International Court Revisits Indonesia's 1965 Mass Killings


An international people’s tribunal gathered testimonies and other evidence linking the Indonesian government to the anti-communist mass killings in 1965. The tribunal was held from November 10 to 13 in The Hague.

The mass killings targeted suspected members and sympathizers of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). The purge killed at least half a million people but some human rights groups believe the number of victims could be more than a million. The wave of violence lasted for several months between 1965 and 1966 but state forces continued to arrest, harass, and persecute hundreds of thousands of suspected communists into the early 1970s.

In September 1965, the PKI was accused of brutally killing high-ranking army generals in a failed coup. This prompted the military to retaliate. An army officer, Suharto, became president during this period and remained in power until 1998. Suharto banned all attempts to probe the 1965 killings. He has consistently blamed the communists for starting the conflict in 1965.

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It was only after the resignation of Suharto that witnesses and survivors started to speak out about the events of 1965 and beyond. For many years, it was alleged that majority who suffered during the anti-communist witch hunt were innocent civilians. Many were tortured and detained without trial because of mere suspicion that they were friends or relatives of PKI members. More than 10,000 individuals were banished to the remote island of Buru and Plantungan in Central Java. Women and children endured sexual violence and discrimination for many years. Some detainees were subjected to forced labor.

The military has denied committing these crimes over the past 50 years. It has refused to acknowledge that atrocities were done against ordinary citizens. Its official version of history is to depict the PKI as a monstrous and anti-democratic political force which has to be outlawed and decisively defeated in order to save the Indonesian republic. Some army commanders were even declared heroes for leading the anti-communist campaign in the 1960s.

The strong influence of Suharto and the military in the post-1998 era has prevented a full investigation of what really happened in 1965.

Some expected President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to heal the wounds of the past by apologizing to the victims of military abuse and other forms of human rights violations. After all, he has no direct ties to Suharto and one of his election programs centered around promoting national reconciliation.

But Jokowi backtracked on this commitment and ignored appeals to finally end the half-century of impunity with regard to the anti-communist hysteria in 1965.

The international people’s tribunal, therefore, is a political action aimed at making the Indonesian government accountable for the alleged mass crimes it committed in 1965. It also seeks to “break down the vicious cycle of denial, distortion, taboo and secrecy” about the 1965 killings.

The tribunal involved 16 witnesses, six international prosecutors and seven judges. The Indonesian government faced a nine-count indictment of crimes including mass murder, torture, sexual abuse, enslavement, enforced evictions, persecution, and enforced disappearances.

Since it is not a criminal court, it has no power to provide justice and compensation to victims. Nonetheless, it is a significant political process to find out the truth about a dark episode in Indonesia’s modern history.

As Chief Prosecutor Todung Mulya Lubis said in his opening statement, the tribunal is an “absolute necessity” so that the “truth is told in its entirety, honestly and sincerely.”

“The wounds and pain will never be healed without truth telling,” he added.

And even if the tribunal has no legal standing in Indonesia, the prosecutors are confident that it can lead to political victories in the future.

“We truly believe that it will open the door for sincere apologies; for reparations and for rehabilitation of those who are discriminated until today,” they asserted in their closing statement.

After hearing the stories of survivors and studying the documents submitted by the prosecution team, the judges found the Indonesian government “responsible in the commission of such crimes against humanity as the chain of command was organized from top to bottom of the institutional bodies.”

The tribunal also tackled the “complicity” of the governments of the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia in the commission of the mass crimes in 1965. A witness alleged that these governments “provided radio-communication equipment in order to facilitate communication between the troops and delivered small arms and money. They also provided lists of alleged PKI members to the Indonesian authorities.”

As expected, the Indonesian government dismissed the international tribunal as a farce. It reminded the participants that Indonesia is a sovereign nation with a functioning legal system. It also insisted that President Jokowi will not apologize for the actions of the army in 1965. Some hardliners even branded the Indonesian participants as traitors and communists.

But if the government is looking for more solid evidence about the systematic and massive abuses of the army in 1965, it can read the 2012 report of the National Human Rights Commission of Indonesia which spent four years interviewing 349 witnesses and victims of the 1965 purge. The commission, a government agency, recommended the prosecution of army officials involved in the killings. More importantly, it found “adequate initial evidence” that state forces committed various crimes against humanity.

Sadly but not surprisingly, the recommendations of the commission were not acted upon by the government.

President Jokowi should remember his election pledge to promote national reconciliation. His government should reconsider its decision to ignore the findings of the human rights commission and the international people’s tribunal.

The survivors of the 1965 killings cannot wait for another 50 years to receive justice from the government.

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