Sep 23, 2020 Last Updated 7:31 AM, Sep 18, 2020

Opening that dark page

Published: Jul 02, 2000

Victims of the 1965-66 anti-communist mass murders are working to expose the truth. They face some determined opposition.


The simple office sits in a cheap housing estate in Tangerang, 20 km west of Jakarta. On a tiny 250 square metre corner block, the house is not much to look at. Sulami is 74 years old and often sick. She and her younger sister rented this office in March 2000 to run the Research Institute for Victims of the '65-'66 Killings (Yayasan Penelitian Korban Pembunuhan 65-66, YPKP).

They set up the institute on 7 April 1999 to collect information on the mass murders that claimed about two and a half million lives. Last March they visited the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM). They explained they wanted to work towards prosecuting those responsible for gross human rights violations against Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) members or alleged members in 1965-66. They were considering prosecuting the Suharto government. However, Komnas HAM said they could only offer limited support because rules restricting the movement of people once labeled 'communist' were still in effect.

Supported by several non-government organisations, the YPKP committee became the first group to demand that a 1966 government decree banning the teaching and spreading of communism-Marxism/ Leninism (known as Tap no. XXV/MPRS/1966) be abolished. They first tried to meet with the speaker of parliament, but failed.


A number of groups do not want the historical truth of the events around the 1 October 1965 Incident (when General Suharto took control of Jakarta and later of the country) exposed. An Islamic jihad group armed with swords recently visited President Gus Dur in his palace and expressed their anger because he wanted to abolish the 1966 decree on human rights grounds.

Even some leaders of Nahdlatul Ulama, Gus Dur's own religious organisation, vented their anger at him when at a Friday prayer meeting he suddenly declared he wanted to say sorry to the 1965 victims and their families. Gus Dur confessed that many members of NU's own youth organisation Banser had become militia members who took part in the massacres.

Muslim political parties within the loose Central Axis coalition had already begun to dislike Gus Dur's leadership when he showed a readiness to accommodate minority groups and open diplomatic relations with Israel. They seized on the proposal to abolish the 1966 anti-communist decree as a reason for building opposition to Gus Dur. Law and Legislation Minister Yusril Ihza Mahendra, who comes from the Crescent Star Party PBB, even felt called to express his disapproval of his president's idea openly at the party's congress in early April. He had to do this to avoid being beaten in the race for party president by hardliners such as Fadli Zon, Eggi Sudjana and Ahmad Sumargono. When Yusril vowed to resign from cabinet if Gus Dur pushed ahead with his proposal to abolish the decree, he was greeted with loud applause.

The birth of YPKP and the unwonted appearance in public of several prominent leftists who had once been political prisoners, combined with the president's idea about the 1966 decree, made a lot of people fear the rebirth of the communist party PKI. Some parliamentarians even said the very survival of the state was at stake. Young people held some well-organised demonstrations opposing Gus Dur's idea in big cities in Sumatra, Java and Sulawesi. Some observers suspected that military officers with a grudge against Gus Dur were behind the actions.

The most amazing thing is that the strongest opposition to Gus Dur's reconciliatory idea came from old nationalists like Ruslan Abdulgani, who said it would provide an opportunity for the PKI to regroup. In Sukarno's days, Ruslan was the spokesman for a political manifesto that put forward the idea of combining nationalist, religious and communist parties into a single front called Nasakom.

Sulami, who was once secretary-general of the Indonesian Women's Movement (Gerwani), doesn't feel too anxious about these political developments. 'I believe President Gus Dur will push ahead with reformasi. Democratisation will go on. This will give millions of victims of the 1965 Incident a chance to discover the truth', she said.

To this end Sulami and her colleagues, among them committee members outside Jakarta and a French researcher, are busy building a database of all the cruelties inflicted around the military-backed 1965 Incident. Despite a shortage of funds, YPKP is growing. Branches now exist in several cities in Java, Bali, West Sumatra, and North, Central and South Sulawesi. 'Of course many of our supporters are our own compatriots. Most of them were on Buru Island', Sulami said.

Together with the human rights group Solidaritas Nusa Bangsa (NSB) and ably assisted by some young members of the People's Democratic Party PRD, YPKP on 5-15 April held a training session on the techniques necessary to investigate the 1965-66 killings. About a hundred people attended it. Initially the exercise was to be held in a Catholic retreat centre, but that failed when the proprietors found themselves being terrorised by military intelligence and several people who said they belonged to an Islamic group. These people threatened to burn down the place just as had been done to the (Protestant) Doulos Complex in Cipayung, East Jakarta, when they insisted on going ahead with hosting training for former PKI members.

Hasan Raid, former member of the High Command to Retool Revolutionary Elements (Kotrar) and now an advisor to YPKP, said the appearance of YPKP had stimulated anxiety among some people that their crimes against humanity in the past would be exposed. 'People who talk about a PKI revival are actually telling us more about their own fears that the sins they committed against their fellow citizens under the protection of the 1966 decree will be revealed', said this old man, who spent thirteen years detained without trial in Nusakembangan jail and who is now a grandfather.


YPKP says its only interest in opening an investigation into the 1965 mass killings is to discover the truth. 'If the PKI is proven wrong, let it be wrong. I am only challenging the way punishment was meted out. It's just the killings that we are making an issue of', Sulami explained. YPKP intends to conduct an evaluation of its discoveries in December 2000. 'At that time we will decide if we have enough data to proceed to prosecution or not. If not, we will go on collecting more information that has been kept secret by the New Order powers all this time', Sulami went on.

The idea of setting up YPKP arose from a simple humanitarian impulse. Between the Incident of 1 October 1965 and when the military arrested her in early 1967, Sulami had moved around freely for a year and a half. She heard a lot of stories about the military murdering civilians they suspected of communism, and even saw some herself. After her release she worked in the catering section of a detention centre. Bit by bit she saved the money she earned for the purpose of conducting an investigation into the murders. Her data gathering efforts became more intensive when she was asked to accompany several foreign researchers to some remote locations. She used these trips to add to her own data set.

In June 1998 a television crew came from Australia to make a documentary on efforts to open a mass grave in Blora, East Java. Sulami became the main source for the film. It was later broadcast simultaneously in several countries on 30 September 1998. Among those who contacted her with messages of support were the novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Hasan Raid, Kusalah Subagio Toer (Pramoedya's brother and formerly with Lekra), Sumini Martono (widow, formerly with Gerwani), Dr Ribka Tjiptaning and Haryo Sungkono. This eventually led to the establishment of YPKP

Stanley is a journalist in Jakarta.

Inside Indonesia 63: Jul - Sep 2000

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