Beyond The Act of Killing: Indonesia and the Price of National Unity
Image Credit: Reuters/Enny Nuraheni

Beyond The Act of Killing: Indonesia and the Price of National Unity


The Act of Killing, a new documentary on Indonesia’s anti-Communist mass killings, is making the rounds globally and earning praise for its innovative cinematography. Innovative it may be, but the film has a flaw: it sends the wrong message about what happened in Indonesia in 1965, and fails to explain why the killers were never brought to justice. Gangsters and paramilitaries didn’t engineer this military coup; the entire political system was complicit. In Indonesia’s national mythology, the killings were necessary, even heroic – the Communists had to die to protect national unity. Until this understanding changes, truth and reconciliation are near impossible.

Beginning in October 1965, up to 2.5 million suspected Communists were slaughtered across Indonesia. The Cold War meant their deaths received very little international attention. For many non-Indonesians, The Act of Killing is their first exposure to the purge. But the movie’s focus on gangsters and paramilitaries is far too narrow: these amateurs alone could not have killed so many. They were part of a pyramid, with former President Suharto at the top and civilians – driven to save the country, avenge slights, or having been told it was “kill or be killed” – at the bottom. Each level delegated the “dirty work” to those below, so young under-employed men like Anwar Kongo and Adi Zulkadry ended up executing the most.

Suharto and the military mobilized the population against suspected Communists, spread violent propaganda, and supplied weapons and guidance. Yet the closest anyone comes to implicating the military in the film is an Army order to “just dump the bodies in the river.” This blind spot has led one surviving victim to protest the movie, because, it is argued, “soldiers carried out the massacres.”

The silence surrounding the military’s involvement isn’t surprising. While democratic reforms have reduced the military’s presence in politics and society, it is still a formidable part of the Indonesian power structure. Even President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is a former general, and the Kopassus Special Forces still carries out extrajudicial killings. Though Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights declared the 1965 killings a “gross human rights violation” on the part of the military, the Attorney General’s Office refused to conduct an official investigation.

The military isn’t the only faction that wants the case to stay closed. Muslim groups also rejected the Human Rights Commission’s findings. In November 2000, efforts to rebury the remains of a mass grave were obstructed by members of the Kaloran Muslim Brotherhood who may have been provoked by a local military unit. Exhumation might have disturbed the national narrative of what happened in 1965: that the Communists violated the national ideology of Pancasila and thus deserved their fate.

For Suharto and the military – the self-proclaimed “guardian of the nation” – the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) posed a threat not only to their power, but to Indonesia. Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, had created Pancasila to bind the nation together. But national unity was under constant attack, not only by separatist rebellions but by in-fighting among Communists, Islamists, and the military. On September 30 1965, Sukarno’s attempt to balance the three groups finally failed. Seven generals were found murdered, an attempted Communist coup was blamed, and the mass killings began.

The paramilitaries call themselves “servants of the nation.” Viewers of The Act of Killing are shocked by the killers’ lack of remorse, but they thought they were safeguarding Indonesia. “I knew it was wrong but I had to do it,” Anwar explains, “My conscience told me they had to be killed.” Rejecting calls for an official apology, Yudhoyono’s Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Djoko Suyanto made a strikingly similar remark: “Immediate action was needed to protect the country against [the Communist] threat.” It’s a simple, and thus powerful, narrative.

e.l. connery
September 2, 2013 at 08:05

a pandora box is opened. many more will be exposed after this movie. anwar congo cs kille, what, a thousand? what about the rest 2,4 millions ++??

August 29, 2013 at 00:21

I do agree that those that directed the paramilitary and the gangsters to kill should be held accountable, however the movie was important because it started a discussion on a topic that most people have never heard of. By focusing on the genocide and those directly involved, the movie draws everyone's attention and then the next movie director, or investigative journalist, or whomever else can tell the story of who was responsible.

A.G. Mason
August 28, 2013 at 01:45

As someone who knew very little about the historical situation going into the film, I was never left with the impression that these gangsters were the masterminds behind the atrocities that happened. In fact, they came across to me as pawns, swept up in the nationalist ideology of the time. Despite the thousands of people they personally killed, they were sympathetic, troubled characters, slowly coming to grips reality of what they did as the the fog of power and greed faded from their minds. 

The film should not be taken as a history of the political situation of the time, but as a study of humans' struggle with morality. 


August 26, 2013 at 13:30

I wanna know what behind story of the massacree, please read history of cold war constelation and CIA top secret operation which have not been disclose yet, until now.

USA government is the most responsible person for the massacree.

August 26, 2013 at 12:54

If we wanna know well the killing or masacree, we have to learn a lot about cold war constelation and CIA spionage operation during such years (1959-1967) in Indonesia.  This masacree is part of CIA top secret operations, US should be dsclose the Jakarta operation file now (1959-1967).

Soeharto n the regyme only an executors of US plan operation

Little Helmsman
August 25, 2013 at 07:12

Very interesting article!  I have just heard little snippets of these events over the years and I don't really know much about it.  I wonder how Indonesians feel about it?  Communism was like the plague all over Asia but I think the slaughter was too excessive and probably alienated some people who never sympathize with the communists.  

Philip Rozario
August 24, 2013 at 10:09

Indeed, the film does focus on the gangsters who carried out the extra-judicial killings of people who were enemies of the military, but I didn't think that it laid the responsibility of the killing solely on these people.  In fact, the filmmaker showed footage of government ministers who support these paramilitary organizations and the role that other higher ups played in this mass murder of potentally innocent people.

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