New Internationalist

Suharto’s bloodiest secrets

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The appearance of IndoLeaks - a Wikileaks copycat site - has led to speculation that documents may emerge to throw light some of the darkest periods of Indonesia’s history. Stefan Simanowitz reports.

Last Friday IndoLeaks, Indonesia’s very own version of WikiLeaks, went live. Over the weekend the site posted some sensitive documents, including a conversation between former President Suharto and former US President Gerald Ford, as well as four autopsy reports of the victims of the infamous 1965 coup attempt. At the time descriptions of the sadistic torture to which six top military generals had allegedly been subjected were widely reported and these reports played a large part in stirring up resentment against the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), who were blamed for the failed coup. The following months saw a violent anti-communist backlash in which mobs and militias engaged in large-scale killing, notably in Java, Bali and Sumatra. It is estimated that more than half a million people were massacred, their bodies buried in unmarked graves or tossed into the sea.

In 1965 the US gave Suharto lists of suspected communists who were subsequently killed and a CIA memorandum claims that in 1962 Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and President Kennedy agreed ‘to liquidate President Sukarno’

Debate as to whether the coup might have been staged or manipulated with support of the West has rumbled on for decades and these leaked autopsy documents challenge the official version of what happened to the generals. The reports, signed by five doctors, suggest that the victims’ bodies were riddled with bullets but had not been mutilated. Whilst the authenticity of these documents has yet to be verified, the appearance of IndoLeaks has led to speculation that more documents may emerge to throw light on this darkest periods of Indonesia’s history when, in the wake of the coup attempt the then head of the Army’s Strategic Reserve, General Suharto, took control and presided over what the a CIA report described as ‘one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century’.

Western complicity

Details of the massacres and the extent to which Western governments were complicit in allowing them to occur have never been openly aired. Declassified intelligence documents have shown that in 1965 the United States gave Suharto lists of suspected communists who were subsequently killed and a CIA memorandum claims that in 1962 Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and President Kennedy agreed ‘to liquidate President Sukarno’. In Indonesia all public discussion of the killings was forbidden and this period of Indonesia’s history was carefully rewritten. Even today, 12 years after Suharto was deposed and 40 years since the massacres, Indonesia is struggling to even begin to come to terms with this bloody period. There has been no official acknowledgment of the killings. No-one has been brought to account and no redress or restitution has been offered to the victims and their families.

Photo by: Stefan Simanowitz
Nyoman Ramin. In the background is the site of the mass grave in Petulu's cemetery. Photo by: Stefan Simanowitz

Sixty-five year old Nyoman Ramin was just 20 when soldiers marched into his village in Bali with 42 prisoners – men aged between about 20 and 50. ‘The men were made to sit right here with their hands tied and their legs dangling down into the grave,’ he tells me, indicating a patch of grass beside the road in the picturesque Balinese village of Petulu. ‘I was watching from over there in front of the temple. A solider walked slowly round behind the prisoners, shooting each of them in the back of the head. Some of them were crying and I remember one older man had a heart attack and fell into the grave even before the soldier got to him.’

Ramin’s story is far from uncommon. Between October 1965 and March 1966 suspected members or sympathizers of the PKI were rounded up and taken from one village to another by soldiers or local militias, where they were shot or butchered with machetes. As with Petulu, the graves were often dug in the local cemetery with a member of each family in the village – commonly young men like Nyoman Ramin – ordered to dig the graves and watch the executions. Those who refused to help identify people on the lists and take part in the killings risked being branded communists themselves. In those six months an estimated 80,000 people, roughly 5 per cent of Bali’s population, were killed. ‘On Java we had to urge people to kill communists but on Bali we had to stop them,’ one of Suharto’s generals is reported to have said.

Truth and reconciliation

In 2004 legislation was passed with a view to establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to investigate, compensate and resolve many human rights violations that occurred during Suharto’s regime. But in 2006 Indonesia’s Constitutional Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional and although another draft law has been prepared by the Justice and Human Rights Ministry, there seems little political will to enact this law.

‘On Java we had to urge people to kill communists but on Bali we had to stop them,’ one of Suharto’s generals is reported to have said

Andreas Harsono, a consultant with Human Rights Watch Indonesia, believes the reluctance to start the truth and reconciliation process stems from the fact that many members of the ruling élite are related to those responsible for these killings. ‘Massacres and mass killings are the language of power in Indonesia,’ he tells me, listing the numerous massacres that have occurred since 1950 in Aceh, Timor Leste, Papua, Borneo, Madura, Sulawesi, Java and Bali. ‘Indonesia today is ruled by politicians and generals whose fathers or grandfathers were involved in one of those massacres.’

Photo by: Stefan Simanowitz
Pak Pung, one of the villagers in Petulu. Photo by: Stefan Simanowitz

According to Ngurah Suryawan, a doctoral student who has researched the 1965 killings, even if the TRC were to be set up it would be run by these same members of the ruling élite. ‘Any TRC must accommodate local grassroots organizations, village groups and religious organizations,’ says Suryawan. ‘There are so many layers to this story. A top down approach will not succeed in peeling them all back.’ In the absence of any formal TRC Suryawan and others like Wayan Dura (not her real name), a history undergraduate at Denpasar University, have set out independently to document testimonies themselves. Part of the problem in uncovering the truth is that there is little reliable documentary evidence of what happened, since the killings were spread across large areas and, unlike the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Indonesian officials kept few records. ‘In Bali, for example, I think virtually every village has a mass grave,’ says Suryawan. ‘And all elements of society were involved in some way with the killing.’

Mass graves and mass tourism

Another problem in Bali is that mass graves and mass tourism are not happy bedfellows. With its heavy reliance on the tourist industry it is understandable that many Balinese are reluctant to discuss the events of 1965. ‘I have spoken to developers who frequently come across bodies when digging foundations for tourist hotels in Kuta and Sanur,’ Dura tells me. ‘They instruct the builders to ignore the skeletons and to keep on building.’

In 2007 new school history textbooks which discussed the massacres and challenged the established view that the PKI were behind the 1965 coup, were confiscated by the Attorney General

Dura has so far interviewed over 50 people about their memories of that time. ‘Every village has a similar story,’ she says, although some are much worse than others. ‘In Salishan, a village in Klungkung, 98 people were killed and only five men survived.’ Artists and writers were targeted and killings were sometimes used to settle old scores. ‘In the village of Segah, East Bali, I met an old couple whose daughter had been accused of being a communist by a man she had rejected,’ Dura continues. ‘A sharpened bamboo stake was thrust up her vagina and out of her mouth and she was paraded through the village like a babi guling (roast pig).’

Whilst Indonesia has made significant progress in its transition to democracy since the downfall of Suharto, boasting a free press as well as a body of new human rights legislation, Harsono believes its failure to address the bloodiest aspects of its recent past are problematic. For a country emerging from a period of authoritarianism, establishing transitional justice mechanisms is seen by many as an important part of the nation-building and post-conflict recovery process. The country’s increasingly active censors are particularly sensitive about films that attempt to tackle this period and in 2007 new school history textbooks which discussed the massacres and challenged the established view that the PKI were behind the 1965 coup were confiscated by the Attorney General. Many young Indonesians are ignorant about what happened in 1965 and those generations who bore witness to it are rapidly disappearing.

Many young Indonesians are ignorant about what happened in 1965 and those generations who bore witness to it are rapidly disappearing

Suryawan believes that there is still a lot of bitterness lying beneath the surface. ‘People know for example that “your father killed my father”. Anger is not expressed directly but it is played out in other ways,’ he says, pointing to violent clashes that flared up during Bali’s 2004 local elections. Dura goes further. ‘The situation is a time bomb. Unless there is reconciliation I fear that the tragedy of 1965 could happen again.’

‘Indonesians have a funny view of history,’ Dr Nono Makarim, former editor-in-chief of the Harian Karmi newspaper, tells me. ‘It is a cyclical view, like stories in shadow puppet theatre… Indeed, there is no interest in the past.’ But with IndoLeaks and WikiLeaks both revealing new details of the Suharto period and a Freedom of Information Act recently enacted it is likely that Indonesians will have to start coming to terms with some of the less savoury aspects of their past. Details of the role played by the US and Britain in that past might not make for very pretty reading.

Stefan Simanowitz is a writer, journalist and human rights campaigner. He recently returned from Indonesia.

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