The mass killing of communists a half century ago is still too sensitive for Indonesian authorities, who forced cancellation of sessions about it at the country’s major literary festival starting on Wednesday. But as Hamish McDonald writes, the ghosts still hover.
In 1977, only 12 years after they started, the massacre of Indonesian communists haunted Java’s exquisite landscape of tiled-roof villages, fast-flowing rivers and irrigation channels, rice paddies, forests and looming volcanoes.
In the picturesque town of Kediri, the head ulama at the Lirboyo pesantren (Koranic boarding school) was circumspect but unapologetic about his role in 1965 organising death squads of devout Muslims on nightly round-ups of communist supporters, for execution with knives and dumping into those rivers.
Across Indonesia, perhaps a million people died this way over 1965-66.
("Merdeka Square" ('Freedom Square') is available in both English and Bahasa Indonesia)
The army officers who encouraged them were now the bupati (regent), security chiefs and other officials all out to engineer a majority for the political party that was a stage-prop for the authoritarian regime that sprang out of that massacre.
Almost another million went into prisons and concentration camps. A small number, the A Category, got show-trials, resulting in judicial execution or long jail terms. The majority were the C Category of rank-and-file communist affiliates. In the mid-1970s, we foreign correspondents were onlookers at release ceremonies, where they walked out into lifetimes of surveillance and discrimination.
Then there was the B Category, some 30,000 of the more intellectual leftists, held on remote camps. In December 1977, the military internal security agency Kopkamtib flew correspondents to Buru, an island near Ambon turned into a prison.
Burly military policemen showed us a chart, covering a wall, showing the stages of political re-education from communism to satisfaction with the socio-economic status quo under Pancasila, the state ideology promoted by then-president Suharto as a harmonious alternative to political contest, let alone revolution.
Gaunt prisoners told us about the years of brutality and near-starvation they suffered there. But the spirit was not dead.
In a corner of his prison barrack, Pramoedya Ananta Toer showed me the cubicle where he’d been allowed a desk, a typewriter, and a bare light-bulb. He showed me a thick wad of closely-typed paper, that later became his Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind) trilogy. I gave him a copy of his own short stories, translated into English by Australian scholar Harry Aveling. It was the first time he’d seen the book.
My report on that visit was the final black mark in my file at the Ministry of Information in Jakarta. Six months later I was out, denied a visa extension. When I returned a decade later, Pramoedya welcome me at his small Jakarta house. But the Nobel panels were not as courageous then as they were with Liu Xiaobo in 2010. Pramoedya, and Indonesia, never got the prize he deserved.
In 2013, when I went back to research for my book Demokrasi: Indonesia in the 21st Century, it seemed the taboo was lifting. Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary, The Act of Killing, was widely viewed.
In the Internet age, it was near impossible to ban controversial content and subject matter. Tempo magazine published reports, later collected into a book Algojo 65 (The Slaughter of 65), detailing massacres from the accounts of perpetrators and survivors. A mayor in Sulawesi issued an apology for the killings in his town and put up a memorial.
Yet accountability came too close to the top. The then Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was son-in-law of the army general who led the purge of communists across Java and Bali in late 1965. The state and the army still held to the Suharto-era doctrine that the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) struck the first blow. That this might be a historical lie is too much to contemplate.
On his way to the presidency in the 2014 elections, Joko Widodo gave hints of an official investigation, and an apology to victims who had no knowledge or involvement in the murky events of September 30-October 1, 1965. This month, he said there would be no apology.
Groups of preman (vigilantes) continue to harass PKI survivors and relatives who gather to press for some kind of belated justice. Security agents track academic and other researchers.
Last Friday, the local police chief told Janet DeNeefe, the Australian who has run the annual Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali for 12 years, that continuing with plans for five sessions related to the 1965 massacres risked a shut-down of the entire five-day festival, due to start on Wednesday. She cancelled all the sessions.
The police chief, Senior-Commander Farman, cited a 1966 law declared by Suharto banning the PKI and teaching of Marxism-Leninism, and a 1999 law that still made the spreading of communist ideology a crime punishable by 12 years jail.
“The spirit of the festival is not to discuss things that would just open old wounds,” he said.
For decades after the army smashed the PKI, its members either killed or imprisoned, the authorities warned of latent danger from an organisasi tanpa bentuk, a “formless organisation”. Now, communism is just another type of dictatorship, not a revolutionary threat.
The ban is to protect reputations. Keeping it, cutting the younger generation from the intellectual stream locked up with Pramoedya on Buru, diminishes Indonesia.
President Joko Widodo is in Washington this week on his first official visit, no doubt expecting to be hailed as friendly potential ally against Chinese strategic power.
He needs to be told that a really strong nation can confront its own past.
Hamish McDonald is author of Demokrasi: Indonesia in the 21st Century and has been a foreign correspondent in Jakarta, Tokyo, Hong Kong, New Delhi and Beijing. He is now World Editor at The Saturday Paper.