Suharto's Purge, Indonesia's Silence

By Oppenheimer, Joshua | International New York Times, September 30, 2015 | Go to article overview

Suharto's Purge, Indonesia's Silence


Oppenheimer, Joshua, International New York Times


There has yet to be official recognition of the government- orchestrated killing of more than 500,000 Indonesians in 1965.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of a mass slaughter in Indonesia. With American support, more than 500,000 people were murdered by the Indonesian Army and its civilian death squads. At least 750,000 more were tortured and sent to concentration camps, many for decades.

The victims were accused of being "communists," an umbrella that included not only members of the legally registered Communist Party, but all likely opponents of Suharto's new military regime -- from union members and women's rights activists to teachers and the ethnic Chinese. Unlike in Germany, Rwanda or Cambodia, there have been no trials, no truth-and-reconciliation commissions, no memorials to the victims. Instead, many perpetrators still hold power throughout the country.

Indonesia is the world's fourth most populous nation, and if it is to become the democracy it claims to be, this impunity must end. The anniversary is a moment for the United States to support Indonesia's democratic transition by acknowledging the 1965 genocide, and encouraging a process of truth, reconciliation and justice.

On Oct. 1, 1965, six army generals in Jakarta were killed by a group of disaffected junior officers. Maj. Gen. Suharto assumed command of the armed forces, blamed the killings on the leftists, and set in motion a killing machine. Millions of people associated with left-leaning organizations were targeted, and the nation dissolved into terror -- people even stopped eating fish for fear that fish were eating corpses. Suharto usurped President Sukarno's authority and established himself as de facto president by March 1966. From the very beginning, he enjoyed the full support of the United States.

I've spent 12 years investigating the terrible legacy of the genocide, creating two documentary films, "The Act of Killing" in 2013 and "The Look of Silence," released earlier this year. I began in 2003, working with a family of survivors. We wanted to show what it is like to live surrounded by still-powerful perpetrators who had murdered your loved ones.

The family gathered other survivors to tell their stories, but the army warned them not to participate. Many survivors urged me not to give up and suggested that I film perpetrators in hopes that they would reveal details of the massacres.

I did not know if it was safe to approach the killers, but when I did, I found them open. They offered boastful accounts of the killings, often with smiles on their faces and in front of their grandchildren. I felt I had wandered into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust, only to find the Nazis still in power.

Today, former political prisoners from this era still face discrimination and threats. Gatherings of elderly survivors are regularly attacked by military-backed thugs. Schoolchildren are still taught that the "extermination of the communists" was heroic, and that victims' families should be monitored for disloyalty. This official history, in effect, legitimizes violence against a whole segment of society.

The purpose of such intimidation is to create a climate of fear in which corruption and plunder go unchallenged. Inevitably in such an atmosphere, human rights violations have continued since 1965, including the 1975-1999 occupation of East Timor, where enforced starvation contributed to the killing of nearly a third of the population, as well as torture and extrajudicial killing that go on in West Papua today.

Military rule in Indonesia formally ended in 1998, but the army remains above the law. …

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