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  • Neither Truth nor Reconciliation:Why Indonesia’s Army Wants the Country to Forget its Darkest Year
  • Natalie Sambhi (bio)

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Members of the Indonesian army discuss strategy on the night of Oct. 1, 1965.


JAKARTA—In the early hours of Oct. 1, 1965, 18-year-old Agus Widjojo heard the sound of boots clomping on the tile floor. Hearing the commotion, his father, Gen. Sutoyo Siswomiharjo, ordered Agus, his mother, and other family members to lock [End Page 102] their doors and stay in their rooms. The general then stepped out into the lounge to meet the intruders. Without guards or weapons, Sutoyo was defenseless. Rebel troops kidnapped and later executed him as part of an abortive coup in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta. Sutoyo’s corpse was found three days later in an unused well. For years, the sound of boots against tile would haunt Agus.

After the coup failed, Maj. Gen. Suharto wrested control of the military from the rebel army units and placed President Sukarno under protection. Suharto blamed the up to 3-million-member-strong Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) for the murder of Sutoyo and five other generals. Seizing the opportunity to grab power from the PKI, Suharto encouraged the execution of suspected party members and sympathizers.

From October 1965 into the early months of 1966, an estimated 500,000 alleged Communists were variously shot, garroted, clubbed to death, or hacked to pieces with machetes. Vigilantes and army units filled caves and clogged waterways with victims’ corpses. Rivers ran red with blood. Suharto banned the PKI and imprisoned 35,000 people without trial—many of whom were tortured. Some political prisoners were forced to drink soldiers’ urine; others had to eat their own severed ears.

The elimination of the Communist Party and the rise of student demonstrations forced Sukarno to officially transfer power to Suharto in 1967. Suharto’s military-backed New Order government would lead the country until 1998, and the slain generals, including Agus’ father, would be posthumously anointed Heroes of the Revolution.

Now governor of the National Resilience Institute, retired Lt. Gen. Agus Widjojo, 69, is leading the charge to discover what really happened to his father and others between 1965 and 1966. While the brutality of the events isn’t up for serious debate, there are still many unanswered questions: How many people were really killed? Who killed them, and why? And, most importantly for Indonesia today, how can the wounds of the past be healed?

Though it has been over 50 years since the events of 1965, many Indonesians still suffer as a result of the violence. For many survivors, there remains a sense of injustice over wrongful killings, imprisonment without trial, torture, and enduring stigmatization against communists or those associated with them.

For the Indonesian military, particularly the army, there is pride in having crushed the Communist Party. Any attempt to revisit history through a different lens threatens its official version of events that celebrates the armed forces for orchestrating the purges. For them, there is no need to resolve cases of human-rights violations because the record is clear: They saved the country from a communist takeover. Even today, the army says it must remain vigilant against the threat of a communist revival.

This impasse between the survivors and the military establishment makes it difficult—even dangerous—to examine such a dark chapter in Indonesia’s history. Despite his illustrious career in the army, Agus is determined for the government and its military to be held to account for their crimes. He believes reconciliation between the government and those affected by the 1965 campaign is essential “so that we can make peace with the past,” Agus said in April.

Re-evaluating history raises a number of inconvenient truths for Indonesian society. Although the military initiated and implemented much of the killing, there was full mobilization [End Page 103] of the civilian population. Uncovering historical responsibility for the past means implicating broad swathes of an older generation. As archival research by Yale scholar Jessica Melvin has shown, the military command in the province of Aceh launched an...


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pp. 102-109
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