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Exposing Indonesia's Cold War Communist Purge

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The wall of silence in Indonesia surrounding one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century is beginning to fall apart. A forthcoming report by Indonesia's National Commission on Human Rights estimates that a purge of suspected communists during the mid-1960s killed between 600,000 and 1 million people.

The violence reshaped Indonesia's political landscape and affected the course of the Cold War, just as the U.S. was escalating its fight against communism in Southeast Asia.

"We conclude that there have been gross human rights violations, which can be classified as crimes against humanity," says Yosep Adi Prasetyo, the commission's deputy chairman.

He says the report places the blame squarely on Indonesia's military dictator Suharto, who died four years ago.

"We found that the military and police were involved in the killings, as well as forced disappearances, rape, forced movement of people, torture and other crimes," Prasetyo says.

A major general in the Indonesian army at the time, Suharto ousted Sukarno, the revered Indonesian independence leader and the country's first president, in the wake of the kidnapping and killing of senior Indonesian generals on Sept. 30, 1965.

Suharto blamed those murders on the Indonesian Communist Party, then the largest in the noncommunist world. Suharto also suspected Sukarno of complicity in the killings, which the perpetrators said were to prevent the generals from launching a coup attempt against the president. The military, under Suharto, then ordered that communists be hunted down.

Survivors Fight To Clear Their Names

In central Jakarta, a handful of survivors live together in a nursing home. Every week, they gather outside the Presidential Palace to demand justice.

At the time of the purge, Bujiati, who goes by just one name, was a village chief on the rural outskirts of Jakarta. She had previously worked as a factory worker for the British-Dutch consumer goods firm Unilever.

"If you were diligent and worked hard, people would accuse you of being a communist," she recalls. Bujiati, now 86, survived six years in a prison, and later in a hospital ward for mental patients and a leper colony.

Tumiso Nitikarjita Lukas was then a fourth-year law school student. Like many young people his age, he supported Sukarno. For this, he was arrested and tortured. But he refused to admit to being a communist because, he says, he wasn't one.

"The government must admit the barbaric acts it committed against its citizens and provide rehabilitation and compensation," he says. "We are still waiting. Our demands are not like what you see broadcast in the news. We keep it simple."

After his arrest, Tumiso was exiled to a remote island where he planted rice, built roads and cleared forests until his release in 1979. After that, he worked secretly as a tutor. People implicated in the anti-communist campaigns are still barred from working as teachers or civil servants, and in one of the most respected of Indonesian professions: puppet masters.

Communism And The Cold War

Tumiso believes Indonesian authorities wanted him to confess to being a communist in order to get assistance from the U.S. government. At the time, the U.S. government was openly supportive of Suharto. It feared that Indonesia, with its big oil reserves, large population and strategic location, would be the next "domino" to fall to global communism.

"The end of Sukarno was of great significance in terms of the Cold War for the Western powers," says Katharine McGregor, an Indonesian history expert at the University of Melbourne in Australia. "And for that reason, people also saw things more in black and white terms of 'it's just communists being killed' — there wasn't a lot of outcry from the Western world."

There has long been speculation that the CIA assisted in the anti-communist purge, but hard evidence is lacking. McGregor notes, however, that there is much clearer evidence of U.S. government support for an anti-Sukarno rebellion by dissident army officers on Indonesia's outer islands in 1958.

In particular, Indonesian forces shot down a B-26 bomber over Indonesian territory and captured its pilot, 29-year-old American Allen L. Pope, along with documents linking him to the CIA. Indonesia sentenced Pope to death but later handed him back to the U.S.

Many Opponents To Investigation

The anti-communist purge of 1965 effectively eliminated Indonesia's political left wing. Under the three decades of Suharto's authoritarian rule that followed, Indonesia was a pro-Western, pro-business country without independent women's rights groups, effective trade unions and other civil society institutions, and few channels for citizens to participate in politics.

Even today, efforts such as the human rights commission's to re-examine the killing of communists face opposition from people such as Tribowo Soebiandono, the vice head of a group of military family members.

"We believe that we must still maintain vigilance against the threat of communism," he says, speaking at his group's office. "This country is on the brink of collapse. Honestly, corruption is rampant. I don't want to go pointing any fingers, but we can figure it out for ourselves."

Mainstream Islamic groups have also protested the National Human Rights Commission's report and opposed any re-evaluation of the killings. The commission's study says that at the time, the military mobilized members of these groups to help kill communists. The Islamic groups and the communists were at odds over ideology, and over the Islamic establishment's large landholdings, which were a target of the communists' land reforms.

A Question Of Justice

It is too early to tell whether anyone will be put on trial for the killings, or whether victims or their families will get any compensation.

Human Rights Commission's Yosep Adi Prasetyo says the commission's mandate was simply to investigate, and it had enough trouble just doing that.

"It's going to be difficult because the president's father-in-law is one of the perpetrators that must be held accountable for the massacre and other crimes," he says.

Current Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's father-in-law was a general who played a major part in the campaign to eradicate communists. The general himself estimated that the purge killed some 2 million people.

Indonesia is sometimes held up as an example of one of Asia's more successful transitions from authoritarian state to democracy. Myanmar, for example, is looking to Indonesia as it begins its own such transition.

Whether anyone is ever held to account for their crimes, and whether the victims ever get any justice, the victims say they have one overriding concern: that their country learn from its mistakes and avoid repeating this horrific episode in the future.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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