The slain generals continue to be feted year after year, with no questions asked about who was really responsible for their deaths. (Antara Photo/M. Risyal Hidayat)

In Shadows of Propaganda and Complicity, Truth About 1965 Massacre Still Glows


DECEMBER 07, 2015

Jakarta. Tumiso Lukas still remembers the morning of Dec. 19, 1965, when hundreds of armed soldiers marched onto the campus of Res Publica University in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-biggest city.

The school, established three years earlier by Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, also spelled Soekarno, was placed under lockdown and taken over by the military because of its affiliation with the president, who by then was already under house arrest on orders from Maj. Gen. Suharto.

Troops quickly rounded up hundreds of students, in particularly the 500 or so members of the Concentration of Indonesian Student Movement (CGMI), which the military accused of being linked to the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).

Tumiso, now 76, says virtually all the students and faculty at the university were arrested by the military, leaving the campus deserted the following day. They were taken to a military base, where they would be interrogated and beaten.

The military, Tumiso says, took a particular interest in him. As well as being a member of the CGMI, Tumiso was also affiliated with the Indonesian Teachers Association (PGRI), led by a man named Subandri, whom the military accused of being a communist sympathizer.

Tumiso says he was tortured nearly daily while in prison, sometimes in a bid to make him rat out his friends, other times when the military had made new arrests and obtained fresh information – but often simply for the guards’ own amusement. By the time the guards were done each time, Tumiso and the others could barely walk.

“Have you ever heard the expression ‘barely alive’?” Tumiso asks me while describing his days in military detention. “That was one way to describe us prisoners. We were given just enough food to keep us from dying but they starved us so that we were so weak we wouldn’t revolt.

“We were given leftover vegetables, waste from vendors at the market; bug-infested cabbages and half-rotten water spinach. That’s what we ate.”

One day, after months of incarceration, the students were taken out of their cells and told to line up in a single row in front of the military compound.

Under the watchful eye of dozens of armed guards, they were told not to speak a word to each other or to their loved ones, who had gathered at the gates, waiting to see them.

The military simply wanted to show the families that their sons, husbands and fathers were still alive and not among the hundreds of thousands of suspected communist sympathizers killed between 1965 and 1966 in what has been dubbed one of the worst mass killings of the 20th century.

‘Lying or a puppet’

It was a hot September day when I first met Tumiso, who now cares for about a dozen survivors of the 1965 purge, most of them women many years his senior for whom the Waluyo Sejati Abadi retirement home in Central Jakarta is their sole refuge.

Tumiso had just returned from a meeting with fellow human rights activists earlier in the day; his silence, deep stare, and the frown hiding beneath his thick mustache hinted at a sense of anger and disappointment.

The outcome of the discussion was that the long-awaited justice promised them by President Joko Widodo during his election campaign in 2014 remained elusive; the government had refused to issue an apology to the survivors of the massacres, and Joko’s ministers had suggested that no one would face justice for the countless lives lost, proposing reconciliation rather than prosecution.

“There are several possibilities: either Jokowi is lying and he wasn’t sincere about his promises of resolving past human rights abuse; that the whole thing was just a campaign strategy to beat his opponent,” Tumiso says.

“Another possibility is that Jokowi is indeed a puppet as many people suspect.”

Tumiso is a thin and slender man but with an imposing look that commands respect and fear. The anguish that roils him manifests itself in sudden outbursts of rage, a temperament often provoked by the most trivial of reasons, as the people around him can attest.

The women at the retirement home can understand, or at least tolerate, Tumiso’s occasional tantrums.

Although they too were detained without trial, tortured and treated inhumanely for years by the military, they know that Tumiso’s past was far darker, his pain more unbearable. That’s why they afford him the utmost respect, even though he’s the youngest in the group.

During our conversation, Tumiso gave clues to the origin of his temper, the fire deep inside that kept him going through the years of hardship until his release 14 years later: pride.

“Over time, the physical agony and the inhumane condition of our time in prison became just a part of the daily routine. Some couldn’t bear the pain and chose to end their lives, but many people like me held on with the conviction that we did nothing wrong,” he says.

After four years in prison, Tumiso found himself on a boat, in his first voyage at sea. His destination: the now infamous Buru Island in Maluku, where he would become one of thousands of political prisoners subjected to forced labor.

“There were a thousand prisoners from across Java cramped into that one Navy ship. We were locked inside the ship’s hull, sleeping on a makeshift floor made of planks covered with sheets of plywood. We could hardly breathe from the heat and sweat. The stench was unbearable. Below us was seawater mixed with urine and feces,” Tumiso recalls.

It was in Buru that he realized the military hadn’t just targeted those with direct links to the supposed murder of six Army generals on Sept. 30, 1965, which Suharto’s forces had used as a pretext for the eventual slaughter of between 500,000 and a million civilians accused of being communist sympathizers.

With Tumiso on the 9,505-square-kilometer island – one and a half times the size of Bali – were the likes of the preeminent writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer; renowned wayang master Terstuti Resmadi; an aging professor named Soeprapto; a 14-year-old boy named Asmuni, who had volunteered to go in his father’s place; and Bronto Kusumoatmojo, the composer of the song “Garuda Pancasila” – the national symbol and ideology that, ironically enough, the military claimed it was protecting from the nefarious communists.

“There were future pastors [in Buru]; there were also graduates of Al Azhar University [in Cairo]. So it wasn’t true that we were a bunch of godless atheists,” Tumiso says.


Yet the majority of Indonesians still believe that men like Tumiso were evil, thanks to more than three decades of propaganda by Suharto’s military-backed government, which portrayed communism as an existential threat to national security and the military as the heroes who quashed it.

The most powerful piece of propaganda ever produced by the regime was the four-hour-long docudrama “Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI,” or “The Treachery of the September 30th Movement/PKI.” Riddled with inaccuracies and over-dramatization, the film served as the sole source of history for millions of Indonesians – even those who were alive in 1965.

Literacy rates were low back then, and few people had radios in their homes; television sets were only found in big cities like Jakarta. News traveled through word of mouth, in bits and pieces, getting distorted and exaggerated with each telling. So it was no surprise that people accepted the narrative depicted in the film as the historical truth.

Suharto was so enamored of the film – and its portrayal of him as the hero who single-handedly destroyed the PKI “down to its roots” – that he organized public viewing in schools as well as the only television station at the time, state-owned TVRI, on the anniversary of the supposed communist coup attempt.

In the film, the communists torture the kidnapped generals, stab them repeatedly and burn them with lit cigarettes. They even gouge out the eye of one of them out with a sickle. In another scene, the generals’ lifeless bodies are thrown into a hole while the Communists dance in celebration.

At the time of the film’s release in 1984 no one disputed its accuracy, for fear of drawing the ire of the military, which since the massacre ruled the country with an iron fist.

No one criticized the film for failing to mention that hundreds of thousands of innocents were slaughtered in the ensuing military-sponsored anti-communist purge, their bodies clogging up major rivers so badly that no one dared to eat freshwater fish for months.

No one questioned the litany of holes in Suharto’s version of history, most importantly: if the PKI had been plotting a coup against Sukarno, then why was the country’s founding president declared an enemy of the state a year later? And why did the military, in its campaign of murder and imprisonment of millions, encounter no resistance from a group of supposed armed insurgents?

Also conveniently overlooked was the fact that one of the slain generals had once court-martialed Suharto on suspicion of corruption. And the fact that the man accused of kidnapping and killing the generals, Col. Untung, the commander of the presidential guard, had been close to Suharto, serving alongside him in many campaigns.

Had they been brought to light, these and other important points would likely have bred suspicion that it was Suharto, and not the PKI, who was responsible for the murder of the generals.

But even after the strongman was forced from power in 1998, attempts to challenge Suharto’s take on history continue to meet with resistance.

On Oct. 18 this year, authorities in Central Java seized and burned hundreds of copies of Lentera Magazine, a campus-based publication at Satya Wacana University in the town of Salatiga, because the issue in question featured in-depth coverage of the murder of thousands of suspected PKI members and sympathizers in the area during the purge.

Later that month, the highly regarded Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali was forced to cancel three panels and discussion events exploring the massacres, as well as a photo exhibition and the screening of a documentary on the subject, after authorities threatened to shut down the festival.

Many public screenings and discussions of two award-winning documentaries on the subject – “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence” by US filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer – have also been broken up by the authorities or Islamist groups since the films were released in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

“The main reason why is that these people are still in power,” Human Rights Watch Indonesian researcher Andreas Harsono says of those who were linked to or benefited from the purge and the New Order regime that it spawned.

“Indonesia is the only country which has not reconciled with its own past.”

The slain generals continue to be feted year after year, with no questions asked about who was really responsible for their deaths. (Antara Photo/M. Risyal Hidayat)

Foreign complicity

Much of the truth about what happened in 1965 is still shrouded in mystery and systematically kept hidden from public view, including the extent to which the United States, Britain and Australia were involved, supported or at the very least condoned the mass killings.

International scholars as well as former US and British intelligence officers have written extensively on the subject, linking the massacres to then-US president Lyndon B. Johnson’s concerns about the growing influence of the PKI in a part of the world where communist forces had already seized power, in neighboring Vietnam.

The PKI at the time had three million members, making it the third-largest communist party in the world after those of the Soviet Union and China.

The West was also concerned about Sukarno’s socialist bent and his refusal to stop strikes, demonstrations and the occupation of businesses and plantations by workers and farmers.

Those industrial actions affected Western companies operating in Indonesia, and the West soon began to look for someone more amenable to supporting Western interests – someone like Suharto.

In a letter to the Washington Post in 1990, Robert J. Martens, who from 1963 to 1966 was a political officer at the US Embassy in Jakarta, admitted to having provided a list of 5,000 names to the Indonesian military. Everyone on the list was later presumed killed by the military.

Whether it supported it or not, the West certainly benefited from the purge. Suharto, in his new role as president, opened up Indonesia to Western businesses. He also declared communism illegal, and any attempt by farmers or workers to unionize or go on strike resulted in them being labeled communists.

“After the anti-communist massacre, Indonesia became very pro-Western,” historian Asvi Warman Adam of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences wrote in The Conversation recently.

“The destruction of communism in Indonesia benefited capitalist countries such as the United States and Japan.”

Under Suharto, people like Tumiso were sent to places like Buru, where they were forced at gunpoint to work long hours without pay, cutting wood, tapping rubber and growing produce, which the military sold to foreign-owned companies.

Back to Buru

Tumiso describes the island as a remote wasteland. Except for a few military buildings and houses along its coast, it was untouched by modern civilization. It was virtually uninhabited, except for a few indigenous communities who traveled into and out of the jungle in their traditional garb hunting for wild animals with their bows and arrows.

The prisoners could easily have escaped their camps and hid in the jungle, but no one did because they knew that those left behind would be punished for it.

The prisoners were distributed to various parts of the islands, some for farm work, others for logging.

But the labor camps meant for agriculture were surrounded by thick brush, and the guards, paranoid that the prisoners might attack them, refused to provide sickles to clear the land.

So the prisoners had to uproot all the thorny shrubs, grass and weeds with their bare hands, returning to camp at the end of each day with ghastly blisters on their hands.

Having grown up in a big city, Tumiso had never touched a shovel or a plow in his life. He was not used to the intense labor associated with farming.

But what he lacked in skills and muscles he more than made up for with his wile.

He quickly realized that the guards weren’t all that sharp. So he tricked them into thinking that the 100-by-100-meter lots that each prisoner was supposed to plow each day was the same as two 50-by-50-meter lots – which amounted to just half of what they should have been plowing.

He spread the word among the other prisoners.

Over the years, Buru became more and more developed thanks to the prisoners. The once illiterate indigenous communities were taught to read and write by former ministers, public officials and teachers like Tumiso. The prisoners built roads and dams for irrigation, which helped the locals and, later, transmigrants to grow their own crops.

Finally, in 1979, after years of international pressure, the government released the prisoners. But by then Tumiso’s parents were long dead, his wife had remarried, and his own son didn’t recognize him.

To this day he refuses to acknowledge Tumiso as his father.

The survivors endured discrimination and stigma even after they were free. Those accused of being communists were barred from joining the civil service, and many businesses were too afraid to hire them.

Many like Pramoedya sought political asylum abroad, while those like Tumiso survived by doing odd jobs, while still under constant monitoring from Suharto’s security apparatus, which treated them like second-class citizens.

Some returned to Buru, having found little left for them back home except pain and anguish.

‘Impunity on the grandest of scales’

But for those who led the purge, and Suharto’s hangers-on, the opposite was true. They grew wealthy on business concessions, and powerful on political appointments. They thrived, seemingly without a pang of guilt for the lives lost or fear that they would one day have to face justice.

Fifty years on, they and their families continue to dominate Indonesia’s political landscape, using their influence and power to stop the truth from coming out.

“The administration of Jokowi and Megawati is surrounded by people who were involved in the massacres in one way or the other,” HRW’s Andreas says.

With the impunity it enjoyed, the military grew more brazen in its actions, committing more massacres and human rights violations across the breadth of the country.

Since 1965, it has been responsible for the bloody occupation of East Timor between 1975 and 1999; displaced thousands from their homes to make way for oil exploration in Aceh and copper mining in Papua; slaughtered protesters in Lampung and North Jakarta; and orchestrated the forced disappearance and torture of student activists in 1997-98.

“This is impunity on the grandest of scales. Because of what happened [in 1965] and the impunity they enjoyed, history repeated itself, albeit on a smaller scale [than in 1965],” Andreas says. “What happened in Aceh, East Timor, the killing of protesters would not have occurred if the [1965] perpetrators were brought to justice.”

With Indonesia reluctant to acknowledge the massacres, human rights activists are turning to the international community to uncover what truly happened.

Several activists took the issue before an International People’s Tribunal in The Hague recently, while in the US pressure is increasing for the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department to fully declassify files showing just how much of a role Washington played in the atrocity.

For Tumiso, these moves are important for the thousands of survivors 1965 still alive today.

“What we want is not vengeance. What we want is recognition. For the state to acknowledge that what happened in 1965 is not what the New Order wanted people to know. We don’t want to open old wounds, like people accuse us of doing,” he says.

“At least [with formal acknowledgment] our kids can hold their heads high knowing that their families were not criminals.”