Indonesia: keeping the communist myths flying

Oct 14, 2020

It’s that time of the year again when Indonesians look sideways at the neighbours, whisper about family histories, question loyalties.

At dawn on 30 September our street’s flagpoles were empty. Then the retired lady opposite who’d worked for the military scolded the forgetful security guard. Soon every gateway post carried the red-and-white at half-mast, not to remember a genocide, but the deaths of six generals in Jakarta 55 years ago.

Political systems nurture bogeymen so the kiddies don’t play naughty. Indonesia’s regularly revived demon is Communism though the ideology was most brutally destroyed with the deaths of maybe half-a-million and the persecution of tens of thousands.

Java’s rich culture includes the wayang kulit, shadow puppets played on a front-lit screen to entertain, teach and terrify. Second president Soeharto became the nation’s dalang, the choreographer twisting the village theatre to add G30S, the sinister sign for Gerakan September Tiga Puluh, Thirtieth of September Movement.

In the typewriters of army propagandists this became the acronym Gestapu with all the awful reminders of Hermann Göring’s Geheime Staatspolizei.

Some background: During his 1945-1965 rule founding president Soekarno ran an anti-imperialist ‘Jakarta, Beijing, Pyongyang axis’ policy terrifying the West. When he started Konfrontasi with Malaya as the former British colony moved towards independence, strategists feared a second front would weaken the war in Vietnam.

Not all were on Soekarno’s side. The military imagined a peasants’ revolt as the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI) cracked its knuckles, so coo-eed the West which cupped its ears. Communists were also considered godless which roused the religious.

General Soeharto rapidly ousted Soekarno after the coup, consolidating his position by declaring martial law, banning free media and launched saturation promotion of only one version of events.

This included a claim that dancing naked communist women had mutilated the six generals’ genitals before their bodies were thrown into a well. Autopsies proved this untrue, but like Donald Trump, Soeharto knew repeated lurid lies become truths.

A crude film about the coup called Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI (Treachery of G30S/PKI) was regularly telecast on the state channel TVRI. Viewing was compulsory at schools every October, though the graphic scenes would rate it R in the West.

A museum outside Jakarta and giant statues of the dead generals keep the myth’s heart throbbing. General Abdul Nasution escaped the attackers who killed his five-year-old daughter Irma. His house has been preserved with bullet holes in the walls, and enough yard space for tour buses.

Although the failed coup is still officially labelled Communist, it was long suspected the military was involved, covertly aided by MI5 and CIA operatives.

Following the putsch, a massive slaughter of real and imagined reds began. The army said the killings were spontaneous, driven by the people’s anger at the generals’ deaths. In reality soldiers were handing lists of suspects to civilian militias, and supplying machetes and guns to the vengeful.

A 1968 secret CIA report claimed the massacres ‘rank as one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century, along with the Soviet purges of the 1930s, the Nazi mass murders during the Second World War, and the Maoist bloodbath of the early 1950s.’

That didn’t concern Australian PM Harold Holt who told the New York Times: ‘With 500,000 to 1 million Communist sympathizers knocked off, I think it is safe to assume a reorientation has taken place.’

Few visitors know Bali’s sands are blood-soaked. The death squads were brutally active on the so-called isle of peace and harmony where Australians love to frolic. Few of the 80,000 victims, including women and children, were active PKI members but targeted in revenge killings often involving land and community disputes.

On the Catholic island of Flores, priests stood back while their parishioners were chopped and shot, their bodies tipped into mass graves.

Overseas historians reckoned – but couldn’t prove- the slaughter was engineered by the army. That assumption is now concrete, thanks to an outstanding Australian academic. Dr Jess Melvin’s brilliant research was sourced on 3,000 pages of original army documents she collected during a field trip to Aceh.

On the anniversary of the regime change she wrote in The Jakarta Post:

‘My latest research has proven the Indonesian military planned the killings. The military spent at least one year preparing to initiate and implement its attack. This included deploying civilian militia groups to support its operation.’

During the 2014 presidential campaign, the successful contender Joko (Jokowi) Widodo promised an investigation into the genocide. That’s been wiped from his agenda. Instead he’s been photographed watching and approving the ghastly film.

Now in his second term Widodo – a small town civilian businessman before entering politics – is seen surrounded by uniforms. They urge vigilance against an uprising, with no evidence one red seed is germinating. Under-employed, and in search of purpose, the men in khaki continually remind they ‘saved the nation’ so need respect and power.

Melvin warns: ‘Perhaps most worryingly, the military in Jokowi’s second term continues to increase its influence. Jokowi has allowed key military figures to hold important positions in his administration.

‘This includes the defence minister and former opposition leader, retired general Prabowo Subianto, who has called for a return of the military’s Total People’s Defence doctrine.’ (This has the military backing civilian militia groups.)

‘(Indonesia) faces two stark choices. It can seek to investigate and make public the atrocities that occurred in 1965-1966, in the hope of never again allowing the country to sink into such horrific violence.

‘Or it can continue to deny military agency behind the 1965-1966 killings, while actively re-establishing one of the key policies that allowed the military to commit such atrocities in the first place.’

A few days into October our street flags were lowered, folded and stored in the watchman’s hut, ready for next year. Even if the standard-bearers had read Melvin’s research, they’d not believe a word. Such is the depth of indoctrination.

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist writing from Indonesia.

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