A Primer on the 1965 Killings in Indonesia


For two days in April, many Indonesians focused on a dark and long-buried chapter in their nation’s history thanks to a government-supported conference entitled “National Symposium: Dissecting the 1965 Tragedy, An Historical Approach.”  Already there is much debate (Time MagazineNew York Times) over whether it was a success or a failure. Both views are persuasive: that the conference happened at all is extraordinary, yet the highest-ranking government official there started the conference by downplaying the number of people murdered and ruling out a government apology. These comments by Chief Security Minister Luhut Panjaitan, a retired general and the most powerful minister in President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s cabinet, underscore just how difficult it will be to create an accurate historical record of one of the worst massacres anywhere since World War II.

The conference, which heard testimony from historians and victims, was live-streamed and lit up twitter with hashtags #Simposium65 and #Ingat65. It remains unclear whether the symposium marks a new chapter of openness. The organizers will send recommendations for future action to the president. Here is a pdf in Bahasa Indonesia  that outlines the terms of reference and the schedule for the symposium as devised by the organizing committee. NYSEAN plans to follow what happens, and this is the first in what will be a series gathering together some of the work that has been done to recover the history of the failed putsch of October 1, 1965, that led to the slaughter of at least 500,000 Indonesians accused of being communists and the imprisonment of at least another 500,000. Since the fall of Suharto in 1998, there have been growing efforts to break the taboo surrounding any talk of the killings and to create an accurate record of what happened as well as acknowledge the victims and survivors. In 2012, Indonesia’s Human Rights Commission released a report, years in the making, claiming that the state committed crimes against humanity. The Attorney General refused to pursue the case outlined in the report.

Journalists, scholars, novelists, and filmmakers have also turned to the massacres as a subject to investigate. Every October 1, Tempo, Indonesia’s leading news magazine, devotes a special issue to some aspect of 1965, including its ground-breaking 2012 issue “Requiem for a Massacre.” Scholarly books, such as John Roosa’s Pretext For Mass Murder: The September 30th Movement and Suharto's Coup d'État in Indonesia, have added much to what is known, but much remains shrouded in mystery. Last year, after the CIA released a cache of documents including the Presidential Daily Briefs from that period, I wrote a piece looking at what the US knew of the massacres. The 2015 release added to what the US has already released in “Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968.”

In March, Indonesia’s Human Rights Commission formally asked the White House to release more documents, especially the CIA’s daily job reports so that Indonesians could learn more about what happened. The commission has also asked President Jokowi to formally request the US release, which is a necessary first step to any further declassification. In April, just days before the 1965 symposium was held, Human Rights Watch and the Jakarta-based Kontras, also called for the US to release the still secret files. Another effort to bring attention to the 65 killings was the International People’s Tribunal 1965 that was held in The Hague in November 2015.

Increasingly, scholars and journalists have documented that the mass killings were organized and directed by Indonesia’s army, but the army has not released documents to verify this consensus. An Australian scholar, Jess Melvin, wrote in 2015 that she found army documents in Aceh that indicate a top-down military plan to exterminate those identified as leftists. 

John Roosa has just published a groundbreaking research essay entitled "The State of Knowledge About an Open Secret: Indonesia's Mass Disappearances of 1965-66" that is the most thorough account of what is known and not known about 1965. More than that, Roosa employs new research, including his own, to disprove a widely-held view among many scholars that the army was responsible for the killings in some areas while civilian militias were responsible in other areas. Instead, Roosa describes the mass killings and disappearances as a carefully planned army-led operation, often using civilians to carry out the army directives. 

“For all the diversity in the anti-communist violence, one finds a remarkable consistency across the provinces in the practice of disappearing people who had already been taken captive. One finds army personnel organizing the civilians, administrating the detention camps, and arranging the trucks to transport the detainees to the execution sites,” Roosa writes. The essay contains many new sources, facts and interpretations that will deeply influence the debate opening up in Indonesia after the symposium. 

Joshua Oppenheimer’s films brought a great deal of international attention to the 1965 killings, though Jemma Purdy and Kate McGregor make the important point that many Indonesians have been actively excavating this hidden history for a long time. Purdy and McGregor launched an ongoing series of books first published in Indonesian including memoirs and collections of testimonies by survivors. So far, three books - Breaking the SilenceOngoing Truth and Truth Will Out – have been published in English. They and others are painstakingly collecting oral histories.

Over the past decade, many grass roots efforts have emerged to promote knowledge of the mass killings and the continuing suffering of families who were labeled political prisoners. One of the most important is Syarikat, started in 2000 by Imam Aziz, now a top leader of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Muslim organization whose members in 1965 and 1966 were deeply involved in the military-led militias that carried out many of the killings. Aziz spoke at the symposium and urged the government to reveal the history of 1965. But NU as an organization has been reluctant to admit its involvement in the killings, and many leading figures in NU believe that the killing of communists was necessary. Greg Fealy and Katherine McGregor explore NU’s involvement in the mass killings and the organization’s complicated relationship to its history in a 2010 article in the journal, Indonesia. Another collection of important articles laying out the historical record of 1965 as of 2010 can be found in the Jan – March 2010 edition of Inside Indonesia.

Along with the ever-expanding list of scholarly work, many writers have turned to the history of 1965 to inspire their writing. Leila S. Chudori's novel Home has just been published in English, and she has visited New York to discuss her novels and 1965 at several NYSEAN eventsHere is her reflection on what 1965 means to her and why she decided to write the novel. Laksmi Pamuntjak’s novel A Question of Red and Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound also revolve around the history of 1965.

The International People’s Tribunal on the 1965 Crimes Against Humanity (IPT 1965) has concluded  that the Indonesian government had committed acts of genocide, as stipulated in the 1948 International Genocide Convention, during the 1965 communist purge, which reportedly led to the death approximately 500,000 people. The IPT is not legally binding, but the  judges are sending their report to the UN with an eye on further action being taken.

Read the entire report here, or download below as a PDF.

PDF: Kerangka Acuan Simposium Nasional 2016.pdf