During the rule of Indonesia’s inaugural president, Sukarno, a group of generals were plotting to remove him for being too left-wing. One morning in 1965, the bodies of five of these generals were found in a well and members of the Presidential Guard took over part of the capital, Jakarta. The head of special forces, Major-General Soeharto, promptly subdued the Guards, assumed control and effectively put Sukarno under house arrest.
Soeharto quickly promulgated a story that communists were responsible for the killings and unleashed a murderous witch-hunt: the final death toll was around the million mark. Many victims were not communist, merely members of student or worker organisations, or not activist at all. Any discussion of the initial murders and subsequent purge was actively suppressed and this applies today, despite the ousting of Soeharto in 1998.
The End of Silence: Accounts of the 1965 Genocide in Indonesia, by Soe Tjen Marching (Amsterdam University Press, 2017), presents first-hand accounts of victims and family members who suffered from the witch-hunt. [See https://www.amazon.com/End-Silence-Accounts-Genocide-Indonesia/dp/9462983909/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1502021215&sr=8-1&keywords=end+of+silence+%2B+soe+tjen+marching%5D
For her, the purge is very personal: “My mother’s trauma of witnessing her husband being dragged from our home by Soeharto’s troops… makes her believe that silence is a virtue. I am almost the complete opposite… I believe that I have the responsibility to reveal these stories so that more and more people find out about what happened…”
Marching wanted to reveal how the purge was perceived by surviving victims and their families, and how they have been affected since. Her book achieves that aim excellently, comprising an analysis of Soeharto’s campaign and its legacy, followed by chapters devoted to the stories of direct victims, their siblings, their children and grandchildren respectively, and a reflective epilogue.
The accounts she presents make gripping and sometimes harrowing reading. While often amazed at how resilient people could be, I was sobered by stories of brutality, families broken up, careers ruined, inner pain, and secrets kept fearfully for half a century. The difficulties of direct victims and their families did not end with release. Identity cards were stamped to show victims’ past status, employment became near-impossible to secure, and they were subject abuse and even violence, with lasting negative consequences.
Marching explains how Soeharto and his allies implanted widespread fear in Indonesian society so his troops’ actions could gain public approval and support. Soeharto’s anti-communist campaign permeated Indonesian life right down to his demise in 1998 and beyond, with the official line on the purge being replicated in school texts and propaganda films.
The author argues that the powerful in Indonesia (which still includes perpetrators and their cronies), by sustaining fear, have turned the victims and families into their agents in maintaining the silence, while themselves remaining demonised and stigmatised.
Marching hopes this collection of victims’ accounts will help prevent the destruction of memories of 1965-1966. Her closing words reflect exactly my own estimation of her work: “This book has given the space for the survivors and their families to challenge the chronic stigma maintained by the perpetrators and their cronies: it is time to end the silence.”
Postscript: Another book on the subject is Unmarked Graves by Vanessa Hearman. See this link for details: https://nuspress.nus.edu.sg/products/unmarked-graves-death-and-survival-in-the-anti-communist-violence-in-east-java-indonesia