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Jakarta Post

Sept. 30, 1965 tragedy: A dark chapter in Indonesian history

  • Ika Krismantari, Margareth S. Aritonang and Imanuddin Razak

    The Jakarta Post

  /   Wed, September 30, 2015   /  09:37 am
Sept. 30, 1965 tragedy: A dark chapter in Indonesian history Rising star: Then chief of the Army Strategic Reserves Command (Kostrad), Maj. Gen. Soeharto, briefs members of the Army’s Special Forces (RPKAD, now Kopassus) prior to the removal of the bodies of the Army generals who were murdered during the abortive Sept. 30, 1965 coup, which was blamed on the now defunct Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). As the most senior military officer available at the time, Soeharto led all the operations to restore security and impose order in the aftermath of the coup attempt.(JP/30 Tahun Indonesia Merdeka) (Kostrad), Maj. Gen. Soeharto, briefs members of the Army’s Special Forces (RPKAD, now Kopassus) prior to the removal of the bodies of the Army generals who were murdered during the abortive Sept. 30, 1965 coup, which was blamed on the now defunct Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). As the most senior military officer available at the time, Soeharto led all the operations to restore security and impose order in the aftermath of the coup attempt.(JP/30 Tahun Indonesia Merdeka)

Indonesians commemorate today the 50th anniversary of the Sept. 30, 1965 attempted coup '€” considerably the worst tragedy in the political history of Indonesia. The attempted coup, which was largely blamed on the now defunct Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), and the subsequent repercussions, led to a massive hunt and eventual killing of Indonesian communists and their sympathizers. In a two-page Special Report, The Jakarta Post'€™s Ika Krismantari, Margareth S. Aritonang and Imanuddin Razak take a close look into this sombre issue.

It all began with the kidnapping and eventual murder of six Indonesian Army generals from the late evening of Sept. 30, 1965, until the early morning of the following day in the capital Jakarta. In addition to the six generals, an Army captain, who was wrongly presumed to be the then chief of the Indonesian Armed Forces (ABRI) Gen. AH Nasution; Nasution'€™s 3-year-old daughter, Ade Irma Suryani; and a police security guard at the residence of then deputy prime minister J. Leimena were also killed.

Similar killings of officers at around the same time also happened in Yogyakarta, with two mid-ranking Army officers targeted in the operations of the alleged communists.

With immediate consolidation within the Indonesian Army, with the lesser-known Maj. Gen. Soeharto taking the lead in restoring security and imposing order and working closely with Army Special Forces (RPKAD, now known as Kopassus) commander Col. Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, the situation, particularly in Jakarta, was slowly brought under control.

There have been many contrasting accounts of the tragedy, including who or which camp should bear the responsibility for the events and their aftermath. What can be understood from the testimonies of a number of key players in the incident is that the tragedy was essentially the result of a competition to make a bid for power first, amid the ailing health of founding president Sukarno.

It was such a dire situation that it was believed that the camp that struck first would be the one who most benefited.

In the words of John Roosa, assistant professor of history at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, the language used at the time suggests the analogy of '€œeither hit or be hit'€ and '€œfinal blow'€. Roosa, the author of Pretext for mass murder: The September 30th movement and Soeharto'€™s coup d'€™etat in Indonesia, has referenced articles in the PKI newspaper that depicted the movement as a fist punching the face of the Council of Generals. Because one does not feel sorry for a knocked-out boxer, the idea that one should not feel sorry for the members of the PKI who were arrested and slaughtered by the army is common within Indonesia, especially among the beneficiaries of the Soeharto regime. From this perspective, the victims were not really victims at all, as they were actually losers who would have committed similar or even worse violence against their opponents if they had been given the chance.

The testimony of Fahmi Idris, a former student activist, who later went on to become a Cabinet minister in the national government, can perhaps help us understand what really happened at that time. In his view, the tragedy had its origins in two conditions: The skyrocketing prices of basic commodities and a plan by the PKI to launch a coup d'۪̩tat.

Rising star: Then chief of the Army Strategic Reserves Command (Kostrad), Maj. Gen. Soeharto, briefs members of the Army'€™s Special Forces (RPKAD, now Kopassus) prior to the removal of the bodies of the Army generals who were murdered during the abortive Sept. 30, 1965 coup, which was blamed on the now defunct Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). As the most senior military officer available at the time, Soeharto led all the operations to restore security and impose order in the aftermath of the coup attempt.(JP/30 Tahun Indonesia Merdeka)Rising star: Then chief of the Army Strategic Reserves Command (Kostrad), Maj. Gen. Soeharto, briefs members of the Army'€™s Special Forces (RPKAD, now Kopassus) prior to the removal of the bodies of the Army generals who were murdered during the abortive Sept. 30, 1965 coup, which was blamed on the now defunct Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). As the most senior military officer available at the time, Soeharto led all the operations to restore security and impose order in the aftermath of the coup attempt.(JP/30 Tahun Indonesia Merdeka)

'€œThe combination of the two stirred mounting agitation in the public, calling for the people, including university students, to stand up and fight for affordable living costs and also against the PKI,'€ Fahmi said in a recent interview.

He recalled the events that led to the formation of prominent student movement, Laskar Ampera, a paramilitary organization that he led when he was a student at the University of Indonesia in 1966.

'€œWe all wanted to fight to make things better and most importantly to protect [the state ideology] Pancasila from the communists'€™ attack ['€¦] but we didn'€™t have weapons to fight the war,'€ Fahmi said.

Luckily, Fahmi said, the late RPKAD commander Sarwo approached him to offer military training for a selected 10 members of his group, of which he was one.

The selected students were later tasked with coordinating all movements run by fellow student activists to make them more efficient. One of the tasks, according to Fahmi, was to identify members of the communist party and its supporters to be later handed over to the military.

'€œIt was clear to us that the PKI was responsible for all the conflict back then, because of the provocative messages promoted by its leaders, who used to call for its members to '€˜Crush this. Crush that. Destroy this. Destroy that.'€™ Such messages created public resentment between one class and another,'€ he added.

Established in the year following the killing of the six Army generals, Laskar Ampera helped the military detain individuals believed to be members and supporters of the PKI, an incident that led to a nationwide massacre, which according to the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) involved gross human rights violations.

Later revelations through documentary analysis and eventual disclosure of formerly classified documents, particularly those of the US Central Intelligence Agency, have led to the understanding that the tragedy was not a simple, stand-alone, internal political affair in Indonesia. It has turned out '€” although it has still not been completely disclosed to this day '€” that the tragedy was a complicated occurrence, involving not only a domestic political tug-of-war between the rising communist elements in the country and the military-religious coalition, but also the global rivalry between capitalism and communism, known as the Cold War.

Based on various accounts, the planners of the Sept. 30, 1965, movement were PKI chairman DN Aidit, his Special Bureau and a group of progressive officers, and it was designed to succeed. It failed because it was poorly organized and because the Indonesian Army had prepared for a counterattack against it.

Even if Soeharto had not known about the planned coup beforehand, he and his fellow generals would have reacted in a similar manner against the movement. The army might not have been able to defeat the movement so quickly and effortlessly in light of strong pro-Sukarno sentiment at the time, but it would have organized an anti-PKI and anti-Sukarno campaign to counter that.

The Sept. 30, 1965, movement was indeed a dark chapter in Indonesia'€™s political history. Not only did the movement trigger a massive violent backlash against communists and their sympathizers, with the amount of victims believed to have reached half a million people, it also caused serious prolonged trauma for both the executors and the victims, as well as their families.

It is very unlikely that the whole truth behind the tragedy will be uncovered, as the majority of the involved parties have died and some sections of the declassified documents were blacked-out prior to their release. As such, there must be a shared commitment among all elements of the nation that such a tragedy must not happen again in the future. It will take two to three generations to free this nation from the impact of the 1965 tragedy. One severe tragedy of this nature is more than enough for us to experience.

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