Memories Of Hell

M. Imam Aziz (Program Coordinator) and Saiful H. Shodiq (Program Officer) are not just working for a NGO called “Syarikat” in Indonesian city of Yogyakarta – they believe that they are on the mission to save their country from the terrible amnesia imposed on it by the former dictator Suharto, top military cadres, and servile, cynical and politically indifferent business community.


Between 500 thousand and 1 million people died in the anti-Communist massacres in 1965/66. Hundreds of thousands of women were raped, damages to properties became incalculable. Target of this insane brutality became men, women and children of Chinese origin, those accused of having connections with the Communist Party or “Red China”, or simply those opposing Suharto and his clique. Some died simply because of the greed and envy of their neighbors. Guilt and shame lie heavily on the consciousness of the nation which felt never fit to revisit its own past.


After the takeover by Suharto, Communist Party had been banned, “must to have a religion” imposed on the population. Massacres (welcomed by the United States and other “free and democratic countries”) were never discussed publicly, never appeared in the curriculum of Indonesian schools.


Not much changed after the fall of Suharto. Army is still untouchable, spreading terror from Aceh to Iryan Jaya to Ambon. Not one member of the armed forces was seriously punished for the genocide in East Timor. Mass killings of 1965/66 are still a taboo subject. Until now, that is, when a group of brave people in Yogyakarta formed a NGO “Syarikat” that uses a motto of: “Strengthening Indonesian Democracy and Peace through Reconciliation and Rehabilitation of Civil and Political Rights”.


“Syarikat” believes that there can be no progress without understanding the past, without punishing those responsible for the atrocities, without at least a moral compensation for the victims. Something that is (in some post-dictatorial societies of Latin America) called “ni perdon, ni olvido” (“no forgiveness, no forgetting”).


This first interview took place on the premises of the University of Melbourne, Australia, on July 19, 2003.




Vltchek: Can you explain to me what consists of your activities? I understand that you are mainly trying to explain to the general public what happened during the 1965/66 massacres.


Syarikat: “Syarikat” is creating a network that would help to find the truth about the massacres that followed events of 1965. In addition, we would like to trigger the process of reconciliation between the parties involved in this conflict. Reconciliation is our main goal and – all our investigation should lead to the final result which is reconciliation.


Q: What is the difference between the official line of Suharto government and the truth? We all heard about Chinese minority being accused by the government of cooperating with the Chinese Communist Party. But what really happened?


A: Of course between our view and the view of the government are great differences. We conducted in-depth investigation in 18 cities in Java. In each city the situation was different. In some places in Central Java there were many Chinese victims. Some were members of the Communist Party. In the city of Yogyakarta, massacres were triggered purely by the military. Each region was different in terms of who the victims were and how and why the violence started.


Q: So what did really happen in 1965?


A: First of all, there was a great accumulation of problems before 1965. There were economic problems, tension between political parties and the deep interest of the military forces in the economic life in Indonesia. 1965 became the year when all these problems mounted up. Factor of the military forces is a key for understanding these events. Other factors – like the tension between political parties and the civil society – were not as important as the fact that the military was looking for a way to control political and economic life in Indonesia. Of course, there was also an international factor; the Cold War factor playing an important role…


Q: So in 1965/66 about one million people died. They died in the island of Java and they died even in some relatively peaceful places like Bali. How was it all triggered? Who gave the first signal, first order for the country to explode in such an insane violence?


A: As I mentioned before, there were many tensions in the country; political and economic tensions. But without the push, without pulling the trigger there would have never been an explosion. So who pulled the trigger? Of course it was the military. Of course as we said before, there were tensions, but what a big difference between the tension and the mass killing!


Q: So the army was of course supporting Suharto…


A: Yes, of course, they were supporting him and they triggered the events.


Q: How did the military become so strong?


A: Because the army was by then playing politics. One part of it was in Suharto’s camp, other belonged to the camp of Sukarno. There was a coup in September, led by the military man close to Suharto. So every level of the military; in Jakarta or in the provinces was divided into two camps. After September, Suharto’s men in the military became very strong.


Q: Stronger than Sukarno’s?


A: Stronger than Sukarno’s military command.


Q: And they initiated the killing?


A: Yes. We were able to prove it, we see it very clearly. It happened in every region of the country.


Q: But how did they do it? Did they start fighting among themselves and then went to the civilians saying “join us; help us to kill the enemies”?


A: There were several scenarios. The first is that the civilians started to kill with the hidden military support. The second scenario is that the government officials took charge – ordered and supported killing, although it was hidden. The third scenario was when the military started to kill civilians directly.


Q: So what was the international factor? Obviously Suharto’s fraction of the military received strong support from the United States.


A: Yes, I think so.


Q: Do you have some information concerning this?


A: We were not investigating this aspect in details, because our main goal is reconciliation between the fractions of our society in the way of clarifying our own history and refreshing our own memory, by creating a new memory among the Indonesian people.


Q: How difficult is it? In some places like Bali people straightforwardly refuse to discuss the issues of the past killings.


A: It is different in Bali. But Javanese society is much more open. People here are much more willing to discuss their past. But again, it all depends on the leaders of this or that community.


Q: But even in Jakarta, some of my fairly well educated friends don’t know much about the events of 1965/66… SO what happened during the Suharto era? Was the information unavailable?


A: Yes, of course. There was no information in the school curriculum, in the media, in books.


Q: So what was taught in schools about the events?


A: They said that in 1965 the Communist Party performed a coup against Sukarno and that Suharto saved the state and that the killing of some members of the Communist Party was justified because they were trying to topple Indonesian state. (Laughter).


Q: Did they mention the number of people who died?


A: No. There are no numbers and no explanations of what happened later. In the curriculum there is no explanation, no mentioning of the massacres.


Q: How brutal was it, really? It all happened very quickly, didn’t it? How terrible was it and how long did it last?


A: It was terrible. And there were many factors there. Sometimes even theology; religions may sometimes make some members of societies kill others. Massacres lasted several months, from October 1st until December. 3 months.


Q: Was it just killing or was it also a looting, theft, rape?


A: All that you mentioned. Not just killing, of course.


Q: Who did it? Were people divided along the religious lines, Muslims against Christians?


A: This part is not clear yet. For example, many Chinese are Christians. But Chinese also had there own organization, not the political one but the one which was supposed to clarify their nationality. That organization was fully supportive of Sukarno. So there were strong political and other factors, not only religious.


Q: What is your data on victims? How many of them were Christians or Muslims, what percentage were Chinese, what percentage belonged to the Communist party?


A: Yes, we have some data. For instance, the majority of the victims in Java were members of the Communist party or their friends and family members. The second highest group was Chinese minority. It is the case in Java.


Q: Are there some present day important military figures that were involved in the massacres?


A: Most of them are retired by now. But the ideology of anti-Communism is still alive in the military forces.


Q: Communist Party… Is it still banned?


A: Yes.


Q: Even now, during the Megawati government?


A: Even now. In the new elections regulations there is an article that says that the Communists or those linked to the Communists can vote, but cannot be elected.


Q: Another outrageous issue in Indonesia is that everybody has to have a religion. It has to be stated on the identity card. What would happen to those of us who don’t have a religion?


A: (Laughing). You just couldn’t live in Indonesia. Not to have a religion in Indonesia is still strictly forbidden.


Q: Do you think that this is also a part of the anti-left wing campaign; because many, if not the most of the leftists, don’t have religion.


A: Yes, it may be. Although in Indonesia it can be quite different, because most of the Communists in Indonesia are Muslims. But for those to be a Muslim, to have religion is something personal, something private. Those who were members of the Communist party and were Muslims have their “Muslim” written on their identity cart, but the government adds to it “ET” which means an abbreviation for “ex-prisoner”.


Q: So is the promotion of religion something that flourished under Suharto? It seems that Sukarno’s idea of the Indonesian state was quite secular.


A: Yes. The government of Suharto introduced so called official religions; five official religions: Islam, Catholic, Protestant, Hindu and Buddhist. So everyone who lives in Indonesia has to choose one of these religions as their identity.


Q: But why? What was the reason?


A: Definitely it was a part of the anti-Communist propaganda. And in order to have better control of the people. In Suharto era, an atheist is almost the same as a Communist and vive versa. But in fact it’s very different here, as I explained earlier. There are many Muslims in this country who would happily vote for the Communist Party if they had a choice. They believe that Communists are seeking justice, as does Islam.


Q: As theoretical Islam…


A: Yes, of course, as theoretical Islam. Like Hassan Raid – he is a Muslim from Sumatra, a good Muslim, but he belongs to the Communist party. His biography is published by us by “Syarikat” and the title is “The Struggle of Muslim Communist”.


Q: How sick the Indonesian society became after the massacres? Obviously all that killing and following self-deceptions and lies had an enormous psychological impact on the population.


A: If my neighbor is a former prisoner, I can’t accept him, I can’t invite him to my home, I can’t even elect him to be a neighborhood official. If he is the first victim, his children, his brothers and sisters, his wife will also become victims. So if I were ever accused of being a Communist party member, my entire family and even my friends would be in trouble. This is just an example of how sick this society still is.


Q: Is what you have just described going on in Jakarta and all over Indonesia?


A: Yes, still, until now.


Q: It seems that Indonesia is like so many places in Latin America, ready, if not for the full blown revolution, the at least for a radical change. And obviously, under the inhuman conditions that the majority of your people have to endure, Communist Party could become very popular…


A: Yes!


Q: So is there any attempt by the Communist Party to become legal, to play an important role in Indonesian politics? Do they in fact exist under some other name?


A: No. We have many revolutionary organizations, including several Muslim ones. Communists are part of these revolutionary organizations. After Suharto came to power, both Muslim and Communist revolutionary forces were banned. Many left-leaning Muslim mass organizations were outlawed. During and even after Suharto, almost every seemingly civil organization was led by the military, even Islamic organization like MUI is led by the military.


Q: So it is still going on?


A: Yes, although to a slightly lesser extent than during the early years of Suharto.


Q: It seems that Megawati can’t do much about the military. Trials against the soldiers who were involved in the massacres in East Timor appear like a bad joke…


A: Yes.


Q: How powerful is the military now? And if it is, what is the essence of its power? Is it political, economical?


A: Economic and political and everything. Like before. Military was extremely successful in accumulating economic power since the beginning of the new order. And it is still extremely powerful.


Q: So what do you do now? How will you try to change the situation?


A: We are trying to organize people – Muslims, Communists, progressives – in order to put together an initiative that would eventually change the rules that are governing Indonesia. That would expand civil, political and economic rights. But first of all, we are arranging meetings between the Muslims and the Communist members, in order to organize social and political actions.


Q: How many Communists or people who sympathize with the Communist ideas live in Indonesia?


A: It’s hard to say. Most of the Communist leaders were killed in the early weeks of the massacres. Now, there comes the second wave, second generation of the Communist Party, including people like Hasan Raid. Most members are just ordinary people who joined the Communist Party as farmers, laborers, and they have not been well educated in the Communist philosophy.


Q: But if there were elections tomorrow, and the Communist Party were not banned, how many people would vote for it?


A: If so, maybe 8 million.


Q: What concretely is Syarikat doing now in order to spread the information about the massacres in 1965/66 among the general public?


A: We publish books and our own magazine, organize forums, and focus group discussions and workshops. We mainly operate in Java, in many of its regions. We try to bring Muslims and the members of the Communist Party together, for reconciliation purposes as well as for the plotting of a better society. We are visiting political and religious leaders; we go from door to door. We tell people about their own history; we tell them the truth straight to their face. It’s sometimes an “under-cover” work, as you can imagine, because discussing these issues is not yet permitted.


Q: Do you have some backing from the international organizations?


A: We have a partner from the “Asia Foundation”, but it’s along the line of how to strengthen democracy and the civil society.


Q: So what do you expect will happen next in Indonesia? Under Megawati there is still corruption, some political parties are not legalized and one has to lie about belonging to a religion in order to remain a citizen of Indonesia. Social problems are some of the worst in Asia. So how do you see the future?


A: True, conditions haven’t changed much. The crises will continue. The pace of social, economic and political reforms is too slow – not sufficient to make a democratic nation of Indonesia. Our political and economic orientation remains a problem as well. And we are still neglecting our past. There can be no change in Indonesian society without recognizing what happened in 1965.


Q: So you believe that recognition of the horrors of 1965 is essential for any positive change in your country?


A: Yes, it is. 1965 is an enormous issue that has to be addressed and resolved. And we have to understand what happened then. 1965 saw accumulation of political, economic, military, social and other problems.


Q: Indonesia has very old and profound culture. But obviously in the last decades the state has not promoted anything connected to thinking. Indonesia has almost no arts, just entertainment. No philosophy (unless we consider religion to be a philosophy), just pop. Jakarta may be one of the most consumerist and saddest places on earth – looking like a third rate American suburb. Do you think that it is a part of the overall brainwashing process that is supposed to neutralize the population; prevent it from challenging the system?


A: (sights). Yes, I think so. What you have just mentioned is an enormous problem that our culture is facing. Since the beginning of the Suharto era, there was only an official philosophy. Everybody had to enjoy that philosophy, so it probably made people intellectually extremely lazy.


Q: But do you think that it was a design of the government?


A: Yes it was. But now Syarikat is also trying to help in this field. We are working as a team. We are like an umbrella for many organizations, around 20 in total. Amongst them are several cultural organizations, including publishing houses.


Q: How receptive are people? Are they interested when you come to them and start talking about the events of 1965?


A: People are generally receptive, but of course especially those who were themselves victims or had a victim in their family. We also try to involve Indonesian scholars, we organize forums so our academia can teach and learn about those events. Before we started to operate, there was no apparent interest of intellectuals in this crucially important chapter of our own history.


Q: What is the present government’s position – what is Megawati’s position on the issue of 1965? Have you ever tried to approach her?


A: We have never tried. It is obvious that they are continuing to impose new election regulations. They are still excluding Communist party members, even ex-Communists. Not much change will come from this government.


Q: You don’t think that the government would be willing to change its policy at least towards the past; to instruct the Ministry of Education to change the curriculum?


A: No. Nothing changed until now, and we don’t see any indicators that anything will change in the near future.


Q: Was there any compensation for the victims?


A: Of course not. Nobody was compensated. Maybe we should mention that the victims don’t consist only of civilians. There were victims among police officers, navy officers…


Q: Pro-Sukarno ones?


A: Yes, exactly. These people organized, they tried to force the government to give some compensation, but even they didn’t succeed.




(Andre Vltchek is an American writer and journalist, chief editor of political magazine WCN (www.worldconfrontationnow.com) He currently resides in Japan and Vietnam and can be reached at [email protected] )

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