Historical amnesia and the right to communicate in Indonesia
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Historical amnesia and the right to communicate in Indonesia

Members of Front Pancasila protest the National Symposium 1965 event at Farmers’ Statute in Jakarta. The group claims the now-defunct Indonesia Communist Party (PKI) is behind the event. The sign reads: “Reject the Symposium, PKI is the enemy of the people.”
Photo courtesy: Antara/Rivan Awal Lingga  (www.thejakartapost.com).

The relationship between media and historical perception is a deeply entwined one – as a platform for the dissemination of communication, media possess the power to both strengthen the links and shape the understandings that communities have to their respective pasts. The concept of collective memory fundamentally ties into how these pasts are continually constructed, thus facilitating discussions on the intersections between history, culture, and identity.

In examining the 1965-66 Indonesian mass killings, one can question how historical perception has been collectively shaped by a regime that has been able to discredit and denigrate a certain group of people due to their ideological affiliation. The post-Suharto era of Indonesia, which commenced in 1998 after the fall of the authoritarian Suharto, has been hailed as the country’s transition to democracy. However, the present state of Indonesia regarding its past crimes against humanity reveals that this transition is not complete – the power structures and the suppression entrenched in the Suharto regime carry on to the present.

The full realization of democracy requires that all factions of society be allowed to exercise the right to communicate and to participate in political processes, including groups that have been marginalized, excluded, and in this case, faced massacre. Here the media have a vital role to play.

The years 1965-66 in Indonesia marked a horrific time of violence and strife, in which an estimated 500,000-1 million people were killed in what initially began as a political purge targeting the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), the world’s largest communist party outside of a communist nation (Danaparamita, 2015). These killings were instigated by an insurgency called the 30 September Movement, when six army generals were assassinated in an abortive coup.

Historical background

Leading up to this horrific incident, Indonesia was afflicted with sociopolitical unrest – under President Sukarno’s guided democracy, the nation-state faced economic deterioration and internal political conflict. Major political actors of the time included the military, and the Islamic party Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), and the PKI. Sukarno maintained his power by balancing the hostile tensions between the different political factions, earning him the epithet “the great dalang” (shadow puppet master). The different groups – the military, the religious, and the socialist and communist – all fell under his political concept of Nasakom, an acronym derived from the words Nasionalisme (nationalism), Agama (religion), and Komunisme (communism).

The 30 September Movement instigated a crisis-fueled atmosphere. Although the extent of its culpability in the 30 September Movement remains debatable, the PKI with its three million members was blamed for the affair: this served as the pretext for military-led nationwide massacres (Meyer, 2013). The precarious “balance” between the different components of Nasakom had irrevocably fractured. By early October 1965, the military had distributed an anti-communist propaganda campaign, successfully demonizing PKI members in the public eye.

Major General Suharto, the commander of the reserve army division Kostrad, mobilized his forces and the campaign of mass violence swept through the nation. Anti-PKI massacres began in Jakarta then spread across Indonesia, concentrating around PKI-strongholds in Central and East Java, Northern Sumatra, and Bali (Wardaya, 2011). Villages were razed and hundreds of thousands of people faced atrocities such as murder, torture, enslavement, sexual violence, forced disappearance, and imprisonment without trial. Thousands of armed vigilantes carried out the violence with the support of the government and foreign powers.

Over the course of many months, victims of the massacres included ethnic Chinese Indonesians, intellectuals, and suspected communists and leftists (Danaparamita, 2015). Communist, liberal, and populist factions of society were targeted because they served both as scapegoats for the murder of the six generals, and as the “common enemy” for the majority of the population to unite against.

Furthermore, Chinese Indonesians were targeted because they were held to be responsible for the political and economic chaos during the mid-1960s. The crimes and murders carried out against these groups were committed by military-backed civilian vigilante, paramilitary, and religious groups which often received aid, training, and encouragement from anti-communist Western powers amid the tense political climate of the Cold War (Roosa & Nevins, 2005).1

Amid this period of upheaval, Suharto overthrew Sukarno and commenced his three-decade long authoritarian regime. Suharto’s rise to power was defined as Indonesia’s Transition to a New Order. Such a momentous shift transformed Sukarno’s previous non-alignment politics during the Cold War. With Suharto in power, new political constellations were formed which were more favourable to Western geopolitical interests, especially those of the United States. 

Under Suharto, the military penetrated all levels of Indonesian government, society, and economy; media and education were monitored minutely by the now-defunct Ministry of Information, and press freedom was virtually nonexistent. Strident anti-communism became the state creed. The perpetrators of the massacres, who were often active gangsters, were celebrated as national heroes and rewarded with political power. 

Ultimately, the fall of Suharto came in 1998 following years of civil dissent. The post-Suharto period paved way for a more complex documentation of what occurred during the 1965-66 killings, due to a new openness in the treatment of history. For example, the legitimacy of the official transfer of power from Sukarno to Suharto through the Supersemar letter, however, has been called into question by various historians (Galih, 2016). With regard to the killings, media such as memoirs and films have challenged public silence, yet the topic remains highly sensitive and controversial. Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary, The Act of Killing, chillingly exposes the killers’ total impunity as well as their unabashed first-hand accounts detailing the crimes they have committed. 

In spite of the relatively newly raised narratives offered by those directly affected, Indonesians have generally long resisted discussing the killings. Currently, school lessons skip over the events and perpetrators live alongside their victims’ families. Despite the massive scale of murder and brutality, there is little public discussion or scholarly research pertaining to the 1965-66 massacres. No apology has ever been issued. Official history omits the extent of what ensued and the events remain poorly understood, leaving Indonesia still facing the pressing question of how to confront its bloody past.

National and international efforts to seek reconciliation

A government-supported national symposium was held 18-19 April 2016 in Jakarta to discuss the 1965-66 killings and to seek reconciliation – more than 50 years on. It was Indonesia’s first hearing into one of the darkest chapters in its recent history. The conference, titled “Dissecting the 1965 Tragedy: A Historical Approach”, was attended by an audience of 200 survivors, government officials, military members, academics, and human rights activists. In his opening speech, retired General and Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs, Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, stressed that although the government was committed to settling past human rights violations, it would not deliver any official apology. 

The killings are an extremely delicate subject for senior government officials, since many of the groups who were implicated in the 1965-66 massacres comprise Indonesia’s political elite. The organization of the symposium itself prompted an inevitable backlash from active and retired army officials, as well as other factions of society who feared that it was a pretext to revive the defunct PKI and to disseminate communist agendas. Groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front and the Pancasila Front protested fiercely against the symposium, burning communist flags and waving signs in front of the hotel where the event was held.

Nevertheless, the symposium managed to bring the survivors and the military, two virulently opposing camps, onto the same panel for the purpose of dialogue that would aid in reconciliation. During the symposium, survivors, now mostly in their 70s, recounted harrowing tales of their trauma and social marginalization. Many of them criticized the emphasis on reconciliation, which lacked a sufficient call to action. They wanted an apology and for facts to be uncovered.

Agus Widjojo, a retired Lieutenant General who was one of the chief architects of the symposium, elaborated on how Indonesia seemed to be at an impasse regarding the issue: “This case has been in our past for 50 years now. We haven’t been able to solve it as a nation. Where are we going if the nation is still divided and doesn’t want to make any effort to find a solution?”

International pressure has been exerted on Indonesia to resolve the matter. The International People’s Tribunal on the 1965 Crimes against Humanity (IPT) took place 10-13 November 2015 in The Hague with the primary objective of ensuring national and international recognition of the genocide and crimes against humanity committed in and after 1965 by the Indonesian state. Zak Yacoob, the presiding Head Judge and former South African Constitutional Court Justice, delivered the concluding statement of the international panel of judges in July 2016. 

The final report stressed that the Indonesian government must be held accountable for its crimes against humanity. It incriminated Indonesia in violating the United Nations 1948 Genocide Convention – which Indonesia has hitherto neither signed nor ratified – and presented evidence of the complicity of other states, specifically the US, UK, and Australia. Recommendations urged the state to apologize to victims, survivors, and their families; investigate and prosecute all crimes against humanity; and ensure appropriate compensation and reparation to victims and survivors. It was further advocated that relevant authorities recompense victims of sexual violence, fight the cycle of impunity, and establish the truth so that future generations can learn from the past. 

Indonesia immediately rejected the ruling. Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs Luhut Binsar Panjaitan criticized the tribunal, saying, “What business do they have? They are not our superiors. Indonesia has its own system of law. I don’t want outsiders to dictate the affairs of this country.” Other major political figures gave similar responses. Minister of Defence and fellow retired General Ryamizard Ryacudu said, “Apologize to whom? We don’t need to listen to those people. Why listen to foreigners? Foreigners should listen to us.”

Democracy, media, and the right to communicate

The present state of affairs concerning victims’ right to communicate indicates that a full transition to democracy is not complete, seeing as democracy requires that all factions of society be allowed to participate in political processes. Survivors of the killings and their families are barred from becoming public officials and members of the army or police. The International People’s Tribunal recommends that the Indonesian state “rehabilitate the victims and remove any still outstanding persecution by the authorities or restrictions on their full enjoyment of all human rights guaranteed under international and Indonesian law.”

To victims, an apology and sustained rehabilitation would be considered as evidence of Indonesia’s accountability and commitment to be a receptive member of international civil society, given that these are recommendations issued by international bodies. The fact that the country has not been committed to any action points to how – through censorship, silencing, and an intergenerational transfer of a one-sided history – a certain group continues to face silent dissipation in their erasure from public memory, all the while being deprived of their human rights. 

As far as collective memory is concerned, mass media, historical documentation, and educational systems play an important role in shaping, establishing, and sustaining ideological constructs in society. This is because these outlets function to transmit information and knowledge. The Indonesian writer Laksmi Pamuntjak explains that educational systems maintain the intergenerational transfer of a one-sided history: “At school, my generation was taught categorically – with no room for other interpretations – that all Communists were atheists and the enemy of the Indonesian state, and that the defeat of the Indonesian Communist party was crucial to the survival of the nation.”2

Media facilitate the right to communicate by providing the platform for people to have their voices heard. In the case of the 1965-66 mass killings, various media such as memoirs, films, and books can provide alternate perspectives on history that challenge the official narrative and by doing so, challenge established public opinions. Examples of such media that deal specifically with this subject have arisen, although they are generally received unfavourably or wholly ignored by society.

The Indonesian scenario indicates that if reconciliation is, in fact, an end goal, much progress has still to be made. The media have a role to play in shaping public opinion and the power to contribute to a renewed society based on justice and truth. 


1. The US supplied the army with both moral and material support: the former in the form of sympathy and training, the latter in the form of small arms, radio equipment, walkie-talkies, and lists of PKI members. The UK and Australia operated pro-army propaganda campaigns. (Roosa & Nevins, 2005).

2. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/30/it-is-50-years-since-the-indonesian-genocide-of-1965-but-we-cannot-look-away



Danaparamita, Aria. 2015. “Revisiting an Indonesian massacre, 50 years on”. Al Jazeera English, September 30.

Galih, Bayu. 2016. “Supersemar, Surat Kuasa atau ‘Alat Kudeta?’” Kompas. Accessed August 18, 2016. http://nasional.kompas.com/read/2016/03/11/06060031/read-brandzview.html?page=all

International People’s Tribunal 1965. 2016. Simposium ‘anti-PKI’: Pensiunan jenderal, kaum radikal dan Haji Lulung. June 02. Accessed August 14, 2016. http://www.tribunal1965.org/id/simposium-anti-pki-pensiunan-jenderal-kaum-radikal-dan-haji-lulung/

The Jakarta Post. 2016. Government will not apologize for 1965 massacre: Luhut. April 18. Accessed August 24, 2016. http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2016/04/18/government-will-not-apologize-for-1965-massacre-luhut.html

Meyer, Michael. 2013. “False fronts: The Act of Killing shatters Indonesia’s sense of self.” Columbia Journalism Review. 

Parlina, Ina. 2016. “Historian urges to authenticate Supersemar.” The Jakarta Post. Accessed July 26, 2016. http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2016/03/12/historian-urges-government-authenticate-supersemar.html

Roosa, J., & Nevins, J. (2005, November 5). 40 years later: The mass killings in Indonesia. Global Research. Centre for Research on Globalization. Web. 4 July 2016. 

Wardaya, Baskara S. 2011. Suara di balik Prahara, Berbagi Narasi tentang Tragedi 1965. Edited by Antonius Sigit Suryanto. Yogyakarta: Galangpress.



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