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Search for truth continues 50 years after Indonesia's purge


Like Tony Abbott before him, Malcolm Turnbull is slated to make Jakarta one of his first overseas ports of call as prime minister. His visit will occur as calls grow louder in Indonesia and elsewhere for the truth to be told about the massacres of up to 1 million Indonesians 50 years ago this October.

Many now regard that bloodletting as one of the worst excesses of the second half of the 20th century. At the time, however, it was accepted in Australia (and in the West more generally) as legitimate collateral damage in the cut and thrust of the Cold War, and was played down in the Australian media.

Harold Holt, the Liberal Prime Minister of the day, expressed his pleasure that '500,000 to 1 million communist sympathisers (had been) knocked off'.

It is assumed, therefore, that Canberra did not then protest the massive miscarriage of justice and international law that occurred, or call for accountability. It can now compensate in a small way for that silence, and for its selective waiving of the recently developed Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by making public what it knew at the time.

Whether or not the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was behind the murder of six senior generals by army commandos (the '30 September Movement') early on the morning of 1 October 1965 is still contested. It is clear, however, that General Suharto used the crisis to take over the army and announce his intention 'to annihilate the 30 September Movement', which he equated with the PKI — the army's main rival for power in the fading days of the Sukarno regime.

The army began a grisly purge using, it is said, lists of names provided by the CIA. It then mobilised the community to seek out and liquidate anyone who was communist — whether or not they were involved in the 30 September murders — or Indonesians said to be communist (a label that I know to be extremely rubbery, having once been told that I was one).

No charges were laid or trials conducted. Decapitated bodies were dumped in rice fields, canals and forests across Indonesia, particularly Java and Bali. Perpetrators acted with impunity and sometimes in the belief that they were doing the right and patriotic thing. The terror of the period is brilliantly captured in Joshua Oppenheimer's film The Act of Killing (see video above).

In addition, a staggering 1.5 million Indonesians were detained by the Suharto regime. During my first visit to Indonesia in 1968, I witnessed some of them crowded into cells in an old Dutch prison in Yogyakarta. The Jesuit with me whispered that many said they were Catholic.

My preconceptions about 'communists' were challenged again when, during the same visit, I bought an exquisitely moulded statue made by a political prisoner in Bandung. Why was someone so gifted being trashed, I wondered?

In his heartbreaking but sometimes beautiful memoir The Mute's Soliloquy, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who spent 12 years in prison without charge, describes what happened as 'cannibalism'; a nation fed on itself while the world watched in silence or, in some instances, dare I say, celebrated.

Many thoughtful Indonesians believe it is both timely and beneficial to address the issue now. In a 2012 report on the period, Indonesia's human rights commission found that what happened were crimes against humanity. The eminent Jesuit public intellectual, Fr Franz Magnis-Suseno, says 'it is high time that victims are acknowledged'.

The government has announced the formation of a non-judicial 'reconciliation committee' but, unhappy with such half measures, an Indonesian led International People's Tribunal will conduct its own examination of the period in The Hague in November. The issue will also feature at this year's Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali.

Some will argue that the killings were 'necessary evil' for the greater good of saving Indonesia from communism, forgetting perhaps that the region hosts several communist regimes today. Others will say, what's the point of revisiting this dark period?

The point, I believe, is manifold. It is to restore the dignity and name of many fine human beings who were denied due process and dehumanised in countless ways. It is to reflect on the enormous cost to Indonesia of dictatorship, a rampant military, a compliant Muslim and Catholic community, the impoverishment of Indonesia's civil society and cultural and intellectual life by the trashing of many of the country's best and brightest, and the reduction to servile timidity of a generation.

It is also to weigh up the incalculable cost of impunity. If the violence had been seriously challenged, would Indonesia have dared invade Timor-Leste a few short years later or take over West Papua during the same period in the way it did?

Pat Walsh

Pat Walsh will launch his book Stormy With a Chance of Fried Rice: Twelve Months in Jakarta (KPG) at this year's Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali.

Topic tags: Pat Walsh, Indonesia, The Act of Killing, East Timor



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Existing comments

I remember this appalling massacre well - it was reported in Australia, but as Pat Walsh said, the fact that the victims were said to be Communists made it appear less serious, even welcome for our PM at the time. It was a sign of what the Soharto regime would be like. I agree it is high time that the Indonesian Govt acknowledges the massacre properly.

Rodney Wetherell | 01 October 2015  

Thank you Pat for this informative article. The image of a nation feeding on itself is compelling, terrible. I've just been looking at the Australian school curriculum regarding Timor and your article makes me wonder about how Indonesia is dealt with there....I will have a look. There is not a mention of Portuguese Timor and the Australian connection in World War II in the curriculum, nothing, zilch, so it will be interesting to see what approach is taken to this death toll in Indonesia, what questions are posed, how much coverage is given in comparison to matters which are covered e.g., the race issues in America in the 1960s.

Sister Susan Connelly | 02 October 2015  

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