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'Communist' Still a Dirty Word in Indonesia

FILE - Anti-communist protesters outside the presidential palace in Jakarta in 2001.

FILE - Anti-communist protesters outside the presidential palace in Jakarta in 2001.

Nearly 50 years after an anti-communist purge that left at least 500,000 Indonesians dead, anti-communist fervor is still heated.

Herman Koto, an Indonesian gangster and paramilitary leader, describes how he’d love to get his hands on some communist women.

“If they’re pretty, I’d rape them all,” he says. As the men around him groan with approval, Koto tells them that if the communist is just 14 years old, all the sweeter. “I’d say, it’s going to be hell for you but heaven on earth for me.”

The exchange with Koto is a scene from the documentary The Act of Killing, in which anti-communists members of death squads show how they killed communists and suspected communists in a 1965 spasm of violence described by the CIA as “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century.” That the scene is so recent -- The Act of Killing came out in 2012 -- shows that such violent hatred toward communism remains not just tolerated but sometimes celebrated.

The anti-communist fervor persists, in part, because Indonesia never officially came to terms with this dark period in its history. The government has never apologized to survivors of the massacres, nor prosecuted the perpetrators, including those shown in the documentary. That could be changing now.

With urging from the United Nations Human Rights Council last summer, the Attorney General’s Office has finally agreed to investigate the 1965 killings. It will work with Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights, which did its own three-year investigation and declared the massacre a gross human rights violation.

“That’s good, that’s progress,” said Yosef Djakababa, director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies-Indonesia.

There have been many forums throughout Indonesia where families of purge victims share their stories. But Djakababa said the government must make reconciliation a national priority, because local forums can only go so far.

“We’ve been doing that for years now,” said Djakababa, who wrote about the massacre for his doctoral thesis. “I think it’s time to do something different.”

The communist party is formally banned in Indonesia. Former president Suharto used communism as a bête noir to consolidate power, starting in 1965, when Indonesia’s communists began a failed coup by murdering six generals. The killings sparked communal violence which historians say Indonesia’s army channeled into a murderous purge that spread across the country and which lasted for months.

Even now 15 years after Suharto was forced from power and nearly 50 years after the mass killings, Indonesia “remains stuck in the cold war anti-communism of the dead dictator,” according to Michael Vann, a historian at California State University, Sacramento.

In Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population, many believe that showing any communist leanings would mean betraying their religion.

Deviano, a teacher whose ID card shows he goes by one name, said communism is a dangerous and immoral threat to Islam.

“I’m afraid, I’m really worried about people who have the mentality of communism,” he said.

Similarly, at a museum for one of the generals killed in 1965, a staff member said that communism doesn’t permit religion. “That should be the first reason I’m against it,” the young man said, declining to give his name. “I believe in god, I believe in heaven and hell.”

The museum, named after Gen. Ahmad Yani, is one of many across Indonesia that perpetuate the hagiography of the slain generals. Under Suharto, views like Deviano’s were shaped by similar propaganda, including a government video that school children had to watch every year, depicting communists as bloodthirsty killers who sang and danced as they mutilated the generals in 1965. The video disappeared along with Suharto, but anti-communist propaganda continues, especially at the museums.

Vann, the historian, studied some of these museums, in particular the Museum of Communist Treachery on the edge of Jakarta, and said it was “shocking” that they haven’t been renamed. Instead, they commemorate the generals’ deaths and ignore those of the suspected communists. That massacre was conveniently tossed down an “Orwellian memory hole,” Vann said.

“The message is that the PKI [communist party] was an evil organization capable of cruel violence and committed to sowing social chaos,” he said.

The documentary The Act of Killing, which is up for an Oscar in March, tells a different story, one of not just communists but their enemies showing a capacity for cruel violence. This challenges the official anti-communist narrative built up by Suharto. Djakababa, from the Southeast Asian studies center, said history books must be revised to reflect such new, conflicting narratives.

“The more others research, and alternative views come out, the better,” he said.

Those responsible for the 1965 massacre -- and their supporters -- are often described as behaving with impunity. The men in the documentary reenact torture scenes and use metal wires to show how they strangled accused communists. They express delight rather than remorse, nearly 50 years later. Neither the public nor the government condemns them. Indonesia is unlikely to see anything like the tribunals set up for the Khmer Rouge or the former Yugoslavia. But Djakababa said authorities must act, lest Indonesians believe their government condones mass murder.

“People will know they can get away with it,” Djakababa said. “There’s a risk of history repeating itself. I hope it doesn’t happen, but it’s possible.”

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