The threat of communism still grips Indonesia, despite the fact the movement was crushed in appalling massacres 52 years ago.
Allegedly Communist members of Indonesia’s military supposedly kidnapped and killed six generals in Jakarta in the mysterious “September 30 Movement”.
In response, General Suharto, then the head of the strategic reserve command, with support from the CIA, accused the Communist Party of trying to seize power and installed himself as dictator, a role he held until 1998.
In October 1965, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was the world’s third-largest, after those in the USSR and China, and the killings slotted into a Cold War narrative. Over the next few months, up to 1 million alleged Communists and their families were butchered. The deaths still echo loudly today and hamper subsequent US claims that it pursues an ethnical foreign policy.
Islamist activists still seek to suppress investigations into the massacres and used the communist threat to condemn secular President Joko Widodo.
And at a rally in Jakarta on Friday, thousands protested at the gates of parliament to expose a “communist revival”.
“There are two tools that cynical operators can use for political gain in Indonesia — religion and communism,” said historian Baskara Wardaya or Sanata Dharma University in Yogyakarta. “And the myth of an ever-present, dangerous communist threat was created by Suharto in October 1965. It was ingrained into the minds of the people.”
Hoax messages on WhatsApp tell people to beware of communists who come to villages offering free blood tests, saying they are really trying to infect villagers with HIV.
One Muslim group claims Indonesia’s new bank notes have secret communist iconography.
Tourists have even been detained for wearing T-shirts displaying the hammer and sickle.
The army is currently showing the Suharto-era propaganda film Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI, or “Betrayal of the Communists”, to mark the 52th anniversary of the coup.
The 1984 film depicting communists as violent savages is being shown in villages and mosques. It was broadcast on state television every September 30 until Suharto was toppled in 1998.
The public screenings this year have also coincided with attacks on supposed communists. In September a planned seminar about the 1965 murders at Jakarta’s Legal Aid Institute was broken up by violent gangs and a group compiling accounts from 1965 was branded “communist” on social media.
Indonesia still suffers from “dangerous anti-communist paranoia,” said Human Rights Watch, condemning the attack on the offices of the Legal Aid Institute.
In the 1965 crackdown, suspected Communists were shot, stabbed, decapitated and thrown into rivers to be washed into the sea. Discrimination continued for decades with relatives of victims banned from government service or any form of public life.
The military is told to prevent screenings of Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentaries the Act of Killing and the Look of Silence that interview those who carried out, and continue to benefit from, the massacres.
“It is this peculiar situation in that communism has been exterminated — has been extinct in Indonesia since 1965 — and yet it is a country in which communism never really died,” Oppenheimer explains. “They are stuck in evoking or conjuring the spectre of communism to keep people silent and afraid.”
It has been revealed that the US embassy in Jakarta provided CIA-compiled lists of communists ahead of the killings.
“It really was a big help to the army,” Robert Martens, who worked at the embassy’s political section, told the Washington Post in 1990. “They probably killed a lot of people, and I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that’s not all bad.”
Because the killings were committed by a US ally, while its troops were flooding into Vietnam, the murders were given little scrutiny in the western media. The butchery goes down as one of the post-1945 world’s forgotten crimes.
The US National Declassification Centre recently processed thousands of the embassy’s files from 1965 and is working with historian Brad Simpson from the University of Connecticut to make them public.
Simpson said preliminary work indicated that the documents should “confirm in additional detail that US officials were aware of the army-led mass-killings of alleged PKI supporters and members and actively encouraged them… [US ambassadorial staff] knew the army was carrying out a campaign of extermination against overwhelmingly unarmed civilians who were unaware of and had no involvement in the September 30 Movement.”
The spectre of the long-dead ideology is still used in the archipelago, not because it might see a revival, but to silence questions about how around a million Indonesians were slaughtered by their neighbours. The blood will not wash from the hands of those who still wield power, run businesses seized from the dead or even live in their former homes.
A generation must pass, it seems, before Indonesia can begin to address the crimes of 1965-66.
The sickle and hammer still has a strange hold over the Indonesian imagination. Picture credit: YouTube