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Search for truth continues 50 years after Indonesia's purge

  • 01 October 2015

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