Anti-communist hysteria returns in Indonesia
Mob attack recalls purges that killed half a million in 1965-66
JAKARTA, Indonesia — The armed mob set out after nightfall, looking to break up — or worse — an illegal gathering of communist sympathizers in an upscale neighborhood of Jakarta, the Indonesian capital.
But when the mob arrived, its members were told that the event, held Sept. 17 at the offices of a prominent Indonesian legal assistance foundation, was just an art show. They either did not believe that or did not care.
For the next few hours, the mob — a mix of several hundred hard-line Islamists, nationalist militia members and hired local street thugs, armed with rocks and sticks — laid siege to the building, smashing windows with rocks and bricks and making death threats to those inside. Police had to disperse the mob with warning shots and tear gas. Those attending the event, including many human rights activists, had to be evacuated to safety.
The attack was one of many examples of a sudden resurgence of anti-communist hysteria in Indonesia before Saturday’s anniversary of the beginning of what historians call one of the worst mass atrocities of the 20th century: the state-sponsored purges of those suspected of being communists or their sympathizers in 1965-66.
A half-million Indonesians or more, many of whom had no connection to communism, are estimated to have been killed in an orgy of violence during those months.
Yet a half-century later, the Indonesian government and its powerful military and security forces have failed to confront the darkest chapter in this country’s history — and in fact continue to actively suppress public discourse about the massacres.
“There’s been no resolutions, no breakthrough and no ideas on how to,” said Haris Azhar, a former coordinator of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence, an Indonesian nongovernmental organization that documents human rights abuses by the military and the police.
“It’s still a big scar and a big hole for this nation,” he said. “We as a nation need to move forward, but we have to release the burden by having a full, official account of what happened, so we can learn from it and then move forward.”
But the way forward is uncertain. While the main architects are probably dead, the purges remain a taboo subject because the military, the political parties and the Islamic religious groups implicated in the violence are part of the political elite, according to analysts.
Soldiers and militarybacked civilian, paramilitary and religious groups carried out the massacres, which came on the heels of a failed uprising within the Indonesian armed forces. An officer-led group kidnapped and executed six army generals beginning on the night of Sept. 30, 1965.
Within days, top commanders had quashed the uprising, which they called a coup attempt orchestrated by the then-powerful Indonesian Communist Party, working with rogue military personnel. In the purges that came after, the victims were branded as communists who sought to topple the government, but they also included intellectuals, ethnic Chinese Indonesians, members of student and teacher unions, artists and countless others.
The killings were overseen by Suharto, an army general who went on to become the country’s president and who presided over an authoritarian, military-backed government for 32 years.
Suharto was forced to resign in 1998 after mass prodemocracy demonstrations, and he died in 2008. However, the Indonesian Communist Party remains banned in Indonesia, and discussion of the 1965-66 massacres is still taboo.
Joko Widodo, the first Indonesian president to come from outside the military and traditional political elite, pledged during his 2014 election campaign to resolve the anti-communist purges through an inquiry.
Yet aside from endorsing a public symposium on the issue that was held last year, Joko’s government has done nothing to investigate the mass killings.
“This most recent incident, and other similar incidents, puts to mind the fact that the Indonesian government and powerful elements inside and outside the government are implacably opposed to any sort of accountability for hun- dreds of thousands of deaths,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, referring to the siege on the Jakarta art show.
Noting that Joko is expected to seek re-election in 2019, he added: “It appears that the Joko government is making a political calculation that advocating for accountability for 1965-66 opens a potentially damaging Pandora’s box that does not benefit powerful players in Indonesia. Time has basically run out.”
Johan Budi, a spokesman for the Indonesian president, declined to comment on what steps his government was taking to give a full accounting of the massacres.
Kindergartners stand near a statue of Suharto, an Indonesian general who oversaw anti-communist purges in the 1960s and went on to preside over an authoritarian government for 32 years.