The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, January 14, 2019


How to uncover bloody secrets: Just ask                                        

Victor's version.  Monument in South Blitar to the purge of Communists

Much commentary on the 1965 coup is heavy with adverbs, qualifying observations and doubts sown into fields of research.

Was the killing of the six generals and a lieutenant on the night of 30 September a well-planned Communist Party (PKI) take-over which went wrong?  Did the Army have prior knowledge so it was able to constrain any uprising?  How else could it have seized power so rapidly in the confusion that followed?

A few months earlier President Soekarno had announced a ‘Fifth Force’, a ‘People’s Army’.  This concerned the existing armed forces, which then planned to undermine the new group; but what really happened has long been contested.

Not now. Australian academic Dr Jess Melvin doesn’t shilly-shally. The statements in her book The Army and the Indonesian Genocide are definitive.

Not for her the excuse that the anti-Communist killings, which swept much of the nation in the months following the coup, were spontaneous uprisings of villagers, pious Muslims outraged by godless Marxists.

This is the story that the Army and successive governments have maintained with absolute authority, ensuring every generation accepted the ‘fact’ by pushing propaganda into schools, the media and daily life.

Even now, 53 years later, some streets fly flags at half-mast on 1 October to keep the myth alive.

Myth?  Absolutely, according to Melvin, who has built her history on the most rock-hard foundations.  She has used the Army’s own records. 

How she got this academic gold is a lesson for all researchers:  In 2010 she walked into a military archive in Banda Aceh, asked for their records and got them along with access to a photocopier – something no other fossicker had bothered to do. 

Maybe the custodian of the 3,000 papers didn’t know what they contained, or didn’t wonder why a young foreigner would be interested in piles of dusty documents. Melvin has now dubbed these The Indonesian Genocide Files.

Iconoclast Melvin comments that ‘academia … has also shown a reluctance to characterize the killings as the result of a centralized military campaign’ and names the gullible.  These include Professors Robert Cribb and Harold Crouch, both of the Australian National University, though the latter has now retired

In the megawatt glare of Melvin’s findings some scholars must now be pushing their once authoritative texts into the backs of bookcases and deleting references from student reading lists.

We don’t know how many real or imagined Communists were killed in the six months following the coup.  Melvin goes for ‘approximately one million unarmed civilians’ making this one of the more dreadful mass slaughters in recent history.

In separate research, using recently declassified US Government files from the period, she’s shown that the Jakarta embassy was well aware the Army was coordinating the killings, even giving weapons and prisoners to mobs for murder.

It’s easy to be horrified in 2019 now Communism is a spent force in much of the world. Even China, where the ideology is welded into the ironclad administration, it’s capitalism that’s making the nation rich and powerful.

Back in the Cold War 1960s, the West was terrified of the Red Threat sweeping through Southeast Asia; fighting in the Vietnam War was at its most intense.  In this high-stress atmosphere impartial trials and the rule of law were impediments to be kicked aside.

That may answer some puzzles about the ferocity of the genocide, but no excuse. However well plastered, history’s horrors tend to leak through the damp mortar showing the structural rot behind, staining the favored story. 

Indonesian human rights organizations regularly try to have the killings ventilated by an independent tribunal.

These have suffocated.  It seems important people with questionable pasts can still ensure the graves and files stay undisturbed. They overlooked Melvin.

Her research shows that within days of the coup Major-General Soeharto, later to become the nation’s second president, had started Operasi Penumpasan (Operation Annihilation).  This included an elaborate public relations exercise to mask the military’s role.

This included fermenting toxic titles like G30S and Gestapu and barbarizing suspects.

It worked, even overseas.  Writes Melvin: ‘If it seems remarkable that the Indonesian State continues to justify the killings, it should be remembered that Soeharto’s rise to power … was openly celebrated in the West.

‘… Time magazine explained just after the worst of the killings had ended (that this) was ‘the West’s best news for years in Asia’.’

Most academic literature has focused on the butchery in Java but the killings started in Aceh.  Melvin already knew her way around the province having worked as an undergraduate volunteer with aid agencies following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. 

Apart from analysing Army records she interviewed more than 70 survivors and relatives of the victims.  Many had never spoken publicly before and still feared retribution. 

Writes Melvin of her ‘humbling experience’: ‘It struck me as unbelievably tragic that even to this day they have not been able to mourn publicly.’ 

She also met men from the death squads: ‘They considered themselves national heroes.  Their greatest regret was that they had not received more recognition for their actions.’

Melvin controlled her repulsion:  ‘They were not monsters.   They spoke to me politely and in some cases even kindly.’  In extreme circumstance people externalize evil. 

Indonesia is not alone in failing to see history through clear eyes. Australians still wrestle with the reality that their nation was built on the bones of massacred Aborigines.  The 2008 ‘sorry statement’ by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd came two centuries after the British took possession of the ‘empty land’.

Indonesian activists hoping for national reconciliation are unlikely to see this occur with the present crop of politicians; in the meantime this book will give them the hard facts they need when that moment of healing comes.

Should the military and the State be held accountable for the genocide? Melvin’s unsettling research has finally settled the question.

First published in The Jakarta Post, 14 January 2019

No comments: