protests from a hard-line Islamic group. [Source: Joe Cochrane, New York Times, March 1, 2014 +++]

“Even the country’s independent National Commission on Human Rights has been unable to make much headway in its attempts at accountability. The commission ruled in 2012 that the killings, overseen by the late President Suharto when he was a general, were a gross violation of human rights and demanded a criminal inquiry. The attorney general’s office has refused. The commission’s report concludes that crimes — including rape, torture and executions — were committed by the Indonesian military and the civilian groups that they supported during the purges. The report implicated senior military leaders who were part of the Operational Command for the Restoration of Security and Order, which was led by Suharto. +++

“While the last of the top commanders who ran the special operational command died in 2012, critics say the Indonesian attorney general’s office continues to reject the commission’s 850-page report because it would embarrass the powerful armed forces, and the political, paramilitary and Muslim religious groups that participated in the massacres but today remain prominent members of society. Among the Army commanders who led military operations against the Indonesian Communist Party, for example, was the late Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, whose daughter is the wife of Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. One of the commission members, Roichatul Aswidah, said the attorney general’s office has twice sent back its report for revisions on grounds including that there was not an electronic database detailing each alleged instance of violence. The commission submitted the report to the attorney general’s office a third time in November 2013.” +++

Act of Killing’: Film About the Violence After the 1965 Coup

Joe Cochrane wrote in the New York Times, Joshua Oppenheimer , the “American director of the chilling Indonesian documentary “The Act of Killing” has won dozens of awards so far for the film and could add one of the movie industry’s most coveted honors Sunday at the Oscars. The film, nominated as best documentary, recounts in graphic detail the killings of an estimated 500,000 or more Indonesians during state-sponsored purges of suspected Communists and their sympathizers in 1965 and 1966. Since “The Act of Killing” first appeared in 2012, it has received coverage worldwide, as much for its subject matter as for Mr. Oppenheimer’s approach: having men who ran one of the state-sponsored death squads not only recount the killings in detail, but also re-enact them on a film set.[Source: Joe Cochrane, New York Times, March 1, 2014 =]

“The men starring in “The Act of Killing” essentially confess to mass murder but are viewed by many Indonesians as heroes for their service to the nation at a time when the Communists in Vietnam were gaining ground. In one of the most surreal scenes, the men — invited to depict their sentiments over their actions as they saw fit — danced to a rendition of “Born Free” in front of a waterfall.” =

Ann Hornaday wrote in the Washington Post, “The Act of Killing,” is “a film that recounts the mass murders of communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals in Indonesia in 1965 and 1966 and documents the massacres’ pernicious aftermath. The film, which was given its premiere last year at the Telluride Film Festival, has been a sensation on the festival circuit for its artful fusing of cinematic artifice and truth at its rawest and most unnerving. Oppenheimer not only found a death squad leader and his followers who would speak candidly about the crimes they committed 50 years ago, but they also reenact those episodes, in lurid, amateurish improvisations derived from the Hollywood genre films they imitated during their most heinous actions. [Source: Ann Hornaday, Washington Post, July 25, 2013 ^]

“The result is a chilling account of slaughters that still reverberate throughout Indonesia in the form of corruption, cynicism and fear. The film also operates as a surreal meta-meditation on the grammar of violence, the legacy of co―lo―ni―al―ism, self-deception and the possibility of remorse. For Oppenheimer, it all started with the simple question of what happened in Indonesia in the 1960s.” ^

Making Act of Killing

Ann Hornaday wrote in the Washington Post, “Oppenheimer was living in London, having studied film at Harvard and as a Marshall Scholar, and he was working with former classmate Christine Cynn on developing experimental documentaries. Oppenheimer and Cynn were commissioned by the International Union of Food and Agricultural Workers to make a documentary in a country where workers were trying to form a union, and the team found itself in Indonesia, filming workers on an oil palm plantation. “I didn’t know Indonesian yet, I didn’t know about the killings,” Oppenheimer recalls. “And it turned out the biggest obstacle that these women had in organizing a union was fear.” [Source: Ann Hornaday, Washington Post, July 25, 2013]

Oppenheimer discovered that many of the workers’ parents and grandparents had been in unions in the early 1960s and then were accused of being communist sympathizers when the military dictator Suharto came to power. “They were placed in concentration camps by the army in ’65, and then dispatched out to civilian death squads that would take them to riverbanks and kill them,” Oppenheimer said. “And [the people we interviewed] were afraid this could happen again.” Oppenheimer and Cynn returned to Indonesia almost immediately, “knowing this was a very important history that we didn’t really understand.” As they conducted interviews, survivors urged them to speak to the killers themselves, who were living not just openly but also proudly with their brutal history. What Oppenheimer discovered was that the killers — who call themselves “gangsters” — still operate with impunity in Indonesian culture, bragging of their past deeds and continuing to intimidate their victims’ descendants. (Cynn eventually left the production, and Oppenheimer worked with several anonymous Indonesian crew members, including his co-director.)

“My questions started to shift from ‘What happened?’ to ‘What is the function of this boasting?’ ” Oppenheimer recalls. “Why are these men boasting? What is the effect on their society? Are they trying to convince themselves of something, convince me of something? How do they want me to see them, and how do they see themselves?”

Star Act of Killing

Ann Hornaday wrote in the Washington Post, “If “The Act of Killing” has a star, it’s Anwar Congo, a lean, gray-haired former death squad leader in North Sumatra, whom Oppenheimer met after interviewing dozens of perpetrators. For their first interview together, Congo took the filmmaker to a rooftop where he used to dispatch his victims. He uses a companion to demonstrate how he garroted people with a piece of wood and some wire. Even on that first day, Oppenheimer noticed, “Anwar had thought to bring a friend, and he’d thought to bring wire.” [Source: Ann Hornaday, Washington Post, July 25, 2013 ^]

Congo turns out to be a bizarre protagonist, compelling and even engaging as a guide through Indonesia’s darkest chapters, repellent in his self-justification and lack of empathy, pathetic in his bravado. At one point on the roof, after he reenacts the murder, he begins to dance, explaining that he often went out partying after killing people. “When Anwar dances on the roof, I was shocked, I was outraged,” Oppenheimer says, recalling the moment. “I saw an allegory for impunity that would expose the nature of this regime just as I had been looking for on behalf of the survivors and the human rights community. But at the same time, I think there’s a stone in his shoe when he’s dancing the cha-cha-cha. He says he’s a good dancer because he was drinking, taking drugs, going out dancing to forget what he’s done. So I think he was shadowed by his past.” ^

“It was Congo’s idea to stage the reenactments, in which he and his fellow squad members relive the torture they delivered as noir-esque gangsters and Western cowboys. In a musical sequence that appears in snippets, dancing girls snake out of an empty seafood restaurant designed to look like an enormous fish. In between those sequences, death squad leaders walk through a marketplace in the north Sumatra city of Medan, shaking down Chinese shopkeepers, later laughing about their past deeds with government officials. The net effect is akin to a fever dream that swiftly slides into the stuff of nightmares. But Oppenheimer insists that “The Act of Killing” doesn’t just capture an isolated area, geographically or morally. “This is an extreme example of the stories we tell ourselves to justify our actions,” he says. ^

Reaction “Act of Killing” in Indonesia

“Oppenheimer told the Washington Post the “The Act of Killing” has been well received in Indonesia. The weekly news magazine Tempo devoted an entire issue to the film and conducted its own investigation of the killings. In the first few months after its release the film was screened 500 times in 95 cities. “In due course, we’ll make the film available for free download and free screening for anyone logging on in Indonesia.” Werner Herzog, who with Errol Morris executive-produced “The Act of Killing,” said, Art doesn’t make a difference.’ And I felt so sad when he said that,” Oppenheimer recalls. “And then he paused and smiled and said, ‘Until it does.’ ” [Source: Ann Hornaday, Washington Post, July 25, 2013 ^]

Joe Cochrane wrote in the New York Times, “But, so far, Oppenheimer, has not succeeded in accomplishing what he considered a greater goal — jump-starting a debate in Indonesia that will compel the government to finally open a formal inquiry into one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century. Despite the international press, the reaction in Indonesia has been muted. National television stations largely ignored the Academy Award nomination, which was covered by only a handful of print media including two English-language daily newspapers. [Source: Joe Cochrane, New York Times, March 1, 2014 =]

“The mass killings remain an extremely sensitive issue in Indonesia, where the powerful military and other groups in the country’s elite were implicated in the violence and defend their actions as saving Indonesia from what they say was an impending Communist takeover. Mr. Oppenheimer was worried enough about the film’s being banned by government censors that he did not try to have it screened at movie theaters. He has, however, taken heart from the fact that the film was downloaded from YouTube more than 30,000 times within the first week that it became available last October, with many of the downloads in Indonesia. =

“It’s relatively easy to remove a dictator like Suharto and say we have an open society, but it requires the same popular movement to demand that legitimate democratic institutions become answerable to the popular will,” Mr. Oppenheimer said. “The Indonesians must overcome those fears and create those movements. After “The Act of Killing” was first released, the offices of a newspaper that ran a story about it and printed the name of a well-known youth organization known to have participated in the purges, was surrounded by a mob and its editor beaten. The same month, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for security, Djoko Suyanto, who is also a retired commander in chief of the armed forces, vehemently rejected the conclusion of the human rights commission’s report, saying that the military saved the Indonesian state. =

“The fear of reprisals over the movie was strong enough that the Indonesian co-director and a local film crew of about 60 Indonesians identified themselves as “Anonymous” in the film’s credits. The Indonesian co-director, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that although the country’s political system has significantly changed in the nearly 15 years since its democratic transition began with free elections in 1999, military, political and business figures from the final years of the Suharto government remained in positions of power. “Behind the facade,” the co-director said, “the machinery is still the same.” =

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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