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Truth Will Out: Indonesian Accounts of the 1965 Mass Violence

Hearing silenced voices

A foreword

Baskara T. Wardaya SJ

Generally, a historical narrative is not made for oneself. It is made for certain purposes, including social and political among others. This is why almost every social group feels the need to convey its history from one generation to the next. As Paul Thompson says in The Voice of the Past, it is through history that people try to understand the upheavals and changes around them, whether they be social, political, cultural or economic. A historical narrative, for instance, is expected to help society better understand that events which occured in the past actually do not cease in the past, but rather ‘live’ and influence movement and ways of thinking of people in the present. This influence continues even into times yet to come.6

In conveying historical narrative, societies usually use written or oral methods, or a combination of the two. While the former employs writing tools, the product of which can be read over and again, the latter prioritizes direct narration without writing. The former is most commonly used by societies long familiar with the writing tradition. The latter can be found in societies where the writing tradition is less familiar. It is also found to be used between people who have been isolated for a long time, or whose access to the tools of modern education has been limited.

Both written and oral media are of use to the historian in carrying out historical research and writing. A historian, in his or her research and writing, can use both written and oral sources from society. To historians, both written and oral sources are important in research and the study of history-as-knowledge, and in understanding and explaining history-as-event. If carried out well, the writing of history based on oral sources (often just called ‘oral history’) can enrich both the writing of history itself and the understanding of a society’s or nation’s past, with all the dynamics involved.

Even stronger

One of the advantages of oral history is that through it we can give wider ‘space’ to people who thus far have not received sufficient opportunity to narrate their own histories, especially the under-classes, the unprivileged, and the defeated.7 Furthermore, oral history gives historians opportunities to convey historical and social messages by listening to and narrating the thoughts and feelings of those people. Oral history can be a kind of alternative to the grand, official narratives that are produced and reproduced by those in power and which for long periods circulate widely and are accepted by the majority.8

Paul Thompson puts this well:

By introducing new evidence from the underside, by shifting the focus and opening new areas of inquiry, by challenging some of the assumptions and accepted judgements of historians, by bringing recognition to substantial groups of people who had been ignored, a cumulative process of transformation is set in motion … History becomes, to put it simply, more democratic.9

As often happens, a totalitarian power tends to repress memories that do not concur with its interests, including memories that are personal, local, or which originate from the victims of that totalitarian power. Such regimes want their people to remember only the narratives they themselves sanction.10

Even though this is the case, it does not mean that official historical narrative originating from totalitarian powers should be automatically dismissed. There are certain elements in the authorities’ official version of history that should still be examined because these elements are a reflection of a particular reality or interest. We are becoming increasingly aware that every ‘text’ is born from a particular ‘context’.11 So too with historical texts that are born from authoritarian powers.

This is why a historical study becomes more interesting if it contains narratives conveyed by the authorities, with all their interests, together with those who are outside the interests of that power and those who have become victims of those interests. By juxtaposing material obtained orally from victims and those outside the circles of power interests, with material originating from people within the circles of power, one hopes that a historian can reconstruct the past in a more realistic and profound way. This is important when we remember that so-called reality is multidimensional. Through oral history, a historian can help to point out the multidimensionality of reality.12

Thinkers such as E.P. Thompson and James Hinton are pioneers in the writing of history that does not use the power elite as its source. Even so, they both still base their works on written documents of officials employed by governments. The materials they obtain are not entirely the result of direct meetings and interviews with people at the grassroots. Today, there is a stronger push to write history that involves sources coming directly from members of society from below.


One needs to be aware that the process of writing oral history is ad­van­tageous not only to society and readers in general. It is also advantageous to historians themselves. By interviewing sources, for instance, the historian is encouraged (read: given the opportunity) to meet and collab­orate with someone else, rather than just being preoccupied alone in some airconditioned room filled with piles of documents and books. Through oral history, a historian gets an opportunity to enrich his or her experience in human relationships. And at the same time, the historian obtains the space to listen to and share experience on a human level. In other words, the historian can relate to another person not in the context of the relationship of the researcher on one side and the object of research on the other, or between the ‘knowing’ person and the other, considered to know less, but rather between two equal human beings, even though their experience and views probably differ. Further, interviews in the frame­work of oral history can serve to bring together people from different values and viewpoints, making them talk together directly – something which might not be possible or would otherwise be difficult – and this can help the oral historian open or renew his or her own horizons.13

This is why historians should try to ensure that the relation between them as researchers of history and their sources, and the relation between history and society, is not a linear or one-directional one, but rather one that is reciprocal, dynamic, dialectical and mutually enriching. In other words, when the historian is writing in this spirit, and compiling his or her study among concrete people in the field, one hopes that he or she will help other people to become more human too.14

This is worthy of note if one recalls that history should be able to encourage a historian (or anyone) to continually critically reflect on old understandings of reality and at the same time encourage them to routinely carry out change, whether that be change at the level of the individual or society. Going further still, by writing history which involves sources obtained from both the elite and orally from ‘below’, the historian encourages others, and him or herself, not only to reflect upon the world but also to change it.15

A basic element in oral history is, of course, what is called ‘memory’, and in particular, the memory of those sources who are the subjects of oral history research. Their memory is the primary material that the historian employs to produce an oral history narrative. Even so, experience shows that memory and its relationship to research and the writing of oral history is far from straightforward. Particularly when the subjects of the research and writing are victims of human rights abuse and their memories are full of violent practices that afflicted them in the past. In many cases, such victims have repressed such elements of memory, or they have even tried to wipe them. This could be because of outside pressure, or because of their own inner pressure. This can emerge through fear, for instance, or because of other factors.

The victory of memory

With reference to the ideas just discussed, it is clear that the historical narratives in this book are not presented for their own sake, but for certain purposes. One of these is to help people understand what lives and develops around them, and at the same time to be aware that many events that occurred in the past did not suddenly stop in the past, but are still ‘alive’ and have influence to this day – and into times to come. Many narratives are presented in this book. The sources of most of them are oral stories from informants. Some of the narratives are from people who were victims of violence and human rights violations in the past in Indonesia, namely those who were victims of the mass arrests, imprionment and slaughter of people accused of being communist over 1965–1966, which is often simply called ‘the 1965 tragedy’. Others are from witnesses, or those people who were not victims of the tragedy, even though they are not grouped among the perpetrators. By juxtaposing material gathered orally from these two groups, it is hoped that this book will assist readers to reconstruct the past in a more realistic and complete way. Once again, reality is always multidimensional. It is hoped that historical narrative sourced from different parties will help to capture this multidimensionality.

Concerning the memory of informants, as we have already suggested we should be grateful that at least those in this book have been able to overcome their fear. As Ronnie Hatley says in his introduction, they have the courage to recall their memories of so much injustice and violence they experienced in the past. They have the courage to overcome this fear so that, to the best of their ability, they can convey what they went through. This is why, in a certain sense, readers of this book are invited to ‘celebrate the victory of memory’. They are invited to be grateful that memory has overcome various forms of violence and human rights violations such as torture, abuse, accusation, detention and imprisonment without any clear justification, uncertainty of the future, false memories forced upon them by those in power, and all kinds of other repressive actions. We are invited to witness that, eventually, memory wins out. And further, because these oral stories were written for a wider circulation, readers are invited to continue to hope that this memory which has survived will produce new ideas and the seeds of new lives.

Relational space

From the outset, ‘memory’ was extremely important to the informants in this book (particularly former victims). In the midst of all the suffering they experienced at the time, they were able to survive because their memories ‘rescued’ them: memories of people dear to them who they had been forced to leave behind when they were arrested and imprisoned. They might be parents, children, husbands, wives, friends or neighbours. And behind these memories lay flickers of hope that later, when they were free, they would meet again those they had left behind but who lived on in their memories.16

As we are often aware, memory is important to us all. As Passerini says: ‘After all, memory is the tool we have in order to give meaning to our lives, if we understand it in the sense of an inter-subjective (or inter-human) word that connects different generations, times, and places.’17 In other words, memory is in principle relational, meaning it always involves others – or at least, events we experience with others. This is why our hope is that the memories which form the basis of the narratives in this book can help to create ‘relational space’ comprised not only of the relation between the reader and the informants, but also between one group and another and one generation and another, such as between the generation of those who lived through the 1960s and those who were born well after this time.

Critical thinking

As far as Indonesian history is concerned, engagement with memory of the past is urgent, mindful of the fact that from the mid 1960s and for subsequent decades the Indonesian people were under a totalitarian system of government that wanted to control almost every aspect of life. This occurred during the regime of President Soeharto, known as the ‘New Order’. The regime set out to control not only political freedom and the people’s economy, but also society’s memory of the past, or its history. The Soeharto government was fastidious in publishing history books, but at the same time banned and checked history books with a different point of view, particularly any from the point of view of the people. This concurs with what Luisia Passerini says in her book Memory and Totalitarianism. Totalitarianism involves not only politics, but also other fields such as mentality, language, cultural expression and memory of the past. Totalitarianism enforces uniformity, limits freedom of expression and encourages the importance of activities of repetition and imitation.18

Interestingly enough, even after the totalitarian New Order fell in 1998, attempts at control and domination of the Indonesian people’s memory of the past did not just cease. Even though the situation relaxed for a while, gradually totalitarian efforts have reappeared. History books supporting official narratives that advantage power interests are allowed to circulate freely, while texts that attempt to reject existing historical distortions are banned or even burnt.

Faced with this situation, the need to carry out various kinds of research and writing of Indonesian history whose aims are broader than merely perpetuating a power interest by controlling social thinking, is all the more pressing. It is all the more urgent for research and writing of Indonesian history to be carried out which aims to encourage critical thinking; for people to be able to understand the past more holistically; and to be more open to the voices of those who have thus far been stifled. In this way, historical narrative will no longer be dominated by the official account produced and reproduced by the power elite, but will rather be open to the participation of the wider society. This, among other things, is where the importance of research and the writing of oral history in Indonesia lies.

It is from such a premise that the narratives presented in this book become important. Through this book, the reader is presented with accounts of what happened in Indonesia in the mid-1960s: not narratives from the power elite, but rather those who were its victims.

Of course, one does not have to agree with all the narratives. It is not necessary to accept them all at face value. Remember that the narratives presented in this book are based on personal memory, it is perfectly possible that certain things are emphasized and other things not; certain events are recalled, but others are probably forgotten; and so on. It is quite probable too that when they have to give meaning to the past, the informants moralize the narrative based on views or personal values that are extremely subjective.

All this is understandable, of course, when one is mindful that the outcome one hopes for from the explanations of the narratives in the book is not the creation of a black and white acceptance or rejection, support or opposition. One hopes the outcome will be awareness that whether we accept or reject the narratives, their purpose is to stimulate us to critical thinking and to encourage us to convey our own narratives.

Further scrutiny

Taking all the above into account, it is hoped that we can see the humanitarian tragedy of 1965 in Indonesia more fully, and see how the history of this tragedy has been narrated and understood thus far by Indonesians as a whole. It is important to remember that, as we have suggested, for a very long time – 32 years of the New Order - the dominant narrative in circulation in Indonesia was that produced by the government in order to prop up its own interests. Meanwhile, the narrative originating from society – and in particular from those thought of as the ‘defeated’ or ‘in the wrong’ was rarely heard.

It is well known that according to the official narrative of the New Order government, what happened in relation to the 1965 tragedy was a linear process of cause and effect that was chronological, made sense, and was easily understood. It was said, for instance, that on 1 October 1965, seven military generals were kidnapped and murdered by the ‘Thirtieth of September Movement’ which was led by a political party, namely the Communist Party of Indonesia (Partai Komunis Indonesia or PKI). After the kidnapping and murders, the corpses of the generals were taken to the Halim Perdanakusuma Airfield. There, according to this narrative, the corpses were mutilated by a group of women who were members of the Indonesian Women’s Organization (Gerakan Wanita Indonesia, or GERWANI), an act that was cruel and barbaric. The story goes that the women danced erotically in a ritual dance, the so-called ‘fragrant flower dance’. Then the corpses were put in a well, called the ‘crocodile hole’.19

Support for this official narrative then being fabricated was sought in the mass media. According to the newspaper Angkatan Bersendjata (linked to the military powers at the time) in the 11 October 1965 edition, for instance, the victims eyes were ‘gouged out’, and their genitals were mutilated. The daily newspaper said … ‘The Gerwani volunteers played with the Generals, rubbing their genitals against their own’. The following day, 12 October 1965, the Duta Masyarakat newspaper, which was linked to a particular religious organization, stated ‘… according to reliable sources, the Gerwani women danced naked in front of their victims.’20 There is no explanation as to the identity of that ‘reliable source’.

According to the narrative of the New Order powers (to-be) at the time, it was because of this brutality that the people of Indonesia were fired with anger and carried out revenge against Communist Party members all over the country. Thousands of people were killed in the revenge that took the form of mass murder, but according to this narrative, such action was acceptable because the principle was ‘kill or be killed’. Meaning that if one did not murder Communist Party members, they would murder you. When the murder frenzy was over, the new regime under the leadership of General Soeharto arrested and imprisoned without trial people suspected of being Communist Party members who were still alive. They were detained in local and national prisons. Many women who were members of Gerwani were also arrested and imprisoned.

And then – because according to the narrative of the authorities at the time, those who were arrested were members of the Communist Party and the Communist Party was the state ‘traitor’ – once they were released from prison they still had to be watched, given negative labels, harrassed and ostracized. Their identity cards were given a special code, ET for Eks Tapol – or ex political prisoner. The regime needed this code to show that the holders were ex political prisoners, and therefore had to be specially guarded. Throughout the New Order, the regime could on the one hand claim that they had been ‘successful’ in destroying the Communist Party to its very roots (using methods including murder and mass imprisonment), yet on the other hand could tell the people to be constantly alert because according to them there was a constant ‘communist threat’ and ‘latent danger’ to the nation of Indonesia. Contradictory, indeed.

Even without either condoning or condemning this kind of explanation, there are certain things that can (and should) be further scrutinized, even questioned anew. For instance, the ambiguity about who exactly were the people responsible for the Thirtieth of September Movement. What about the fact that the three leaders of the Thirtieth of September Movement, namely Lieutenant Colonel Untung, Colonel Abdul Latief and Brigadier General Soepardjo, were all Indonesian military personnel and had never officially been members of any political party whatsoever? And what about the testimony of Lieutenant Colonel Abdul Latief as one of the members and leaders of the September Thirtieth Movement and his claim that he had given prior report, before the kidnapping of the generals, to General Soeharto about the Movement’s plans?21

Why too, did Soeharto, who was the Commander of KOSTRAD (Army Strategic Reserve Command) at the time, even though he knew there was to be a large event in the capital, Jakarta, not report to his superior, namely General Ahmad Yani, or to the Supreme Chief of the army, namely President Sukarno? And what about the probability that the international context, specifically the dynamics of the Cold War, played a part as the background to the 1965 tragedy? Then, there is the report of the ‘mutilation’ of the bodies with razor blades which, it transpires, does not concur with the result of the visum et repertum noted and reported by the official medical team from the University of Indonesia appointed to carry out the autopsy. Moreover, the news and official narrative of the mutilation of the victims’ bodies had already been circulated and had fanned the flame of the hysteria of mass killing and imprisonments over 1965–1966.22

Open field of study

As we know, as far as the events in Indonesia of 1965 are concerned, there are actually two events that are linked but should be differentiated. The first event is the kidnapping and murder that occurred in the early hours of 1 October 1965 in Jakarta. The second event is the mass slaughter that began in Central Java in the third week of October 1965, continued in East Java in November, then December in Bali. In the first event, the victims were seven high ranking military officers, all of whom lived in Jakarta. In the second, the victims were hundreds of thousands of civilians who lived all over the Indonesian archipelago. There was about a three week period between the first event and the beginning of the second.

While the official narrative of those in power at the time explains at great length the event of 1 October 1965 (the first event), how does the narrative or explanation of what happened after the third week of October (the second event) compare? The victims were numerous, namely half a million Indonesians. It is still unclear, for instance, why, if the mass slaughters were acts of ‘spontaneous revenge’ carried out by the people in retaliation for what happened in Jakarta, including the (so called) ‘mutilation’ of the bodies of the victims at the Halim airfield complex, the mass murders occured in a sequence of waves. In October, as mentioned above, the killings happened in Central Java, then in November in East Java and in December in Bali. Why was there no mass killing in West Java? Even though, geographically, West Java is the closest to the capital?

And what justification is there for the arrest and imprisonment of someone merely because his or her name is the same as a wanted person who cannot be found, as happened to one of the informants in this book? And what of the people accused of being Communist Party hotheads or ringleaders even though they were only in their early teens at the time of being arrested? There still remain many other similar questions that need to be addressed. Questions also need to be answered about the victims in so many places in Indonesia who were arrested and imprisoned, without any prior legal process according to Indonesia’s own laws. If the Communist Party was in the wrong, why were so many of President Sukarno’s supporters arrested and imprisoned? For instance, the ministers who were arrested on 18 March 1966 on the order of General Soeharto were state ministers, and specifically not members of the Indonesian Communist Party, let alone involved with the kidnapping of the generals early on 1 October 1965.

In other words, as far as the 1965 tragedy is concerned – whether that be the 1 October incident in which seven military officers were killed or the incidents of mass murder of Indonesian people that began in the third week of October 1965 – there remain many unanswered questions. Particularly when people rely on the official narrative of the New Order, with all its interests. Once again, let me say that without stating whether or not the New Order narrative is true or false, such narratives should be critically examined and compared to others. These other narratives might come from professional, independent researchers (historians, for instance) but also from people outside the circles of power, from witnesses of history, or from the victims of the human tragedy of 1965 themselves.

So, one hopes that the terrible events of the mid 1960s in Indonesia can be seen more holistically, and become an open ‘learning space’ to all in the process of gathering experience from the past.

Remembering and processing

These ideas expressed above, inspired this book. Aware that there are still so many unanswered questions about the 1965 tragedy in Indonesia when the only existing narrative is the official one, this book sets out to invite the reader to be open to other narratives about those events. Of course, everything must be viewed critically and with the desire to learn together as much as possible.

There are many other similar books in Indonesia that set out to do the same thing.23 What distinguishes this particular book, is the attempt to convey voices that have thus far not been heard in the shaping of alternative narratives about the political and humanitarian catastrophe that was the 1965 tragedy in Indonesia. These voices and narratives are from two different groups. The first is that of victims, the second is that of witnesses. The other distinguishing factor is the accounts from the younger generation who were neither witnesses nor victims. Towards the end of the book two young researchers present the results of their observations about how a religious institution (in this case the Catholic Church hierarchy in Indonesia) related to the tragedy.

What is meant by ‘victims’ in this book are those who, when the 1965 tragedy happened in Indonesia, directly experienced its effects. They were arrested, imprisoned and were victims of various kinds of physical and psychological violence. There were some who, at the time, were activists defending farmers, some who were ordinary students, and there is a village girl who was in her teens looking after her younger siblings. There is also a primary school student who in 1965 had no idea at all about politics and was not arrested, but who later had to suffer because her father and husband were former political prisoners.

What is meant by ‘witnesses’ here is those who consciously witnessed what was happening around them in the 1965 tragedy, but who were not themselves involved in acts of violence. They were not perpetrators, but when the events occurred they also did not actively defend the victims. They took part in witnessing or even experiencing themselves what took place before, during and after the 1965 tragedy, but they were not involved in the hysteria of violation of human rights at the time. Their position can be called ‘neutral’, like the position of an ‘observer’ of an event.

The account of the witnesses is interesting because apart from their testimony as to what they saw or heard, they also convey how, personally, they comprehended, analyzed and gave meaning to what was going on in 1965. They also convey their reflections about what they saw then, and the way they see it now, when the 1965 tragedy has become an event of the past, but remains part of public discourse.

This book deliberately invites the reader to first ‘meet’ the witnesses through their narratives. The purpose of this is so the reader can listen to and get a broader picture of what was happening at the time, at least from their point of view. It is thus a deliberate choice to have informants from different backgrounds. There are representatives from the military, from Muslims, Catholics, Chinese, and followers of traditional Javanese spiritual belief (Kejawen). It is important to state, though, that there is no intention whatsoever that these people ‘represent’ a specific group. They were asked to be informants only because, coincidentally, they came from different backgrounds. At the same time, however, it must be acknowledged that their membership in these groups does influence the way they view the 1965 tragedy, both before, during and after the events took place.

Only after following the narratives of the witnesses is the reader invited to meet the informants who were victims of the 1965 tragedy in Indonesia. The purpose here is for the reader to have the opportunity to listen directly to the voices of those who were the targets of one of the biggest humanitarian tragedies (outside of war) in the 20th century. One important thing to note here is that the informants themselves are thankful that although they were victims of extraordinary cruelty, they were still able to survive and thus could still relate their experiences to the reader. They are aware that on the one hand they were able to stay alive, but on the other hand there were hundreds of thousands of people like them who died. There were those who died bloody deaths suddenly in the midst of the brutality of a regime towards its own people. There were those who went mad or who decided to kill themselves because they could not bear the torture and suffering they experienced as captives of the Indonesian New Order government. And of course there were also the survivors who made it through all this but who have since been called to their Maker.

Great hopes

As readers will see, from the point of view of some witnesses, the 1965 tragedy was the culmination or climax of political tensions that had been raging in Indonesia. Campus life in the early 1960s was normal enough, but by mid decade, tensions could be felt. This was also the case outside of the campus, for instance in Kotagede, near the city of Yogyakarta. Even so, as the witnesses’ narratives relate, these tensions did not have a physical manifestation. The tension was more psychological; seen, for instance, in competition for election to the Student Senate, or in social, cultural or political activities in urban neighbourhoods.

Among the witnesses, some can explain this in broad terms within the context of national politics, but others are merely stunned as to why such tensions, which were local in nature, could change into mass action that sacrificed so many people. However they understand it, all the witnesses try to give meaning to what they experienced, while drawing lessons that might be of use to people today and in the future.

But at the same time, readers will see that from the point of view of some of the victims, no matter what the background was to the 1965 tragedy, it was a personal tragedy that occurred randomly, with extraordinary cruelty, and arbitrarily. Take for instance the experience of one of our informants, Mujilah. In 1965 she was a young girl of fourteen and lived near Prambanan, Yogyakarta, Indonesia. One day she was minding her younger sister in front of the house as her mother was busy cooking in the kitchen. Suddenly an official came up to her and asked if her name was Mujilah. When she answered that it was (for indeed it was her name) she was immediately loaded on a truck and taken to Wirogunan prison in Yogyakarta, and later moved on to the women’s prison in Plantungan, Central Java, for 14 years. She was a victim of mistaken identity. By chance, the person intended for arrest was a teacher who had the same name as her, but this teacher was somewhere else. Whatever the reason, Mujilah lost 14 years of her life just like that. And when she was finally released, there was not a single word of apology from those in power, let alone any recompense for what she had suffered and all she had missed in life.

A similar thing was experienced by another informant whose real name is not used in the book, Agatha Sumarni. She was a student in Yogyakarta when she was suddenly arrested. After torture, it turned out that the official realized that he had made a mistake, and gave her a letter of release. Sumarmi then tried to return to her former life as a student. But for unknown reasons, there was another attempt to arrest her. When Sumarni said that she had no relation to the accusations made against her, and showed her letter of release, the officials then used this same letter of release as a pretext for rearresting her – because she had once been arrested. Sumarmi was unable to resist arrest. She was then imprisoned for over a decade, and tortured.

Another victim, called ‘Al Capone’ by his prisonmates, tells in the book of how at the age of nineteen he was suddenly arrested without being given any opportunity to explain himself. He was exiled to the island of Nusa Kambangan in Central Java before later being taken with a crowd of others in a dilapidated ship that broke down at sea for days and almost sank en route to the island of Buru, Eastern Indonesia. He witnessed many things over the more than ten years he spent in this isolated prison camp. For instance, he witnessed how other detainees were tortured or shot like animals in front of their barracks, with not a glimmer of humanity. Al Capone tried to remember as much as possible so that he could later note it down and tell readers in this book.

By following the accounts of both victims and non-victims in this book, we hope that readers will be able to see what happened in Indonesia in 1965 and afterwards as not merely a list of statistics, or a guessing game as to who were and were not the masterminds or ‘dalang’ of the events, but rather a human tragedy whose victims are ordinary people, just like us. The victims also have names, places of residence, parents, brothers and sisters, faces with varied expressions, and longings and hopes as all people do. They are ordinary people just like other people who make up the nation of Indonesia. For as a result of the efforts at demonization carried out by the regime and its followers, the victims have often apeared in the memory of other Indonesians as terrifying ‘monsters’ always on the ready to wipe out their political opponents.

The tumult of the political storm in the 1965 tragedy in Indonesia was extraordinary indeed, with an extraordinary number of victims. Their suffering and that of their families was almost unbearable. And yet those who did survive are usually reluctant and fearful of talking about what they experienced. They choose silence. Even those who were not victims but who witnessed what happened usually also choose to remain silent. Through this book, both groups are given the opportunity to make their voices heard – the voices behind the catastrophe - which have thus far tended to be hidden. It is hoped that the voices and narratives presented here will not make readers dumbstruck or paralyzed in despair, but rather to take steps forward with hope.

Shared narratives

How did the ‘history’ appear in this book? Perhaps the reader is also asking this. For a number of years, we at the Centre for History and Political Ethics (Pusat Sejarah dan Etika Politik, or PUSdEP) at Sanata Dharma University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, together with others have been concerned about the ways that narratives of this nation are conveyed and given meaning. As a centre of study involved with the study of history and political ethics, PUSdEP saw there were areas of concern that should be examined and for which resolution should be sought.

First, for a long time – the period of the New Order to be precise – narratives of Indonesian history were tightly entwined with interests of the political regime. We have already discussed this earlier. Second, apart from banning history books that did not concur with its interests, the regime was very active producing historical narratives according to its point of view, via books, films, the print media, obligatory courses, or other forms of media. Third, many narratives that emerged from the circles of power at the time tended to ignore voices or accounts of people outside power. Even though, as we have seen, voices of ordinary people have an important role in the understanding or writing of history. Fourth, while the interest of young people in Indonesia in their nation’s history is increasing, this interest it not fully satisfied.24 Fifth, as globalization of the economy, politics and culture becomes stronger and transnational movement increases, if we are not careful the Indonesian people might forget their own history and identity even more. Six, over the last few years in Indonesia, there has been evident a deterioration in political and public ethics, both among decision makers and outside of them. Seven, the communal direction of Indonesia as a nation-state is increasingly unclear. Possibile causes of this are the shallowness of Indonesians’ roots in their own history, also because of minimal experience in sophisticated engagement with experience of the past.

So with these concerns at the forefront, PUSdEP initiated collaboration with as many parties as possible, both within and outside Indonesia. The aim was to encourage people to be more attracted to the study of history and to engage with national collective experience. Many bodies worked with PUSdEP in this, including the Salzburg Global Seminar, the central office of which is in Salzburg, Austria. When we first put our ideas to them, the Salzburg Global Seminar generously agreed to assist us through the Insitute of History, Justice and Reconciliation (IHJR). The IHJR head office used to be in Salzburg, but it later moved to Paris, and is now in The Hague, Holland.

As luck would have it, IHJR was working on an international effort to form what was called the ‘Shared Narratives’ program, namely to present narratives from two parties that were, or had been, opposed through social, political or military conflict. Each group was asked to write down stories and viewpoints about the conflict they were experiencing, or had experienced, with the aim of making them understand each other so as to be encouraged towards reconcilation. Among the opposing parties IHJR asked to write down narratives, were those involved with conflicts in Serbia-Bosnia, Turkey-Armenia and Israel-Palestine.

With the Indonesian connection, IHJR supported PUSdEP’s proposal to record and transcribe narratives from parties who had been directly or indirectly involved in the terrible 1965 tragedy. The purpose was the same, namely to create a critical approach, mutual openness and understanding, which would encourage a process of reconciliation. With IHJR’s support, PUSdEP then gathered a group of both senior and junior researchers with an interest in history, to search out, request, listen, note and process the experiences of informants of the 1965 tragedy. Together with them, we formed a research team (qualitative) by interviewing informants with varied backgrounds to reflect the ‘shared narrative’, which was the common purpose.

At the beginning, we divided into groups to research and interview witnesses with various backgrounds: Muslim, Christian (Catholic), Javanese mysticism, Chinese, military, and Indonesian revolutionary fighters. As we went on, we found the need to widen the scope of our research to include those who were victims of the 1965 tragedy. Particularly when we realized that informants who were former freedom fighters in Indonesia’s revolutionary period were also among the 1965 victims. Our intention was to remain faithful to the spirit of ‘shared narratives’.

How they remember

The accounts in this book are not intended to prove whether what the informants say is true or not. The purpose is more the wish to view together how the 1965 tragedy is viewed by the informants. Here they are given space to present their memories. In relation to the witnesses, this means appreciating how they view, analyze and give meaning to what happened in 1965. With regard to the victims, this means paying attention to to ways they experience, analyze and give meaning to what they experienced in that tragedy. In other words, this book does not primarily want to convey ‘what happened in the 1965 tragedy in Indonesia’, but rather ‘how informants remember and give meaning to what happened in the 1965 tragedy’.

In part three of the book, we present the writing of two members of the History Commission at PUSdEP, made up of a report and reexamination of the results of their research into the attitude of religious organizations (in this case, the Indonesian Catholic Church hierarchy) towards the 1965 tragedy. As members of the young generation in Indonesia who were neither witnesses nor victims in 1965, they interviewed informants and read some of the relevant literature to present their own views. We hope this part of the book can provide another dimension to the narratives in parts one and two. Ideally, there would have been more than one report in this section, but because of time constraints we were able to present only one.

We feel it necessary to point out that this book is absolutely not intended to be an effort to ‘whitewash’ those groups who the Indonesian government in its official version has to date accused of being the ‘guilty’ parties in what happened in 1965–1966; whether that be those linked to the Indonesian Women’s Movement, members of the Communist Party, supporters of President Sukarno or even President Sukarno himself. To reiterate, this book merely sets out to convey narratives that come from memory, and attempts at giving meaning to these, from a few Indonesians who either directly or indirectly became witnesses or victims of the humanitarian tragedy of 1965.

We have used various methods in our oral history research to make these accounts available to readers. One was through direct interviews which were then transcribed and edited. There were also hand-written accounts by informants after our intentions had been explained to them. There were also oral interviews which were later supplemented with written interviews. There were narratives which were the result of rewriting of interviews with information then supplemented with earlier writings from that informant, in the form of books or seminar papers. All of these are presented here so that, in viewing history, and particularly with regard to the 1965 tragedy in Indonesia, the reader can obtain a more comprehensive picture.

This book began as a compilation by Indonesians, with an Indonesian perspective for Indonesian readers. Now, with its editing and translation into English, some changes have been made to make the book more intelligible and (enjoyable) to readers outside of Indonesian. Even so, we cannot guarantee that we have had complete success in that. It might be that the Indonesian nuance is still too thick, making the book difficult to appreciate. We apologize if this is the case.

Finally, to add a technical note, we point out that almost all the names in this book are pseudonyms. Apart from respecting and safteguarding the privacy of informants and because of their own request for this, we have done this so that the reader’s attention is not primarily focussed on the individual, but rather on their narrative. Whatever the explanation, it seems clear that in this case what is being narrated is much more important than who is narrating it.

Listening to voices

Any historical narrative is not written for its own sake, but for particular social purposes. One of the functions of historical narrative, as we observed at the beginning of this chapter, is to assist society to understand what is going on and flourishing around it, socially, politically and economically. This is why every society and every generation feels the need to continually convey its history to other societies and generations.

As far as the historical narrative of the 1965 tragedy in Indonesia is concerned, as is well known, it has been dominated by the official narrative from the government that was extremely close to the powerful interests of that time. As a result, the way that Indonesian people understand what is going on around them is very much coloured by the purposes behind the official narrative. The end result is distortion or damage of Indonesians’ views not only in how they view the past, but how they view themselves in the present and the future. If these distortions are not corrected, this negative effect will never end.

In the past, any attempts at listening to and recording narrations about the 1965 tragedy from the perspective of the people or victims were stamped as efforts to spread ‘certain’ views, namely, leftist views. Sometimes the accusations were that people involved wanted to revive a ‘certain’ political party. Today, it seems that Indonesian people - the young generation in particular – are aware that such accusations cannot be perpetuated. Indonesian people are more aware of the importance of conveying narratives from the people’s persepective in order to open the space for dialogue so that there will also be space to learn together about the history of this nation. And of course this does not mean history according to the version of powers-that-be, inseparable from their interests – whether that be political, social or religious powers – but history according to all parties concerned with Indonesian history.

Through listening to the voices and narratives behind the 1965 political-humanitarian catastrophe in Indonesia, which come from varied perspectives, we hope to jog all our memories of what happened at that time, and what happened after it. And in this way we will better learn from what happened in Indonesia for all of our sakes, wherever we are.


Of course, the research and writing behind a book like this involves many people. Allow me then to convey our thanks to the various parties involved. First of all, we wish to express our deep gratitude to the Salzburg Global Seminar in Salzburg, Austria, which, through the IHJR (Institute for History, Justice and Reconciliation encouraged us and gave funding support from the beginning of the research through to the last stages of the writing of this book. In particular, we mention Dr. Timothy Ryback of the Académie Diplomatique Internationale Paris, Marie-Louise Ryback and Catherine Cissé van den Muijsenbergh. We are grateful to all three for patiently following presentations at the campus of the Académie Diplomatique Internationale in Paris 2008. And of course we extend our deep thanks to our colleague Brian Harding who brought the Centre of History and Political Ethics (Pusat Sejarah dan Etika Politik or PUSdEP) into contact with the Salzburg Global Seminar when, as a Fulbright scholar, he was based at the PUSdEP office at Sanata Dharma University, Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

In the early stages of forming the History Commision at PUSdEP, we were fortunate to have the assistance of Dr. Leslie Dwyer and Degung Santikarma who at that time were both teaching at Haverford College, Pennsylvania before they moved to George Mason University, Washington D.C. We are extremely grateful to them both for their ideas at this early stage which inspired us in later stages of the work.

We wish to thank the other members of the History Commission of PUSdEP. These colleagues are: Chandra Halim who researched the Chinese community; Muhammad Subkhi Ridho who studied the Muhammadiyah Muslim community; Choirutun Chisaan who studied the Nahdlatul Ulama Muslim community; Kiswondo who studied followers of Javanese mysticism; G. Budi Subanar and Y. Tri Subagya who studied the Christian community, Catholic in particular; and Tri Chandra Aprianto who studied the ex-freedom fighter community. (The editor researched the military and was also responsible for the overall narrative from the victim informants). Perserverance, regular discussions and the dilligence of colleagues who were members of the History Commission at PUSdEP made this book a reality.

Needless to say, this book would not have come into existence were it not for the willingness of the informants to put up with us, in thinking together, thinking separately, writing, and in granting interviews. For this, to all of them from the depths of our hearts we offer our thanks. There is nothing fitting we can offer in return other than the hope that the informants’ narratives conveyed in this book cast light and enthusiasm to each and every reader.

Our colleagues at PUSdEP were also involved in meetings and in the technical process of this book, particularly Dedy Kristanto. Monica Laksono, Darwin, Awat, Deddy Hermawan, M.M. Ambarastuti, Yohana Intan Dias Sari, our seniors Ronnie Hatley and Dr. George Aditjondro. To them all we offer our thanks. To J. Bambang Agung and colleagues from the Komunitas Kotak Hitam (A. Dananjaya, Kartika Pratiwi, Aquidom Adri and Krisdemon Sallata) we also extend our thanks. A big thank you to our friend Gina Donoso from Ecuador for her inspiration and support. Gracias, Gina. To the civitas academica at Sanata Dharma University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, we extend our thanks. So too to the Expert Advisory Team of PUSdEP and the Masters Program of Religious and Cultural Studies at Sanata Dharma University, expecially Dr. St. Sunardi. And of course we thank the publisher, Galangpress for their cooperaton and willingness to publish this book in the original Indonesian version.

For the translation into English we thank Dr. Jennifer Lindsay who has given her time, thoughts and energy to the preparation and the translation of the book. To Dr. Katharine E. McGregor, who put us in touch with the Herb Feith Foundation, and Dr. Jemma Purdey in particular as well as Mr. Nathan Hollier, Director of Monash University Publishing, we also extend our deepest thanks.

We hope that the result of all this communal work will produce a result that is useful not only to readers, but also to as many people as possible, both in Indonesia and elsewhere. As we know, every human event contains useful lessons for other people wherever they are and at whatever time. Many products of historical writing have assisted us in drawing lessons from humanitarian events of the past. We hope this book will become a tool for us to take and engage with lessons from past events, specifically that which occurred in Indonesia in the 1960s, a decade that was full of movement and socio-political upheaval.

6 Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past: Oral History (Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 1–2. In P. Swantoro’s words, ‘the past is always actual’. See P. Swantoro, Masa Lalu Selalu Aktual (Jakarta: Penerbit Buku Kompas, 2007).

7 Dominick LaCapra goes so far as to say that a writing of history can mean that the writing of trauma experienced by subjects follows the position of trauma in the writing of social history. See Dominick LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press 2001).

8 Thompson p. 7

9 Thompson p.8

10 Thompson p.2

11 For discussion about text and context in the field of cultural studies, see Graeme Turner, British Cultural Studies: An Introduction (London and New York: Routledge), pp.81–121.

12 Thompson, p. 6.

13 Thompson p.12

14 Thompon pp. 23–24

15 Thompon p.22

16 Luisa Passerini, “Introduction” in Luisa Paserini (ed.) Memory and Totaliarianism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 2

17 Passerini, p. 3.

18 Passerini, pp. 7–8

19 People sometimes think that ‘crocodile hole’ is the name of the well, but in fact it is the name of a geographical location.

20 Komnas Perempuan, Kejahatan Berbasis Jender: Mendengarkan Suara Perempuan Korban Peristiwa 1965 (Jakarta: Komnas Perempuan, 2007), p. 9. For more on the events of 1965 and the crushing of the women’s movement in Indonesia see Saskia E. Wieringa, Sexual Politics in Indonesia, Houndmills, Basingstoke [etc]: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).

21 A. Latief, Pledoi A. Latief: Soeharto Terlibat G30S (Jakarta: Institut Studi Arus Informasi, 2000), p. 31–33.

22 Further on the 30th September Movement as the pretext for murder and mass imprisonment in 1965 and after, see John Roosa Pretext for Mass Murder: The September 30th Movement and Suharto’s Coup d’État in Indonesia (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006).

23 See for instance HD. Haryo Sasongko (Penyusun) and Melani Budianta (Penyunting), Menembus Tirai Asap: Kesaksian Tahanan Politik 1965 (Jakarta: Amanah-Lontar, 2003); John Roosa, Ayu Ratih dan Hilmar Farid (ed.), Tahun Yang Tak Pernah Berakhir: Memahami Pengalaman Korban ’65, Esai-esai Sejarah Lisan (Jakarta: Elsam, 2004); Hersri Setiawan, Kidung Untuk Korban: Tutur Sepuluh Narasumber Eks-Tapol Sala (Surakarta: Pakorba Sala, 2006); and Ita F. Nadia, Suara Perempuan Korban Tragedi ’65 (Yogyakarta: Galangpress, 2009). For a study of victims of the tragedy from a gender viewpoint, see, for instance the publication by Komnas Perempuan, Kejahatan Berbasis Jender: Mendengarkan Suara Perempuan Korban Peristiwa 1965 (Jakarta: Komnas Perempuan, 2007).

24 When in late 2010 the committee for the conference “Indonesia and the World in 1965” in Jakarta announced an essay writing competition for young people about the 1965 tragedy and reconciliation, there were about 1000 entries. This seems to show that interest of the youth is not limited to the 1965 tragedy, but also the history of their nation.

Truth Will Out: Indonesian Accounts of the 1965 Mass Violence

   by Dr. Baskara T. Wardaya SJ