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Truth Will Out: Indonesian Accounts of the 1965 Mass Violence


The narratives in Part I are from people who were not victims in the 1965 tragedy – or at least not direct victims. As such, they can ‘distance themselves’ from what happened at the time, can view it in a wider context, and tell this to you, the reader.

Informants from the military, for instance, saw what happened in 1965 as the climax of political tension that had been escalating since 1963. According to their accounts, the murder of the military generals on 1 October 1965 sparked the anger of certain people in the military. President Sukarno’s avoidance of taking strong action against the Communist Party of Indonesia (which military circles saw as the party responsible for the murders) lost him his authority. This was particularly the case when he refused to dissolve the Communist Party. According to our informant, Soeharto took the initiative to keep the situation under control. And the arrests and exile to Buru island of political prisoners took place after President Sukarno had been toppled from the presidency.

Other informants see that the difficult economic conditions of the time made the populace anxious and easily provoked. Apart from the difficult economic conditions, President Sukarno’s ideas about NASAKOM – the slogan for cooperation between Nationalist, Religious and Communist groups – also encouraged political parties to tensely eye one another and raised the political temperature of the time, the effects of which were sensed by society as a whole. In a situation like this, propaganda spread as news via the mass media, was easily swallowed whole by the people. They then formed their own opinions, and based on these opinions carried out certain collective action. However, as this informant says, much of the news in circulation at the time was fabricated to mislead public opinion without the public being aware of it.

There are two interesting narratives from informants from the same urban neighbourhood or kampung in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. They both observed there was no particularly worrying social tension in the lead up to 1965. Whilst it was true that there was competition between a certain religious group and the People’s Youth group (Pemuda Rakyat), which was close to the Communist Party, this competition was basically carried on in the artistic arena and in a kind of ‘banner war’. They both stress that there was no physical violence or anything like that. They were therefore shocked that, in late 1965, such large-scale collective violence could suddenly occur, whether arrests, murder or imprisonment.

One of the non-victim informants believes that the 1965 tragedy occurred because people had transgressed God’s laws. According to him, however, every transgression has is consequences. This informant’s reflections on the situation at that time remind us that people should not accuse, kidnap, let alone judge one another. People do not have the right to judge others. According to him, only God has the right to judge and punish.

Unlike our informants who see transgression against God’s laws as the cause of the tragedy, another points to the Western Bloc in the Cold War, led by the United States, as the important factor. America and its allies were afraid that if Sukarno were allowed to stay in power, their own interests would be at risk. As ‘proof’, this informant shows that in post-1965 Indonesia, it was America that gained the most economic advantage.

Apart from whether observations such as these are correct or not, we can see that from the perspective of those who were not direct victims of the 1965 tragedy, there are many possible reasons given as to why it happened. Some see the cause as political tension among the elite, some believe that the cause was economic difficulty that was manipulated at the centre, some see it as part of the conflict of interests within the context of the Cold War, and others are convinced that the cause is transgression against God’s laws. All of this shows that, if one sees the 1965 tragedy outside of the official narrative, our views become richer.

It is hoped that the narratives in this section will inspire you (and all of us) to think more critically and openly about the 1965 tragedy in Indonesia, and about other important moments in the history of mankind.

Truth Will Out: Indonesian Accounts of the 1965 Mass Violence

   by Dr. Baskara T. Wardaya SJ