The Indonesian Killings of 1965-1966

4 Août, 2009

A – Context

The 1965-66 Indonesian killings occurred against the backdrop of the Cold War, extreme political tension and economic hardship. In 1959 President Sukarno implemented the system of ‘Guided Democracy’. He claimed that since the Indonesian revolution against the Dutch (1945-49), the system of parliamentary democracy had failed. Sukarno proposed an alternative in which the president would play a greater role. In addition he called for a ‘return to the rails of the revolution’ and began to focus increasingly on implementing the next stage of the revolution, a form of socialist populism. During the period of Guided Democracy Sukarno played a delicate balancing act by supporting both the largely anticommunist army and the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI - Partai Komunis Indonesia).

The PKI was one of the few mass political forces whose influence grew during this period. By 1965 the party claimed to have three and a half million members, thereby making it the largest Communist Party in any non-communist country. The PKI offered a new modernist ideology and sought to address inequalities and generate support among the people by exploiting existing fractures in society. The PKI pressured Sukarno to move ahead in implementing the system of land reform. Following the government’s delays in implementing land reform, based on the 1959 Crop Sharing Law and the 1960 Basic Agrarian Law, the PKI called for peasants to begin to implement their own land reforms. In regions such as East Java and parts of Bali the land reforms were a major cause of conflict.

At an ideological level there were also growing tensions resulting from the increased influence of the PKI. Although there were communist supporters in the military, the army had long standing suspicions of the PKI, based on the perception that the communists had led a rebellion against the Republic in 1948 during the struggle against the Dutch (known as the Madiun Affair). Religious groups ranging from Muslims to Catholics were also suspicious of the PKI’s stance on religion, fearing that with the increasing influence of the party religious beliefs and practices would be marginalised.

Sukarno became increasingly strident in his condemnation of the Western powers and neo-imperialist agendas in the 1960s, culminating in the 1963-65 military operation to crush the formation of Malaysia, which in his view was a ‘neo-colonial’ creation.

Sukarno focused intensely on the ideological direction of Indonesia, paying less attention to the economy. He divided the world into NEFOS (Newly Emerging Forces) and OLDEFOS (Old Established Forces), drawing sharp lines between neo-colonial and progressive world forces.

In the late 1950s Sukarno had nationalised many remaining Dutch assets, emphasising the need for economic independence but producing no clear policies for the economy. This resulted in the deterioration of infrastructure, a fall in agricultural production, escalating inflation and severe economic hardship for most Indonesians. In 1965 he famously told the US to ‘go to hell’ with its aid.

By 1965 rumours had begun circulating in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, that a group of senior army generals were planning a coup against Sukarno. Fears intensified when Sukarno collapsed at an event in August due to ill health. Early in the hours of October 1, 1965, members of an armed group calling itself the 30 September Movement kidnapped and killed six of the most senior army generals and one lieutenant, dumping their corpses in an unused well at Lubang Buaya in East Jakarta. The 30 September Movement was led by Lieutenant-Colonel Untung of the Cakrabirawa Presidential Guard, and was composed mostly of disaffected officers from the Central Java Diponegoro military division. The movement seized the state broadcasting service and made several announcements proclaiming a new revolutionary government.

There are diverse interpretations as to who backed the 30 September Movement and these interpretations have a crucial bearing on the killings which followed. The official Indonesian government version of the 30 September Movement laid the blame squarely on the PKI (Pusat Sedjarah Angkatan Bersendjata, 1965). Soon after the coup attempt McVey and Anderson (1971) suggested the movement was an internal military affair in which some communist leaders were co-opted. In the latest scholarly interpretation of the coup attempt, John Roosa (2006) demonstrated that a few top leaders of the PKI, such as the Special Bureau led by Sjam Kamaruzzaman and directed by PKI chairman D. N. Aidit played a role in the coup plot, but that prior knowledge of the coup was limited to a very small circle within the party. Some members of affiliated PKI organizations such as the Pemuda Rakyat (People’s Youth) had been receiving military training and were reportedly on stand-by to mobilize for some kind of action, but they were unaware of the planned action against the military.

Suharto, then Commander of the Army Strategic Reserve, moved quickly to crush the 30 September Movement and to control interpretations of these events. The army officially declared the movement a coup attempt by the PKI. It quickly shut down Communist and other leftist publications, and pro-army papers such as Angkatan Bersendjata and Berita Yudha began to dominate the media. These army newspapers set about spreading grisly accounts of the murder of the army leaders, claiming their bodies had been mutilated prior to and after their deaths. These stories included allegations of eye gouging and genital mutilation performed by members of the Indonesian Women’s Movement (Gerwani), which was closely-affiliated with the PKI. Other key elements of the army’s propaganda campaign of October 1965 were the emphasis on the killing of General Nasution’s daughter (her funeral was the spark that set off anti-PKI violence), and the elevation of the murdered generals to the status of ‘Heroes of the Revolution’. The aim of the propaganda campaign was to inflame public opinion against the PKI, thereby leaving President Sukarno without a major ally.

Portraits of the ‘Heroes of the Revolution’ displayed at the Sacred Pancasila Monument Museum in Jakarta:

Portraits of the ‘Heroes of the Revolution’ displayed at the Sacred Pancasila Monument Museum in Jakarta

Although there had been clashes between the PKI and its affiliated organizations, and non-communist groups before October 1965, the actions of the 30 September Movement and the accompanying propaganda campaign provided the trigger for the mass killings of 1965-66.

B. Decision-Makers, Organizers and Actors

Key Instigators - The Indonesian Army

The Indonesian army directed the killings with varying degrees of assistance from religious groups and other enemies of the PKI. They targeted members of the PKI and its affiliated organizations, military men sympathetic to the PKI, and Sukarno supporters. The areas of most intense conflict were often those in which the PKI had strong political influence, for example Solo, where the Mayor was from the PKI. The violence spanned the archipelago, but was particularly intense in Java, Bali and Sumatra where the PKI had a larger following (see accompanying maps). Most of the killings took place between October 1965 and March 1966. The killings were politically motivated and in the view of some authors also motivated by related economic interests. Conflicts and resistance continued well after 1966, in some parts of Java until 1969, and many people who had either continued to resist or had gone into hiding were not arrested until this later period.

At an institutional level, the Indonesian Army had clashed seriously with the PKI previously, most notably during the 1948 Madiun Affair. The Madiun Affair involved an attempt by lower echelon Communist Party leaders, aggravated by plans to rationalise the military of left leaning troops, to seize control of the local government in Madiun from the Republican government during the war of independence against the Dutch. Anti-communist elements of the Indonesian army viewed this revolt as a great betrayal. In the 1960s there were also strong differences of opinion over the issues of how far the anti-Malaysia campaign should be taken. Proposals to arm and train peasants and workers and to increase the representation of communists in the army, in accordance with Sukarno’s support for representation of the three pillars of nationalism, religion and communism in all organizations, generated significant conflict. Although these clashes in opinion could not always be expressed openly in the context of the Guided Democracy period, they nevertheless fuelled resentment towards the PKI.

Following President Sukarno’s refusal to ban the PKI, Suharto dispatched the Army Para Commando Unit (RPKAD) under the leadership of Sarwo Edhie to Central Java and then Bali to commence killing communists in the districts in these two provinces. In most cases the killings began when RPKAD forces arrived or when local military leaders declared that they sanctioned the killing of communists (Cribb, 2001a). In some regions military units played a major role in the killings, but they often relied on local militia. Sensationalised reporting on the deaths of the six army generals at the hands of the PKI kindled the hatred of military men and others towards the PKI.

The Indonesian military was not, however, united in its actions and several army battalions including the Diponegoro division of Central Java and a significant number of airforce officers were in fact strongly sympathetic to the PKI.

The Nahdlatul Ulama and other Religious Organizations

The army also played a key role in recruiting, arming and training militia units to carry out the killings. These militia units were largely recruited from Ansor, the youth wing of the largest Islamic organization in Indonesia, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU - meaning awakening of the ulama or religious scholars). The army probably turned to NU because of its extensive networks in rural communities and its demonstrated commitment to opposing communists.

In 1962 Ansor had responded to the growing assertiveness of the PKI by founding Banser (Barisan Serbaguna, or Multipurpose Brigade), an armed wing in preparation for confrontation with the PKI. Prior to the 1965 coup attempt, members of Banser had clashed physically with members of the PKI-affiliated Indonesian Farmers’ Union when they attempted to seize lands owned by Islamic boarding schools as part of a broader program of land reform. In these clashes Banser was usually victorious.

In the months after the coup attempt, members of Banser mobilized, with varying degrees of military assistance and direction, and rounded up and killed members of leftist organizations.

The NU was not the only civilian organization that supported killings. The second largest Islamic organization, Muhammadiyah, also provided rapid support for crushing the PKI, with some leaders declaring this a religious duty. For both the NU and Muhammadiyah, the PKI’s alleged lack of commitment to religion was a major concern.

The Catholic Party was similarly firmly anti-communist because of the perceived threat the PKI posed to religion. Secretary-general of the Catholic Party, Harry Tjan Silalahi, was a key founder of KAP-Gestapu (the Action Front to Crush the 30 September Movement). He helped mobilize youths from PMKRI (Persatuan Mahasiswa Katolik Republik Indonesia) to join together with Ansor in the Action Front to attack the PKI headquarters in Jakarta on October 8, 1965.

Militias attached to non-religiously aligned parties such as the Partai Nasional Indonesia (PNI - Indonesian Nationalist Party), also participated in the violence. In Bali the PNI-affiliated vigilante group Tameng Marhaen played a key role.

Explanations for the Killings

The Indonesian military’s role was central in instigating and coordinating the killings, but they also relied on participation from broader sections of society. Explanations focusing on elite political rivalry, ideology, or different institutional interests do not, however, capture the reasons why people at a village level, for example, were willing to participate in the killings.

In some areas there was a strong perception that the PKI had overstepped the boundaries of acceptability with regard to the land reform actions, but also in increasingly assertive attacks on religious leaders, who were branded as one of the ‘seven village devils’ due to their land holdings. ‘Seven village devils’ was a term the PKI used in its propaganda to denote forces deemed to be detrimental to the people’s interests. In his recollections of this period Yusuf Hasyim, the religious teacher and former leader of the military wing of Ansor in East Java, recalled how he had received information from the military about the existence of hit lists from the PKI of Islamic figures who were to be killed. Although these lists were probably a military fabrication, Hasyim claims that this led to a perception that there was ‘only two choices: kill or be killed’ (Hasyim, 2005). This is a frequent justification offered by those who participated in the killings.

In addition to local factors and specific sources of political or ideological grievance at the elite levels, the economy was in ruins and many people were struggling to survive. Cribb (2002) suggests that these dire economic conditions perhaps fueled an acceptance of the idea that the PKI were the culprits for both the failing economy and the murder of the army generals and that they should therefore be punished and prevented from coming to power.

The army encouraged a belief in the barbarity of the PKI by means of its propaganda campaign, but it also set about training and mobilising people to take part in the arrest and killing of PKI members and those of affiliated organizations. There was also a degree of coercion in this process such that some people felt that if they did not participate they would be targeted (Sulistyo, 1997). The military thus deliberately co-opted other groups to participate in the killings. Cribb (1990) believes that they did so to ensure broad support for blocking a PKI come back and should they do so, the army would not be the only ones blamed.

C. Victims

As noted above, the PKI claimed a membership of 3.5 million people by 1965. In addition it had another 23.5 million members in affiliated organizations. These affiliated organizations included a wide range of interests including the Barisan Tani Indonesia (BTI - Indonesian Farmer’s Union), The Indonesian Workers Union (SOBSI), Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat Indonesia (LEKRA - The Indonesian People’s Culture Institute), Gerwani (The Indonesian Women’s Movement) and the youth organization Pemuda Rakyat (The People’s Youth). Members of these organizations shared a broad political agenda with the PKI. In some cases, however, they joined for very specific reasons rather than an overarching commitment to communist ideology. Some illiterate farmers, for example, were attracted to BTI because of the potential to gain their own land holdings or the promise of fairer wages. The army condemned members of these affiliated organizations alongside the PKI for their alleged involvement in the 30th of September Movement.

Members of the PKI, BTI, Pemuda Rakyat, Gerwani, SOBSI and LEKRA were all targeted in the initial arrests and imprisonments. They were identified by means of organizational lists compiled by the army, or in the case of local communities, by means of general knowledge of peoples’ alliances.

The PKI remained a legal party until 1966 because President Sukarno refused to ban the party. Despite this, repression of PKI members and members of affiliated organizations began in the weeks after October 1.

Members of the Cakrawirawa guard and members of the two battalions that supported the 30 September Movement, the Diponegoro and Brawijaya divisions from Central Java, were also targeted. The air force, which was the force most sympathetic to the PKI, was also subject to purges. In addition, there was a split within the Indonesian National Party and some of those on the left, who were most supportive of President Sukarno, were also purged from both the military and the government.

The ethnic Chinese were not especially targeted in the violence of 1965-66. Historically the ethnic Chinese have frequently been persecuted in Indonesia and as a result of this and other discriminatory policies they were concentrated in the cities in the 1960s. Because the killings were most intense in rural areas they were not especially targeted, although many suffered property loss or damage (Cribb, 2001a and Coppel, 1983).

Members of the PKI and its affiliated organizations sometimes reported directly to authorities and were detained, others were arrested at their homes and taken away by members of the military or religious vigilantes for interrogation, often involving torture. They were commonly detained first in temporary prisons and later taken to the forests to be killed with knives, clubs, bayonets, firearms or were beaten to death. Their bodies were disposed of in mass graves. In other cases the corpses were dumped in the sea, caves, major rivers, left on main streets or mutilated and strung up for public display as a further form of terror.

Estimates of the number of people who died range from 100,000 to 2 million people. There is such a wide range of estimates because there was little record keeping at the time and no serious attempt afterwards to reconstruct what had happened. President Sukarno ordered a Fact Finding team to investigate the killings in December 1965, but it completed its work before the killings finished. A KOPKAMTIB (Komando Operasi Pemulihan Keamanan dan Ketertiban - Operations Command to Restore Order and Security) survey in 1966, still not available to researchers, is said to have estimated that a million people had been killed. There are serious doubts about the reliability of this report because there were motivations for both over and under reporting the killings. Because the corpses were disposed of in numerous ways and due to the climate of Indonesia, which promotes rapid decay, remains were not frequently discovered in ensuing years. In addition, there was no political will or interest in uncovering mass graves until the late 1990s and the end of the Suharto regime. Acknowledging the many difficulties of arriving at an accurate estimate, Robert Cribb (2001b) suggests a figure of 500,000 as most accurate.

In addition to those killed, 600,000-750,000 people were also imprisoned for periods of between one and thirty years (Fealy, 1995). The military categorised prisoners into three groups. Group A consisted of the highest ranks of the PKI, those for whom there was allegedly evidence of planning and leading the 30 September Movement. These prisoners were held for long periods until a military trial could be scheduled. Of those tried no-one was acquitted and many received the death penalty.

Group B consisted of people who were the rank and file of the PKI, whom the military deemed indirectly involved. Category B prisoners were sent to penal colonies in remote areas like Buru Island in the Maluku region where they were set the task of opening up agricultural lands while remaining isolated from the rest of society. To survive, they were forced to establish self-supporting communities with their own sources of food. During the period of imprisonment some prisoners also carried out forced labour to build roads and infrastructure.

Third came category C prisoners, including those who supported the PKI’s 26 mass organizations. Most category C detainees were detained closer to home where their families could provide supplies and were released by 1972. Once they were released they faced severe restrictions on their employment, compulsory registration and monitoring by local officials and loss of voting rights.

Prisoners were often subject to torture when they were first detained and sometimes long after this. During these torture sessions their captors sought to extract confessions from prisoners as to their involvement in the 30 September Movement and as members of the Communist Party, they were also asked to name other people in the party or its affiliated organizations and reveal their locations. Gaol rations were minimal and many men and women died of hunger and related illnesses.

Due to the propaganda surrounding Gerwani and their alleged debauchery in the events of the 30 September, Gerwani women and other women affiliated with the PKI were subject to intense stigmatization and sexual abuse including rape inside the prisons (Wieringa, 2002). Women were detained in either mixed or women’s only prisons such as Bukit Duri in Jakarta and the more isolated Plantungan prison in Kendal, Central Java.

In some cases, when women had young children or were pregnant their children went to gaol with them. In other cases, women had to ask for help from their wider family to adopt their children. Sometimes children were also left orphaned by the killings or forcibly removed from the families of alleged communists. Families left behind also suffered due to the intense stigmatization of communists.

The houses and property of those killed or detained were sometimes burnt down or seized by the military. Some became temporary detention centres.

From the 1980s onwards, after the release of most political prisoners, the New Order government applied a form of screening called the ‘clean environment policy’ towards appointments to certain professions such as teachers, lawyers, journalists, civil servants and in the military. According to this policy former political prisoners and the children and grandchildren of those allegedly connected to the 30 September Movement were barred from working in these professions.

D - Witnesses

Most Indonesians, particularly in Bali and East Java would have witnessed incidents of killings or other violence during the 1965-66 period. However, until the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998, there were only a handful of published accounts by survivors about what they had witnessed in 1965-66.

Since 1998 several former political prisoners have published their memoirs, focusing on their experiences inside gaol. These works include accounts of torture, beatings and murder inside the gaols as well as accounts of prisoners being taken away never to return (see for example Sulami, 1999).

Several researchers have also collected oral testimonies from survivors of the violence, which include recollections of witnessing killings.

There are a number of published accounts by witnesses and perpetrators available in English. The first major edited book on the killings by Cribb (1990) includes a translated report from the army history division on crushing the PKI in Central Java, an anonymous report on the killings in East Java, two reports on the killings in 1969 in Purwodadi and three short reports on the violence in Bali.

Pipit Rochijat, a graduate in electrical engineering, provided an account of the killings in Kediri, East Java in a piece titled ‘Am I PKI or non-PKI?’ (Rochijat, 1985). At the time of the killings Rochijat was a student. He witnessed the killings, in which his friends participated. He recalls that troops from nationalist and religious youth groups, including recruits from Islamic boarding schools, would surround a village suspected of being communist such as Pare in East Java. The next day he would see corpses, sometimes mutilated, floating down the Brantas river often tied to or impaled with bamboo sticks so they would float and be visible to others. He also recalls the road west of Kediri being decorated with PKI heads and male genitals being hung outside brothels. He recalls watching people die and beg for mercy, the image of heads being decapitated, the screams of a Gerwani woman as her vagina was pierced with a bamboo pole. As a member of a PNI youth group he also was targeted for arrest in a later wave of army-directed arrests.

In 1989 an unidentified member of a leftist youth organization, possibly Pemuda Rakyat, who escaped death recorded his memories of witnessing some killings from hiding. His work was published in English under the title By the Banks of the Brantas . In this piece, republished in Cribb (1997), he recounts his experiences of avoiding capture and viewing the slaughter and decapitation of several men and women.

Yusuf Hasyim also published a short account of Ansor’s role in opposing the communists before and after the 30 September Movement in a larger volume on the New Order period (Hasyim, 2005).

In 2008, shortly after the death of former president Suharto, journalist Anthony Deutsch published some interviews with people who recalled the violence of 1965. In one interview in Blitar, East Java, Markus Talam, a former member of a left-wing union for park rangers who was gaoled for ten years on suspicion of being a communist sympathiser, recalls seeing soldiers herding prisoners from trucks, lining them up and shooting them with automatic weapons (Deutsch, 2008a).

In another rare interview, four perpetrators in Bangil, East Java, expressed no remorse for the killings. Sulchan, who is now a preacher and was a former member of Banser suggested the order to kill communists came through Islamic clerics within the Nadhlatul Ulama. Sulchan admitted to leading the killings in his local area and recounted how his men killed a school teacher with a sledgehammer, how they decapitated one man and hung his head in the town square. On another night they took 20-30 prisoners to an execution site, dumping the bodies in a ditch (Deutsch, 2008b).

Both military official histories of particular regiments and histories of Ansor and/or the NU include accounts of the killings throughout Indonesia (see for example Semdam VIII, Brawidjaja, 1969 and Anam, 1990).

In addition to these first hand accounts there are several fictionalised accounts of the killings (see for example Aveling, 1975).

E - Memories

Official history during the New Order period

For the duration of the Suharto New Order regime, the 1965-66 killings were described obscurely in school history textbooks under the generic term of crushing the PKI, which could have been interpreted as the suppression of those directly involved in the 30 September Movement. The military regime used its version of the coup attempt to deflect attention from the killings. Within forty days after the coup attempt the military produced the first white book on the events, emphasising PKI culpability and their alleged depravity during the kidnapping and killing of the seven army martyrs (Pusat Sedjarah Angkatan Bersendjata, 1965). It then set about memorialising the site, Lubang Buaya in Jakarta, at which the bodies of the martyrs were found. Over time, an elaborate monument and museum complex was built.

The Sacred Pancasila Monument, featuring the Pancasila emblem and statues of the seven army victims of the 30 September Movement:

The Sacred Pancasila Monument, featuring the Pancasila emblem
and statues of the seven army victims of the 30 September Movement

From the mid-1980s a propaganda film including a re-enactment of the kidnapping and killing of the army men was screened repeatedly on all television stations. In addition, the regime began to commemorate October 1 each year as Sacred Pancasila Day (McGregor, 2002). The name of this day suggested that the day the coup attempt was suppressed the national philosophy, Pancasila, had been saved. The overarching narrative was thus that the Indonesian people had been saved on October 1 from a communist betrayal, that for this reason the day should be commemorated and the military victims mourned as martyrs to this cause.

Commemoration of October 1, 1997, at the Sacred Pancasila Monument, Jakarta.

 Commemoration of October 1, 1997, at the Sacred Pancasila Monument, Jakarta.

For thirty two years, on October 1, Indonesian newspapers continued under tight press controls to faithfully replicate the official version of the coup attempt and made little or no mention of the killings that followed. In military histories and histories compiled by religious organizations involved in the violence, the killings were generally referred to by the military term penumpasan , meaning crushing. Both these groups recorded their participation in the killings with pride, as part of their service to the nation. In communities in which the violence had taken place many people were afraid to speak out or write about the violence because of an enduring campaign of anti-communism and the possible consequences of being labelled a communist even thirty years after the coup attempt.

One reason that the government kept anti-communism alive was that the Suharto regime feared communism as a political force. The New Order regime placed severe restrictions on the employment, movement and political activities of former political prisoners thereby restricting the capacity of these people to seek redress for past violence. In this climate it was difficult to express public sympathy for victims of this violence.

Contested Memories of the Killings

The collapse of the Suharto regime in May 1998 ushered in a period of openness and a new curiosity about the events of the 1960s emerged. After restrictions on the media were lifted, discussions began about the official version of the coup attempt and then eventually the 1965-66 killings and imprisonments.

Former political prisoners seized this opportunity to publicise their experiences. Some began to publish memoirs of their prison experiences emphasising their suffering. A common trend in these stories is to begin narrating one’s experiences from the moment of arrest in a way that obscures the author’s involvement in politics and indeed the militancy of some PKI affiliated organizations (Watson, 2006 and McGregor and Hearman, 2007). The intention is to generate sympathy for this group of people and demand their rehabilitation in addition to seeking justice by more formal means. Some former political prisoners have also made, or provided testimony, in documentary style films about the violence of 1965-66 to help raise public awareness about what happened.

Survivors also joined together to form a number of victims’ organizations. One of the most active victims’ organizations in the first years after Suharto was the YPKP (the Foundation for Research into Victims of the 1965-66 Killings) founded by the famous novelist and former prisoner Pramoedya Anata Toer and former Gerwani leader Sulami. YPKP’s initial activities included collecting testimonies, investigating and exhuming mass graves and producing publications with the aim of challenging the orthodox history of the killings and bringing perpetrators to account. In the early years of its operations the activities of YPKP and the split off group LPKP (Institute for Research on Victims of the Killings) prompted sporadic protests, and their branches repeatedly received threats from organizations such as the Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front).

In addition to these efforts a number of NGOs and independent research groups such as ELSAM, Kontras, the National Commission on Women’s Rights, and Institut Sejarah Sosial Indonesia (ISSI - Institute for Indonesian Social History) began to research the mass violence of 1965-66. ISSI has collected oral histories of over two hundred people affected by the violence of 1965 and published a collection of these stories (Roosa, Ratih and Farid, 2004). ISSI has also been involved in efforts to promote greater awareness about the violence of this period among younger Indonesians.

At an official level, responses to efforts to address this past have been mixed. The first president after Suharto, Bacharuddin Habibie, released all remaining political prisoners, cancelled the tradition of screening the propaganda film about the coup on the 30 September and promised revisions to school history textbooks that had previously encouraged hatred towards all alleged communists. In 2000, President Abdurrahman Wahid, who was the former leader of Nahdlatul Ulama, suggested lifting the long standing ban on communism and proposed a judicial investigation into the killing. In response there were mass rallies of protest from Islamic groups.

The reaction to this proposal was a precursor to a looming backlash against all efforts to address this past. In 2001, members of the group Forum Ukuwah Islamiya Kaloran (Kaloran Islamic Fraternity Forum) violently obstructed a YPKP coordinated reburial of remains of victims from 1965. The remains had been recovered from a mass grave in Wonosobo. Prior to the 2004 elections the government lifted the ban on former political prisoners standing for elections. In August 2005 a number of anti-communist groups also protested outside the Central Jakarta State Court against a class action brought by ex-political prisoners from LPKP. The action, against the current President and his predecessors including Suharto, sought to repeal the 1966 decree banning the Communist Party, historical correction, compensation and rehabilitation of the names of victims.

By 2004, approved textbooks included alternative versions of the attempted coup. The propaganda about communist barbarity was discarded, but no mention was made of the post-coup killings or the mass imprisonments that followed. Even these tame revisions, however, prompted protest. In 2005 the Attorney General called the authors of these textbooks to explain why they had not described 1965 as a communist coup attempt. In 2004 the push for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) encompassing the 1965-66 killings also gained momentum, but in 2006 the idea was abandoned.

Opposition to both the revised textbooks and the TRC was particularly strong from the NU elder Yusuf Hasyim who formed part of an anti-communist coalition. In 2001 and 2003 he organized exhibitions devoted to the theme of PKI treachery and barbarity. Another polemical anti-communist is Taufiq Ismail, whose poetry was popular in the anti-communist student movement of 1966 of which he was a part, has repeatedly published accounts alerting Indonesians to communist crimes in history and the alleged fate they were ‘saved from’ in 1965 (Ismail, 2004).

There are different views, however, among Indonesian Muslims concerning this past. One Islamic organization Syarikat, which is composed of NU youth, is working hard towards community level reconciliation between ex-political prisoners and members of Nahdlatul Ulama on the basis of a belief that members of the NU participated in the killings only because they were manipulated by the military.

F - General and Legal Interpretation of the Facts

The most prolific writer on the Indonesian killings is the Australian based historian of Indonesia, Robert Cribb. Cribb edited the first scholarly book on the killings in 1990, in which he attempts to survey patterns in the violence of 1965-66. Since this publication he has published several articles on the killings (Cribb, 1997, 2001a, 2001 b, 2002).

From the 1980s, some scholars began to regard the Indonesian killings as genocide because of the scale of the killing, but this interpretation was rejected by other scholars on the grounds that the United Nations definition of genocide does not mention the targeting of political groups. Cribb (2001) has since argued that ethnic and political identities can overlap so strongly that excluding mass political killing from the definition of genocide is no longer tenable. Another term sometimes used to describe politically motivated killings is politicide.

Some observers have suggested cultural explanations for the killings. The journalist Frank Palmos (1966), for instance, drew on the fact that amuck (amuk in Indonesian spelling) is an Indonesian word to suggest that Indonesians had run amuck or participated in a wild frenzy and killed other Indonesians in a form of psychopathology. Yet there is no evidence of such a frenzy and serious sociological studies of amuck as a phenomenon show that it is a response to defeat and humiliation, never carried out by those who have the upper hand in a conflict. Other observers have suggested (e.g. Hughes, 1967) that Javanese and Balinese cultures place unusually high value on social harmony and that social forces take revenge on anyone seen as disrupting that harmony. This explanation, however, is based on an orientalist view of traditional Javanese and Balinese cultures which ignores the elements of conflict and violence that have consistently been present.

Scholars differ in the emphasis they place on certain factors in contributing to the killings. Cribb (2001) argues that the killings were directed by the military and fuelled by economic and political tensions. He stresses military agency as one of the most significant factors driving the killings, yet he qualifies this stating that the military often co-opted civilian vigilantes to do the killing. Most serious studies of the killings acknowledge that the military played a central role in the killings.

Cribb (1990) has argued that only Islam provided an ideological justification for the killings. Fealy (1998) further notes that in Islam the concept of bughat – revolt against a legitimate government – provides a rationale for taking action against those who have revolted against a legitimate government. Caution is however required in assuming a causal link between religious devotion, theological justifications and participation in the killings. Robinson’s (1995) work on Bali offers a useful way of interrogating the assumed casual link between religious identity and the killings. Importantly, he notes that although religion was often used as justification for the killing, the military 'actively shaped and encouraged a popular discourse of anti-communism based on exacting religious ideas and cultural analogies' (1995: 279). He claims that those who directed their members to participate in the violence were driven primarily by political, rather than religious, considerations. In the case of Islam, McGregor (2009) argues that ideas of Islam were similarly exploited to further political agendas.

There are several detailed studies of regions affected by the violence and these studies also point to different contributing factors. The results from the 1955 elections, the last and only democratic elections prior to the coup attempt (see maps below ), indicate where the PKI had the greatest following.

Map showing the results of the 1955 elections, reproduced with permission from Robert Cribb, originally published in Cribb (2000).

Map showing the results of the 1955 elections,
reproduced with permission from Robert Cribb, originally published in Cribb (2000).:


East Java was a stronghold for both the Nahdlatul Ulama and the PKI. Violence in this area was particularly intense and the NU youth organization Ansor was at the forefront of the killings. Fealy (1998) has provided one of the most detailed accounts of the involvement of Ansor in this violence.

Young (1990) offered the first attempt to weigh up the influence of local and national factors in explaining the killings based on his research in Kediri, East Java. He argued that it could not be assumed that patterns in the frequently cited case of East Java were universally applicable. He points to the specific impact of land reform and a unique social history in this region.

In his study of the killings in Jombang and Kediri, two areas where there are many Islamic boarding schools and hence devout Muslims, Sulistyo (1997) points to long standing social conflict, clashes in political views and the key role played by Muslim youths in the killings, giving some specific examples of the impact of peer pressure on participation in the violence. He suggests the military played a relatively passive role in this region.

In his research on East Java and Bali, Sudjatmiko (1992) emphasizes the policies and practices of the PKI and affiliated organizations as central to the revenge enacted upon them. He represents the PKI as deserving of their fate.

Robert Hefner (1990), who researched the killings in the upland area of Pasuruan, East Java, notes that Ansor did not wait for the military to act in this area. Here, there were complex social relations and Ansor targeted not just the PKI, but also the PNI, which were supportive of Hindu-Buddhist religious practices and antagonistic to Islamic groups.

There is little research on Central Java. There were extensive killing in the areas of Solo-Klaten, Pati and Banyumas. Here RPKAD, under Sarwo Edhie, played a dominant role (Cribb 1990).

Violence was less widespread in West Java. One explanation put forward by Cribb (1990) for this is that the army had only recently suppressed the Darul Islam (House of Islam) revolts and was thus reluctant to rearm and use people involved in this rebellion to counter the communists.

Map showing the results of the 1955 elections, reproduced with permission from Robert Cribb, originally published in Cribb (2000). 

Map showing the results of the 1955 elections,
reproduced with permission from Robert Cribb, originally published in Cribb (2000).

In Bali, where approximately 80,000 people died, Robinson (1996) notes that tensions resulted from the PKI’s encouragement of changes to rigid social relations connected to the caste system and because it challenged the authority of Hindu religious leaders. The BTI was also very active in implementing land reform resulting in disquiet amongst those who lost land. Robinson stresses the central role played by the military in Bali in encouraging militia linked to the PNI to take revenge against the PKI. He also notes that there was a delay in killing in this region due to the closeness of the governor to the PKI and a period of waiting to see how things played out in Jakarta.

Most explanations use historical and political perspectives to explain the violence of 1965, but in recent years anthropologists have added new insights into the dynamics of the killings and the lasting effects of the killings. Based on their field research in Bali, Dwyer and Santikarma (2007) have, for example, examined how the violence of 1965-66 has continued to impact on local level social relations and the resultant reluctance of some survivors to openly remember the past and engage in forms of internationally sanctioned reconciliation or peace making processes.

Map showing the results of the 1955 elections, reproduced with permission from Robert Cribb originally published in Cribb (2000).

Map showing the results of the 1955 elections,
reproduced with permission from Robert Cribb originally published in Cribb (2000)


In West Kalimantan, ethnic Chinese involved in the Malaysia campaign were targeted by the indigenous Dayak people, with encouragement from the army. The killings began here at a later stage (Coppel, 1983).

Map showing the results of the 1955 elections, reproduced with permission from Robert Cribb originally published in Cribb (2000).

Map showing the results of the 1955 elections,
reproduced with permission from Robert Cribb originally published in Cribb (2000).


The killings were also intense in North Sumatra. There is not much published research on this area, yet we know there were many plantation and industrial workers in North Sumatra who had joined the PKI and affiliated organizations in response to efforts by the party to improve their lot (Stoler, 1995). In North and South Sumatra party membership was also strong amongst migrant laborers from Java, another group the PKI had become advocates for. In Aceh there were only a small number of PKI and the killings occurred quickly. According to Kahin (1999) the British Consul estimated there were 200,000 deaths throughout Sumatra.

Webb (1986) notes that in West Timor the Protestant Church supported land reform and its members were subsequently targeted. In Lombok, Muslim Sasaks were involved in the killing of Balinese and Chinese. Despite its anti-communist stance, in Flores, the Catholic Church forbade the killing of communists. On the killings in West Timor, Farram (2002) also emphasizes that the PKI had successfully attracted members of the Christian Church, supporters of animist belief and challenged traditional authority, leading to a broad cross section of people being killed.

Several authors such as Roosa (2006), Farid (2006), Hadiz (2007) and Simpson (2008) place greater emphasis on the alliance between the US government and the Indonesian army as a crucial determinant to the actions of the Indonesian military. They emphasize the joint agenda of building a capitalist economy founded on Western aid and continued access to Indonesian natural resources and markets. Roosa (2006) argues that as a consequence of all their grievances against the PKI, the military, with Western backing, were looking for a pretext to crush the PKI. The actions of the 30 September Movement provided this pretext. These authors argue that by killing members of the PKI, trade unions and farmers who pushed for the nationalization of assets, labor and land reforms, the army also paved the way for implementing this new economic system. These interpretations, however, also focus on elite motives and do not explain why the killings reached the scale they did.

In the context of the Cold War and especially the Vietnam War, which had been underway for three years by 1965, the US government was deeply afraid of the possibility of a communist victory in Indonesia. In this context the army leadership courted Western powers and the US supported, pro-Western sections of the army in coming to power by any means possible. Western governments were also largely pleased when the army began moving against the PKI in October 1965. Time Magazine reported the rise of Suharto as ‘The West’s Best News for Years’. There was limited sympathy for the victims of the violence because they were communists and also because of racist assumptions about the lower value of life placed on Indonesian people.

Legal Issues

In the ten years since the end of the Suharto regime there have been some state level initiatives to address the human rights abuses of 1965-66. The National Commission on Human Rights was given a mandate to investigate the detention and treatment of prisoners sent to Buru Island. This was, however, a very narrow investigation and commissioners were given a very short time to complete their research. In addition there was no follow up to their findings.

In 2004 the parliament passed a law enabling the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyon began to consider a list of potential commissioners. However, the commission was abandoned in 2006 after the Constitutional Court declared the TRC law to be unconstitutional. The Court was responding to objections human rights groups had raised against proposed amnesty provisions that would have given impunity to those who confessed crimes. There was also pressure exerted by sections of the NU in co-operation with the military.

In 2008 the Indonesian Commission on Human Rights began investigating the 1965-66 killings by collecting evidence and testimonies from individuals and organizations throughout Indonesia, in order to compile a report about the killings and recommend judicial action by the Indonesian government. However, the Commission continues to receive regular threats. Whenever NGOs or surviving victims have attempted to open this past to public scrutiny or stake claims for justice, protests, instances of direct intimidation, and violence have followed.

In the case of the 1965-66 killings, there are no powerful or significant lobby groups either inside or outside Indonesia pushing for justice on this case. In addition, there is no consensus that the New Order's origins were a shameful period in Indonesian history. For this reason there has been no significant progress in efforts to address this past by legal means.

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Ensiklopedi Tokoh Indonesia available at

YPKP (Indonesian Institute for the Study of the 1965-66 Massacre) homepage available at

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McGregor . Katharine E, The Indonesian Killings of 1965-1966 , Mass Violence & Résistance, [en ligne], publié le : 4 Août, 2009, accéder le 17/05/2021,, ISSN 1961-9898
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