Coming to terms with the Indonesian genocide – posted 11/1/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 11/8/2015
This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 11/8/2015 under the title “Hidden Genocide”.
If asked where genocide occurred in the 20th century, I expect most politically informed people would answer Europe under the Nazis, Cambodia with the Khmer Rouge, and possibly Rwanda. Some might mention the Armenian genocide or the mass murders in the Soviet Union under Stalin. I doubt people would think of the genocide in Indonesia. It is the hidden genocide.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Indonesian genocide. It is estimated that 500,000 to one million people died in Indonesia in 1965-1966 but the story has been buried, especially in the United States. How is it possible that a genocide could be hidden or erased from consciousness at this late date?
I think the main reason is that what happened in Indonesia in 1965 was perceived as great news and a political victory in the United States. The defeat of communists submerged the fact of their mass murder. It was the time of the Cold War and the American media did not look too closely. Genocide against a hated political movement was not seen the same as genocide against an ethnic, religious, or racial group. The murders were minimized and the victims were dehumanized.
The United Nations defines genocide as extermination of people on a large scale because of ethnic, religious, or racial reasons. It also considers the extermination of an entire political group or political movement genocide.
The 1965 story needs to be told. In the aftermath of an uprising called the September 30 Movement, General Suharto, a powerful figure in the Indonesian military, and his allies in the Indonesian Army seized control of the country. A bloodbath ensued. The Indonesian military, youth paramilitaries, and gangster-led death squads butchered massive numbers of people they perceived as opposed to a military dictatorship. The primary target group was the Indonesian Communist Party and its front organizations. However, anyone who could be accused of being an opponent of the military was swept up. That included union members, landless farmers, intellectuals, leftist artists, teachers, women activists, and the ethnic Chinese.
For those who may not know, Indonesia is a huge country. It is an archipelago in southeast Asia, comprising over 17,500 islands. It is the fourth biggest country in the world by population with over 255 million people. Up until the time of the genocide, Indonesia was led by President Sukarno, a charismatic leader who had balanced political rivals on the right and left. Sukarno was Indonesia’s first President. He had led the fight against Dutch colonialism and he was a leader of the non-aligned movement in the Third World.
Sukarno had allied with the Indonesian Communist Party which was a powerful force in the impoverished country. The Indonesian Communist Party was the largest communist party in the world outside the communist bloc countries. It had an estimated 3 million members with as many as 17 million supporters if you count front organizations. The Indonesian communists had gained popularity by leading the fight for land reform and by fighting for better conditions for the working class. At the same time, the Indonesian Army was strongly anti-communist with close ties to the United States.
Facts about the September 30 movement events that preceded the genocide remain disputed. Six of Indonesia’s most senior army generals were kidnapped and killed by a group of junior officers. While it is not clear who was behind the September 30 movement, it is clear that General Suharto used that movement as a pretext to exterminate all his perceived enemies. He then stayed in power as dictatorial leader for over 30 more years.
The genocidal killings were not of the Nazi depersonalized industrial style. There were no gas chambers. Suspects were beaten, tortured, shot, dismembered alive, garroted and beheaded in an up close and personal fashion. In his 2013 documentary, the Act of Killing, the director Joshua Oppenheimer interviews former death squad killers about how they killed. It is a hard but fascinating movie to watch. The killers remain proud of their mass murders. Hatred of the communists was whipped up on the basis that they were evil atheists, amoral and hypersexual. In the documentary, the killers described how the murder methods they saw in gangster movies inspired how they killed.
Many of the murdered victims were taken to rivers and and their bodies were dumped, left to drift out to sea. So many bodies were tossed into rivers that Indonesians stopped eating fish out of fear that the fish were consuming human flesh. Family members were never told what happened to their relatives. This was similar to what happened in Latin America back in the 1970’s when right wing militaries disappeared their opponents.
There are thousands of unopened mass graves scattered across the Indonesian archipelago. Along with the killing, hundreds of thousands were detained in prison for many years with no trial. The property and possessions of those killed were often confiscated by the killers.
In 1966, Bertrand Russell wrote “in four months, five times as many people died in Indonesia as in Vietnam in 12 years.”
A little known aspect of the genocide is the role of the United States. Much still remains unknown. Human Rights Watch has pushed unsuccessfully for years to have related U.S. government documents declassified. The reporter Kathy Kadane has documented that the United States played a significant role in the genocide by supplying the names of thousands of leftist activists, both communist and non-communist, to the Indonesian army. The lists of Indonesian Communist party leaders included over 5000 names from top echelons to village cadre. If true, this alone makes our government defacto accomplice to a mass murder.
In Kadane’s articles which appeared in major newspapers like the Boston Globe and the Washington Post in 1990, she quoted Robert J. Martens, a former member of the U.S. Embassy’s political section who was then a consultant to the State Department. Martens said,
“It really was a big help to the army. They probably killed a lot of people, and I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that’s not all bad. There’s a time when you have to strike hard at a decisive moment.”
According to Kadane, prior to the genocide, Martens had headed an embassy group of State Department and CIA officers that spent two years compiling the death lists that were delivered to the Indonesian army.
The United States also provided key logistical support to the Indonesian military to assist the slaughter, including jeeps and state-of-the-art radios which allowed U.S. operatives to listen in on what the Indonesian military was doing. The special radio system allowed for coordinated killing so the leadership in Jakarta could know what was happening on the islands. The radios filled a gap in army communications.
What is unique about the Indonesian genocide is that there has never been any public reckoning. Honest accounting of this history is still taboo in Indonesia. Many of the perpetrators are still in positions of power and under Indonesia law, they are immune from prosecution. Indonesia’s President, Joko Widodo, the first leader after General Suharto to have no ties to military or political elites, has refused to issue an apology to the survivors and victims’ families.
In Oppenheimer’s documentary, one of the death squad leaders says it is the victors who decide what is a war crime. That appears to be the case in Indonesia. The perpetrators are still proud of the mass murders. To date there is no Truth and Reconciliation Commission doing an investigation into what happened in 1965-1966.
The picture Oppenheimer presents of Indonesia is scary. Gangsters and paramilitary thugs operate freely, shaking down legitimate business people, shop owners and others. Corruption and graft appear to be a way of life. The population remains cowed, existing in a state of fear and silence. Those who had been associated with any type of progressive politics remain severely stigmatized. Oppenheimer describes a veritable shadow state where gangsters, paramilitaries, and the army are all beyond the law.
I would mention that Oppenheimer made an important companion documentary, The Look of Silence, released this year, that focuses more on the victims of the genocide. For those who want to learn more about these events, Oppenheimer’s documentaries are a good place to begin. Oppenheimer is no longer welcome in Indonesia.
There are current efforts toward accountability. Last December, Senator Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico, introduced a “Sense of the Senate Resolution” condemning the 1965-1966 atrocities in Indonesia and calling for declassification of U.S. government files about the mass killings. The resolution also encourages the Indonesian government to acknowledge the massacres and to establish a truth commission.
On November 10-13, the International People’s Tribunal on 1965 Crimes against Humanity in Indonesia will meet at the Hague. This tribunal of experts in human rights law and Asian history was established to examine the mass killings and other crimes against humanity in Indonesia. The Tribunal is an initiative of the International People’s Tribunal 1965 Foundation which was set up in 2013 by a group of victims in exile and in Indonesia, as well as human rights activists, intellectuals, artists, journalists and academics. The Tribunal follows in the tradition of the Russell Tribunal which investigated war crimes in Vietnam.
The Tribunal has charged Indonesia with the commission of crimes against humanity and with violations of international law. The prosecution case is based on extensive inquiry carried out by a large group of researchers. Material brought forward will include documentary evidence, witness testimonies, victim impact statements, and audio and visual materials. Among the crimes alleged are murder, enslavement, torture, sexual violence, unjust imprisonment, enforced disappearance and persecution though propaganda.
The judges of the Tribunal will examine the evidence presented by the prosecution, develop an accurate historical record and apply principles of international customary law. public international law and Indonesian law to the facts found. They plan to read their verdict in Geneva next year.
The Tribunal is not a criminal court. It has no power of enforcement but it hopes to shatter and puncture the culture of impunity around these events.
The website of the Tribunal is http://www.1965tribunal.org. Since this Tribunal has received virtually no publicity in the United States, I would encourage readers to read the indictment, which is readily accessible on the website. While much of the focus is on Indonesia, the Unites States, the United Kingdom , and Australia are also charged with knowingly aiding and assisting the State of Indonesia with commission of crimes against humanity and serious breaches of international law.
The historian Gabriel Kolko accurately summarized these events. He wrote:
“The “final solution” to the Communist problem in Indonesia was certainly one of the most barbaric acts of inhumanity in a century that has seen a great deal of it; it surely ranks as a war crime of the same type as those the Nazis perpetrated. No single American action in the period after 1945 was as bloodthirsty as its role in Indonesia, for it tried to initiate the massacre, and it did everything in its power to encourage Suharto, including equipping his killers, to see the physical liquidation of the Indonesian Communist Party was carried through to its culmination. Not a single one of its officials in Washington or Jakarta questioned the policy on either ethical or political grounds…”
History is about what we remember from the past. Some events survive in memory and some are gone into a black hole. I do think how we disappeared a genocide in which our nation is implicated deserves further consideration.