Indonesia’s anti-communist backlash isn’t over

July 25, 2016

Anti-communist attacks followed an Indonesian government-sponsored symposium on the 1965 purge, writes James Balowski, in an article published at Australia's Red Flag.

A RECENT spate of arrests of people for wearing T-shirts with symbols of the banned Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), seizures of books about the 1965 anti-communist purge and a propaganda campaign to whip up fears of a PKI revival in Indonesia reflect just how anxious elements of the political elite are about growing pressure to resolve one of the most horrendous crimes of the 20th century.

The arrests and raids on bookstores followed a government-sponsored national symposium in Jakarta on April 15 with the stated aim of seeking recommendations on how to resolve the mass killings of 1965-66.

Using the pretext of an alleged PKI coup attempt in September 1965, sections of the military, led by Gen. Suharto, launched one of the most ferocious mass slaughters in modern history. Within four months, as many as 1 million communists and left-wing sympathizers were killed, and hundreds of thousands of others interned without trial. Officially portrayed as a response to a failed "communist coup," the killings have been justified by successive governments doggedly clinging to the myth that they were necessary to save the country from communism.

Anti-communists burn a symbol of communism at a rally in West Java
Anti-communists burn a symbol of communism at a rally in West Java

Although some high-profile rights groups boycotted the April 15 symposium, fearing it would become a fig leaf for the government, it ended up providing an unlikely forum for Indonesians to hear an alternate account from survivors and the family members of the victims, who described their horrifying experiences and the decades of injustice and discrimination they endured.

The anti-communist propaganda campaign is being driven by a handful of senior officials, retired army officers and right-wing groups. They have little or no mass support.

Government officials were clearly uncomfortable with the public airing of these heart-wrenching testimonies. Security affairs minister Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, a key backer of the symposium, claimed that only 1,000 people were killed and reiterated that the government would not issue an apology or make restitution for the victims.

Even before the symposium ended, a grouping of retired army officers announced they would stage a counter-event to the "one-sided" symposium.

DESPITE ITS limited mandate, the symposium still sparked a backlash from sections of the Indonesian military (TNI) and police.

Speaking to hundreds of retired generals and right-wing groups in Jakarta on May 13, former army general and now defense minister Ryamizard Ryacudu launched into a tirade about the need to counter the "treasonous" rise of communism. Ryamizard insisted that the TNI had the right to crack down on "swelling leftist symbolism," even though by law only the police can conduct raids and make arrests. "The police cannot deal with this matter alone, without help from the military," he said.

The military and police have been using the 1999 State Security Law to justify the arrests and seizures. It is based on a 1996 decree on the dissolution of the PKI and prohibitions of Marxist, Leninist and communist teachings.

A week earlier in the Central Java city of Yogyakarta, a screening of the documentary Buru Island My Homeland about 1965 political prisoners was closed down by police after protests by the Community Forum for Children of the Armed Forces (FKPPI) and the Indonesia Anti-Communist Front (FAKI). Ironically, the event was part of International Press Freedom Day.

On May 8, a concert in East Java was closed down and band members arrested for playing a reggae rendition of the Javanese folk song "Genjer-Genjer," which is associated with the PKI-affiliated women's organization Gerwani. On May 9, police arrested two men in South Jakarta for selling T-shirts of the German death metal band Kreator, which happened to include a hammer-and-sickle symbol. The next day, four activists in Ternate, North Maluku, were taken into custody over T-shirts featuring the motif and the letters PKI, which turned out to stand for Indonesian Coffee Lovers. Two men were also detained in separate arrests in the Riau Islands and Jambi, Central Java.

On May 14, CNN Indonesia reported that the country's largest book retailer, Gramedia, had withdrawn books related to 1965 from several of its stores in Jakarta after a "surprise inspection" by police. Bookstores and publishing companies were also raided in Yogyakarta, and the Jakarta Post reported that seizures took place in Sukoharjo, Solo, Tegal and Grobogan in Central Java and Surabaya in East Java.

THE ARREST of civilians by military personnel has raised fears that the TNI is seeking a greater role in civilian affairs. Reforms implemented since 1998 resulted in the TNI losing its "dual" social and political function. In 2002, it was separated from the police, becoming responsible for external defense only.

It has, however, maintained its territorial command structure, allowing it to act as a security force at all levels of society. These commands are important to maintain its illegal business interests, many of which have been infringed upon by the police since their separation, resulting in deadly clashes between the two forces.

Under current president Joko Widodo, the TNI has expanded its civilian functions. This has included security for seaports, airports, railways and bus stations, providing guards for prisons, assisting with the "war on drugs" and helping to stabilize food prices and "facilitate" land acquisitions. The TNI has also been involved in operations against alleged ISIS terrorists in Poso, Central Sulawesi.

Along with the TNI commander, general Gatot Nurmantyo, Ryamizard has been championing the State Defense program, which aims to train 100 million civilians to confront "non-traditional" threats. They argue that this is necessary to counter "proxy wars" undermining the state ideology of Pancasila, which they claim are orchestrated by NGOs, the media, social interest groups, gays and undefined foreign interests, who want to take control of the country's resources.

Military observers say that this also reflects an attempt by the army to maintain its relevance in the face of Widodo's much-touted Maritime Axis, which emphasizes protecting Indonesia's territorial waters and is part of the U.S. president Obama's "pivot to Asia." The army top brass are also concerned that a greater portion of the budget going to the navy and air force will deprive it of lucrative kickbacks on arms procurements.

If social media are any guide, the attempts to whip up an anti-communist frenzy failed miserably. A Facebook posting on May 9 read: "Anyone who possesses a hammer and a sickle at home should destroy them lest they be accused of being a PKI member." Another read: "There are lots of hammer-and-sickle pictures on Google. The police should also seize Google!"

The authorities were clearly not amused. Police spokesperson Boy Rafli Amar warned people not to forward communist propaganda, reminding them they could face a 12-year sentence for the crime.

All this appears to have created unease within Widodo's administration. Cabinet secretary Pramono Anung said on May 13 that the TNI and police had overreacted to an earlier order by Widodo to uphold the law against the spread of communist teachings, and police chief Badrodin Haiti called for an end to book raids.

THIS KIND of harassment is nothing new. The Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy recorded that in 2014, at least 27 events related to 1965 were subject to restrictions and bans, including 17 film screenings and discussions, four forced dispersals of meetings of victims, three cases of intimidation, three cases of deportation and forceful arrest and one magazine recall.

In August 2015, a meeting of survivors and victims' families in Salatiga, Central Java, was canceled after threats by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). In October, the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival had to cancel some events on 1965 due to pressure from local police.

In March, a performance in Bandung, West Java, about socialist and national hero Tan Malaka was postponed after FPI threats. The event later went ahead under heavy police security after Bandung mayor Ridwan Kamil publicly supported the event.

On April 2, police closed down the 10th annual Lady Fest in Yogyakarta after an attack by the Islamic Community Forum (FUI). On April 14, police disbanded a meeting of 1965 victims in Bogor, West Java, after the Pancasila Youth (PP) and the FPI threatened to attack the event. Ironically, the meeting was part of preparations for the government symposium in April.

But despite the regularity of such incidents, there has been no systematic repression, and no one has been charged or jailed. Unlike protests against land seizures and labor rallies, in which protesters are attacked and assaulted by police and company thugs, violence is the exception. Many proceed without incident or go ahead after open resistance by students and activists.

OVER THE last few years, Indonesian and overseas activists have been forcing a debate about 1965. This poses a threat to those who would prefer that the details of the victims and their killers remain buried.

This pressure was behind the government's move to hold the April symposium. It hoped to defuse growing demands to issue an official apology and provide compensation and rehabilitation to survivors and victims' families.

This is also an ideological struggle. Not just because the alleged PKI coup justified the military's seizure of power but because it legitimizes the legal prohibitions on spreading communist ideas. While these laws remain in force, those advocating socialist solutions to Indonesia's social and economic problems risk arrest and jail.

Film screenings of Joshua Oppenheimer's award-winning documentaries Jagal (The Act of Killing) and Senyap (The Look of Silence) have stimulated a national discussion about the killings and the consequences of impunity, and exposed ordinary Indonesians to an alternative narrative about 1965.

Jagal explores the anti-communist purge by having the perpetrators re-enact their crimes, while Senyap examines the massacre through the eyes of its victims. Although the Film Censorship Institute banned public screenings of Senyap in December 2014, the government's National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) endorsed film showings around the country to promote reconciliation.

The first public screening in Jakarta, in November 2014, a joint effort by Komnas HAM and the Jakarta Arts Council, attracted more than 2,000 people. Indonesia Watching Senyap has distributed 1,700 DVD copies for screening in 118 cities and regencies, estimated to reach 70,000 viewers. Both films are available for viewing and downloading free from the internet.

Although some screenings have been shut down, others have become a rallying point for different groups to unite to defend free speech and academic independence.

On March 11 last year, some 100 thugs from the FUI and FAKI attempted to storm a Senyap screening at the State Islamic University (UIN) in Yogyakarta. Earlier in the year, they closed down several other screenings in the city.

Event organizers, along with a coalition of student and activist groups, vowed to resist the mob. Students blocked campus gates to prevent a breach. The screening went ahead.

In a statement on March 13, Oppenheimer expressed his respect for the students: "They are truly heroes in the struggle to uphold, not just academic independence on campus, but also human rights, and reaffirming the spirit of democracy in Indonesia as well as banishing violence."

A May 27 screening of Buru Island as part of the 10th Purbalingga Film Festival went ahead despite opposition from right wing groups. Organizers of the 2016 ASEAN Literary Festival in Jakarta also defied threats by Islamic groups demanding police shut down the event for promoting communist and LGBT ideologies.

In May, the FPI tried to disband a "School of Marx" event in Bandung. Organizers refused to bow to pressure and went ahead with the event after building a cross-campus campaign among Bandung students.

LAST NOVEMBER, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the massacres, Indonesian and international activists organized an International People's Tribunal (IPT) on 1965 in The Hague.

The tribunal, which examined thousands of documents and heard testimonies from victims and survivors, concluded that the state was responsible for the massacres. Although not legally binding, the findings will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council as a moral verdict.

Government officials, who tried to brush the tribunal off as irrelevant, were clearly unhappy about the publicity it was generating. The Indonesian embassy in The Hague threatened to revoke students' scholarships if they attended. Although the IPT website was briefly blocked, millions of Indonesians were able to watch live streaming coverage of the hearings.

Events supporting the IPT were also held in Indonesia. Although some were canceled after threats from hard-line groups, a discussion and film showing on February 18 at the UIN went ahead without incident, attended by around 200 people. The venue was guarded by student security teams--some armed with sharpened bamboo sticks--to prevent any disruptions.

The anti-communist propaganda campaign is being driven by a handful of senior officials, retired army officers and right-wing groups. They have little or no mass support, and there have been no independently organized demonstrations or community-based campaigns supporting them.

Likewise, the harassment of events has been carried out by a small number of groups such as the FPI, FUI, FAKI, PP and the FKPPI, or ad hoc alliances of these groups, all of which have links with the TNI, police or the New Order. They have also been behind the occasional but small anti-communist rallies.

Thanks to the proliferation of smart phones, around 60 percent of the population has internet access to alternative information about 1965. Some websites are blocked, but the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin are freely available.

Claims of an imminent PKI resurgence have also been undermined by the same "communism is dead" propaganda that is peddled in the West. Even though many Indonesians still hold negative and confused views about communism, no one believes that the PKI is about to be revived.

Rights groups also say that the TNI is trying to whip up anti-communist fears as its role in the killings comes under scrutiny and that there is genuine anxiety that those responsible could be indicted. They also argue that it is being used to justifying broad limits on civil freedoms and to stifle public criticism of the government.

AS PROMISED, on June 1 anti-communist groups went ahead with a counter-symposium in Jakarta titled "Protecting Pancasila from the threat of the PKI and other ideologies".

Organizers claimed it was supported by dozens of mass organizations, including the youth wing of the Islamic mass organization Nahdlatul Ulama and the Catholic Students Union (PMKRI). Both later protested the use of their logos, the PMKRI saying the real threat to the country comes from right wing and extremist religious groups, not the PKI.

Former Green Beret commander Kivlan Zen, who claimed that the PKI has 15 million supporters and is ready to declare itself, also said that the PKI had started renovating new headquarters in Jakarta. When journalists went to the address, all they found was a dilapidated building overgrown with weeds.

If people weren't already skeptical about such claims, the right wing wasn't helped when symposium coordinator general Kiki Syahnakri tried to explain the difference between communism, Marxism and Leninism during a press conference. Syahnakri, a former army general indicted for crimes against humanity by the UN in 2003, explained that a Marxist must be an atheist because dialectical materialism was inspired by the ideas of philosophers Aristotle and Plato.

"Marxism is Aristotelian. So a Marxist doesn't believe that the universe was created. That is to say, they believe the universe is present in itself," Syahnakri said. "So it's clear they're atheists as they don't believe in God." Syahnakri's explanation quickly went viral on social media after journalist Febriana Firdaus--who was expelled from the event by irate members of the FPI--posted it on her Facebook wall.

The day after the symposium, several thousand protesters from the FPI, FUI and FKPPI, along with retired army generals, rallied in central Jakarta warning of the communist threat.

"Since the beginning of the reform era [in 1998], the PKI has been trying to keep its existence by holding three congresses, managing to reverse the historical facts, spreading videos and films consisting of agitation and defamation, and blaming its own faults on others such as the New Order government, the TNI and Muslims," said Indra Bambang Utoyo from the FKPPI.

While the government-sponsored symposium did offer a public platform for Indonesians to hear an alternate account from survivors and victims, it was already clear that, without a concerted campaign, there will be no genuine and just resolution to the massacres.

Speaking on May 30, days before the anti-PKI symposium had even begun, Pandjaitan said that he welcomed the counter-symposium, and its recommendations would be used as input for the government to make a decision on settling past human rights abuses.

First published at Red Flag.

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