The 1965 – 1966 Massacres in Indonesia

The section is written by historian John Roosa and director Joshua Oppenheimer. The heading of the introductory part and conclusion written by Joshua Oppenheimer, while the main body of the text consists of John Roosa’s observations of genocide in 1965-66, repercussions and consequences. Student Tasks of Mikkel Randløv, history teacher at North High School.

Military Coup in 1965
By Joshua Oppenheimer

In 1965, the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military. Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, who was the founder of the non-aligned movement and head of the national revolution against Dutch colonization, was deposed and replaced by the right-wing General Suharto. The Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), which had supported the struggle against the Dutch colonization and President Sukarno (who was not a communist), was immediately banned.

Immediately before the coup, the PKI was the largest communist party in the world in a non-communist country. The party was officially required to win power through elections, and their subsidiaries included all Indonesian trade unions and cooperative movements of peasants without land. Their primary campaign included land reform and nationalization of foreign-owned mining use, oil and plantation industry. In this way, they tried to mobilize Indonesia’s vast natural resources. It should be for the benefit of the Indonesian people, in their view, who were poor in all ways after three hundred years of colonial exploitation.

After the military coup in 1965, all could be accused of being communists and opponents of the new military dictatorship. This applied to union members, landless peasants, intellectuals, ethnic Chinese and all others who fought for a redistribution of wealth in the aftermath of colonization.

In less than a year, and directly aided by Western governments, over a million of these so-called “communists” were murdered. In America, the genocide was known as a great “victory over communism” and was largely celebrated as good news. TIME Magazine reported “The best news for the West in Asia for many years,” while The New York Times gave the headline “A glimmer of light in Asia” and praised Washington to hide its involvement in the killings.

The ethnic Chinese who had come to Indonesia in the 18th and 19th centuries were made scapegoats, spurred by US intelligence that attempted to create a rift between the new Indonesian regime and the People’s Republic of China. The slaughter of PKIs members at village level and people affiliated with unions and cooperatives was also encouraged by the United States.

In many of Indonesia’s regions, the military recruited civilians to carry out the killings. The civilians were organized in paramilitary groups, were given basic training and considerable military support. In North Sumatra and elsewhere, recruits came mostly from groups of gangsters. Ever since the genocide, the Indonesian government celebrated “the extermination of the communists” as a patriotic struggle. They hailed the gangsters and the paramilitaries as heroes and rewarded them with power and privilege. These men and their protégées have gained powerful positions – and persecuted their opponents ever since.

The Genocide of 1965-66 began with the killing of six generals at night on the first of October 1965.

30th September Movement
By John Roosa

October 1, 1965: The Thirtieth September Movement (Gerakan 30 September, or G30S), an association of young, rebellious Indonesian officers from the armed forces, slaughtered six generals from the Indonesian army in a misguided coup and dumped their bodies in a well south of Jakarta. At the same time, they took over the movement’s troops on national radio and declared their protection by President Sukarno to the cabal of right-wing generals who were in the process of planning a takeover. The movement was overpowered before the Indonesians knew that it existed. The highest-ranking military commander, Major-General Suharto, launched a quick counterattack, driving the movement’s troops from Jakarta in a single day.

Suharto accused the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) of being behind the movement, and he took the initiative to eradicate people linked to the party. Suharto’s army captured more than half a million people and accused them of having been involved in the movement. In one of the worst bloodbaths of the twentieth century, the military and local militias slaughtered several hundred thousand people in central and eastern Java, Bali and North Sumatra from late 1965 to mid 1966. In a state of national crisis Suharto gradually usurped Sukarno’s authority and established himself as the de facto president in March 1966 – now with the power to dismiss and appoint ministers.

The genocide was disproportionate in relation to its alleged purpose. The movement was a small, conspiratorial action organized by a handful of people. Overall it struck and killed twelve people. Suharto exaggerated its scale, so it looked more like a nationwide conspiracy. All the millions of people who were associated with PKI – even the illiterate peasants in remote villages – were exhibited as murderers with a single charge of the movement’s actions.

Until the end of the Suharto regime in 1998, the Indonesian government and the official military personnel responded at any sign of disagreement or violence by pointing to the PKI ghost. The central reference in the regime’s argument was “the latent threat of communism.” The unfinished eradication of PKI amounted to, in a very real way, the Suharto regime’s existence. The original statute, with which the regime led Indonesia for over 30 years, was Sukarno’s “presidential order of 3rd October 1965″ that gave Suharto the authority to “restore order.”

After defeating the motion, Suharto appointed himself as the nation’s savior in an attempt to construct a legitimating ideology for his dictatorship. His regime used all the propaganda methods to maintain the event in the public consciousness: books, monuments, street names, movies, museums, memorial statues and national holidays. The Suharto regime justified its existence by placing the movement in the middle of its historical narrative and by depicting PKI as unspeakably evil. Under Suharto, anti-communism became the state religion – complete with holy places, rituals and dates.

It is noteworthy that the comprehensive anti-PKI violence has become so badly misunderstood. The fact that both the military and civilians carried out the killings have undoubtedly helped to blur the issue of liability. The limited information available clearly demonstrates that the military bears the greatest share of responsibility. The killings were the result of organized, planned brutality more than spontaneous violence. Suharto’s clique of officers concocted false stories and controlled press in great enough degree to delude civilians into believing PKI was on the rampage. Had the military not deliberately provoked this way, people would never have seen PKI as a threat, since the party had been passive in the aftermath of the movement. From October 1965 onwards the military worked hard to whip up a hostile atmosphere around PKI. The US government incited the Indonesian military to pursue rank and file Communists. The military encouraged the militias to take action, guaranteed them impunity, and arranged logistical assistance.

In contrast to the story that has most often been told in Indonesia, there was virtually no spontaneous acts of violence carried out by villagers. Suharto’s army arranged rather mysterious disappearances rather than public executions. The army and its militias carried out any of their comprehensive genocide in secret. They rounded up prisoners at night, transported them to remote areas, executed them and buried the bodies in unmarked mass graves or tossed them into rivers.

The tragedy of the modern Indonesian history lies not only in the military-organized mass executions in 1965-66, but also the power that the killers were given – people who considered murder and psychological warfare as legitimate and normal ways to govern. A regime that legitimized itself by pointing to the mass grave at the well where the six generals were killed and swearing “never again,” while it left countless other mass graves from one end of the country to another, from Aceh on the west coast to Papua on the east coast. The occupation of East Timor from 1975 to 1999 was similarly guilt for tens – if not hundreds – of thousands killed. Many of them were anonymously buried. Every mass grave in the archipelago marks an arbitrarily ongoing and secretive abuse of state power.

The occupation of a relatively small event (movement) and the blurring of a piece of world history (mass executions in 1965-1966) have removed any empathy for the victims and the bereaved. There was erected a monument beside the well where the movement’s forces dumped the bodies of the six generals of October 1, 1965. However, there is no monument at the mass grave that marks the bodies of hundreds of thousands of people who lost their lives by genocide.

History. Storytelling. Power.
By Joshua Oppenheimer


It has focused on who killed the generals September 30, 1965 without worrying about the killing of over one million alleged communists in the months that followed. Suharto’s regime made endless amounts of propaganda, and even today much of the discussion about the genocide has been displaced. And this applies even in English-language sources. For me it is grotesque to participate in the debate on “who killed the generals” – and therefore the debate is not in THE ACT OF KILLING.

The genocide in Rwanda was triggered when Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana died when his plane was shot down on approach to Kigali. To discuss who shot down the plane is unreasonable in light of the killing of more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Similarly, it is irrelevant to know who started the Reichstag Fire in order to understand the Holocaust. As John Roosa described in the above, it diverts attention from the genocide of world historical importance. Imagine if one in Rwanda only focused on the question of “who shot the presidential plane down” when you talk about what happened in 1994. It would only be possible if the killers were still in power.