Red scare still haunts Indonesia
A surge in anti-communist sentiment is rooted in an unresolved decades-old massacre and aims ultimately to bump President Joko Widodo from power
A recent clash between protesters, counter-protesters and police at the Indonesian Legal Aid Institute Foundation offices in Central Jakarta was an unusually controversial beginning to a time of year typically known for anti-communist activism.
Left-wing activists had gathered at the offices on September 17 to protest police shutting down a discussion event aimed at dispelling myths about the country’s 1965-66 nationwide massacre of communists and others planned for the previous day.
Rumors quickly spread over social media that the activists were sympathizers of the long-defunct Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), sparking a response among hardline rightist and Islamist groups which showed up to counterprotest.
The anniversary of the start of Indonesia’s notorious ‘September 30 Movement’ purge, a year-long mass killing of alleged PKI sympathizers, ethnic Chinese and leftists spanning 1965-66, serves annually as a divisive reminder of one of the country’s murkiest and most violent episodes.
The PKI, then among the world’s largest communist parties with an estimated over two million members, was accused of plotting with six renegade military officers a failed coup against the country’s army leadership of the time. The Suharto-led ‘New Order’ regime, which ruled with an iron fist for over three decades, rose to power in the event.
The nationwide massacres, where at least 500,000 and possibly as many as three million were killed, ranks among the worst mass murders of the 20th century and has never been adequately addressed by successive Indonesian governments.
The timing of this year’s PKI fear-mongering rumors is no coincidence, as the political temperature rises in early anticipation of 2019 national elections.
Many suspect former military lieutenant general and Suhatro era minister Prabowo Subianto is a near certainty to challenge incumbent President Joko Widodo at the next polls. The 2014 race, which saw Widodo edge ahead of tightening polls to win with just over 53% of the vote, was tainted by rumors spread by Prabowo’s camp that Widodo was raised by communists and of ethnic Chinese heritage.
Vannessa Hearman, a lecturer of Indonesian studies at the University of Sydney, said the rumors were reminiscent of New Order era accusations made for politically charged purposes. She said the campaign was partly responsible for closing the electoral gap in support between Prabowo and Widodo, leading to a much closer race than initially anticipated.
Those rumors have started to spread again, though arguably more quickly and widely than in 2014 with the recent fast uptake of social media and instant messaging applications. The messages are having enough of an impact that Widodo feels obliged to periodically disavow leftist ideology and criticize the long-defunct PKI.
“Don’t let the PKI cruelty happen again, don’t give room to ideologies that contravene Pancasila,” Widodo said on September 29, as reported by the Jakarta Post.
Prabowo’s courting of local and international media, as well as his prominence during Islamist demonstrations against Jakarta’s ethnic Chinese ex-governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Purnama this year, has observers convinced he is already on the campaign trail without officially announcing his candidacy.
Indonesia’s military remains stridently anti-communist and Subianto has received endorsements from the right wing Indonesian Anti-Communist Front (FAKI). Analysts have suggested hardline elements are behind the re-emergence of anti-communist rhetoric, but are reticent to name names.
However, links have consistently been drawn between the current situation and the politicization of Purnama’s blasphemy case by conservative Islamic groups believed to be connected to New Order era political and military leaders.
Cultural distrust of communism is supported by strong legislation aimed at suppressing leftist thought and activity. A decree issued in the wake of the 1965-66 killings is still in place that bans both the PKI and the dissemination of Marxist-Leninst thought.
Attempts to repeal the law, including by late president Abdurrahman ‘Gus Dur’ Wahid, were fiercely resisted, including by the powerful popular Nahdlatul Ulama mass Muslim association, of which Gus Dur had once been the leader, based on fears the ideology would reemerge.
Widodo’s election had offered brief hope to activists and survivors of the purge for reconciliation and closure after he pledged support to investigate past human rights abuses. While mayor of Solo in Central Java, Widodo had allowed demonstrations and gatherings by the ‘Joint Secretariat’, a group advocating for dialogue on the mass killings.
But a government-led symposium initiated by Widodo last April involving rights watchers, victim advocates and international observers failed to resolve outstanding questions and signaled a presidential official apology for the massacre is unlikely any time soon.
“It happens mostly because of the 2019 presidential election,” Human Rights Watch’s Indonesia researcher Andreas Harsono said. “The heat is already on for some politicians, but also military chief General Gatot Nurmantyo, in making paranoia to fuel criticism against President [Widodo].”
Anti-communist raids and arrests are still common but are often dismissed after the accused plead ignorant. Last May, police arrested the staff at a T-shirt store in South Jakarta’s Blok M after reports emerged the shop had been selling clothing emblazoned with communist hammer and sickle iconography.
A brief investigation found the shirts were merchandise for German thrash metal band Kreator and the peddling vendors were unaware the hammer and sickle is related to communist imagery.
The incident highlighted the combination of lingering fears of support for the ideology within Indonesia, along with general miseducation and ignorance that has defined anti-communist sentiment ever since former president Suharto’s authoritarian New Order regime.
“Communism is practically non-existent here, but the deeply entrenched anti-communist propaganda from the Suharto period is still alive,” Harsono said. “Indonesians need more information about the 1965 mass killings and other rights abuses to stop paranoid politicians from exploiting them.”
Indeed, much of the Suharto-era anti-communism propaganda has gone unchallenged by successive Indonesian leaders, obscuring the violent past and thwarting fact-finding missions as the generation of Indonesians who experienced the period firsthand starts to fade away without giving their testimony.
The early years of Suharto’s New Order regime (1966-1998) were defined by fervent support for the founding ideology Pancasila, a philosophical national foundation of five principles that solidified military power within governance and perpetuated hardline anti-communism.
It remained a hallmark of Suharto’s increasingly authoritarian regime, with the production of the 1984 propaganda film Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI, a stark reminder that anti-communism underpinned at least part of Suharto’s authority.
The film is screened annually in high schools and public places across the country coincident with the anniversary of the September 30 Movement. It controversially shows bloodthirsty PKI members mutilating murdered army generals in a supposed communist plot to undermine Indonesian statehood, but critics say fails to accurately depict the purge of leftists.
This year the three and a half hour film has proved more controversial than previously, with lawmakers complaining it is too violent for children while academics and activists dispute its accuracy. Movie fans on social media have slammed it for its raw 1980s production value.
Culture and Education Minister Muhadjir Effendy recently responded to a directive from the local government of Padang, West Sumatra, to screen the film for elementary and junior school children, saying that children should be accompanied by parents if they must view it.
Supporters of the film and its rightist narrative want the message to continue to be spread far and wide. Among them are Suharto’s youngest son, Hutomo ‘Tommy’ Mandala Putra, who recently weighed in on the debate by insisting the film accurately depicts the still historically contested coup attempt.
“The tragedy is complex and the legacy of New Order propaganda continues to preserve the stigma against communism and consequently against the victims and survivors of the 1965-1966 anti-Communist killings,” said Prodita Sabarini, one of the founders behind Ingat 65, a blog for young Indonesians to share reflections on the conflict.
Sabarini pointed to a recent study published by the Jakarta-based Saiful Mujani Research & Consulting, a research outfit, which found 86.8% of Indonesians do not see communism as a threat, suggesting the decades-long utilization of the conflict for political purposes has lost its resonance.
“I think the young people of Indonesia are starting to find out about what happened in 1965 and realizing that the stigma against communism is part of the New Order’s propaganda to legitimize their grip on power for three decades,” she said.