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Letter: 1965 genocide of Indonesian Chinese did not occur

Letter: 1965 genocide of Indonesian Chinese did not occur"Like the Japanese, Indonesians too have uncomfortable lacunae in their narrative, not least over the anti-communist purges of the 1960s and the systematic massacres of perhaps a million Chinese, but Australians, perhaps, are as ignorant of this as most Indonesians are." (Jack Waterford, ‘Teaching history of our region is also important’, Eureka Street, 22 August 2006)

When Jemma Purdey and I responded to Jack Waterford’s article in the last issue of Eureka Street through the letters section, we said there was no empirical evidence to support the view that there was a kind of 'Chinese Holocaust' in Indonesia in 1965. The victims of the 1965 anti-communist massacre were overwhelmingly Javanese and Balinese, not Chinese; the slaughter was politicide rather than genocide.

In Mr Waterford’s reply, he produced no evidence in support of his claim that there were "systematic massacres of perhaps a million Chinese" in the 1960s. Instead, he said that "reputable historians cannot agree" whether 100,000, 500,000, 1 million or 1.5 million died, let alone on regional sequences of events, and that while he acknowledged that "many ethnic Indonesians were killed", "most of the observers and commentators [he had] read think that Indonesia's Chinese were peculiarly and particularly singled out".

For the last forty years I have specialised in the modern history and politics of the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia. My book Indonesian Chinese in Crisis (Oxford University Press, Kuala Lumpur, 1983) was a political history of their experience of the violent transition from Sukarno’s Guided Democracy to Suharto’s New Order. After carefully considering the available evidence of anti-Chinese violence in that period, I wrote (pp58-59):

Letter: 1965 genocide of Indonesian Chinese did not occur"… it seems safe to conclude that the total number of Chinese killed can scarcely have exceeded about two thousand. The highly exaggerated estimates [of Chinese killed] can perhaps be explained as being the result of faulty logic. It is true that many Indonesians believed that the Chinese had communist sympathies and that anti-Chinese sentiment was prevalent amongst the Indonesian population. It is also true that some hundreds of thousands of suspected communists were killed after the coup attempt. It is possible that some observers have simply proceeded from these premises to conclude that a large proportion of the victims of the killings must have been Chinese."

No reputable historian has challenged my conclusion. Mary Somers Heidhues, another reputable historian who has specialised in the history of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, contributed the entry on Indonesia in the authoritative Encyclopedia of the Chinese Overseas (ed. Lynn Pan, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1999). She wrote (p166):

"While it is true that some thousands of Chinese lost their lives, the number killed was proportionately less than the number of ethnic Indonesians. The violence of 1965-67 was directed against communists or suspected communists, not against ethnic Chinese."

In a special issue of the scholarly journal Asian Survey (July-August 2002) on the legacy of violence in Indonesia, Robert Cribb—the most respected historian of the Indonesian massacres—contributed an article (‘Unresolved Problems in the Indonesian Killings of 1965-1966’) in which he wrote (p557):

"There is a fifth paradigm that seeks to explain the events of 1965-66. It is worth mentioning largely for its pernicious tenacity, but it also raises the important question of numbers. This paradigm, which recurs regularly in the press, claims that the main victims of the killings were Chinese Indonesians. However, it largely ignores the empirical evidence, which suggests that the vast majority of the victims were selected for their involvement with the PKI [Indonesian Communist Party] regardless of ethnicity."

Reputable historians do not agree with Mr Waterford that "Indonesia's Chinese were peculiarly and particularly singled out" in the systematic massacres of 1965-1966.

One final, more general point. Mr Waterford cites the various and widely divergent estimates of the numbers killed as evidence of ‘uncomfortable lacunae’ in the history of the Indonesian massacres. In Cribb’s introduction to his edited volume The Indonesian Killings 1965-1966: Studies from Java and Bali (Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University, Clayton, 1990) he lists the sources of these different estimates and provides a detailed and illuminating discussion of why it is so difficult to arrive at reliable figures.

Among other reasons, he writes, there was nothing in Indonesia that was comparable to "the relatively efficient record-keeping of the Nazis in Europe and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia" (p7). However uncomfortable it may be for Mr Waterford, historians must live with the knowledge that there are some facts that, for lack of empirical evidence, they will never know with certainty. Nevertheless, the range is narrower than Mr Waterford suggests; I know of no reputable historian who now believes that the number of deaths was as low as 100,000 or as high as 1.5 million.



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