The 1965 Indonesian massacre

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Indonesian massacre that occurred between 1965 – 1966 killing more than 500,000 people. It is said to be one of the worst mass killings of our era.

Following an aborted coup in 1965, the Indonesian military led by Major General Suharto launched an attack on members and supporters of Indonesia’s Communist Party (PKI) as well as other left and progressive organisations. On 1st October 1965 six army generals in Jakarta were killed by a group of disaffected junior officers, Suharto assumed command of the armed forces, blamed the murders of the communists and set in motion events that would claim the lives of more than half a million people and imprison hundreds of thousands.  

The victims of this mass murder are yet to receive justice as there remains a lack of accountability in Indonesia. For a long time there was a culture of silence and victims could barely discuss the events let alone demand justice, the 1965 killings remain highly controversial in Indonesia. As we approach the 50th anniversary and more stories are being shared to wider audience’s accountability needs to be addressed as well as reparation for the victims still suffering today. Unlike other atrocities across the world such as the Rwandan genocide and Cambodia genocide, Indonesia has seen no trails, no memorials to the victims, no truth and reconciliation commission. Some perpetrators still remain in power and perpetrators are still celebrated. Indonesia must do more to provide justice to the victims, “Five decades is far too long to wait for justice for one of the worst mass killings of our era” (Amnesty International Indonesian researcher: Papang Hidayat)

The resignation of Suharto in 1998 brought to an end a 30 year political command, the longest rule by one man in modern South East Asian history. His three decades of uninterrupted rule gave Indonesia undemocratic political stability and foreign dominated economic growth with the economy growing on average 7% a year with living standards rising for a large portion of the population.

President Joko Widodo who took office in 2014 the first president to have no ties to the military or political elite had pledged to make unresolved cases of human rights violations including the events of 1965 a priority; however in a speech in September 2015 to the leaders of Muhammadiyah, the country’s second largest Muslim organisation, he refused to apologise to the victims.

Fifty years on and no serious effort has been made to establish the truth and bring perpetrators to justice. No victims have received any form of redress despite demands particularly after 1998, including a report published in 2012 by the Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights on crimes against humanity during 1965-1966 in which overwhelming evidence was produced of systematic killings, exterminations, enslavement and forced labour as well as torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence.

An International Peoples Tribunal on the 1965 crimes against humanity in Indonesia is set for mid-November this year. Experts in human rights law and Asian history will examine the largely forgotten era of 1965 and other crimes against humanity in Indonesia. The International Peoples Tribunal 1965 was set up in 2013 by a group of victims in exile and in Indonesia, as well as by human rights activists, intellectuals, artists, journalists and academics.  The allegation is that crimes against humanity were committed on a large scale during the mass killings of 1965 and that crime and injustices have continued to be committed as a result. The Tribunal has no power to enforce rulings and is not a human rights court: it is primarily a Tribunal of inquiry that will seek to establish the truth about this time in history, contributing to justice, peace and reconciliation. The Tribunal will produce a verdict based on the evidence provided and will present their findings in a public forum in 2016.  

 “The Act of Killing” by Joshua Oppenheimer addresses the killings in 1965 through the eyes of those who participated in the mass murders. The perpetrators are encouraged to re-enact their crimes in front of the camera. Oppenheimer had spent 12 years researching the genocide and in “The Act of Killing” filmed the perpetrators who were very open about what they had done and often even boastful as the acts they committed were seen as heroic. Oppenheimer believed after spending time with the perpetrators that they were trying to run away from the reality of what they had done and if “you celebrate mass killings you don’t have to look yourself in the mirror in the morning and see a murderer. You keep your victims oppressed so they don’t challenge your story.”

The Act of Killing will help Indonesia break the silence that surrounds the 1956 events but even today political prisoners face discrimination and children are taught in school that the killings of communists was a heroic act that was of benefit to the country and crucial for the survival of the nation with victims family’s watched for any disloyalty. This propaganda has resulted in a generation of Indonesians who don’t understand the true events of 1965 and the next generation are not even aware of the horrific events of 1965. A survey produced in 2009 showed that among university students questioned more than half of the respondents had never heard of the 1965 massacres.

Last year a cabinet minister was quoted as saying that he believed the massacres were “necessary at the time” therefore rejecting the findings of the National Human Rights committee. The authorities also continue to surround the massacre of 1965 in secrecy as they have just cancelled events at a local literary festival for daring to address the 1965 massacre. More than 60 writers from all over the world joined PEN International to condemn the Indonesian authorities, Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentaries have also had there screenings cancelled.

PEN International called on Indonesian authorities to overturn their “deeply shocking decision”. The chair of PEN International added that “by clamping down on the Ubud festival and refusing permission for 1965 to be memorised or discussed, Indonesian authorities have tightened the lid on the countries past and taken huge steps backwards…. The Indonesian massacres of 1965 were exceptional in their scale and have had a lasting impact on ethnic relations within Indonesia… During the 32 year rule of General Suharto, it was impossible for many conversations to take place, and 1965 was one of them.” It was only after his removal from power that documentaries and writings could be viewed and political prisoners were released with stories to tell, all of which will significantly contribute to our understanding of 1965.  

The west played a part in the 1965 killings; declassified US files show that the US supported the mass murders by providing money and equipment as well as a list of PKI members to be killed. Declassified files from the UK also show that the UK and Australia carried out an anti-communism campaign to spread false propaganda encouraging hostility towards the PKI.  

Military rule formally ended in Indonesia in 1998 but the army remains somewhat above the law, with generals only accountable to military tribunals or to special parliamentary human rights courts. With the military therefore not subject to the same law a shadow state of paramilitaries has formed. They continue to use intimidation to silence the public. Although Indonesia can hold regular elections if the laws don’t apply to everyone in society then there is no real rule of law and genuine democracy. The country cannot become a true democracy until it takes steps to end impunity.

An essential place to start is with a process of truth, reconciliation and justice. The International Peoples Tribunal on the 1965 atrocities will go some way to starting this process. President Widodo needs to use his mandate to ensure that the past is no longer forgotten in Indonesia and ensure he follows through with his promise to make human rights a priority.


By Mireille Thompson