Jun 24, 2024 Last Updated 5:50 AM, Jun 24, 2024

Forty years on

Published: Jul 22, 2007

With Suharto gone, the anniversary of the 1965 coup attempt is more controversial than ever

Kate McGregor

The thirtieth of September 2005 marks the fortieth anniversary of the 1965 attempted coup – a critical turning point in Indonesian history. It led to both the demise of President Sukarno and the violent elimination of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). The unsuccessful coup also provided the military with a chance to consolidate its political role, and for a then obscure Commander for Security and Order, Suharto, to manoeuvre himself into the position of president.

Information about the coup attempt is still incomplete. We know that on the night of 30 September troops wearing uniforms of the Cakrabirawa Presidential Guard kidnapped and killed six army generals and a lieutenant, and disposed of the bodies on the outskirts of Jakarta. The self-titled ‘Thirtieth of September Movement’ made a radio broadcast the following morning in which it claimed the coup was an internal military affair directed at a ‘Council of Generals’. The movement, led by Lieutenant Colonel Untung of the Cakrabirawa Guard, accused the council of planning a coup attempt, with CIA backing, against President Sukarno.

The army vehemently denied the existence of a ‘Council of Generals’ and fostered the impression that the coup attempt was actually a communist plot. It quickly shut down leftist publications and numerous pro-army newspapers emerged. The army sought to escalate existing tensions between religious groups and the PKI, and heightened outrage within its own ranks by spreading false stories about the ill treatment of the murdered generals prior to their deaths. The propaganda campaign sought to isolate President Sukarno by directing public opinion against the PKI and in favour of the army.

In the wake of the attempted coup up to 500,000 Indonesians accused of being members or sympathisers of the PKI were massacred by the military and religious vigilantes. Hundreds of thousands of Indonesians were imprisoned, mostly without trial. They endured long sentences and were subject to violence, forced labour and malnutrition. Once released, they and their families suffered further from limitations on job choice and freedom of movement, and widespread stigmatisation.

Promoting an orthodox history

Indonesians who grew up during the New Order regime received only the army version of this history. According to this version, the killings were a justifiable act of revenge for both the alleged cruelty of communists in the coup attempt and communist aggression prior to the coup, particularly in relation to their efforts to implement land reform. Military and Islamic figures were quick to label the coup attempt the second betrayal of the communist party, referring back to the Madiun Affair of 1948 in which leftist troops revolted against the fledgling Republican government and killed several kiai (teachers of Islam) and their followers.

Throughout the New Order regime the crushing of the coup attempt was commemorated annually as Sacred Pancasila Day, on the basis that by suppressing the coup the army had saved the people’s right to believe in one God (the first principle of the Pancasila). The media routinely replicated the official version of the coup attempt as a communist plot, and reproduced stories of communist barbarity. However since the fall of Suharto the anniversary has become an occasion for public speculation about alternative theories. A view that the coup attempt was an internal military affair, from scholars at Cornell University in the US, has circulated in Indonesia and attracted much attention. Speculation, including the view that Suharto and the CIA were behind the killings, has also become popular.

New accounts emerge

The official version of the killings is now also being challenged by victims’ groups, NGOs and some historians. YPKP (the Foundation for Research into Victims of the 1965-66 Killings) was founded in 1997 by former political prisoners including Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Sulami and relatives of victims of the post-coup violence. YPKP’s initial activities included collecting testimonies, investigating and exhuming mass graves and producing publications with the aim of challenging the orthodox history of the killings and bringing perpetrators to account. Most members of YPKP, which has offices throughout Indonesia, are former political prisoners. Many are naturally bitter towards the New Order regime, not only for the treatment they received during imprisonment, but also for the prejudicial treatment experienced by their families. They blame President Suharto for their suffering.

Former political prisoners from LPKP 65 (the Organisation for the Research of Victims of the 1965 Event), are demanding a rewriting of the official version of the coup attempt, especially the representations of communist women having tortured the army victims. They see this as an important part of rehabilitating their public status. They also want people to know what happened to them after they were arrested.

In the spirit of reformasi, after the fall of Suharto the Habibie government made plans to revise the account of the event in the history curricula of schools. The forthcoming government textbook will include alternative versions of the attempted coup. The propaganda about communist barbarity will be discarded, but no rebuttal of the earlier claims will be included. One consequence is that stories of this barbarity may continue to be circulated widely by the generation that grew up with this version of the coup. But of most concern is that the official textbook will make no mention of the crimes against humanity that took place – the post-coup killings of 500,000 people or the mass imprisonments that followed.

This indicates that the current government, which includes many supporters of the New Order regime, is still not prepared to democratise Indonesian history. Outside official channels there are more positive signs however. The media has played a major role in rebutting official New Order history. Bookshops now stock memoirs of ex-political prisoners, alternative versions of the coup and discussions about the New Order manipulation of history.

NGOs are also producing alternative histories of 1965 and working to change the mindset of the next generation. The organisation Jaringan Kerja Budaya has collected oral histories of over two hundred people affected by the violence of 1965 and published a collection of these stories. The book has also been read on local radio. This organisation is working to visit schools and discuss versions of the coup in addition to inviting ex-political prisoners to talk to school audiences. They claim students are still surprised when told about what happened to communists in 1965. In recent years on the anniversary of the coup attempt some media outlets have interviewed ex-political prisoners about their plight.

A conservative reaction

However there is strong resistance to revising the view that the killings were a justifiable act of revenge. The activities of YPKP and LPKP have prompted sporadic protests, and their branches have repeatedly received threats. In 2000 the wife of French President Mitterand visited the central YPKP office, a significant international recognition of the mission of YPKP. However the office was burnt down soon after. In 2003 members of the group Forum Ukuwah Islamiya Kaloran violently obstructed a YPKP coordinated reburial of remains of victims from 1965. The remains had been recovered from a mass grave in Wonosobo. In August 2005 members of the Islamic Defenders Front, the Hizbullah Brigade, the Indonesian Youth Movement and the Muslim Students Organisation protested outside the Central Jakarta State Court against a class action brought by ex-political prisoners from LPKP. The action, against the current president and his predecessors, including Suharto, is seeking repeal of the 1966 decree banning the communist party, historical correction, compensation and rehabilitation of the names of victims.

These reactions against challenges to the New Order version of the coup and the subsequent killings highlight continuing sensitivity in Indonesia to this tragic past. The challenges go to the heart of the current legitimacy of both the Indonesian military and the religious groups involved in the killings. For some Islamic groups, communism and these now aged ex-political prisoners have come to represent a common enemy around which they can unite. What they fear most is a reversal of the accepted historical record, which would involve loss of their status as heroes for participating in the killings and saving the nation from communism and thus atheism. They also fear the loss of their status as victims of communist aggression, in both the land reform actions of the PKI prior to the attempted coup, and the leftist revolt at Madiun in 1948. These protestors seem to fear the consequences of a potential reinstatement of the left in Indonesia, because this may threaten the more conservative visions of society advocated by these hardline Islamic groups. There are different views, however, amongst Indonesian Muslims concerning this past. One Islamic organisation Syarikat, which has been previously profiled in Inside Indonesia, is working hard towards community level reconciliation between ex-political prisoners and members of Nahdlatul Ulama.

The fortieth anniversary of the coup attempt was highlighted by vigorous debate over the tragic events of 1965 in the media, academic forums, school classrooms and in public demonstrations. For ex-political prisoners, now aged at least sixty, the anniversary emphasised both their desire to commemorate their suffering, and a heightened sense of urgency to tell their own versions of this past.

Kate McGregor (k.mcgregor@unimelb.edu.au) is a lecturer in Southeast Asian History at the University of Melbourne. She is conducting an extensive study into the politics of memory of the 1965—66 killings.

Inside Indonesia 84: Oct-Dec 2005

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