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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Soelistyo

Reading "The Killing Season" by Geoffrey Robinson

The anti-leftist purge in Indonesia in 1965-66, which resulted in half a million dead and a million detained without trial, has received relatively scant attention in the Western cultural sphere. This is in marked contrast to other better-known bloodbaths such as the Holocaust, and the genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia. It is partly for this reason that I was drawn to Geoffrey Robinson's history of the Indonesian massacres, "The Killing Season". As Robinson argues, the relative obscurity of this particularly dark episode in history can be traced to the concerted effort of Indonesian officialdom to stifle critical discussion of the matter, as well as that of the Western states, the United States in particular, that were complicit in the atrocities. Robinson's history is an attempt to rectify this relative silence.

The atrocities occurred primarily in the six months from October 1965 to March 1966. In the early morning of October 1st, 1965, military personnel from an organisation known as the September 30th Movement (Gerakan 30 September, or G30S), launched an abortive coup against the Indonesian Army high command by assassinating six top generals. In the aftermath, the Army, led by Major General Suharto, cast blame for the coup on the Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, or PKI) and subsequently orchestrated a nationwide campaign of violence against the PKI and its supporters, real or alleged.

The bloodbath that followed led to the deaths of an estimated 500,000 people at the hands of the both the Army and supportive militia groups. Many were executed while in detention, in cold blood rather than combat, using mostly rudimentary tools such as machetes, ice picks and sickles. Through this process, the Indonesian Army enjoyed the steadfast support of Western states, particularly the U.S. and U.K., who provided assurances of non-intervention, propaganda operations, and some material aid.

For me, Robinson's primary contributions are in elucidating the various factors, both locally and globally, that made the bloodbath possible at this particular point in time, as well as in charting how post-1965 Indonesia was fundamentally shaped by these events. The most interesting aspect of the global environment at this time, in my opinion, was the Cold War, for it drew the involvement of Western powers into the mass killings and transformed them from a national phenomenon into a significant, grim milestone in global politics.

I. Cold War Context

Robinson argues that several elements of the context of Indonesian and global politics enabled the events of 1965-66. Firstly, by the mid-1960s, Indonesian politics was highly galvanised along Left/Right lines, with a powerful Communist Party drifting into closer alliance with President Sukarno, and both arrayed against the Army and Islamist parties on the Right. Second, certain conflicts during the pre-1965 period had conditioned the Army to believe that the PKI represented an existential threat to the nation as it was. Third, the process of formation of the Indonesian state, which involved a four-year war of independence against the Dutch, had lent the Army great political power. Lastly, and most intriguingly from my perspective, the global context of the Cold War precipitated the involvement of foreign powers, most notably the United States and its allies.

It was within this local and global context that the Indonesian Army under Suharto seized on the September 30th Movement as a pretext for a nationwide repressive campaign against the Left. There are a few competing narratives about exactly what happened on October 1st, 1965, and about exactly who planned and carried out the attempted coup. The Indonesian government narrative, which persists to this day, is that the coup was planned and carried out by the PKI, therefore justifying the subsequent campaign of repression. Robinson contends that there is no evidence to support this interpretation (however, rather than standing behind one particular interpretation, Robinson reveals the issues with each of them, thus leaving the mystery open).

Whatever the facts, the Army immediately seized on this pretext to take over, rolling its forces into the capital Jakarta, imposing total control on national media, and sidelining President Sukarno.

The shared enthusiasm of the Indonesian Army and Western states in seeing the PKI annihilated stemmed from a deeply held suspicion and fear of the Indonesian Left. For the United States and its allies, this fear likewise stemmed from the perceived strategic importance of Indonesia, as well as the growing power of the PKI.

I.I The Importance of Indonesia

In November 1953, the U.S. National Security Council (NSC) asserted that Indonesia was "strategically important" to the free world as a "vast archipelago which commands the approaches between the Pacific and Indian Oceans and between Asia and Australia". Its geographic location, as well as its population of 80 million people and extensive stocks of rubber, tin and petroleum, meant that the loss of Indonesia to Communist control would have "serious security implications for the United States and the rest of the free world" (p.88).

In April 1958, the Joint Chiefs of Staff likewise warned that a Communist takeover in Indonesia would "cause a serious reaction in Malaya and Thailand, probably trouble in Laos and possible trouble in Cambodia", potentially leading to "the disappearance of SEATO [the South East Asia Treaty Organisation] as a viable pact and an extension of communist influence in the Moslem Middle East" (p.95).

I.II The Growing Power of the Indonesian Left

The trouble was that by the mid-1960s, the Indonesian Left had grown into a formidable political force. In the 1955 national parliamentary elections, the PKI was the fourth most successful party, nabbing 16.4% of the vote. Moreover, in 1957 and 1958, regional elections in parts of Java demonstrated that PKI support had in fact grown since 1955, causing "serious alarm" among "parties of the Right" and segments of the armed forces that distrusted the PKI (p.38).

The electoral success of the PKI, which was by the mid-1960s the largest non-governing communist party in the world, led the U.S. government to privately voice its support for President Sukarno's suspension of parliamentary democracy in 1959. The U.S. State Department noted in January of that year that "The most important step [in circumscribing Communist activities] has been the postponement of the general election for September 1959 in which the Communists were expected to score heavy gains" (p.97).

Moreover, by the mid-60s, the PKI was drifting into closer alliance with President Sukarno himself, with both motivated by their shared suspicion of Western "neo-imperialism". Sukarno was implacably opposed to the formation of Federation of Malaysia by the British in 1963, which he cast in terms of neo-imperialism "encirclement" - Malaysia to the north and Australia to the south. Hence, from 1963 until his removal from power in 1966, he led an armed campaign against the new Malaysian state known as the "Confrontation" (Konfrontasi).

After 1963, he launched savage verbal attacks on the U.S. and U.K., and encouraged or at least tolerated physical attacked on their properties and diplomatic sites. As he further antagonised the West, he drew closer to China, such that by 1965, China was "probably Indonesia's closest and most reliable ally". In January 1965, Sukarno withdrew Indonesia from the United Nations on the grounds that it was dominated by the imperial powers, and in August, announced in a speech written with the help of PKI figures that "We are now fostering an anti-imperialist axis - the Jakarta-Phnom Penh-Hanoi-Peking-Pyongyang axis". Hence, by the time of the alleged coup, Sukarno was moving unmistakably toward the Left (p.42)

More worrying still was the support offered to the PKI and the Sukarno government by the Chinese Communist Party. In a January 1965 meeting with Indonesian foreign minister Subandrio, Chinese premier Zhou En-Lai suggested the creation of a "Fifth Force of armed workers and peasants", a development that would rob the military of its monopoly of armed force. Moreover, the Chinese offered to lend Indonesia with a hundred thousand light weapons, entering into negotiations with air force chief Omar Dhani, who led the armed service most strongly aligned with Sukarno and opposed to the Army. China also offered to help Indonesia develop nuclear weapons, having conducted its own first successful test in October 1964 (p.87).

I.III Western Interference before 1965

U.S. officials observed these developments with increasing alarm. A January 1965 CIA memorandum stated that "the interests of the US and of Sukarno now conflict in nearly every quarter". It added ominously that "the momentum and direction which [Sukarno] has imparted to present trends are sweeping him along toward the eventual possibilities of war with the UK and the US, domination by communist China, or takeover of Indonesia by the PKI"; the passage hinted that the Western powers would be prepared to deal with a communist Indonesia using military force, as they were doing concurrently in Vietnam (p.102).

In March, a CIA official even asserted that the loss of Indonesia would "make victory in Vietnam of little meaning", while Undersecretary of State George Ball noted that "in the long political term [Indonesia] may be more important to us than South Vietnam"; a communist takeover in Indonesia would be "the biggest thing since the fall of China". In July, CIA director William Raborn could advise the president that "Indonesia is well embarked on a course that will make it a communist nation in the reasonably near future, unless the trend is reversed" (p.103).

Indeed, Indonesia was so important to the Americans' strategic calculus that as early as December 1954, the NSC had recommended that the United States should "employ all feasible covert means, all feasible overt means including ... the use of armed force if necessary ... to prevent Indonesia or vital parts thereof from falling under Communist control" (p.87).

In the decade before 1965, the U.S. government pursued this objective through multiple avenues. One was to support anticommunist parties during the 1955 parliamentary elections, in particular the Islamic party Masyumi. A covert operations report from January 1955 notes that the U.S. Information Service had "made available films and pamphlets for Masjumi [i.e., Masyumi] meetings, ... supplie[d] party publications with anticommunist feature material" and was "assisting Masjumi in the publication of strongly anticommunist books", as well as providing guidance to party leaders. Furthermore, according to one former CIA officer, $1 million was provided to Masyumi by the United States ahead of the elections (p.93).

CIA efforts against Sukarno took several other forms; a 1975 U.S. Senate committee reported that it had "received some evidence of CIA involvement in plans to assassinate President Sukarno", while the agency even doctored a pornographic film, purported to feature the man himself, to discredit and shame the president. However, the most bold of the U.S. interventions took place in 1957-58, when the Eisenhower administration funneled covert funds, military equipment and even air support* to two rebel groups, based in Sumatra and Sulawesi respectively, in an effort to weaken the Sukarno government (p.94). Sukarno's subsequent distrust of the West must be viewed in light of this episode.

*U.S. involvement was embarrassingly revealed when an American pilot was shot down in May 1958.

After the failure of the regional rebellions, the U.S. turned its focus to the Army, which it viewed as its most reliable partner in the campaign against the Indonesian Left. It hence sought to strengthen the Army, as well as encourage it to play a more direct role in politics. A 1958 Joint Chiefs of Staff memo articulated this logic clearly, noting that "The Indonesian Army is the only non-communist force in Indonesia with the capability of obstructing the progress of the PKI toward domination of the country", and it may do so "given some encouragement in the form of US aid" (p.97).

Aside from channeling material aid to the Army, the U.S. military also offered training programs for Indonesian officers at U.S. Army Service Schools. Some twenty-eight hundred Indonesian Army officers undertook these programs from 1950 to 1965. The product was a "network of influence linking the army leadership, selected academics (Indonesian and American), and US government officials, including CIA operatives". With these programs, the U.S. successfully sought to encourage the Army to take charge of the country. For instance, with the encouragement of an analyst at the RAND Corporation, the head of Indonesia's Army Staff and Command College "came to embrace the idea that the army was the most reliable sociopolitical institution in the country" and that it should prepare itself for a "position of political and economic leadership". Notably, one officer at the College during this period was none other than Colonel Suharto (pp.98,99).

Yet another aspect of Western meddling in the pre-1965 period was psychological warfare, principally carried out by the United States and the United Kingdom in a campaign whose intention was the "creation of conditions that would provide a pretext for a forceful move by the Army against the Left". In other words, the aim was to somehow spark violence between the PKI and the Army, to "isolate the PKI, to drive it into positions of open confrontation with the Indonesia government, thereby creating the grounds for repressive measures, politically justifiable in terms of the Indonesian national self-interest", in the words of a December 1960 NSC document (p.107).

In early 1963, amid the context of Konfrontasi, the United Kingdom undertook a range of measures, in concert with its allies - Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand - to weaken the Sukarno government. They provided weapons, training and funds to anti-Indonesian rebel groups, and launched clandestine radio broadcasts denouncing Communism and "advocating greater autonomy or independence for areas outside [the government heartland] Java" (p.107).

However, by early 1965, the British focus also shifted to strengthening the position of the Army and sparking a confrontation with the PKI. The idea was to provoke the PKI into making an aggressive move that would then justify a harsh reaction by the army, an idea also shared by the Americans (as mentioned above). Already in September 1964, the CIA had suggested that "an abrupt or aggressive move on the [PKI's] part would surely evoke Army reaction". In March 1965, US Ambassador to Indonesia Howard Jones similarly told State Department officials that "an unsuccessful coup attempt by the PKI might be the most effective development to start a reversal of political trends in Indonesia". In December, the British Foreign Office echoed this sentiment, writing in a note that "a premature PKI coup may be the most helpful solution for the West - provided the coup failed" (p.109).

It was in this context that in the final weeks before the alleged soup on October 1st, rumours began to spread widely of an impending CIA-backed army coup. Robinson contends that this rumour was "so widespread ... that there is reason to suspect that its dissemination was also a deliberate provocation", to spur either the PKI or sympathetic elements in the military to take preemptive action (p.112). Whatever the facts, the subsequent events of October 1st did bear striking resemblance to the U.S./U.K. conception of a failed coup, although Robinson seriously doubts that it was the PKI had in fact masterminded the September 30th Movement (his critique of that interpretation can be found on pages 66-70).

I.IV Western Interference During the Purges

Once the mass killings and incarcerations were underway, the U.S., U.K. and their allies did not hesitate to provide significant support to the Army in their campaign to annihilate the PKI and sideline President Sukarno. On October 8th, 1965, Undersecretary of State George Ball told Vice President Hubert Humphrey that "the Indonesian business is developing in a way that looks encouraging. The Moslems have burned the PKI headquarters in Djakarta last night and they seem to be moving against the Communists around the country ... For the first time, the Army is disobeying Sukarno. If that continues and the PKI is cleaned up ... we will have a new day in Indonesia" (p.179).

If anything, U.S. officials were worried that the Army would not go far enough. In an October 7th memorandum, the CIA wrote that "the US Embassy [in Jakarta] comments that there is danger the Army may settle for action against those directly involved in the murder of the Generals [on October 1st] and permit Sukarno to get much of his power back"; in other words, the danger was that the Army would target only those actually responsible for the October 1st attacks on the generals rather than use this as a pretext to move against the PKI as a whole (p.179).

Western support came in three main forms: the provision of assurances of political support and non-interference in the Army reaction, the dissemination of propaganda and other forms of psychological warfare, and the provision of some material aid.

On October 8th, a British official in Singapore cabled the Foreign Office to advise that "we should get word to the generals that we shall not attack them whilst they are chasing the PKI" in order to "ensure that the Army is not distracted from what we consider to be a necessary task". Similarly, a U.S. State Department cable to the U.S. Embassy in London emphasised "subject assurances to Indonesians about our and UK intention not to attack them or otherwise take advantage of Army-PKI fight". Robinson points out that these assurances demonstrated to the Army that it enjoyed the political support of the British and the Americans, constituting "in effect, a bright green light for the army to continue and even accelerate its campaign of violence against the Left" (pp.182,183).

Meanwhile, the British and Americans also made sure to toe the Army line - emphasising the responsibility of the PKI for the violence - in their own media. The aforementioned British official advised the Foreign Office on October 5th that "we should have no hesitation in doing what we can surreptitiously to blacken the PKI in the eyes of the army and the people of Indonesia". The next day, the Foreign Office replied by endorsing "unattributable propaganda or psy-war activities which would contribute to weakening the PKI permanently". Themes to be emphasised included "PKI brutality in murdering Generals", "Chinese interference in particular arms shipments" and "PKI subverting Indonesia as agents of foreign Communists" (p.189).

The U.S. moved in lockstep. A cable from the Embassy in Jakarta to Washington noted that in radio broadcasts by Voice of America (VOA), "factual information indicating PKI [role] in Sept 30 movement and involvement leadership Air Force, particularly Omar Dhani, might be usefully worked into general content of broadcast if it can be done subtly". Another cable from the Embassy advised to "play up communist participation ... and repeatedly emphasize horrible mutilation of Army Generals [a story fabricated by the Army after October 1st], shock of Indonesian people and brutality exhibited by those involved in the coup" (pp.190,191).

Yet another Embassy cable on October 11th stated that "For Indonesia, we should claim Chicoms [Chinese Communists] were trying to gain control and end Indo independence, using PKI and other elements under their influence, even some at highest level of GOI [Government of Indonesia]", despite the fact that, as the Embassy admitted later, "There [is] circumstantial evidence that Peking is aware of or perhaps even had hand in plot but this is not established" (pp.190,191).

Additionally, the State Department was adamant that Voice of America should parrot the broadcasts emanating from Indonesia, despite its knowledge that the Indonesian media was at this point completely dominated by the Army. A November 9th CIA memo stated that by early October, the Army leadership had already "instituted psychological warfare mechanisms, control of media prerequisite to influencing public opinion and have harassed or halted Communist output". Despite this, the State Department on October 6th wrote that VOA should broadcast "based on citation Indonesian sources and official statements without ... injecting US editorializing. At least in present situation we believe ample such material pointing finger at PKI and playing up brutality of September 30 rebels is available from Radio Djakarta and Indo press" (p.192).

A concomitant strategy was the encouragement of positive coverage of the bloodbath by Western journalists. Perhaps the most noteworthy example is a June 1966 article by New York Times associate editor James Reston, titled "A Gleam of Light in Asia", where the author notes that "General Suharto's forces, at times severely short of food and munitions, have been getting aid from here [the United States] through various third countries, and it is doubtful if [Suharto's] coup would ever have been attempted without the American show of strength in Vietnam or been sustained without the clandestine aid it has received indirectly from here" (p.196).

At this time, Western officials were fully aware of the scale of the atrocities; for example, in February 1966, as the killings were still ongoing, US Ambassador to Indonesia Marshall Green cabled the State Department to say that "British Ambassador informed me that as a result of calculations by his Embassy as well as Australians, a total of about 400,000 killed as a result of Sept 30 Affair had been agreed ... but that Swedish Ambassador determined figure of 400,000 for country 'far too conservative'" (p.184).

In any case, despite the clear evidence of mass slaughter, segments of the Western media sought to portray the killings not as a political phenomenon directed by the Army, but as manifestations of an intrinsic, particularly violent streak in Indonesian culture. For example, a New York Times article from April 1966 asserts that "Indonesians are gentle and instinctively polite, but hidden behind their smiles is that strange Malay streak, that inner, frenzied bloodlust which has given other languages one of their few Malay words: 'amok'. This time, the entire nation ran amok". Similarly French daily Le Figaro described "that strange, murderous fever which befalls at times the Malays and the Javanese. And half a million of them perished under the cries of the peasants let loose". Explanations such as these, quite obviously nonsense, helped to hide the central role of the Army under the excuse that the killings were due to the spontaneous violence of a strange and exotic people (p.138).

Amid this violence, the Western aid of which Reston spoke was indeed forthcoming. After October 1st, the U.S. and its allies sought to provide covert assistance to the Army in the form of modern communications equipment, rice, cotton, cash, medical supplies, logistical support and possibly weapons.

The provision of rice was important because, as Robinson notes, as a "key element" of the pay of government and army personnel, rice was "understood to be vital in helping the army consolidate its political position". In mid-late October, U.S. provisions of rice helped drop the price of rice in Indonesia, as well as spin the story that the supplies had been made available from PKI warehouses stuffed with hoarded rice. As the U.S. Embassy reported on October 21st, "price of rice which was up to 2,000 rupiahs per liter was down to 900 last Saturday due to releases of rice from local storage and rice seized on PKI premises. Army enabled to make these releases due to impending arrival of some 70,000 tons of rice from [U.S. ally] Thailand" (p.199).

Aid was also made available in the form of medicines and/or weapons. In early November, the Army requested provisions of "medical supplies", to which the U.S. Embassy urged a "sympathetic response". However, in a second cable, the Embassy noted that "quantities of vitamins are particularly needed to keep soldiers ... as strong as possible" and but "before we could go much further we would have to know a great deal more ... about direction of Army's thinking on political future of Indonesia". Robinson suggests that given the apparently highly sensitive nature of the transaction, something more than "vitamins" might be at stake, and that "medical supplies" might in fact be a code for "weapons" (pp.201,202).

The United States also provided support through various other means. For example, communications equipment was provided to "enable Army leaders to stay in touch with one another" as the killings were underway (p.200). Moreover, later testimony, particularly from Embassy official Robert Martens, revealed that U.S. officials had provided the Army leadership with the names of thousands of PKI members, a list of "who's who of the leadership of the PKI". The Embassy then "checked off names of captured and assassinated PKI leaders, tracking the steady dismantling of the party apparatus" (reporting by Kathy Kadane for the Washington Post, article here).

By mid-1966, with the bulk of the violence over and with Indonesia firmly under Army control, the U.S. government enthusiastically extended further aid to the new military regime. In August, Ambassador Green promised Suharto $500 million of bilateral aid, and in September, the Americans committed to provide Indonesia with a further 50,000 tonnes of rice and 150,000 bales of cotton on "generous terms" (p.205).

It is noteworthy that the U.S. government has long attempted to suppress this record. In one particularly embarrassing case in 2001, the State Department attempted to retract all distributed copies of an internally compiled history of the U.S. role in the violence. However, given the evidence brought to light, the enthusiastic support of the West, in particular the United States and the United Kingdom, for the Army's massacres cannot be denied.

II. Legacies of the Violence

The anti-communist purge of 1965-66 had profound consequences for subsequent Indonesian history. By 1965, the PKI held 3 million members and counted almost 20 million supports in affiliated groups - almost a quarter of the population of Indonesia. However, in the thirty years after his coming to power, Suharto ruled over an authoritarian military regime that lent no tolerance to any any Leftist political movements within the country, or any critical investigation of the mass killings. The once-vibrant Indonesian Left had been completely crushed.

The most obvious effects of the killings are on the victims themselves and their families. However, the killings also exerted some long-term effects on bystanders and perpetrators, who, as witnesses to or conductors of savage violence, experienced trauma for the rest of their lives; "nightmares, physical illness, psychological disturbance, domestic violence and substance abuse" (p.300).

The number of perpetrators is unknown, but it must have been extremely large given the widespread Army strategy of enlisting the civilian population in the killings. For example, U.S. officials in North Sumatra reported that military officers were “encouraging Moslems to kill all PKI cadres” and “hundreds are being killed every day in North Sumatra”. One death squad commander described the Army’s behind-the-scenes role there: “They waited at the road with the truck. They didn’t come down here [to the riverbank, where the killings occurred] … They called this ‘the people’s struggle’ so they kept their distance. If the Army was seen doing [the killing] the world would be angry”. Similarly, Australian journalist John Hughes reported that in Bali, “sometimes villages were specifically assigned to purge themselves of their Communists. Then took place communal executions as the village gathered its Communists together and clubbed or knifed them to death” (p.162).

Beyond the victims of the killings, there were also those who were held in long-term detention without trial or charge, in some cases for over ten years. By 1979, all of Indonesia’s political prisoners (tahanan politik, or tapol) had been released. However, for decades afterwards, they encountered social stigma, as well as restrictions on their social, economic and political rights. For example, a presidential decree in 1985 enabled the scrutiny of former political detainees to determine if they should be allowed to vote in elections (p.248). They were also required to obtain special permission to renew their identity cards, obtain loans, attended classes or “undertake any economic activity”. They were also barred from working in “sensitive” positions in government or the military, as well as work in “strategic” industries such as oil and gas, mining, electricity, chemical manufacturing and so on. Moreover, it was mandatory for former prisoners to bear the mark “ET” (eks-tapol, or ex-tapol) on their identity cards, effectively branding them for life (pp.250,251).

This continued punishment of former prisoners was accompanied by a pervasive system of ideological screening that vetted those working on the civil service, military or “strategic” industries, or indeed, anyone who wanted to apply to institutions of higher education, see land titles in the government Land Office, and other routine tasks. Questions from official screening questionnaires in the mid-1980s included “What do you know about G-30-S? What is your opinion about that event?” and “What is Marxism/Leninism?” (p.253). The vetting was meant to screen out those who were involved in G30S; however, that definition was so broad as to include any person who “has at any time … expressed an attitude or belief supportive of PKI participants in G30S”, meaning that the wrong ideas can constitute “involvement” in a banned movement (p.255).

The legal basis for political control during Suharto’s rule lay in a People’s Consultative Assembly Decree (No.25) passed in 1966 (then renewed in 2003), firmly banning communism in Indonesia. The decree’s renewal reveals that even after Suharto stepped down in 1998 and Indonesia transitioned to “democracy”, there were still tight limits on the freedom of political expression in Indonesia. A additional law passed in 1999 even stipulated a prison sentence of up to 20 years for anyone convicted of espousing communism. Indeed, the current government under President Joko Widodo has made clear that it has no interest in changing this state of affairs (Widodo himself has said that communism would be "quelled" should it reappear, and activists can be jailed for showing support for communism).

Thus, one significant legacy of the 1965-66 purge was that the Indonesian Left has since then been effectively eradicated or suppressed. The Indonesia of today is an extremely conservative state, deeply suspicious of communism and held in the firm grip of powerful Islamist parties. Hence, perhaps it is no surprise that the government recently adopted such regressive measures as banning extra-marital sex and outlawing insults on the president. Moreover, the dominance of the state ideology Pancasila allows for the observance of only five state-supported religions; more traditional religious practices, as well as the lack of religion at all, is not tolerated (hence, alleged communists were/are smeared with the accusation of "atheism").

One other legacy, mentioned only briefly by Robinson, is the effect the purge would have had on Indonesians of Chinese descent. As Robinson makes clear, the purge was a political, not ethnic one, i.e., Chinese Indonesians were not targeted at the national level for their ethnicity. Moreover, few Chinese Indonesians were in fact involved in the PKI, so the numbers killed were not high among them. Some local instances of targeted mass killing of Chinese appear to have opportunistic, as in the case of a group of killers in Medan, portrayed in the film The Act of Killing, who roamed around the city "killing all the Chinese they could find, including the father of a young woman who had rejected one of their amorous advances" (p.121). However, that has not stopped acts such as these from instilling a climate of fear within the Chinese Indonesian population.

Moreover, the subsequent rise to power of the Suharto regime brought with it widespread systematic discrimination against the ethnic Chinese minority. In April 1966 all Chinese schools were closed. Further decrees in 1966 and 1967 forced all ethnic Chinese to adopt Indonesian-sounding names, and banned Chinese culture and literature, including the use of Chinese characters. Though partly annulled by more recent decrees, this attempt at cultural genocide undoubtedly carries reverberations to this day.

III: Reflections

History draws scars that are felt right to the present, and that especially applies to the Indonesian anti-leftist purges of 1965-66. The bloodbath and subsequent military regime, both steadfastly supported by the Western powers, left their imprint on the Indonesia of today. In a similar vein, attempts to criticise the official narrative of the purge are few, and successful attempts are almost non-existent. Indonesian officialdom constantly resists the “re-opening of old wounds”, preferring instead to forget the past and look to the future.

That relative silence suits the Western powers equally well, as it allows the world to forget their role in one of the worst mass killings of the twentieth century. In contrast to better-known post-war massacres in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, or China, the Indonesian purges, at least to my knowledge, are only scantly known in the West. As an aspect of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia, attention paid to Indonesia pales significantly in comparison with Vietnam. Perhaps that is because while the American adventure in Vietnam was tortured, prolonged and eventually unsuccessful, its involvement in Indonesia was so swift and decisive in its success that the Americans had only to commit aid to a reliable and powerful Army, rather than deploying ground forces as in Vietnam. While a period of “soul-searching” gripped the United States in the wake of the Vietnam debacle, no such reflection was needed for Indonesia.

Geoffrey Robinson concludes by expressing his hope that the book would stir more critical debate and reflection, both in Indonesia and elsewhere, on the events of 1965-66. It is a tall order, as scars as deep as these are not so easily healed.



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