May 27, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

'Truth takes a while, justice even longer'

'Truth takes a while, justice even longer'

In 2012 significant new information exposed critical truths about the 1965 massacres in Indonesia, but there remain major obstacles to recovery and reconciliation

Ronnie Hatley

A campaign of mass assassination, torture, rape, imprisonment and other atrocities against people accused of being ‘communists’ swept across Indonesia following the seizure of power by General Suharto on 1 October 1965. More than 30 years of military dictatorship featuring purges, repression, cover-up, trauma and suffering has cloaked the society in silence.

Three important documents about the 1965 massacres in Indonesia were released in 2012: The Findings of the National Human Rights Commission on Human Rights Violations of 1965-66; the award-winning documentary film The Act of Killing, showing 1965 killers reliving their actions; and the Tempo magazine special edition, ‘Executioners’ Confessions’, interviewing killers, survivors and human rights advocates. They prominently reveal more new ‘truths’ about 1965 than ever before.

The ensuing widespread discussions, and new awareness and understandings of the making of the atrocities challenge central features of the account of the violence of 1965 that were imposed by the Suharto dictatorship. Yet the political and ideological control of the elites who have benefited from the massacres continues to be so overwhelming that it is unlikely that this new information will break the long-imposed silence and bring about actual political or legal change. In the first few years of reform after the fall of Suharto, some relief and truth sharing emerged, but successor governments have promoted little restoration of rights, or restitution for the victims, and scarcely any truth or reconciliation

However, the three new accountings encourage new initiatives to recovery and reconciliation. From the beginning of the extermination campaign, millions have been rescued and sheltered by hundreds of thousands of families and neighbourhoods. At the community level new awareness is prompting recovery.

The Komnas HAM Report

‘The events of 1965-66 constitute a humanitarian tragedy that is a dark chapter in the history of the Indonesian nation. These events occurred as a result of a state policy to annihilate the members and followers of the Indonesian Communist Party . . . . [This] state policy was carried out using excessive and inhumane violence . . . leading to death and injury . . . , constituting for the victims and their families violations of human rights . . . , among others: murder, extermination, enslavement, forced removal, deprivation of liberty/arbitrary imprisonment, torture, rape, persecution and forced disappearance. In addition, victims and their families have suffered psychologically, and subsequently they have continued to suffer civil, political, economic, social and cultural discrimination.’

-- introductory paragraph of The Findings of the Indonesian National Human Rights Commission on Human Rights Violations of 1965-66, 23 July 2012.

At the request of survivors of the 1965 violence, the National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) conducted a four-year long investigation, which collected evidence from 349 survivors from six prisons in North and South Sumatra, Bali, South Sulawesi, East Nusa Tenggara and Buru. The main conclusions of the investigations are that systematic and coordinated serious violations of human rights of citizens occurred, at many widespread locations across Indonesia, between October 1965 and 1978; and that the Indonesian military command who made and ordered the policy that led to the violations, military officers in control of troops, and military personnel in the field, all have individual criminal responsibility for carrying out the violations.

The report recommends that the Attorney General conduct further investigations, and effect non-judicial remedy via a Truth and Reconciliation Commission ‘to provide a sense of justice for victims and their families’. The Komnas HAM report marks the first time that an official government entity has stated that ‘crimes against humanity’ did take place, and that the military was responsible for the self-proclaimed annihilation campaign – lasting over a decade – consisting of several operations of extra-judicial, criminal violations against millions of Indonesian citizens, following General Suharto’s seizure of power on 1 October 1965.

While very few Indonesians have heard of the report, much less its accusations, it has provoked public debate and renewed attention to 1965, especially among the political elite; and it has forever changed the focus of the debate. There have been hopeful responses to the Komnas HAM report from most survivors and human rights advocates, there has been immediate derisive rejection from military related organisations and current state authorities, as well as from members of organisations formed in 1965-66 to conduct the purges.

In a most significant example, on 24 July, the day following the report’s release, a meeting in Bandung organised by veterans – including the Deputy Speaker of the national House of Representatives from the Golkar Party and leaders of Pemuda Pancasila (Pancasila Youth) and the Majelis Ulama (Ulama Council) – rejected the report, because it had not considered the ‘violence of the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party)’. General Solihin, former governor of West Java called for continued government vigilance against ‘communism’, and rejected a proposed presidential apology ‘to victims of mass killings of 1965’, as well as the establishment of a human rights court to try ‘perpetrators of the killing of hundreds of thousands accused of being PKI members in 1965’. Several figures from Suharto’s former New Order regime have repeated these rejections.

Since the fall of Suharto, interpretations and concepts regarding the 1965 atrocities promoted by human rights and survivor advocacy groups have led to a more open public discussion. Thus most of the mainstream press now uses terminology as in the last two quotes above, and the direct terminology of Komnas HAM to discuss the commission’s findings. As a result, the public language about l965 is changing, and some parts of society are also changing their understanding of the 1965 violence.

For example, the leadership board meeting of the Nahdatul Ulama Islamic organisation (NU played a large role in the killings, see the Tempo accounts below) on 15 August rejected the Komnas HAM report. In the same meeting, current NU deputy director and former BIN (National Intelligence Service) deputy director As’ad Said Ali still repeated the call to ‘forget 1965’; yet at the same time he felt compelled to say that the NU ‘must protect and honour descendents of the PKI.’ The NU’s Ansor youth group leader at the meeting only still reiterates that ‘they killed many of us’, while the NU’s Syarikat Indonesia survivors’ advocacy network, whose focus is community reconciliation activities, backs the Komnas HAM report and calls for a presidential apology and community reconciliation. These differing views of the Komnas HAM Findings reflect longstanding differences within the NU community between those who continue relationships with the military that were forged during the massacres and before, and those who have followed the lead of former NU leader and President Abdurrahman Wahid in seeking restoration of human rights, apology and reconciliation.

In a 10 November Heroes’ Day speech at the national military cemetery, the Attorney General said the findings of Komnas HAM did not meet legal standards and returned them to the commission. Subsequently, new commissioners were appointed; they immediately resubmitted a revised report in December, and the Attorney General returned it again, calling for the accused to be named. The new commissioners have had their terms limited to one year, instead of two and a half years as previously, prompting the new head of Komnas HAM to resign as of 8 February. Some say the report’s direct indictment of the military has spooked the government and quashed a mooted presidential acknowledgement or apology; others see the new truth as necessary for full assumption of state responsibility for the violence.

Given the previous rejection of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by the Constitutional Court, parliament’s rejection of a Special Human Rights Court, the tactical and financial limitations of the work of Komnas HAM, and renewed rejection of new initiatives to remedy by the current president, it is less likely now that the legal routes to recovery can be much advanced. But the indictments of the Komnas HAM report now exist, and these words establish inconvenient new truths. And the current commissioners are committed to continuing their advocacy of their findings.

The Act of Killing

‘We need gangsters to get things done.’

-- Jusuf Kalla, (former Vice President and Golkar Party Chairman, 2014 Presidential aspirant), in The Act of Killing; from a speech at the Pemuda Pancasila paramilitary annual meeting, 21 February 2009.

‘We were crueler than they (‘the communists’) were.’

-- Adi, (an actor/gangster), in The Act of Killing.

‘I can’t do this any more.’

-- Anwar Congo, lead actor/gangster in The Act of Killing, final scene, feeling contrition and refusing to reenact a murder scene.

First screened in August 2013, the documentary film The Act of Killing (Jagal in Indonesian) invites petty gangsters from Medan, North Sumatra, to recreate their acts of violence in 1965, as heroes bragging of no remorse. They are shown cavorting with local and national dignitaries who also continue to practise and condone hooliganism and criminality with complete impunity. The actors – and the director – use movie fantasy, surreal vaudeville and dancing to absolve the guilt of atrocity, in much the same way that we are directed to use reality TV and shopping to distract us all to forget drone strikes. Except the movie lead violently retches when the finally thinks about his acts. It is a most startling film, deservedly winning prizes at film festivals. In showing killing and torture as banal, but also unconscionable, it provides lessons for Indonesia and for all of us.

The Act of Killing is eagerly being viewed widely across Indonesia in hundreds of venues – initially by survivors of 1965 and their advocates, and now – since mid December 2012 – mostly by small groups of middle class students and young people. Because it is film, and readily accessible to a broad audience, it is opening the 1965 atrocities to a wider questioning than the findings of Komnas HAM or Tempo features ever can. Many reviews have been published in Indonesia, all saying it is required viewing. Many say they are confused by the contradiction between the film and what they have learned in history class or from their parents. Most young reviewers are incredulous to learn of the violence and that they have been lied to, and insist that ‘the government’ should be held responsible. And many are shocked by the impunity and see the lack of remorse as reprehensible.

But we all must be cautious in comprehending The Act of Killing. Just as the film – intending provocation – is sensationalist (competing equally with the current Hollywood rage), the boasting of the film’s gangsters, as well as the boasting of Tempo’s executioners and, formerly, of General Sarwo Edhie (see Tempo discussion below), all exaggerate their exploits, as ‘heroes’ are want to do. That many young Indonesian viewers are learning from Anwar’s contrition to reject their leaders’ impunities, speaks well for the directors’ intentions and for Indonesia’s future. No doubt, many international viewers of the film will come to see Indonesia as a nation of gangsters: far fewer will learn from it to appreciate our own Zero Dark Thirtys.

On 8 October, several hundred Pemuda Pancasila youth (who had not seen the film) stormed the Radar Bogor newspaper office for slandering their organisation in a review, which said the film called them thugs. Some showings, such as one in Purworejo in early January and another in Blitar in February 2013, have been banned initially by local police, only to be shown the next evening. Indeed, in Purworejo, Pemuda Pancasila members wearing uniforms viewed the film with students at Soedirman University and participated in the discussion that followed. While it is unlikely the film will pass the censors, bootleg copies are circulating and its Facebook and Internet sites (see Twitter #jagal and continue to announce viewings and publish reviews, and inevitably it will be uploaded to YouTube.

While The Act of Killing begins with English text over the images stating ‘Indonesia 1965 Military Coup’ and ‘One Million People Killed’, the story leads viewers to think that the atrocities were the work of ‘naturally violent’ gangsters, instead of concerted military operations that mobilised mostly local politicised youth groups to kidnap and kill, and that were supported and directed by the same elites who still feel threatened by socialist ideas and political mobilisation. This is the critique of Astaman Hasibuan, a former prisoner who told the Jakarta Post that ‘The film did not involve the military, despite the fact that soldiers carried out the massacres. I voice my protest.’ I saw the film with survivors, some of whom cried recalling their trauma. But they all agreed that the spell of state terror and propaganda had been broken by the film: they saw a killer broken by his crimes. And they, too, like Astaman, know that their personal victimisers were from the military.

The Tempo ‘Executioners’ Confessions’ special edition

‘The policy to eliminate members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and their sympathisers ignited a wave of killings that raged throughout Java and Bali, and later spread to other areas. Executioners emerged from nowhere, swinging their sickles, whether out of personal revenge, religion or a sense of duty to the state. They killed anyone labeled or suspected as a PKI member, disposing the bodies into ravines, rivers and caves. Did the executioners ever feel remorse or guilt over their horrifying actions?'

-- Tempo, ‘Executioners’ Confessions’ special edition, 1-7 October 2012, p 55.

The Tempo magazine ‘Executioners’ Confessions’ (‘Pengakuan Algojo’) special edition was prompted to report and follow-up on the Komnas HAM Findings and The Act of Killing film. As well as reviews of The Act of Killing and an essay about the director Joshua Oppenheimer, it also features Ariel Heryanto’s essay about 1965 related films including the government propaganda film Pengkhianatan G-30-S/PKI (‘Traitorous Communist Coup-Makers’) as the version of 1965 history every schoolchild was forced to view during the dictatorship. There are several follow-up interview articles about various kinds of prisoner mistreatment by the military in the prisons investigated by Komnas HAM, and there are also several interpretive commentaries about the military atrocities by human rights activists and scholars.

The primary focus of half the 68 pages of the special issue is new interviews with individual civilian killers which highlight their personal zeal and remorselessness, and which fit the New Order version of the killings as the masses running amok. The stories from Sumatra, Jakarta, Sulawesi, Bali and Nusatenggara Timur show how the purges worked out differently in each setting. But the overall picture that characterises the Tempo special issue is of civilian participation in the killings. A quarter of the stories feature Ansor militia youth and Nadhlatul Ulama religious leaders in rural East Java as remorseless executioners.

While many of personal accounts of Tempo mention military involvement – military orders, prisoners brought in trucks, lists of victims, military training, even military killings and torture – there are no interviews with military captors or killers nor any stories featuring military violence or operations. Thus it is not surprising that many readers of the Tempo revelations with whom I have spoken have now learned that many of the killers of ‘communists’ in 1965 were ‘Muslim fanatics’. Nor is it surprising that as many NU sympathisers see the Tempo special edition as scapegoating them as praising them.

Tempo prides itself as Indonesia’s leading newsmagazine, and in that capacity it not only informs, but establishes the liberal political truth of Indonesia’s ideas of itself. In this issue it is fixing – or refixing – the one-sided legacy of the New Order, a project it has pursued over the years with special features on leading PKI members Sjam, Untung, Nyoto and Aidit as villains, and last year featuring General Sarwo Edhie, commander of the ‘Special Forces’ army brigade (RKPAD) which lead the campaign of killings across Java and Bali in the last three months of 1965, and the father-in-law of the current president, as a military saviour of the nation. Now the executioners.

This special edition teaches us additional accounts of the great crimes and tragedies of 1965, but it retains the New Order narrative that the killing was a convulsive fever that gripped society from the grassroots. Tempo has not yet told us about the commanding organisational role of the military in 1965 as found in the investigations of Komnas HAM, nor of the role of the leading elements of middle class Indonesian (and international) civil society – the parties, government officials, community leaders and organisations – that forged the New Order by joining in the annihilation of ‘the communists’, and benefited by their demise. Truth regarding most aspects of the 1965 violence is still one-sided and very incomplete; that is still a challenge for Tempo and for all of us.

Recovery of survivors and restoration of civility

‘Truth takes a while, justice even longer.’

-- Pak Leo, (‘graduate’ of Buru prison camp), commenting on the pace of truth and restorative justice regarding 1965, 5 December 2012.

With all this new information and questioning, where is the attention to the recovery of survivors, the restoration of civility and dignity to all, and the recovery of history?

The Komnas HAM findings are the first serious authoritative indictment of the Indonesian military. They open the consideration of accountability and responsibility of the military and the elites, and the international forces, that organised, led and carried out serious human rights violations to exterminate the PKI. That these elites still rule extenuates these proceedings. But truth will out.

The Act of Killing is about how we humanise our actions in a state of killing, which authorises crime as heroic: in this case, in 1965 Indonesia. Is the impunity ending? Tempo’s focus too is on executioners’ rationalisations, bragged of for more than a generation.

While the received perception of those accused of being PKI is as murderers, these documents tell us they were the victims of violence. Might the younger generation hear in these stories of inhumanity more empathy for the suffering of the victims than admiration of the victors?

When Komnas HAM interviewed survivors for its report, it only recorded the violation of their rights – their complaint of capture, imprisonment and mistreatment. Almost all of our information of victims and survivors of 1965, both biographic and creative, is about suffering. And far too many of the literary accounts are ‘tragedies’ condemning the victims for their stigma, unwise affiliation and mis-behaviour. While creative stories can reveal the feelings of displacement and deprivation, as with characters in Laksmi Pamuntjak’s novel Amba reviewed as part of the Tempo special edition, little has been recorded over the decades of what victims and survivors actually worked for and accomplished in their lives besides their suffering of 1965 and after.

To restore dignity to the defiled victims and survivors – as well as to the dehumanised victimisers, and to the nation’s history – we must start listening to and hearing victims’ and survivors’ stories of their whole lives, their work and contributions, their needs and wishes, what they need for redress and recovery, and their vision of a shared future. We need true accounts of PKI affiliates’ lives: their activities, accomplishments, ideas and – yes – their violence, in order to know how to proceed. We will hear that the first thing asked for is to restore victims’ and survivors’ humanity (nguwongke in Javanese), allowing them and their families to live and be treated with dignity as human beings.

To remedy the injury of 1965, the Komnas HAM report calls for a non-judicial process, suggesting a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Many survivors and human rights seek a retributive solution in which the perpetrators will be punished. But as Imam Aziz, a Syarikat founder, argues in his comments in Tempo, court processes are still blocked by an unreformed government. It is better, he argues, to proceed now with a ‘restorative justice’ process of community level reconciliation. Such efforts have already occurred in tens of thousands of families and thousands of neighbourhoods across Indonesia independently, and with the help of organisations such as Syarikat Indonesia.

The exemplary progress of community-wide reconciliation is perhaps best seen in Palu where mayor Rusdi Mastura, himself a victimiser in the late 1960s, has led efforts bringing survivors and victimisers together, celebrating a day of public reconciliation on March 24 2012, memorialising sites of human rights abuse, and initiating programs of reparation and restitution: free healthcare for survivors and family members, and education scholarships and government grants for economic cooperatives and startups for descendents of victims.

But for perhaps the majority of communities, and for the nation as a whole, truth-seeking has just begun; undoubtedly more will begin with the revelations of these three new documents. Following the courageous personal apology of President Abdurrahman Wahid and likeminded efforts, the next steps of acknowledgement of state and personal wrongdoing and national apology are more urgent. So too the calls by survivors and human rights workers for restitution of full human rights and for reparations. Full remedy and reconciliation also will require rehabilitation and rehumanisation of the abusers and victimizers. While victims of violence require restoration of their rights and dignity, killers and abusers have become inhuman and need to make amends and be remade into socially responsible persons again.

To plot these further steps, there is still a need for new truth narratives about what happened in Indonesia in 1965, and before and after. Accounts of the executioners in Tempo and The Act of Killing are now public, but the stories of the military officers and personnel held most responsible for the violations by the National Human Rights Commission, and of the elites who worked with the military in 1965, have not yet been heard. While the publication of these three telling documents constitutes a breakthrough, there is also still need for many new stories, investigations, films and Tempo special editions of survivors’ contributions and wishes, of acknowledgement and repentance by tormentors, and of ideas for creating a shared civil future.

Ronnie Hatley ( is currently a volunteer visiting lecturer in social science and political economy at Airlangga University in Surabaya. He has previously taught at universities in Indonesia, Australia and the United States.

Inside Indonesia 112: Apr-Jun 2013{jcomments on}

Latest Articles

Labouring in vain?

May 03, 2024 - HASNA A. FADHILAH

The Labour Party (Partai Buruh) was revived in the wake of opposition to the Omnibus Law on Job Creation, but failure in the 2024 election shows they failed to connect...

Book review: Uncovering Suharto's Cold War


Film review: Inheriting collective memories through 'Eksil'


A documentary embraced by TikTokers is changing how young people understand Indonesia’s past

Indonesians call for climate action through music


Self-education and lived experience of the impacts of climate change, are driving a grassroots environmental movement

Book review: Clive of Indonesia

Apr 05, 2024 - DUNCAN GRAHAM

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.

Bacaan Bumi: Pemikiran Ekologis – sebuah suplemen Inside Indonesia

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar.