Part 1 of a series: Indonesia’s Forgotten Genocide
By Ariq Hatibie
On the evening of September 30, 1965, a group of rebel officers abducted and executed six army generals in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta. Later that night, two thousand troops under the officers’ command occupied government buildings surrounding the city’s National Monument. Conveniently, they spared from their occupation the Army Strategic Command headed by one Major General Suharto, who eventually persuaded them to peacefully disperse almost as quickly as they had emerged. This failed coup attempt, or so the official government narrative called it, would later be named the 30 September Movement (Gerakan 30 September – or G30S).
Indonesia woke the following morning to a sudden and unprecedented shift in power. With six of the country’s most senior military leaders dead, Suharto quickly seized the reigns of the army and attributed the coup to the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). Supported by Islamist political parties like the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the military launched a mass propaganda campaign across the archipelago, portraying the PKI as mass murderers planning to instigate an atheistic communist revolution.
Within a year, a diverse cast of players, including the army, local militias, extremist Muslims, and individual vigilantes, ruthlessly pursued PKI members and sympathizers, eliminating them using methods that presaged the brutality of Cambodia and Rwanda years later. Disembowelment, castration, beheadings, rape, and torture, carried out with knives, machetes, farm tools, and bamboo rods, became commonplace. Importantly, the perpetrators did not restrict their victims to alleged PKI members. The chaos and the army’s permissiveness ushered in an era of widespread brutality, allowing citizens to air out their grievances, particularly towards ethnic minorities such as the Chinese. Whether in villages or cities, in the tight confines of a jail cell, or the vast expanse of rainforest, “the soil of the Indonesian nation,” from which Sukarno claimed the emergence of principles of civilized humanity, became the graveyard for more than 500,000 victims of one of the bloodiest episodes of the 20th century.
Within a year, Suharto and the army had accrued enough power to seize control of the government. Until then, Sukarno’s government floated on a delicate triumvirate consisting of the PKI, the Islamists, and the army. Out of the three, he leaned closest to the communists, who had enough members and support to balance the military. However, the six generals killed in G30S also happened to be Sukarno’s closest supporters and with them as well as the PKI gone, the military could finally displace Sukarno and take power for themselves. On March 13th, 1966, Sukarno issued an order allowing Suharto to take all means necessary to guarantee security, effectively relinquishing his executive authority. A year later, the People’s Consultative Assembly, recently cleansed of Sukarno’s supporters through purge and massacre, stripped him of the presidency, entrenching Suharto’s New Order government firmly in the seat of power which they would hold on to for the next 30 years.
At the height of the Cold War, Indonesia suffered indescribable violence with consequences that seeped into all aspects of life for its citizens. And yet, out of the many atrocities that have afflicted the world this past century, the massacres of 1965 barely persist in the public memory. Unlike Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, and Cambodia, no ad hoc court with the power to issue binding decisions emerged afterwards, even after Suharto fell. Unlike the older genocide in Armenia, the killings have at best left a faint trail in collective remembrance. Unlike South Africa, no Truth Commission manifested to capture the experiences of those who lived through the turmoil. Even locally, the willingness to reflect on the Genocide remains relatively weak, in part because of the government’s own attempts to stifle it. The recent crackdown on leftist literature revealed the extent to which the massacres engendered a deep-seated paranoia towards anything remotely related to the PKI. That the term “communist” remains a derogatory label with the potential to end political careers speaks volumes to the broad reluctance and inability to grapple with the grave injustices of 1965.
It is in response to this bizarrely powerful amnesia that I put pen to paper. In the next few months, I shall descend into a variegated historical inquiry rife with questions of international law, state gender ideologies, US complicity, freedom of speech, and restorative justice. I write not with particularly rigorous academic or activist intent, but in scrutinizing the case of the Indonesian Genocide I hope to demonstrate how the selective remembrance of a single mass atrocity can trigger diverse, pernicious, and enduring consequences that persist well beyond the victims who vanished in its wake.
Ariq is a junior in Grace Hopper. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.