Rewriting The Record On Suharto's Violence


Imagine you go to work one day and return home 10 years later. You are imprisoned for offences you’ve never even heard of. While you are inside the prison the government and its apparatchiks restrict your family’s movements and exclude them from work in the civil service. The restriction also applies to you when you are freed — you are given a special ID card that has your name and the letters "ET" — former political prisoner. Worst of all, while you are away your friends and neighbors suddenly turn against you.

All this happened to Mulyono, 80, a former civil servant at the Department of Transportation in Indonesia in 1965. He was accused of being a member of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), who allegedly plotted to overthrow Sukarno, Indonesia’s First President, on 30 September, 1965.

Thousands of Indonesians like Mulyono were imprisoned without trial in prisons and prison camps scattered around Indonesia. Most infamous is Buru prison camp, located in Buru, the third largest island in Maluku, eastern Indonesia. The survivors of this camp are now fighting back.

I met two others who suffered a similar fate to Mulyono one afternoon at the Commission for The Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS), an NGO in Jakarta. The three men, now in their 80s, gathered with young political activists to discuss justice for the victims of Suharto’s New Order regime.

"We demand our [names]to be rehabilitated and return our dignities, because we didn’t know anything at the time," Mudjayin, an 82 year-old former journalist and Buru political prisoner told New Matilda.

Their fight for justice was further strengthened by the Indonesia President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s (SBY) comment that the state will find solutions for past crimes against human rights. He received the victims on March 2008.

That year, the Human Rights Commission of Indonesia (KOMNAS HAM) began an investigation into the purge of an estimated 500,000 Indonesians, conducted by the army and trained militia members following the PKI’s aborted coup in 1965. Exactly how many people were murdered is unknown; Sarwo Edie, the commander of Indonesian special forces in charge of the massacre, said before his death that about 3 million Indonesians were purged.

The coup lasted just one night. According to John Roosa’s Pretext for Mass Murder, the 30 September Movement was a preemptive move by two people within the PKI leadership against the right wing generals they suspected were planning to launch a coup d’état against Sukarno. Their suspicion was unfounded. Instead, they fell into a trap laid by the Indonesian military, backed by the CIA.

Their blunder was used by the military to accuse the PKI of attempting a coup d’état against the popular president. It was used as a pretext to massacre PKI members, left leaning nationalists and other political dissidents. The military also captured thousands and sent them to prisons for "rehabilitation".

There were 12,000 prisoners held in Buru prison camp at one stage. One of them was Pramoedya Ananta Toer, a well-known Indonesian writer who spent 14 years there. Many of the prisoners were tortured and killed. Most of them spent over 10 years of their lives in forced labor; few received trials in court.

"We had to plant rice in 100 hectares of land," said Mudjayin. "We had to also build irrigation to water the rice field". The harvest was for their captors.

Their experiences of arrest vary. Many were "picked up" from homes, in the streets and in their workplaces.

"I was summoned to go to a military headquarter one day from work and never returned home afterwards," Mulyono told NM. Before being sent to Buru, he was imprisoned in different prison cells in Jakarta.

Mudjayin was captured at home. He was accused of being a PKI member: "I was arrested at home on October 1965. They sent me to Tangerang, Salemba prisons then to Buru". He was imprisoned in Buru from 1969 to 1979.

Kusnendar, another Buru prisoner, was arrested because many of his friends were in Pemuda Rakjat, the PKI’s youth wing organisation. Like others, he was jailed in 1965 in different Jakartan prisons before being sent to Buru in 1969.

Mulyono, Mudjayin and Kusnendar, along with other former prisoners, have formed the Organisation Fighting for Rehabilitation for New Order Victims.

In July this year KOMNAS HAM released a report describing the purge after the 1965 aborted coup as a "gross violation of human rights, and the government officials were involved in systematic and widespread killings". They recommended SBY make a public apology to victims of the violence and their families and reinstate the survivors’ rights. The report detailed how the purge was organised, and the types of crimes committed across Indonesia. It also identified 17 mass graves where victims were buried. SBY has made little attempt to engage with the report thus far.

Remnants of Suharto’s New Order regime still hold influential positions in the Indonesian government, and opposed the KOMNAS HAM findings and recommendations upon their release.

"Opening old history would not solve anything," said Priyo Budi Santoso, the House of Representatives Deputy Speaker from Golkar, Suharto’s ruling party. He also suggested that the human rights commission only investigate human rights violations that occurred post-Suharto.

His argument was supported by Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the biggest Islamic organisation in Indonesia, whose members were involved in the purge. "We rejected [the request for]SBY to apologise" said As’ad Ali, NU Vice Secretary General at a press conference. "We need to encourage reconciliation not apology." He also gave a warning about the "resurrection of PKI".

The military used Anshor, NU’s youth wing, as manpower during the purge. Following the abortive 30 September coup, Suharto’s subordinates established the front group "Action Front for Crushing the September 30 Movement". Zubchan ZE of the NU, who had long been working with anti-PKI army officers, was one of its active members.

Under Suharto’s command the army used the purge to isolate Sukarno and ousted him from power by a "legal" transfer of authority to Suharto. Roosa calls the event a creeping coup d’état. Outside the inner circle of the PKI, few members knew of the September 30 Movement, as it was designed and operated by the party’s Special Bureau who collaborated with progressive army officers. As it was ill prepared, the operation was disastrous.

"It happened very quickly, and we didn’t know anything about it. If Njoto (one of the PKI politburo members) did not know, how could the ordinary people like us," Mulyono told NM.

Although it happened over almost 50 years ago, a deep scar remains after the purges. During Suharto’s reign the danger of communism was used to silence his critics. After the 1998 Reformasi that helped topple Suharto, this discourse has been used again by remnants of the Suharto’s New Order and their cronies as shield against those who seek truth of the event. The conservatives used the same argument to protect their power and veil their past atrocities: many of those who supported Suharto in the past are still in power today. They use the same argument as Suharto did when he was in power: the communists are the source of evils.

"We ask all citizens to stay alert to the rise of ideologies that are against Pancasila," said Nusron Wahid, GP Anshor chairman. NU justifies its dark history by positioning itself as a victim. "PKI members killed many of NU’s ulema. Yet, we never demanded (PKI members) be brought to trial."

There has not been a public debate about this important issue, and reactionaries are allowed to rewrite history unopposed. The Indonesian media are still under the control remnants of New Order regime and their supporters and did not widely report the KOMNAS HAM findings. The Jakarta Post’s Endi Bayuni’ describes the press’ approach as "collective amnesia".

SBY, instead of producing a Presidential decree for the Attorney-General to further investigate the findings, turned the report over to the people’s representatives. "Because this concerns the history of this country, I have to consult with other government institutions like the Supreme Court and the House," he said.

The Attorney General’s reaction to the findings has been disappointing. KOMNAS HAM demanded that the Attorney General begin an official investigation as a follow-up to the commission’s inquiry. The Attorney General, Darmono, argued that the 1965 rights violations could not be settled in an ad hoc human rights court as stipulated in Law No. 26/2000, because "The 1965 rights violations are beyond (the scope of) the existing law".

The Attorney General’s statement is predictable. After all, it is the same judicial body that banned Roosa’s book, since translated into Indonesian, that gives a critical account of the purge in contradiction of New Order propaganda.

The miscarriage of justice in Indonesian judicial system is not news for those who fight for freedom. It is understandable that many are pessimistic of a positive outcome over the findings. Mudjayin is one of them. "All other past cases of gross human rights abuses that have been brought to the government’s attention have not even been touched" he said.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.