Of all the horrifying violence that defines the twentieth century, possibly no event gets less public attention than what happened in Indonesia after the military, led by Suharto and with support from western governments, overthrew the government of Sukarno in 1965 and then engaged in an orgy of mass and organized killing over the subsequent six months. During that time, probably about 500,000 suspected leftists were rounded up and slaughtered and about another million were placed in prison, sometimes for up to thirty years. One of the worst acts of violence, arguably genocide, in the post-World War II era, it is nearly forgotten about on an international scale.
Geoffrey B. Robinson, a historian at UCLA, has dedicated his career to changing that. His recent book is an encyclopedic exploration into this event, why it happened, who supported it, and what its impact on the nation has been. Robinson approaches this topic like an attorney. Because there is not a fully agreed upon story about why this massacre happened, who was behind the attack on a group of generals that began it, which nations supported it, or much of anything else about it, Robinson carefully lays out all the evidence for the reader to see, debunking more dubious theories and demonstrating which are the most likely, all the while being quite careful to not overstate his case.
Sukarno was the foundational political figure of early Indonesia, a huge, sprawling, and diverse nation that had suffered badly from Dutch and Japanese colonialism. Sukarno’s coalition was unstable, a combination of the military, the nation’s various groups in a majority but not exclusively Muslim nation, and communists. By 1965, Sukarno was moving to the left and building ties with China. The PKI, which was the Indonesian Communist Party, was growing and acquiring power, angering the military. Wanting land reform, the PKI made both the military and conservative Muslims nervous. On September 30, 1965, a small group of communists in the military, probably operating on their own, captured and executed six Indonesian generals. Claiming they were defending Sukarno, the 30 September Movement was poorly planned and fell apart pretty quickly. This opened the door for pro-western generals led by Suharto to strike back. They took effective power from Sukarno, eventually evicting him entirely. They then proceeded to engage in a mass genocide against the 2 million PKI members in the nation, a deeply disturbing and awful episode of violence.
Robinson attempts to answer many critical questions about this. First, did the U.S. and other western powers support it? Largely, the answer is clearly yes. The Johnson administration was already deeply involved in Vietnam and was supportive of any anti-communist movement. As far as back as the Eisenhower administration the U.S. had made it clear that it would support a right-wing coup in Indonesia. The CIA knew what was happening and was entirely supportive. In case, it wasn’t clear earlier in the text, Robinson states “the United States and its allies aided and abetted crimes against humanity, possibly including genocide” (295).
Robinson also explores how the violence was carefully planned and not the spontaneous outburst that the regime claimed. The killing did not happen everywhere at once. Rather, it started in Java in October 1965 and then spread to various other islands. It is clear that the military directly led much of it, especially in Java, where the PKI was strongest. In other areas, conservative Muslims rose up and used this as an excuse to eliminate the communists they felt were destroying traditional values. But in all areas, violence became a method to solve social and economic tensions, the violence took similar forms everywhere, and local militia groups also played a strong role in every example. The differences in timing mostly had to do with the ability of the military to raise up those militias, as well as differences between military commanders in various regions. The entire operation was planned, coordinated, and used similar forms of violence and mass incarceration that could only be planned by the military.
Robinson also notes how much Suharto and the Indonesian military had learned from the prisons and torture techniques of the Dutch and Japanese occupiers who had inflicted so much damage on the nation. He argues that the army used routine torture and sexual violence throughout the terror in learned ways. Moreover, that colonial history created a hard left-right fault line in domestic politics that led to very different historical narratives in constant tension. Robinson also indicts the Cold War writ large, noting that it “encouraged mass violence both because of its deeply polarizing political logic and language, and because it engendered alack of empathy for victims of violnce who were understood to be Communists” (295). More broadly, Robinson uses this example to think hard about how mass violence is created, playing down factors such as long-term cultural or religious enmity and instead emphasizing the role of agents in organizing and facilitating such agendas, whether it be right-wing organizations such as the Indonesian military or Communist movements.
Finally, Robinson explores just how poorly Indonesia itself has dealt with this history. Suharto’s New Order government managed to stay in power for three decades, really only ever feeling any pressure in the late 70s when an Amnesty International campaign and the Carter administration forced Indonesia to release most of its remaining political prisoners. When the period finally did end, the nation avoided any sort of national reckoning and that continues today. A few documentaries have been able to be released and there are people making demands on the state. But in the end, there is still a lot of hostility within communities that engaged in political violence themselves and against those that have delved too deeply–even, say, trying to find the mass grave where your parents are buried–are denied access, threatened, and deported. Even today, local groups are still remembering the lessons that Suharto’s army taught them, preventing any real healing.
The Killing Season is a very powerful book. I strongly recommend it to all of you, so long as you can bear reading some pretty depressing stuff.