Yudhoyono government says 1965 murders 'saved' Indonesia


Jakarta – Reneging on a pledge to apologise and make reparations for the victims of the 1965 anti-communist purge, when Suharto and the military seized power, the government of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is now parroting the New Order regime’s myth that the killings were justified to save the country from communism.

After being swept under the carpet for nearly 50 years, the atrocities were this year acknowledged for the first time by the government’s own National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM), which announced in July that it had found evidence of widespread gross human rights violations during the purges.

The report, based on a three-year investigation and the testimony of 349 witnesses, urged that the military officers responsible be brought to trial for crimes including murder, extermination, slavery, forced eviction, torture and mass rape. The commission also called on the government to issue an apology, compensate victims and their families and establish a truth and reconciliation commission.

Mass slaughter

By 1965 the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) had become the largest Communist Party outside of the Soviet Union and China, with more than 3 million members and 10 million more followers in affiliated mass organisations. Its influence on Indonesia’s leftist President Sukarno, whose strong anti-US and anti-imperialist rhetoric was wining broad support among the masses, was increasingly seen as a threat by Washington and right-wing elements in the military.

On the night of September 30, 1965, a group of middle-ranking military officers kidnapped six generals they accused of organising a coup against Sukarno. For reasons that remain unclear, the six were killed and their bodies dumped in a well known as Lubang Buaya in East Jakarta. Blaming the incident on the PKI provided the pretext for sections of the military, led by then Major General Suharto, to launch one of the most organised and ferocious mass slaughters in modern history.

Within four months, as many as 1 million communists and left-wing sympathisers were killed, and hundreds of thousands of others interned without trial. As well as members of the PKI, women’s activists, worker and peasant leaders, left-wing writers, intellectuals, teachers and students were targeted.

The British government secretly assisted the army with propaganda, logistics and loans. With the military in control of the state radio station, Canberra ensured that Radio Australia’s Indonesian audience received only broadcasts discrediting the PKI and casting the army in a positive light. The US supplied Suharto’s forces with money and weapons while the CIA ticked off names from a list of Communist leaders and figures it had provided to Suharto several months before.

It was also a campaign of terror, with public executions and torture, victims being disembowelled and left to die, decapitated heads mounted on poles and paraded around – all designed to terrorise the population into submission and make it clear that anyone associating with the left, or daring to resist, would meet the same fate. The army also armed and trained anti-communist gangs drawn from Islamic mass organisations such as Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah to do their dirty work, Islamic clerics overseeing and directing the killings in coordination with military officers.

Officially portrayed as a failed “communist coup”, thwarted only by decisive action by Suharto and the army, the events leading to and surrounding the night of September 30 were carefully woven into the fabric of New Order mythology and its ideological justification for seizing power.

Not until Suharto’s overthrow in1998 did the official version of history begin to be publicly questioned. In 2004 the Education Ministry rewrote school history books to say that the PKI had been only one of several instigators, but in 2006 the Yudhoyono government ordered the education minister to abandon the 2004 curriculum and the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) to investigate those responsible for textbooks. By 2010, when the Constitutional Court stripped the AGO of its powers to ban books arbitrarily deemed to “disrupt public order”, dozens of history books had been banned for failing to blame the PKI for the alleged coup.

‘Saving the country’

In response to the report, Yudhoyono announced that he had ordered the AGO to study Komnas HAM’s findings and that he would consult with the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court on what action to take. The Presidential Advisory Council said it was preparing a draft apology and mechanism to compensate the victims, and Yudhoyono reportedly told confidants he wanted to make the apology part of his “legacy” before his term ends in 2014.

Two weeks later, however, the AGO – which has failed to investigate, let alone prosecute, any cases of past human rights crimes – announced that it could not pursue the findings because the violations were “beyond the scope of the existing law”.

Yudhoyono, a former army general who rose to prominence during the Suharto years and served several tours in East Timor, including a stint with the invading force in 1976, appeared to have quietly let the issue drop. Then, on October 1, the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, Djoko Suyanto, issued a public statement rejecting the Komnas HAM report, saying the killings were justified to save the country from communism and that Yudhoyono should not make an official apology.

“We must look at what happened comprehensively. Mutiny against the state was planned by the communists. Immediate action was needed to protect the country against such a threat. Don’t force the government to apologise”, he was quoted as saying by the Jakarta Post. “This country would not be what it is today if it didn’t happen”, he added.

Indonesian military (TNI) commander Admiral Agus Suhartono also said the TNI would not apologise. “We will, of course, punish any members proven to have played roles in the incident. But, why bother doling out punishment when the AGO would certainly say that the soldiers were not guilty?”, Suhartono said on the sidelines of an annual function at the Lubang Buaya Museum to honour the officers kidnapped on September 30, a monument built as part of the New Order’s carefully reconstructed history of 1965.

Yudhoyono – who presided over the event – was slammed as “narcissistic” when the normally somber tone was broken with the singing of “I’m Sure We’ll Make It There”, a song penned by Yudhoyono, who has released several albums of saccharine love songs he says were “written for the ordinary people”.

Concerted campaign

Suyanto’s statement followed a concerted campaign by retired military officers, politicians and Islamic organisations implicated in the purges to block Komnas HAM’s recommendations.

Legislator Nudirman Munir from Suharto's former ruling party Golkar – now a key partner in the Yudhoyono government’s fractious ruling coalition – said the best solution to solving past rights abuses was to bury them. “If we keep opening up old wounds we will not be able to move on and look to the future”, he was quoted as saying by the Post on July 31, adding that revisiting past abuses would open a Pandora’s box.

House speaker Marzuki Alie, from Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party, said that reopening the case would be counterproductive. “The 1965 communist coup was considered a mutiny and the government at that time needed to crush it. We have to be clear if it was truly a human rights violation”, he told the Post.

Golkar deputy general secretary Leo Nababan called for an end to demands for restitution, arguing that a 1966 decree on the dissolution of the PKI and prohibitions on Marxist, Leninist and communist teachings has not been revoked, and this is a basis for anti-communism in Indonesia. “The 127 anti-communist mass organisation supporters of [the state ideology] Pancasila in 1965 that are part of the Pancasila Front are ready to block, particularly [our] youth generation allies in Ansor NU if for example there are calls for the case to go to court”, Nababan was quoted as saying by Inilah.com on August 22.

Ansor NU chairperson Nusron Wahid said the government does not need to acknowledge past violations. “The government does not need to acknowledge human rights violations in the 1965 tragedy. Let alone try to uncover the masterminds behind the tragedy. It’s not possible, the affair was zeitgeist [the spirit of the times]. We don’t need to dig up past issues anymore”, Wahid was quoted as saying by Kompas.com on August 15.

NU’s central leadership board (PBNU) also opposed any apology, saying that what was needed was reconciliation. “NU is not pushing for a court because [we] don’t wish to dig up old issues. Our people, Islamic teachers were killed by the PKI, so we are not making accusations”, PBNU deputy secretary general As’ad Said Ali told Kompas.com at the declaration of “Be on Alert for the Revival of the PKI” at the PBNU’s headquarters in Jakarta.

Retired Army Generals Association chairperson Suryadi said that in recommending an apology, Komnas HAM was fanning social hostilities. “The PKI were the perpetrators of the coup. There’s already plenty of evidence. It is improper for the government to apologise. Komnas HAM is not acting justly”, he told Kompas.com.


Rights activists and survivors of the purge have deplored Suyanto’s statement. “The Dutch government has apologised for killing innocent people in Rawagede. Now, why won’t our own government apologise to its own people?”, one survivor told the Post, referring to the Dutch government’s decision to compensate the families of men massacred by Dutch colonial forces in 1947.

Komnas HAM chairperson Ifdhal Kasim said that the government appears to be turning back the clock. “The current government is no different from the New Order regime because they want to perpetuate the latter’s version of the 1965 purge”, Kasim said.

The Asian Human Rights Commission said that crimes against humanity cannot be justified in any circumstances and that, as a country that claims to support freedom of opinion, Indonesia should treat communism as any other ideology instead of taking it as a threat and allow those who subscribe to such views to enjoy their rights without fear of persecution or discrimination.

UK-based rights group TAPOL said that the impunity enjoyed by those responsible for the 1965 killings had encouraged violations in East Timor, Aceh and West Papua and threatened Indonesia’s progress as a democratic nation. “While the victims are demonised, the perpetrators are treated as heroes and allowed total impunity for some of the last century’s worst atrocities”, the group said.

In August the Democrat Party announced it would nominate Yudhoyono’s father-in-law, the late General Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, for the title of national hero. Wibowo, whose son General Pramono Edhie Wibowo currently serves as the army's chief of staff, was the commander of the army’s Special Forces (now Kopassus), which spearheaded the mass murder and terror across Java and Bali in 1965-96. He once boasted that 2 million were killed – “and we did a good job”.

[For the latest news and information on Indonesia visit the Asia Pacific Solidarity Network website at http://www.asia-pacific-solidarity.net/].

Direct Action – October 22, 2012

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