It’s been more than 50 years since the massacre of more than 500,000 people in Indonesia from 1965 to 1966. Still, no one has been charged for one of the worst mass killings of the last century.
It was a bloody chapter in the nation’s history, and it’s a can of worms that’s just starting to be opened. Human Rights Watch’s characterization of the massacre – “a half-century of official lies and denial” – isn’t an exaggeration, I’d say. I grew up with the Indonesian education system, and not once did my teachers address it as a massacre, describing it instead as a necessary deed to rid the country of communism. Apparently during and since Suharto’s 30-year rule, that was the official narrative.
On the eve of October 1, 1965—on September 30th—a “failed coup attempt” that led to the deaths of six senior army generals was blamed on the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI). In the months following, the government gave free rein to soldiers and paramilitaries to kill anyone across Indonesia they considered to be a “communist,” their sympathizers and opponents of the then Suharto regime. Many of them were PKI members, ethnic Chinese, as well as trade unionists and civil society activists.
During the time of the massacres, victims were “picked up” by the military and many are still considered “missing.” Families were broken up and some even used disguises to avoid persecution.
But recent developments have shown there may indeed be progress – albeit slow – toward justice, despite years of efforts falling through. In April, the government re-opened the incidents by holding a series of public discussions on the atrocities for the first time, ABC Australia reported. Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo then instructed Security Minister Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan to start documenting the location of mass graves.
Even so, Harris Azhar, who represents the victims, said the approach from Widodo had been lukewarm despite his campaign promise to address the atrocities.
“Nothing really significant came from [Widodo] as a president and also nothing impressive came from his government or his cabinet,” Azhar told ABC Australia.
The government announced on May 9 that it would form a team to investigate a list of 122 alleged mass grave sites of 1965-66 massacre victims compiled by victims’ advocacy groups, with an initial sample expected by the end of May.
Then last week, HRW released a statement calling for the government to use forensic experts in exhuming the mass graves and treat the sites as crime scenes. It has yet to be seen whether the Indonesian government followed that call.
“The Indonesian government’s determination to exhume possible mass grave sites is an act of political courage toward accountability,” said HRW Deputy Asia Director Phelim Kine in a statement. “But hasty exhumations done without requisite expert skills and experience may well destroy crucial evidence and seriously obstruct efforts to bring justice for the victims.”
The seemingly new political awareness might have been incited, in part, by two films by Danish director Joshua Oppenheimer, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. While the first told the story through the perspective of a high-ranking official instructed to carry out these killings, the latter explored the efforts of one of the victims’ relatives to seek justice.
For many Indonesians in my generation, these films were our first exposure to this narrative of the massacres. In response to the government’s unwillingness to approve the film for release in Indonesia, Oppenheimer made it available in the country for free on YouTube. Since then, there has been a stark public debate on the need for accountability, and many Indonesians young and old are weighing in.
Alia Kusumaningrat, a 20-year-old Indonesian student and journalist at University of Washington-Bothell, said she vaguely remembers learning about the “September 30th Movement” (often referenced as “G30S” in Indonesia) in elementary school, and the teacher didn’t make it as big of a deal as she thought it was.
“A year or two ago I was angry because the bulk of what I have learned about it is from a Western [or]Eurocentric lens. But I also understand that outsiders are able to see and say things that Indonesians can’t or won’t for whatever reason,” she told Humanosphere. “Because I’m a person living in the Indonesian diaspora in the U.S., I do think that my Indonesian political identity is more important to me now. … But at the same time, this is one of the things I wish I had known more already, from public schooling or at the very least conversations with my parents, who were born in the ‘60s.”
To be fair, Kusumaningrat said, she started studying abroad when she was 12, and maybe she’d have more opportunities to dig deeper about G30S from Indonesian sources had she stayed.
“It continues to be a big deal, in fact, because the same people [committing the crimes]are still in positions of power,” she said.
For older Indonesians, the massacres throughout the archipelago still leave scars despite attempts by grassroots civil society groups at mending relations. A 2015 “reconciliation” event held by the organization Syarikat Indonesia, a student civil society group under socio-religious group Nadhlatul Ulama, brought together victims or relatives with members of paramilitary assigned to carry out the killings.
“Your dad was killed. I dug his grave,” Ahmad Bantam, a former military member, told one of his victim’s son Gagarisman, as quoted by BBC Indonesia.
Gagarisman, in turn, responded amicably. Bantam and Gagarisman even hugged.
“Don’t make matters of the past as though they’re boils that never fester. Just open it, reconcile, forgive each other,” Gagarisman told BBC.
But more often than not, it’s never that simple.