by Adam Bardaro
From 1965 to 1966 the PKI, the communist party of Indonesia was the subject of mass politicide of an estimation of a million people. The perpetrators of this politicide were General Suharto and the Indonesian army that were pro-western and heavily backed by the United States government by covert means during the Cold War. A few communist army officers in the military planned a coup known as the “G30s/PKI.” Six generals were executed on September 30th, 1965. General Suharto used the communist officers’ involvement as a justification to systematically take over the government and forced President Sukarno to resign. Suharto pushed propaganda that blamed the PKI party as perpetrators for the military coup.
Consequently, the Indonesian Army systematically supported civilian mass killings which targeted anyone associated with the military coup such as the Gerakan Wanita Indonesia (Gerwani) women’s organization and the PKI party. The Gerwani women’s organization was a progressive women’s association and only allies to the PKI but were not communists themselves. Nonetheless, their alliance with the PKI allowed General Suharto to lead an assault on all opposing political parties and implement his own form of government known as the New Order. In addition, the army, under Suharto’s command, led the violence by empowering civilians to join paramilitary groups and facilitated these groups to commit mass murders upon the neighbors they deemed to be communists.
Thus, General Suharto and his New Order Government created a false narrative that the violence was a sudden popular uprising of revenge for the generals and not backed by the government and General Suharto. In some ways, there has been a step forward to finding the truth and reconciliation through education and the use of popular media. However, the government’s response created a forced state of silence of the memory in the guise of not reopening old wounds which causes an unmastered past that leads to oppression of the victims and diminishes any type of reconciliation.
An unmastered past refers to a historical legacy described as exceptional and an unsettled status in the collective memory of a given society. This type of historical legacy usually involves the commission of a historic injustice such as an act of war or genocide that the original perpetrators, victims, and their respective descendants remembered differently which causes a divide between the respective parties involved.
Indonesia is challenged with an unmastered past because the perpetrators of the mass murders successfully disseminated propaganda and openly celebrated the massacre as a victory over communism. For a time since 1984, the state-sponsored propaganda film Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI blatantly justified Suharto’s version of history. The state utilized the film to indoctrinate schoolchildren by requiring an annual viewing of the film from 1984 to 1998. Another example of state-sponsored propaganda is the museums and monuments dedicated to the six generals and the September 30th military coup. These sites silence and oppress the memory of the victims and their descendants. The State went far as to erase the cultural memory of women by banning certain performances of art such as dancing that is associated with the Gerwani women and native dances that did not perpetuate the ideal depiction of a woman in an Islamic patriarchal society.
The injustice continues through the museums and monuments that reaffirm the state support of the propaganda that still controls the public discourse of the collective memory during this crucial point of Indonesian history. For example, the Museum Pengkhianatan PKI and the monument complex known as Pancasila Sakti both reiterates the constant threat of communism. Within the museum, “dozens of miniature and life-size dioramas depict conspiratorial PKI meetings and violent direct actions such as land seizures, attacks on mosques, and menacing demonstrations.” These dioramas instill the myth of the lingering threat of communism by memorializing conspiracies of the PKI party.
To further dehumanize the PKI party, the memorial sites heavily victimize the generals. The museum displays the graphic violence of the six generals in one diorama of rebel soldiers throwing an officer down a well at Lubang Buaya during the military coup. Other examples of overt violence are the displays of photographs of the victims and the blood-stained clothing they wore when executed.
Even the Pancasila Sakti monument depicts the military coup in its bloodiest depiction carved into the actual monument. It shows the bloody slaughter of the six generals and depicts the PKI rebels as depraved killers. It also, oversexualized the Gerwani women in overtly sexual poses with their shoulders exposed and hair down. Furthermore, it depicts Gerwani women as killers too by showing their acts of violence towards the generals. All this characterizes the PKI party and the Gerwani women as violent murderers. Thus, these museums and monuments continue to portray Suharto’s New Order ideology and leaves “no discussion of the subsequent anti-communist slaughter and mass incarceration.”
The annual showings of the film Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI had lasting effects on the nation as many descendants bought into the propaganda. The New Order regime constantly indoctrinated schoolchildren with false propaganda. Even in the schools, teachers still push the narrative of the dangers of communism and the necessity of victory over the communists. A teacher tells the schoolchildren that communists are cruel by explaining how the communists kidnapped the six generals and sliced their faces with razor blades. The schoolteacher further promotes the government’s propaganda by lying that the communist was thrown into prisons but excluding the fact of the million that were massacred. However, at a point, the schoolteacher factually tells the students that family members of known communists are not allowed to hold a position in government. The propaganda taught in schools and the active approach to bar family members from government disenfranchises the truth from history. In addition, the propaganda film even helped the killers to justify their actions when they remember the events.
In Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary, The Act of Killing, the director follows Anwar Congo a known killer during the massacres of 1965-1966. Anwar Congo constantly mentions how the propaganda film allows him to cope with the violence he committed. Anwar stated, “But deep down inside I was proud because I killed the communists who look so cruel in the film and I went way beyond anything in the film.” He joyfully confesses the horrid methods he employed to execute PKI members. Throughout the film, he reenacts the methods he uses such as strangulation or gutting his victims with a knife. Anwar and the right-wing paramilitary known as Pancasila Youth often celebrate the massacre and revere the propaganda film. The propaganda film shaped a generation’s perspective and gave them a false narrative of the actual memory of the Indonesian massacre.
It was also a powerful tool for the killers to justify their actions and to continue to celebrate the violence they committed in the faces of their victim’s kinsfolk. Especially, when the government fully supported the Pancasila Youth. In the documentary, the current Vice President of Indonesia, Jusuf Kalla, gives a speech during one of the Pancasila Youth rallies. He continues to push the same propaganda rhetoric of how the Pancasila Youth are gangsters or “free-men” needed to keep fighting against the communist. Considering how the ideology of the New Order government still permeates into a society where it leaves the victims in fear to express their memories of the massacre.
The Gerwarni women faced a unique prosecution as the New Order regime associated them with the PKI and military coup. The Indonesian New Order government persecuted these women by massacring and incarcerating them just for being associated with the communist party. The New Order further exacerbated this persecution by banning any dance associated with the Gerwani or considered native and sexualized. Thus, they erased the memory of cultural performance of art that would have been passed down from mother to daughter.
For example, Larasati gives a personal and historical account of the Indonesian massacre of 1965 and the post-reconstruction of culture that led to the silence of truth. Her account depicts the horrors she faced personally as dancers vanished from her village because they practiced a dance associated with the PKI and the Gerwani. Larasati gives a woman’s perspective of the consequences of the propaganda film which depicted the Gerwani’s as provocative female dancers who had a hand in the execution of the six generals.
For example, Larasati states, “The women in this cinematic narrative—created by a special team under the Ministries of Education and Defense and the military—are portrayed as bloodthirsty, sexualized extremists.” This propaganda caused a patriarchal subjugation of women and was followed by horrific violence towards women. The New Order regime responded by taking over the culture of dance and reshaped it to fit the government’s propaganda. Furthermore, Larasati explains the state-aligned “specific correlations between a type of dance, a social class, and progressive politics, connecting them through the group of dancing Gerwani women and corresponding members of the PKI, who appeared violent, unrefined, and out of control, and therefore subversive and dangerous.
Thus, dances similar to the Indonesian court dance known as Jejer was regarded as a provocative subversive dance that needed to be cleansed. This cleansing process persecuted dancers perceived as communist through rape, murder, or incarceration. Simultaneously, the government hijacked the performance by replacing performers and keeping a rigid scrutiny that mirrored patriarchal rule. The dances were re-taught and reshaped to the government’s ideals. The dance Jejer was banned during the massacres but reintroduced in the mid-1990s into the national dance curriculum. The government reshaped the dance to symbolize the valued diversity of Indonesia and it’s place in the cultural exchange of international affairs. The dance once symbolizing forbidden behaviors now was a court dance performed for important foreign dignitaries. Larasati, argues that the repression of these dances reshaped the memory of history and mirrored the culture and education shift that buried the massacre in silence.
Larasati is one of the descendants of the victims who are continuing to battle the collective silence forced by the government. She challenges the standing narrative through her book referenced throughout this paper where her aim is to “open dialectical space within collective memory: to illustrate ways in which the cultural practices of a vast number of Indonesia’s burgeoning proletariat were claimed by the state, without reparations or reexamination of the violence done to them, and how their bodies were replaced by other bodies, bodies that must continually pledge and show their allegiance to nation and government.”
Her own account showed her indomitable spirit and her will to unearth the truth of the massacre of the Indonesian people. She also continues to fight against the patriarchy and the silence by using the forbidden dances against the Indonesian government. In 2008, she directed her own dance performance in France called Tembok Mari Bicara (Talk to the Wall) to fight against the false narratives still touted by the Indonesian government. The performance broke away from the rigid norms and high scrutiny from the Indonesian government. In her way, she used her dance performance to tell the untold truth of what she calls a genocide in Indonesia. An example of breaking the norms in her dance was to show the images of death on stage which is a taboo in Java to play with death in relation to history. She explains, “I want to express my everyday feelings of confrontation with authorities and various colleagues alike, by speaking through the socionormative code of taboo in the presentation of memory in display.” She challenges the narrative through dance by symbolizing death in everyday body movements often associated with joy and pride in tradition.
In another documentary called The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer follows an optometrist named Adi Rukun, who confronts the killers of his brother Ramli by giving them eye exams under a pseudo name to catch them off guard when he asks them questions about the massacre. The voices of the victims and their descendants resonate throughout the documentary. He even interviews a survivor, named Kemat, that was with his brother at the Snake River. Kemat is still afraid of the death squads and the government vehemently tells Adi, “the past is past, I’ve accepted and don’t want to remember.”
Even the victims promote to not open old wounds and let the past stay in the past. However, Adi seeks out to learn the truth and find reconciliation with the killers. While confronting Inong, the leader of the village death squad, Adi reassures his intentions, “I’m not here to harm you, but to reveal the true history.” He instead reiterates the point that the propaganda is all lies. One of the lies he confronts that the perpetrators believed is that the communist had no religion, thus justified the religious Islamic men to kill the non-religious communist. This confrontation leads the killers to feel uncomfortable and immediately calls to end the interviews. They are not able to cope with the truth of the vile acts they committed. However, one of the killers openly threatens Adi during the interview by asking which village he is from and accusing him of being a silent communist who is subversive to the government. The killer hints at if Adi continues with this communist activity something unimaginable could happen to him. Adi even confronts a state official a speaker of the regional legislature, M.Y. Basrun, to question why reconciliation is not possible and the reply shocked Adi. The official threatened Adi that this line of questioning could invoke another massacre if he and others like him did not forget the matter. While some of the killers had difficulties facing the truth, all of them threatened that the massacres could happen again.
The ordeal takes an emotional toll on Adi and his parents. His mother fears that Adi’s life will be in danger if he continues to confront the killers. Adi confesses to his mother, “Even if they did those, if they felt regret, we could forgive them. After all, we’re neighbors.” These vulnerable moments with his mother depict the silence the descendants of the victims have to constantly live through. One of the major tolls is when Adi confronts his own uncle who played a hand in his brother Ramli’s death. He questions his uncle about how he could allow the death squads to take Ramli out of the prison that he guarded. The uncle replied with the typical response that he was just following orders. In addition, he pushed the government narrative that the victims were atheists with no morals, thus they deserved the punishment they received. In this mission to reconciling with the killers, many of them threatened that massacre is best left forgotten or else. Hence, the killers and those in power in government still actively enforces silencing the victims and their descendants. It continues to this day because the perpetrators still have a hold of the country.
In conclusion, Indonesia continues to have an unmastered past where the Indonesian government is reactive to the narratives of the victims and constantly suppresses their voices to the point of extinction. Although Larasati and Oppenheimer have challenged the government’s narrative with their works, the government has met it with heavy backlash. For example, Oppenheimer’s film faced criticism “predictably, state officials and anti-communist groups claimed that the film was Communist propaganda and sought to prevent its screening or have it banned.” Criticism not only comes from state officials but also religious leaders, parliamentarians such as the Pancasila Youth, and anti-communist vigilante groups. These groups continue to suppress the memory of the victims and silencing their narratives.
Currently, since 2017, the government has not created a truth commission, made no effort to exhume the mass graves nor construct any memorials for the victims. In short, no state officials are actively seeking justice for the victims of the massacre and their families, even though many of the killers have been exposed. In 2018, the Indonesian National Army unit seized history books about the politics of the 1960s on the pretense the books were subversive as Marxism propaganda. These events happened to different book vendors across Indonesia. The fear by the government was evident as they reacted severely on minor offenses such as the seizure of toys and arrest of tourists wearing a t-shirt perceived to be related to communism. The Indonesian government still remains reactive to silencing any dissenters to the national narrative of the New Order regime. They continue to remain anti-communist, using the Red Scare for political means to control their citizens.
The most troubling concern of this affair is the constant silencing of the victims to the point where their voices eventually will be erased from memory. As the past generation passes away and the newer generation forgets the memory of their grandparents, the State’s narrative will take over as the prevalent truth in history. It will remain an unmastered past for Indonesia.
 Gavriel Rosenfeld, “A Looming Crash or a Soft Landing? Forecasting the Future of the Memory “Industry” *,” The Journal of Modern History 81, no. 1 (2009): 122-58, 127.
 Geoffrey B. Robinson, The Killing Season, a History of the Indonesian Massacres, 1965-1966, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018), 257.
 Michael G. Vann, “Suharto’s Shadow Still Lingers in Indonesian Museums,” The Diplomat, February 17, 2019, 2, accessed April 21, 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/02/suhartos-shadow-still-lingers-in-indonesian-museums/.
 Vann, “Suharto’s Shadow,” 3.
 The Look of Silence, dir. by Joshua Oppenheimer (2014; Drafthouse Films, 2015 Netflix), 15:30.
 The Act of Killing, dir. by Joshua Oppenheimer (2012: Drafthouse Films, 2012 Amazon), 40:30.
 The Act of Killing, 37:09.
 Rachmi Diyah Larasati, The Dance that Makes You Vanish: Cultural Reconstruction in Post-Genocide Indonesia, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 34.
 Larasati, The Dance, 55.
 Larasati, The Dance, 64.
 Larasati, The Dance, 10.
 Larasati, The Dance, 155.
 The Look of Silence, 28:14.
 The Look of Silence, 42:49.
 The Look of Silence, 56:43.
 The Look of Silence, 1:03:21.
 The Look of Silence, 57:55.
 Robinson, The Killing Season, 277.
 Robinson, The Killing Season, 306.
 Michael G. Vann, “Book Raids, Red-Baiting and Culture Wars in the Indonesian Presidential Election.” Asia Dialogue, 21 Feb. 2019, accessed May 6, 2019, http://theasiadialogue.com/2019/02/21/book-raids-red-baiting-and-culture-wars-in-the-indonesian-presidential-election/
 Vann, “Book Raids.”
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on September 1, 2021.
Adam Bardaro served four years in the United States Marine Corps and five years in the California Army National Guard. He graduated with a BA in Social Science with honors. In 2020, he received his MA in History with a focus on World History and Genocide at CSU Sacramento.