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Bringing a Dark Past to Light

Yusuke Ota

Jun. 18, 2015

Indonesian people are seeking the truth about a dark chapter in their country’s history. Supporters of Indonesia’s Communist Party were the victims of a series of crackdowns and massacres starting in 1965. An attempted coup against the country’s first president, Sukarno, triggered those bloody events. They have been a taboo subject for nearly half a century. Two documentary films about the violence are drawing worldwide attention. They’re helping members of victims’ families speak out.

Fifty years ago, the Indonesian government suppressed communists and their families. The crackdown is said to have left more than 500, 000 people dead. The complete story has never been told.

The taboo started to weaken with the release of the 2 recent documentaries -- “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence.”

Former members of gangs and militias appear on camera. They say the military ordered them to take part in the killings. They have never been prosecuted for their actions and have been living in peace. One former gang leader revisits a place where many victims were killed. He says that at first, they beat the victims to death, but there was too much blood. He shows no remorse about what he did.

The films are helping people in Indonesia learn more about the country’s hidden past. People who lost their loved ones are now seeking the truth.

Nyamini lives in the Pati region of Central Java. It’s one of the areas where the crackdown was harshest. Her husband and father were killed because authorities suspected them of being communists. Nyamini has never talked about the massacre -- not even to her children. But she has finally started to discuss it.

She says they beat her husband to a pulp, and drove away with him. She never saw him again.

Other people who lost family members in the massacre are also sharing their experiences. A woman says she took a meal to her detained husband, but a prison guard trampled her. She recalls her feelings of fear. She says she has long kept the experience secret because she had no idea what would happen to her if she spoke out about it. But now that she’s met others who went through the same experience, she can finally discuss it openly.

The Indonesian government says that the crackdown was aimed at maintaining order. It has never disclosed any details about the killings.

Some people have started to find out more about the “hidden massacre.” Bedjo Untung heads a group of victims’ families, called The 65 Murders Research Foundation. He interviews relatives of people who died in the violence, as well as others who survived torture. One of the survivors shows Bedjo his gunshot wounds.

Bedjo organized a meeting of about 200 bereaved family members in February. He wanted to interview them. But police and military officers appeared out of the blue. They forced Bedjo to cancel the meeting. He feels the authorities are trying to sabotage efforts to discover the truth about the massacres. He says military officers claim the gathering poses a security risk, and they won’t allow it. Even 50 years on, Bedjo says some members of the military are threatening them over the killings.


NHK Jakarta Bureau Chief Yusuke Ota joins Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu from Indonesia.

Shibuya: Why are people in Indonesia trying to find out the truth about the events of 50 years ago?

Ota: The massacre is widely believed to have been orchestrated by the military. It has always had a huge influence in Indonesia. Many high-ranking officers have become president. For example, Suharto, who replaced Sukarno and who was in power for over 30 years. But Joko Widodo became president last year after defeating a retired general in an election. Joko is the first Indonesian from outside the military and political establishment to be elected to the country’s top office. This has created an environment that allows people to speak out.

Beppu: But we saw in your story that despite the change in government, there were military people and police trying to interrupt the meeting with victims’ families. What is the current government’s position on the tragic events of 50 years ago?

Ota: It’s sticking to its position that the crackdown was needed to maintain security and social stability. Officials keep saying there’s nothing wrong with how the government is handling the issue. They haven’t responded to calls for an apology or compensation. An expert told me why:

"Those involved in the massacre still occupy senior posts in the current administration. This has made the matter a complicated, long-term issue."
Asvi Warman Adam / Researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences

Beppu: It seems that it’s not easy for victims’ relatives to find out what happened to their loved ones. What do you think needs to be done for the country to come to terms with its history?

Ota: Relatives are placing a lot of hope in Joko. He doesn’t have close ties to the military. So far, Joko hasn’t referred to the issue. But family members of the victims hope that he’ll offer an apology and investigate the massacre, since this year is the 50th anniversary. But it won’t be easy for Joko to do that. Many Indonesians still consider the killings a taboo subject. No commercial theater in the country is allowed to screen “The Act of Killing” or “The Look of Silence.” Many NGOs and student groups have canceled plans to show the films after protests.

Victims’ relatives are getting old. They’ll never learn the truth of what happened 50 years ago unless the government conducts an investigation. The massacre happened during the Cold War. Many Western nations didn’t pay close attention to it. They saw it as a victory over communism. That’s another reason the truth hasn’t been revealed. The international community needs to show awareness of the dark side of Indonesian history to encourage the country to squarely face its past.