Indonesian police and military personnel last week forced the cancellation of a public workshop on financial compensation for victims of the country’s 1965-1966 mass killings. Security forces “interrogated and intimidated” workshop organizers, claiming they lacked a permit.
The strong-arm reaction reflects a tenacious, decades-long official taboo on public discussions of the massacre as part of efforts by successive governments to absolve those responsible. That’s because in October 1965, the government gave free rein to soldiers and local militias to kill anyone they considered a “communist.” Over the next few months, at least 500,000 people were killed (the total may be as high as one million). The victims included members of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), ethnic Chinese, trade unionists, teachers, activists, and artists.
In the 52 years since, Indonesian officials have justified the mass killings as a necessary defense against the Communist Party. In October 2012, then-Coordinating Minister of Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Djoko Suyanto responded to findings of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) that the events of 1965-66 constituted a “gross human rights violation” by insisting that those killings were justified.
However, public discussion about the killings has increased in recent years, substantially aided since 2012 by release of the documentary films The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. In April 2016 the government sponsored a two-day symposium that allowed Indonesians to hear an alternate account from survivors and victims’ family members. They described crimes by government security forces and paramilitary groups under their control, including mass executions and kidnappings, rampant rape and wrongful detention.
That month, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo ordered an official effort to document the location of the victims’ mass graves. In May 2016, the government announced that it would form a team to investigate a list of 122 alleged mass grave sites compiled by victims’ advocacy groups.
But since then, there has been deafening silence from the government. The security forces’ unwillingness to allow public discussion of compensation suggests that elements within the government and the security forces want to protect perpetrators even at the expense of redress for the victims. Jokowi will need to step in again or the victims and their suffering will go unrecognized and uncompensated.