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

A new documentary is inventive, but will not help Indonesia get to the truth of the 1965 killings.

By Nadia Bulkin for
Beyond The Act of Killing: Indonesia and the Price of National Unity
Credit: Reuters/Enny Nuraheni

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.

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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.

Suharto’s New Order needed to justify the coup as well as bandage a gaping national wound: Indonesians had assisted in the annihilation of their neighbors. The Sacred Pancasila Monument for the dead generals was built, and an official docudrama, The Treachery of G30S/PKI, became mandatory viewing for students. Anwar calls the movie “the one thing that makes me feel not guilty,” as it emphasizes the Communists’ immorality while completely ignoring the mass killings. This mythology has worked extremely well. The mass killings aren’t taught in school, and new textbooks that did not blame Communists for the coup were burned in 2007 on the government’s orders. No one wants to remove the bandage, even if the wound never heals. Truth, Adi says, is a “problem for history.”

The New Order couldn’t completely eliminate guilt. Anwar sees the ghosts of his victims in nightmares, and fears their children’s curses. Even Suharto was said to be held in spiritual hostage until he apologized for the coup. For the killers, telling the truth might be cathartic. But modern Indonesia was built on certain myths: that Communists never had widespread support; that Indonesia needs military rule; that economic development justified the bloodshed. As Djoko Suyanto argues, “This country would not be what it is today if [the mass killings] didn’t happen.” National unity is often paid for in blood. Nationalist myths – the ones that show “what's special about our country” – are among the hardest to rewrite.

These days, paramilitaries oppose open discussion of the killings to keep history from being “reversed.” They need not worry. Even a documentary as provocative as The Act of Killing points the finger at the killers that are easiest to hate – criminals and paramilitaries – while ignoring the architects of the purge and the ordinary citizens dragged along for the gruesome ride. Meanwhile, international audiences wonder why Indonesians worship gangsters who boast about mass murder. What really happened in 1965 was much bigger than Anwar Kongo and Adi Zulkadry. Truth and reconciliation would require a complete overhaul of Indonesia’s national mythology. But the film does show that Indonesia is haunted – and no amount of mythmaking can heal a wound this deep.

Nadia Bulkin is completing her M.A. thesis on the evolution of Indonesian nationalism at American University's School of International Service in Washington, D.C.