As an Indonesian born in the 1950s, I found watching the three hour director’s cut of Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary “The Act of Killing” (executive producer Werner Herzog) deeply disturbing. Though it revealed nothing factually new per se about the horrors of the 1965 politcal purges, it is the in-your-face quality of delusion of the characters that shocks the most.
For Indonesians 1965 is not merely another year in history. It is a number that is as important as 1945, the year that on the 17th of August founding fathers Sukarno and Hatta declared Indonesia independent. By contrast, the 30th of September 1965 is a date of infamy, a night filled with sordid acts of treachery, the trigger that launched a months-long blood bath that took the lives of hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of Indonesians across the archipelago. What happened is yet to be systematically quantified, and in truth is yet to be properly accounted for.
During the subsequent 32 years of General Soeharto’s iron fisted New Order, the “truth” we were force fed was that the burgeoning Indonesian Communist Party, PKI – at the time the third largest in the world – had masterminded and initiated a coup with the ghastly murder of six top generals on September 30th. A lurid, bloody propaganda-esque film “Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI” (“The Betrayal Movement of the 30th September/PKI”) upholding this version of the events was made by leading cinematographer Arifin C Noer in 1984 on request by Soeharto’s regime. Every year up until 1997 all TV stations were obliged to air the whole film on the 30th of September.
Three decades later, In “The Act of Killing” – which has become a cinematic rebuttal of Arifin’s film – it soon becomes clear to any viewer that the main characters in this multi-tiered, behind the scenes documentary are deranged.
The blatantly murderous bragadicio of the main characters, street thug-turned-local-hero Anwar Congo, his bizarrely theatrical twisted sidekick Herman Koto, and his more sophisticated but no less pshycopathic colleague, Adi, dominate the screen. There is a sickening naiveté to their obsession with the butchery they helped perpetrate during the so-called coup of 1965, and a mind boggling disregard for morality thoroughly mixed with twisted self justification. But there are plenty more equally, if not more, powerfully jaw dropping moments that segue in and out of this cinematic reality saga.
A local newspaper editor in Medan, North Sumatra, where all the action takes place, brags that though he didn’t actually do any killing himself, that just by “blinking my eyelids” he had people killed. He later states it was his job as a journalist to turn people against communists. A neighbor of Congo’s, somehow roped in to act in the film, tells how his Chinese stepfather was taken away and killed – and then he is made to act a victim pleading for mercy. Suddenly, as he breaks down on screen the viewer realizes his acting is not acting. Various high ranking government officials praise the Pemuda Pancasila group (essentially is a paramilitary group of thugs locally know as ‘préman’) with which Anwar Congo is associated, as being an essential extra judicial arm for the Indonesian Government.
Surreal scene after surreal scene fills the screen of this troubling reality show. Distortion is the norm for these characters, but they are not alone. What this brings home to my peers and me once again is that Indonesians have been glossing the responsibility for 1965 for nearly 50 years. Medan was not the only killing field in Indonesia, far from it. Nor was Pemuda Pancasila the only group of thugs involved
Many reasons are given, and many groups were involved. As the reprisal killings in Indonesia began, the CIA took to feeding the Indonesian military lists of ‘suspects’. The military in turn enlisted thugs and youths from various mass organizations to join a brutal killing spree. In Java members of Islamic youth organizations like Ansor were not shy of wetting their hands with the blood of ‘communist infidels’. In Bali – currently marketed as ‘paradise’ – one witness told of “roads running like red rivers with the blood of victims” spillled by thugs who seldom required any evidence of wrongdoing from the finger pointers.
The night I watched this film, thousands of Balinese living in Sumbawa, an island east of Bali, were taking refuge from bloody rioting following the death of a Muslim girl who had died in a motorcycle accident with her Hindu boyfriend. A completely unsubstantiated rumour that her boyfriend had raped and then murdered her lit up the town like wildfire. A couple of months earlier a murderous rampage against Balinese migrants and their families broke out in Lampung on the southern tip of Sumatra, triggered by a trivial misunderstanding between a local and a second generation Balinese migrant after a minor traffic accident. More systematically, and more chillingly, the Ahmaddiyah sect has been the perennial target of ‘orthodox’ Mulsim violence for years now. The list goes on.
Soeharto’s years were marked with brutal repression. But every year since the downfall of Soeharto has brought with it a new set of tragic communal violence. So much so that some Indonesians have taken to nostalgia for the “good old days” of the New Order. There have been more and more calls for stricter law enforcement. Ex-vice president Jusuf Kalla arrived in Sumbawa this month and echoed these calls, urging local law enforcers to act firmly. But it is important to note this is the same man who on Oppenheimer’s camera emphasizes the need for thugs like Pemuda Pancasila as they are “able to do what the government cannot do”.
We Indonesians look on in horror and dismay at all these ongoing instances of mass madness, and we point to the substantive causes such as jealousy and ethnic rivalry. But what we don’t care to address publicly is the major contributing factor: we have tacitly come to accept human rights abuses as the implicit political price for unity and the rule of the mob as an ugly but ordinary part of life.
This is the legacy of 1965 and the New Order. Expedience and tyranny of the majority rules. Somehow in our collective subconscious we feel that we can get away with it: if we can’t get our way constitutionally then “just cut ‘em down”. General Soeharto, remained in office unchallenged for 32 years. Many still see him as a hero despite the unfettered corruption and human rights abuses that reigned during his rule. Finally forced from office, he remained unrepentant til his death.
(Ironically, given that thugs did most of his army’s dirty work in 1965, in an official biography Soeharto openly admitted to and justified the ordering of extra judicial killings of troublesome thugs in the 80s.)
Last year an otherwise reasonable cabinet minister who coordinates ‘politcal security’, Djoko Suyanto, vehemently denied the Indonesian National Rights Commission declaration that 1965 was in fact a large scale human rights violation. Indonesian human rights advocate, lawyer Todung Mulia Lubis, pointed out to me that the minister in question has old ties to Islamic organizations whose paramilitary youth wings were heavily involved in the killings in East Java: “And now those youth have become influential elders”.
Though it will be impossible to bring all those who wrongfully slaughtered their fellow citizens in 1965 to trial, Indonesians need to acknowledge the wrong that was done in order to be able to move out of this vicious cycle of human rights abuse. If we admit the wrong and are henceforth accountable it would most certainly change our perspective. At the very least if the truth was aired we could start to forgive.