After 50 Years of Denial, Indonesia Takes Shaky Steps Toward Historical Reckoning

Foreign Policy spoke with genocide researcher Jessica Melvin about this month’s encouraging developments.

A group opposing any apology for Indonesia’s 1965-1966 massacres delivers a statement at the headquarters of Nahdlatul Ulama, the country’s largest Muslim organization, in Jakarta on Aug. 15, 2012.
A group opposing any apology for Indonesia’s 1965-1966 massacres delivers a statement at the headquarters of Nahdlatul Ulama, the country’s largest Muslim organization, in Jakarta on Aug. 15, 2012. Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images

In 1965 and 1966, the Indonesian military and military-backed armed groups killed hundreds of thousands of people in purges that targeted communists, labor groups, and ethnic Chinese — one of the great atrocities of the 20th century. The violence led to the downfall of Indonesian founding father Sukarno and the ascendance of a military government led by General Suharto, who ruled for 30 years.

Indonesia transitioned to a democratically elected government in 1998 and has undergone extraordinary changes over the past half century. But survivors of the the killings remain in the communities where their friends and loved ones were murdered, and perpetrators, many of whom still hold positions of power and influence, live alongside them. Successive governments have spent the past 50 years denying the murders.

For the first time, that seems about to change.

Awareness of the events has been growing, in Indonesia and abroad, in large part due to filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentaries, The Act of Killing in 2012 and The Look of Silence in 2015. Last week, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, who campaigned on a promise to examine the country’s past, held a symposium in Jakarta to discuss the events of 1965 — the first time they had ever been formally acknowledged by the government.

It got off to a rocky start. Luhut Panjaitan, a top government minister, told those assembled: “We are not that stupid. Don’t even think that the government will apologize for this and that.” Nonetheless, Jokowi earlier this week instructed Panjaitan to begin gathering evidence on mass graves — a clear step toward facing the murders.

Regardless of what the government says, researchers have known for years highly specific details about the killings and how they were carried out. Among these experts: Jessica Melvin of the University of Melbourne, currently teaching in the genocide studies program at Yale, whose research in Aceh, a province on the northernmost tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, uncovered documents showing how the military systematically murdered civilians in the province.

Foreign Policy spoke with Melvin about this month’s encouraging developments.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

FP: The symposium last week was unprecedented because it was the first acknowledgement by the Indonesian government that these atrocities actually happened, but it also seemed minimizing, in that it called into question the evidence, and in that top officials said there would be no apology. Overall, was this a step forward, or a step back in disguise?

JM: It was very definitely a step forward. It’s the first time that the government in an official capacity has done anything like this. It’s not just government people, but also perpetrators, and victims, and people working on research and advocacy — pulling them all together to speak about it. And that really is unprecedented.

My concern about the symposium was the announcement that was made during the opening, by Minister Luhut Panjaitan, that there would be no apology, no matter what is found. It shut off the possibility of really talking about what happened. I do think an interesting development is Luhut has issued a challenge, because it’s such an easy one to disprove: this idea that there isn’t any evidence of the killings. People who were there at the time know, researchers know, and the government knows what happened.

And we’re starting to see a shift. Just this Monday, President Jokowi instructed Luhut to find the mass graves. Then, on Wednesday, Luhut said that he will apologize if they can find mass graves. The challenge has been set.

FP: In your research, you’ve personally uncovered extensive evidence on the way these massacres were organized and carried out. How did you make these discoveries?

JM: I’d gone to Aceh after the 2004 Indonesian Ocean tsunami. I was an undergraduate at that time, and I’d been researching the independence movement in Aceh. I wanted to help with the aid effort, but I also wanted to touch base with social activists who’d been fighting for independence for Aceh, and against the military and human rights abuses that were going on there.

I ended up staying there for some time, and when I came back to my studies, I started to hear about 1965, and I assumed that we already knew what had happened. I specifically wanted to know what happened in Aceh. I thought, “I’m going to go to the library and I’m going to find out what happened.” I went, and I realized that we really didn’t know what had gone on. There was a big debate over what happened in 1965. There was this massive outbreak of violence. Half-a-million people to a million people were murdered. Was this because the Indonesian people, as the Indonesian government said in its official version, rose up in anger and decided to kill their communist neighbors? Or was it a coordinated campaign by the military? The more I researched — I went to Aceh and I spoke with eyewitness, survivors and perpetrators of the killings — I came to the understanding that this was a highly coordinated campaign, and it was a nationwide campaign. I went to mass grave sites to look at where the killings occurred.

FP: When was that, and what did you find?

JM: The first field work trip I did was at the end of 2008. Over the next couple of years I interviewed over 70 eyewitnesses, survivors, and perpetrators of the genocide throughout Aceh. In central Aceh alone, I am aware of four separate mass grave sites where killings were perpetrated, either directly by the military or under its coordination. These killings were carried out on an almost nightly basis. Detainees, who were being held in military jails, were loaded onto the back of trucks and transported to the killing sites, where they were killed en masse, their hands tied behind their back, either by being shot or by having their throats slit. Some were buried in mass graves, others were simply thrown off the edge of cliffs or into rivers. These killings were carried out with the explicit intention of “exterminating” the PKI and all those considered to be involved with it. In some cases, entire families were murdered in this way, including children and babies.

But my real breakthrough came when I was first given an amazing document, a report — the military’s own account of the killing — that includes a chronology of the way that the killing occurred. It includes a death map recording the number of people who were killed throughout Aceh as part of the initial public killings, which acted as the prelude to the mass killings.

According to the military, 1,941 people were killed in Aceh as part of these public killings alone. Then I went to the archives again. I was able to access over 3,000 pages of documents which clearly showed the military chain of command in initiating and implementing the killing. The military itself had documented the genocide. There is evidence the military ordered and coordinated the killings. There is evidence the military ordered civilians to “assist” the military in what it described as its annihilation campaign. There is also evidence that it facilitated the establishment of the death squads that carried out a large bulk of the killings.

So if Luhut is looking for evidence of what happened in 1965, I urge him to open up the Indonesian government archives as perhaps one of the starting points for that research.

FP: Do you see the past two weeks, realistically, as the beginning of a process that could ultimately evolve into the kind of reconciliation, justice, commemoration, and historical reckoning for which the human rights community has advocated?

JM: It has the potential to be that change. There are certainly factions within Indonesia that would prefer that this just went away. One of the reasons I think the symposium was able to get this far is because it was thought that “we need to put it lid on it.” But I think it’s gone beyond that. The evidence is there.

FP: Why do some in the government still seem to think that this narrative of limited evidence can withstand scrutiny?

JM: Because that’s been the party line for 50 years. This was not just an attempt to murder members of a political party. This was an attempt to stop the democratic process in Indonesia. Anyone who spoke out could become a victim. There was severe repression in Indonesia, not just at the time of the genocide, but for the entire length of the Suharto regime. The official narrative was part of the regime’s legitimacy, but it’s now being pressed up against the new realities of a democratic society in Indonesia, and the people’s desire to uncover this truth.

FP: What developments do you expect to see in the next few weeks or months, as the government’s new resolve goes from words to action?

JM: Kontras, which is a human rights organization in Indonesia that’s very active in documenting what happened in 1965, has said that it has evidence of 16 mass grave sites that it can take Luhut to. But they do not want to release this information until there is some sort of legal guarantee, not only for the safety of the people involved, but that this is an official investigation. The problem is: If we start digging up mass graves without some sort of legal basis, by presidential decree or in some other form, the evidence that is found could be compromised. It’s important that this is done in a formal way, that this is the government taking responsibility for what happened.

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @bsoloway

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