(Suharto in his office as the commander of Kostrad, 1963, [Public Domain in Indonesia] via Creative Commons)
The Rise of the Suharto Regime and the Unimaginable Mass Murder of Around 1,000,000 Indonesians
The Quagmire of Independence
The Indonesian people began making huge leaps and bounds toward independence in one of the most tumultuous centuries in recorded history—the 20th century. In that bloody span of 100 years, there were two World Wars, a Cold War of ideologies, and numerous contained wars, where the United States, the Soviet Union and China battled it out within smaller, allied states, such as Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan. It was a time when every nation believed their own philosophy to be superior, and all countries were pressured to pick sides—Allies or Axis, NATO or Warsaw, capitalist or communist. Unfortunately for Indonesia, this was the world stage that their country was thrown into when they declared their independence.
As independence leaders go, the man who came to the forefront of the Indonesian Independence Movement was competent and promising. His name was Sukarno, also spelled Soekarno (lived 1901-1970). He had the looks and charisma to make people want to follow him, and learned around ten languages over his lifetime, allowing him to spread his message far and wide.
At the beginning of the 20thcentury, the islands of Indonesia were controlled by the Netherlands. The land was called the Dutch East Indies. In his late twenties, Sukarno was jailed by the Dutch for his nationalist activism. Later, in his early thirties, he was exiled from his homeland, and was only able to return when the Japanese seized Indonesia during WWII.
The well-spoken nationalist activist worked with, and advised, the Japanese in Indonesia during the war, but by 1945, when Japan was clearly struggling against the United States and the Allied Powers in the Pacific, Sukarno demanded that Indonesia be granted independence from Japan. The war ended, however, before any agreement could be made between Sukarno and the Japanese—Indonesia was, once again, put under the authority of the Netherlands. Indonesian nationalists decided to move forward with independence despite the setback. Independence was declared on August 17, 1945, but the Dutch tried, for several years, to reassert their power over Indonesia until 1949, when they recognized their former colony as an independent state.
A President on the Fence
Sukarno became the first president of Indonesia. Unfortunately, like many leaders of fledgling democracies and republics, President Sukarno fell to arrogance and greed. He believed his presidential term to be for life, and he went on to be the only president of Indonesia from 1949 to 1966.
As an independent country, Indonesia and its charismatic president could not escape the events occurring in the world. The Korean War, and especially the Vietnam War, put pressure on Indonesia to choose a side in the global Cold War—the United States on one side and the Soviet Union on the other. Indonesia, itself, was heavily split between the factions of the Cold War. On one side, Indonesia held the 3rdlargest communist party (surpassed only by Russia and China). In contrast, the military hierarchy and many influential religions in Indonesia were staunchly anti-communist. President Sukarno attempted to maintain a neutral policy, but his power largely rested in the political alliance between his Nationalist Party and the local Communist Party of Indonesia, the PKI.
Despite his political coalition with the PKI, President Sukarno continued his policy of neutrality on the world stage, attempting to balance himself and his country safely between the United States, China and the Soviet Union. The United States received him well when he traveled to North America to speak, but their good will toward Sukarno disappeared when the Indonesian President flew to China, as well.
As the 1950s progressed, the United States and its allies were yearning for President Sukarno’s downfall. The U.S. backed an independence movement on the Indonesian island of Java (1957-1958), but they were found out, the aid halted, and the independence movement was crushed. The United States was not the only power that infuriated Sukarno. The British founded the country of Malaysia on the northern outskirts of Indonesia. Sukarno protested Malaysia’s legitimacy and attacked the new country. When the United Nations upheld the creation of Malaysia, President Sukarno responded by pulling Indonesia out of the U.N. With the United States and its allies trying to dethrone him, Sukarno publicly began voicing his preference for the communist side of the Cold War.
Coup and Counter-Coup
While the President of Indonesia began to gradually lean toward the Communist side of the Cold War, the Indonesian military remained, to its core, strictly opposed to communism. As the cliché goes, the political situation in Indonesia was a powder keg ready to be sparked.
All the chaos began on September 30th, 1965. A small coup (uninspiringly, called the September 30th Movement) targeted seven high-ranking generals of the Indonesian military. six of these men were successfully kidnapped and murdered by the coup. Despite the death of the generals, the rest of the Indonesian military rallied behind army chief of staff, General Suharto (not President Sukarno), in a counter-coup that quickly eradicated the rogue soldiers of the September 30th Movement. From this point on, President Sukarno was a puppet to General Suharto, until 1966, when Suharto formally succeeded Sukarno as president. Despite his democratic title, Suharto was no president—he was a dictator of a military regime.
The coup and the counter-coup were both military matters. Suharto knew he needed a scapegoat to keep and justify his new dictatorial regime. He understood, immediately, where he could easily place the blame. He also knew his personal choice in scapegoat could gain his regime huge foreign aid. Therefore, immediately after Suharto put down the small coup, his regime fabricated an elaborate story of communist involvement in the murder of the generals.
Suharto’s false account of the coup went like this: First, the communist PKI orchestrated the murder of the generals. The communists did not only murder the generals, but a group of communist women lured them away from safety, mutilated their genitals, and executed the men. Finally, Suharto claimed that the murder of the generals was the first step of an imminent communist revolution in Indonesia. This story was published in the Indonesian press and made into a film that had to be watched on an annual basis. Even the United States, British and Australian press and radio helped spread the false story.
The Indonesian military used the false account of the coup to mercilessly arrest, imprison and execute as many communist leaders as they could find. The United States and its allies provided the Indonesian military with money, weapons and lists of suspected communists—It was the Vietnam War, after all, and the U.S. needed an anti-communist Indonesia. The western press (or the countries they served) censored and edited news coming out of the region; slaughter was described as policing, and the victims of death squads were reported to have been casualties of civil war. Though the actions of the Indonesian military until this point was shameful, far worse was what Suharto’s regime encouraged in the Indonesian population and culture.
Mass Murder and Celebrity Psychopaths
The PKI and anyone who had even a hint of affiliation with communism were hunted throughout Indonesia for a coup they did not commit. What resulted from the Cold War tensions and Suharto’s propaganda was an enormous bloodbath, littering Indonesia with mass graves. One of the most repeated statistics is that from October 1965 to April 1966, approximately 500,000-1,000,000 people were executed (Chris Hilton’s Shadow Play). That high figure did not satisfy one of the leading military officers of Indonesia, named Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, who estimated that 3,000,000 may have been killed in the aftermath of Suharto’s rise to power.
After the coup and counter-coup, the military moved quickly to establish its presence in cities and villages. By November 1965, the military had a tight grip on the main island of Java. By December, the troops moved across the water to the island of Bali. In Bali, 80,000 were executed within the short timespan of 2 weeks. Wherever the Indonesian military marched, mass murder was sure to follow.
The murders, however, were not only carried out by the military. The Suharto Regime hired and directed local gangs and paramilitary groups to harass and kill suspected communists. Joshua Oppenheimer’s disturbing documentary from 2012, (The Act of Killing), contains a scene where a national T.V. host in an Indonesian show called “Special Dialogue” interviews one of these gangster-turned-executioners named Anwar Congo. In the interview, the host states the following, blandly and directly from a sheet of paper, as if it was a speech delivered to her by the government:
“Anwar and his friends developed a new, more efficient system for exterminating communists. It was more humane, less sadistic, and avoided excessive violence. But you also just wiped them out!” (1:47:38 from The Act of Killing: Director’s Cut).
The paramilitary groups that aided in the extermination of around a million Indonesians are still popular today. One of the biggest is called the Pancasila Youth, with more than 3 million members. In Oppenheimer’s 2012 documentary, (The Act of Killing), the leader of these orange camouflage-clad ruffians, named Yapto Soerjosoemarno, stated boldly, “They say Pancasila Youth is a gangster organization. If we’re gangsters, I’m the biggest gangster of all” (24:30 from The Act of Killing: Director’s Cut).
People who fell into the hands of the gangsters or the paramilitaries usually did not receive any sort of fair trial. Ibrahim Sinik, a newspaper publisher who also served as an interrogator of suspected communists, stated simply: “Whatever we asked, we’d change their answers to make them look bad. As a newspaper man, my job was to make the public hate them” (21:00 from The Act of Killing: Director’s Cut).
In Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary, the executioner, Anwar Congo, brings the filmmaker to a rooftop where, in 1965 and 1966, Congo murdered countless people. First, he claims he beat his victims to death, but the broken bones and bashed brains proved too messy. Congo then pulls out, and displays, a metal wire attached to a wooden handle to demonstrate his more efficient method of execution. With a happy voice and a playful smile, Anwar Congo tells the filmmaker that he anchored the wire to a pole, looped the wire a single time around the victim’s throat, and pulled on the wooden handle to strangle the suspected communist. He reminisced that the wire was thin and could not be grasped and pulled away from the throat by the one being strangled. Congo later told the filmmaker that he was inspired to use wire through Hollywood films:
“When I grew up, I watched a lot of American movies. And I imitated them carefully. As if I played in those movies myself. I always watched gangster films. The cruel ones. And I enjoyed watching them killing people. Those films inspired me, where they always kill with wire” (1:13:42 from The Act of Killing: Director’s Cut).
The western blindness toward the atrocities happening in Indonesia began to clear away once the Cold War dwindled from a inferno to an ember. In 1991, the Indonesian military, along with paramilitary forces, were caught on film attacking the people of East Timor. This time, the press was not interfered with, and the Indonesian military received worldwide criticism.
Later in the same decade, the Indonesian economy began to plummet. One of the reasons the mass murders in Indonesia were condoned was the healthy economy—it made the Indonesian people more compliant, complacent and willing to put up with the Suharto Regime. With the collapse of the Indonesian economy, the people (and the military) were more than willing to abandon Suharto. In 1998, Suharto stepped down from the Presidency, which he had held since 1966.
Today, Suharto’s Regime is gone and a democratic parliamentary government is in place; but some Indonesians (hopefully a minority) still find a wide variety of left-wing ideologies to be intolerable and damnable, all the while tolerating, and praising, gangsters and mass murderers. If the same mold of person as Suharto continues to rule Indonesia, the future of Indonesia looks grim. In (The Act of Killing), multiple powerful and influential people were recorded in speeches and interviews that are shocking. Yapto Soerjosoemarno, leader of the Pancasila Youth paramilitary group stated, “We have too much democracy. It’s chaos. What is this ‘democracy’? Things were better under the military dictatorship. Better economy. More security. Gangsters are free men. They want to enjoy life in their style. Relax and Rolex” (25:30 from The Act of Killing). Governor Syamsul Arifin of North Sumatra stated it even more clearly, “Communism will never be accepted here, because we have so many gangsters, it’s a good thing” (15:00 from The Act of Killing).
There are plenty of great documentaries about the horrible events that occurred in Indonesia during and after 1965. Among them are (The Act of Killing) and (The Look of Silence) by Joshua Oppenheimer, released in 2012 and 2014, respectively. These two are more journalistic in approach, letting the victims tell of their own experiences and provoking the killers to incriminate themselves. There is also (40 Years of Silence) by Robert Lomelson and (The Shadow Play) by Chris Hilton, where a more historical approach is taken, giving more details on the events themselves and voicing open condemnation of the Suharto Regime. All of the above documentaries are great pieces that should be checked out by anyone interested in the topics of this article.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Act of Killing: Theatrical Cut, by Joshua Oppenheimer (Documentary), 2012.
- The Look of Silence, by Joshua Oppenheimer (Domumentary), 2014.
- Robert Lomelson’s 40 Years of Silence (Documentary)
- The Shadow Play by Chris Hilton (Documentary)