Can Indonesia look back to move forward?


World leaders often cite Indonesia as an example of tolerance and democracy, both for Asia and the Islamic world. With the recent coup in Thailand, and growing protests in Malaysia, it is considered a rare beacon of light in the region, a country that is moving in the right direction.

“Indonesia progressed rapidly in the years immediately following the fall of [General] Suharto in terms of building and strengthening democratic institutions,” says Paul Rowland, an Indonesia-based elections expert.

But just half a century ago, one of the bloodiest episodes in modern history took place across the Indonesian archipelago.

On 30 September, 1965, six top generals were killed by a group allegedly made up of left-wing Indonesians. To this day, the circumstances surrounding their deaths remain unclear but the murders allowed a previously little-known military leader, General Suharto, to assume power and launch a nationwide campaign against the perpetrators of the killing, which, according to him, were the Indonesia Communist Party (PKI) and its left-wing allies.

Within two years, Suharto was in firm control of the country, the PKI had been completely destroyed and countless Indonesians were dead.

"By not addressing the past, the regime of silence and fear continues, as those in power know that the public is still afraid,” says Joshua Oppenheimer tells whose 2012 documentary film, The Act of Killing, sparked global discussions on the abortive coup and its aftermath.

To many, the appearance of civility – exemplified by the forthcoming local elections in December – is merely a façade. At the core of Indonesian society, critics claim, something dark and violent remains hidden.

“If you want to understand what is happening in your present society, you have to look back at the past,” John T Miller, Executive Director of the East Timor Action Network, tells Equal Times.

In fact, Miller and other justice advocates argue that Indonesia’s endemic corruption, lingering inequality, and continued environmental degradation are directly connected to what happened in 1965, and without confronting the past, Indonesia is doomed to see its democratic potential halt, or, disappear completely.

“We don’t know the extent of the genocide – people say 500,000, most likely [academic] guess is one million, but the main perpetrators say we killed three million,” says Professor Saskia E. Wieringa, a women’s rights expert based at the University of Amsterdam and chair of the International People’s Tribunal 1965, an organisation set up to address the crimes against humanity committed in Indonesia after 1965.

Of special concern to activists is the situation in West Papua, which was annexed during Suharto’s rule in 1969 and has seen waves of violence and repression throughout its history. The military still remains firmly in control of West Papua, where sporadic violence between locals and government forces still occurs regularly.

“The violence of [1965-66] continued in East Timor, and I’m fearful it will continue in West Papua,” said Wieringa.


“They have blood on their hands”

Suharto fell from power in 1998 following the economic devastation wreaked by the Asian Financial Crisis. Then, with ample international assistance, Indonesia moved to build a democracy that, contrary to the expectations of many, has survived several elections. One thing it did not do, however, was create a space for victims of Suharto’s three-decade long rule, most notably families of the 1965-66 killings, to gain justice.

“Indonesia is still ruled by corrupt, blood-hungry people with blood on their hands,” Wieringa tells Equal Times. The Tribunal is in session for the first time this November in the Netherlands in an attempt to fill the information gap and provide some form of justice – and awareness – to the families of victims of the killings.

The tribunal will be trying to do something the post-Suharto Indonesian government has so far failed to do.

“There really was not thorough accounting of the Suharto years, or a cleaning of house,” says Miller. This legacy has meant that, to this day, perpetrators of the violence continue to hold high-level positions both within the Indonesian government, and in the country’s myriad provinces and districts.

“Power is still unchecked...and it is impossible for Indonesia to make progress on human rights or in checking corruption if these people still remain in power,” says Wieringa.

Earlier this year, Indonesia’s new government, led by President Joko Widodo, looked into implementing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to look at the abuses of the Suharto era. Advocates fear a weak commission won’t provide justice to victims.

“Any truth or reconciliation commission needs a strong justice component,” says Miller.

Moreover, foreign governments have a role to play, most notably the United States, which supported the Suharto regime and has yet to release records about its role in the coup.

“The United States wanted to keep Suharto happy as he was their big ally in the region,” says Miller. “The more information from that time that is released, not just about US actions but Indonesian government actions in all its various facets, will allow all of us to understand what happened, and help prevent similar things from happening again, and identify who was responsible.”

In the end, it will be the world coming together, and acknowledging the tragedy in Indonesia’s past, that will make the most difference.

“The world has to understand that this was a genocide, and the world has to take responsibility,” says Wierenga.