Anti-communist demonstrators in Bandung earlier this year. (Antara Photo/Agus
As the International People’s Tribunal 1965, which will be held in The Hague in mid-November, is nearing, arguments justifying the atrocities against alleged communists and their sympathizers are being brought to the fore. One of the most popular arguments is: it was either us or them.
Look at what happened to Russia under Stalin and to Cambodia during the reign of Pol Pot, some say. Those communist rulers killed millions of people in their own countries! Would you have preferred Indonesia to be ruled by the likes of Stalin or Pol Pot? The mass killings were necessary to save Indonesia, they add, not realizing that this argument has been widely used by dictators all over the world to justify campaigns of mass murder.
Pol Pot during his lifetime stated several times: “I want you to know that everything I did, I did for my country.” And what did he do, exactly? He conducted bloody purges to get rid of people who opposed him and imprisoning or outright murdering anyone suspected of disloyalty.
The argument of national unity was also used by Stalin when he engineered a famine in Ukraine during the years 1932-33, which killed millions.
The people of Ukraine demanded to be independent, and Stalin was unwilling to let go of their fertile lands, so he took the crops out of Ukraine by force. Millions of people died of starvation and Stalin simply declared them “enemies of the people.”
Thus, the biggest genocide the Soviet leader was responsible for originally did not have much do to with the challenge to communist ideology. Rather, it was about power. The people of Ukraine had fought for their independence since the time of the Russian tsars, long before the Communist Party took over. Stalin also did not hesitate to crush the communist party in Ukraine and other communist organizations that criticized him.
Pol Pot, Stalin and Indonesia's own Suharto all used the excuse of saving their people to efficiently eradicate their own enemies.
These strongmen did what they did with the stated aim of preventing exactly the same atrocity. That is why it is pointless to imagine what would have happened if Indonesia would have seen the rise of someone like Pol Pot. If you look at the degrees of authoritarianism and mass murder, we have actually been ruled by someone much worse, and Suharto remained in power for much longer than the Cambodian dictator.
In this respect it is interesting that I met a Cambodian national in the early 1990s who claimed that Pol Pot was not a mass murderer but a great patriot who loved his country deeply. This man stressed: “If Pol Pot didn’t punish the capitalists, we would have been crushed by someone like your President Suharto!”
Pol Pot could indeed have easily referred to Indonesia to support his bloody rule: “Look at what happened to Indonesia, this could happen to us if we don’t eradicate the people opposed to communism!” Genocide in this way becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And if you justify the anti-communist genocide in Indonesia in this way, you also have to justify episodes of mass murder elsewhere. How can anyone be sure that murdering someone is to only way to save your own life?
And how can anybody be sure that if communism had not been eradicated in Indonesia, the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) would have been in power? In fact, the Indonesian National Party (PNI) might have still been in power if Suharto did not take over. Another possibility is that the Islam-based Masyumi Party would have gained control, as this party came second (after the PNI) in the last election before the New Order regime.
There are many possibilities, but the rhetoric on the need to “to murder or be murdered” has made it impossible for people to see these.
Many people also fail to comprehend that if the communists in Indonesia were really on the brink of starting a violent revolution, why was it so easy to murder them en masse? Millions of people were slaughtered in cold blood, buried alive, imprisoned, tortured and raped almost without anybody putting up serious a fight.
The PKI was one of the biggest communist parties in the world in the 1960s, with about three million members. If these millions were really armed and ready to revolt, as claimed, wouldn't they at least fight back in the face of their complete annihilation?
It seems however that the official discourse as propagated by the New Order regime has prevented people from thinking clearly about this issue until today.
A prominent leader of the Nazi Party, Hermann Goering, understood all too well the power of fear in making people support mass murder.
“The people don't want war, but they can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy," he is quoted as having said. "All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and for exposing the country to danger.”
Many Indonesians fell into this trap in 1965 and many still haven't managed to escape it.
Soe Tjen Marching, the British coordinator of IPT 1965, is currently working on a book chronicling the lives of victims from the 1965 anti-communist purge.