“It is with great disappointment that the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival must today (Friday 23 October) announce the cancellation of … three panel sessions dedicated to discussing the 1965 Communist repression. … In addition the film screening of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence has also been canceled.”
So the organizers of the most famous cultural event in Indonesia gave notice of an act of censorship that effectively erases the first real attempt to come to terms with a 50-year-old genocide. After an army coup tried, on Oct. 1, 1965, to take power in Indonesia, a group of generals organized the immediate suppression of the putsch. Within three years, a massacre followed, leading to the extinction of the Communist Party, its affiliates, sympathizers and people simply acquainted with anyone who had left-wing sympathies. Moderate estimates of the nightmare number the dead at half a million.
The government of President Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, a civilian who recently won elections in defiance of the military lobby, the conservative heir of that dark heritage, has decided that the time is not ripe for a reflection. In history books, the narrative of the killings is manipulated if not absent, and there has never been a truth and reconciliation commission. It’s a crime without culprits that even a new, progressive ruling class refuses to talk about — refuses to finally open a debate about what happened in those three years and defined the dictatorship that lasted another 30.
A bad signal from Jakarta
The session devoted to this trip down memory lane was to begin Oct. 29. The centerpiece was Oppenheimer’s controversial film The Act of Killing — a 2012 Oscar nominee that is not distributed in Indonesia — and its sequel, The Look of Silence. The organizers obeyed authorities, they said, because to disobey would have risked the permit for the entire festival, which takes place in Bali and hosts 225 events, exhibitions, films and discussions.
This is a bad signal from Jakarta on the anniversary of one of the blackest pages of Indonesia’s history — and of the Cold War. The Communist Party of Indonesia, or PKI, was close to China, and Gen. Suharto, who succeeded Sukarno, instigated the repression and ruled as dictator until 1998, was supported by Washington. The Americans feared that Indonesia, a key component of the “domino effect” theory of communist contagion, would move toward socialism.
Exactly what happened on the eve of “the treachery of the PKI,” as one propaganda film called the coup, is still a subject of debate among historians. Untung, a soldier who had been promoted during the independence war with Holland, met at a Jakarta military base with Dipa Nusantara Aidit, who was the head of the Communist Party, the strongest in Asia behind the Soviet Union and China.
There, it’s possible they decided upon a “preventative coup” to subvert the revolutionary intentions of the Dewan Jendral, or General Council, comprising Muslims who hated the politics of Sukarno. Sukarno’s bizarre exercise of what he called “guided democracy” combined nationalism, religion and communism into an ideological construction known as Nasakom.
Cold War and Non-Aligned
This was a time of great changes for former colonies and new republics. In the early 1950s, at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia, Sukarno was a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement alongside Yugoslavia’s Tito, India’s Nehru, Egypt’s Nasser and China’s Zhou. The post-colonial era was the dawn of a new kind of colonialism as the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. divided up the world.
Sukarno was an ally of Aidit and his PKI but kept his distance. The distance wasn’t enough, however, for the CIA, which considered Indonesia a key player in Southeast Asia, lured by the promises of redemption by the North Vietnamese.
Untung and Aidit probably thought it was time to corner Sukarno before his balancing act gave way to some right-wing authoritarian regime. Untung had influence over the presidential guard and the Diponegoro Division, deployed in the capital for Armed Forces Day on Oct. 5. With their help, he seized the central structures of power: He overtook the national radio, kidnapped (and murdered) generals and tried to take Sukarno into protective custody in the palace. But the coup failed: When Untung’s soldiers went to pick him up, Sukarno was far away in the company of a young general: Suharto.
Sukarno was either frightened or persuaded; or maybe he knew it was over. He entrusted full power to Suharto, who took advantage of the wave of outrage over the slaughter of the generals. He tightened ranks, recruited militias and teamed up with landlords dispossessed by agrarian reform to implement a genocide against the “communist race.” Arson, torture, rape and mass graves followed.
Aidit was captured and killed almost immediately. Untung was tried and sentenced to death a couple years later.
The dead numbered between 500,000 and 1 million, according to Western sources, and the massacre affected almost every family. None of them can testify. The three-year mass murder ended in a silence that has lasted 50 years.
There were tentative signs of new dialogue after the fall and death of Suharto, but there was never a real national debate. The Ubud Festival was the first opportunity. Instead it was deleted by a man, in power for a year, in whom many had pinned their hopes. As those hopes fade, so too does the hope of opening the pages of an atrocity, revealing the truth and closing them again — which would be the closest thing to justice in this bloodletting.
But this is not the first disappointment from Jokowi, the former governor of Jakarta, a supposedly Mr. Clean progressive upstart. It began with the executions: In 2015, there have been 14 already (compared with 27 in the 15 years prior). In recent days, Amnesty International has pleaded Jokowi’s government to revoke a new Islamic Penal Code in Aceh province that punishes homosexuality and extramarital relationships with between 30 and 100 lashes. Now the latest controversy is a court’s decision to ask for a presidential decree allowing chemical castration for child abuse.
Here, then, is Indonesia, the miracle of democracy and development. Suharto’s ghosts continue to reign.