Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has once again evoked the dangerous and utterly fictitious threat of communism for apparent political purposes. On Friday, he publicly warned the nation of an existential threat posed by what he described as “communism and the legacy of the PKI (Communist Party of Indonesia).”

During 1965-66, Indonesia’s security forces, paramilitaries, and Muslim militias killed between 500,000 to one million suspected “communists.” Widodo’s speech ignored the decades of relentless security agency surveillance, harassment, and public stigmatization of suspected former communists and generations of their descendants – all designed to eradicate any possible reemergence of an organized communist movement.

A student is led away after a raid on a university in Jakarta, Indonesia in 1965.

© Fairfax

He also didn’t mention how, over the past three years, some security forces backed by paramilitary thugs and Muslim hardliners have repeatedly harassed and intimidated Indonesians trying to discuss routes to accountability for the 1965-66 killings. Indonesia’s draconian anti-communist laws persist as a lingering peril for civil society activists who challenge an abusive status quo and demand accountability. 

But Jokowi knows his audience – he made the remarks at the Indonesian Armed Forces’ headquarters during an event marking its 73rd anniversary. The politically powerful military can be expected to be an important player in the upcoming election between Jokowi and opposition leader Prabowo Subianto, a former commander in Kopassus, the notoriously abusive Indonesian special forces.

The Indonesian Armed Forces retain a visceral fear and hatred of the possible reemergence of communism in Indonesia. By showing himself as sympathetic to this perspective, he is sending the army a signal that he could postpone or even derail tentative, long-delayed moves toward accountability for the 1965-66 killings, especially follow ups from the 2016 symposium on the tragedy.

Jokowi’s speech was a dog whistle pandering to elements of the security forces and government for whom accountability for past abuses is anathema. And it sends a dismaying signal about where human rights lie on his list of presidential priorities.