There are parts of Jakarta that look almost lovely in the evening.  As we drive along glitzy Thamrin Boulevard to my hotel, the conversation almost inevitably drifts to events that shook this country over four decades ago.

On October 5, 1965, the killings began in the immediate aftermath of a failed coup by renegade military units that the army high command tied to the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI).  By the time the worst was over a few months later, some 500,000 to one million people had perished in a nationwide bloodbath that would be surpassed in the annals of infamy in Asia only by the genocide instigated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia over a decade later.  In Java, in Bali, in Sumatra, the soil was soaked with blood as suspected communists were hunted down and summarily executed, with those who survived condemned to labor in penal colonies for decades.

While the attempted coup and its immediate aftermath were carried in the Philippine press, with blazing banner headlines in the Manila Times and Manila Chronicle, news from Indonesia left the front page by the time the massacres began to roll like a wave gaining momentum across the country.


But for some young Filipinos at the time, the events in Indonesia were not simple news items.  Then one of the leaders of the rising nationalist movement at the University of the Philippines, Dick Malay recalls on Facebook how he and Nur Misuari, later head of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), were in Jakarta “to attend an anti-colonial conference in October 1965 that almost didn’t take place because of the Nasution-Suharto countercoup against the communists who were the main supporters of Sukarno.”

The bloodbath began shortly after the Filipino delegates left Indonesia, taking the lives of many friends they met during the conference.   Malay remembers the governor of Bali hosting a reception for the delegates at which he lashed out at the Philippine government for allowing Clark Air Force Base to be the launching pad of rightist elements who tried unsuccessfully to overthrow Sukarno in 1958.  At that same event, “the governor’s pretty daughter, who was a member of the national folk dance group of Indonesia, talked to us of the warm hospitality they received in Manila.”  Malay relates how “along with his entire family, the left-leaning official was among those massacred by the anti-communist mobs goaded by the military that had seized power…Tragically, the governor’s daughter wasn’t spared from the murderous vengeance of the lynch mobs.”

The Year of Living Dangerously

In the United States, the public was preoccupied with the military buildup in Vietnam, allowing the Central Intelligence Agency to escape close scrutiny for its active role in abetting the massacre by, among other things, providing lists of Communist suspects to the military.  But as the years went by, the CIA’s central role was steadily exposed.

The horror of the Indonesian events was conveyed to the mass public in the West years later by the film The Year of Living Dangerously, starring Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver as lovers swept up in the maelstrom of coup and counterrevolution.  Though the film, in the usual Hollywood fashion, played fast and loose with some facts, it did capture the intensity of the political drama as it hurtled towards its tragic denouement. With filming banned in Indonesia, director Peter Weir shot part of the movie in the Philippines, and Bembol Roco and a very young Kuh Ledesma were cast in the film as Indonesian communist cadres.

As for myself, the full impact of the events in Indonesia really hit me years later, while I was in Chile in 1972 and early 1973, doing my dissertation on the rise of revolution and counterrevolution in that South American country during the presidency of the socialist Salvador Allende.  I heard from friends that they had seen walls in Santiago painted with the word “Jakarta,” obviously by right-wing elements goading the opposition to Allende to deal with the left in the same ruthless fashion as General Suharto did in Indonesia.  It was an advice that Gen. Augusto Pinochet took when he launched a coup against Allende in September 1973: hundreds of activists were summarily executed and many more imprisoned in the aftermath of the coup.

Shrouded in mystery

What actually happened to provoke the 1965-66 massacres is still shrouded in mystery.  The official line of the Suharto government that the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) engineered the failed coup and murdered the country’s top generals to seize power from then President Sukarno enjoys little credibility.  More credible are theories that General Suharto was either part of the failed coup or provoked it, then used it to seize control of the military and turn public ire against the Communists, whom the military saw as its most threatening rival.  What is clear is that President Sukarno’s complex balancing of three powerful forces, the Army, the Islamists, and the Communist Party, unraveled as Suharto set the Army and the Muslim right on a campaign to totally eliminate the Communists physically, politically, and ideologically.

What is also clear is that the massacre and destruction of the left became the conditio sine qua non for the establishment of Suharto’s New Order, with its political economy of authoritarian development, promotion of foreign capital, export-oriented industrialization, and crony capitalism.

Suharto and his 30-year-long New Order collapsed in the midst of the Asian financial crisis in 1998.  A period of democratic experimentation ensued, with the painful and uncertain institutionalization of free elections, political parties, and accountable governance.  Dictatorship was ended–only to be succeeded, it seemed, by money politics, with the remnants of the old regime, including the military, fighting a rearguard action to preserve their power and privileges.

The election of a former general, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, in October 2004 inaugurated a period of stabilization of the new democratic institutions, along with a drive for transparency and accountability, for which the president was reelected by a decisive majority in October 2009.  The World Economic Forum now touts Indonesia as a model, with what it sees as the country’s winning combination of receptivity to foreign investors and democratic stability.

Avoiding a reckoning

There is no returning to an authoritarian past, say my Indonesian friends.  At the same time, some of them warn that today, most of the Indonesian people would still probably regard Suharto a national hero.  Suharto fell from grace, but the authoritarian spell that he cast on Indonesia was not completely broken.  Communists continue to be considered beyond the pale, and right-wing thugs have broken up, with impunity, gatherings of progressive forces they suspect of being “Communist.”  The language of class and class struggle continues to be largely unacceptable discourse, be it in media, politics, or the academy.

A key reason for the lingering credibility of the Suharto is the reluctance of Indonesia’s post-Suharto elites and institutions to come to terms with the savage political “cleansing” that set the stage for the emergence of the New Order. In the aftermath of Suharto’s fall, the Indonesian Parliament in 1998 set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to analyze the mass killings, but what could have become a process of national catharsis was vetoed by the Indonesian High Court.

Moreover, according to the Wikipedia entry on the massacres, “The killings have been largely omitted from Indonesian history textbooks, which depicted the killings as a ‘patriotic campaign’ that resulted in less than 80,000 deaths. In 2004, the textbooks were briefly changed to include the events, but this new curriculum was abandoned in 2006 following protests from the military and Islamic groups. The textbooks which mentioned the mass killings were subsequently burned by order of Indonesia’s Attorney General.”

The question remains: can democracy in Indonesia really be placed on a stable foundation without a national reckoning of the events of October 1965?

* columnist Walden Bello is representative of the political party Akbayan in the House of Representatives and senior analyst of Focus on the Global South.