What 1965 Means in Southeast Asia

Recent Features


What 1965 Means in Southeast Asia

The year 1965 is politically significant in several Southeast Asian states.

The year 1965 is politically significant in several Southeast Asian countries: Singapore became an independent nation, Ferdinand Marcos was elected president of the Philippines, and an anti-communist purge killed at least half a million people in Indonesia.

Singapore separated from the Malaysian Federation and subsequently, an independent government was established led by Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew became one of the most vibrant economies in the world. Its transformation from a small Third World city state into a prosperous nation with high living standards is one of the memorable development stories of the past century.

While Singapore was learning the ways of nationhood, Indonesia in 1965 was suddenly besieged by violent forces which led to the rise of Suharto. According to the army, it was only forced to retaliate when communists attacked government officials. But it was a massive retaliation that led unlawful killings of innocent civilians and suspected communist sympathizers. Hundreds of thousands were arrested, tortured, and condemned to forced labor even if their only crime was that they were relatives of communists.

The events in 1965 and their tragic aftermath were kept hidden from the public and the international community by Suharto and the military. It was only after Suharto fell from power in 1998 that witnesses and survivors came forward to share their stories. In 2012, Indonesia’s human rights commission finally declared that the army is guilty of committing human rights abuses in 1965.

While the power struggle in Indonesia led to a bloody confrontation between competing forces in 1965, the Philippines held a peaceful election during the same year. The incumbent president was defeated by Marcos who remained in power until 1986. Marcos declared martial law in 1972 to quell a rising communist insurgency but many believe this was only a ruse to extend his term. The Philippines under martial law was a dark period in the country’s history. The political opposition and other critics of Marcos were detained while soldiers were accused of committing gross human rights violations. Similar to Indonesia’s wave of killings between 1965 and 1966, many victims of martial law were suspected communists or sympathizers of the underground movement.

Fifty years later, the events of 1965 continue to influence contemporary politics in Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

Singapore held a massive and festive celebration to mark its 50th founding year. Singaporeans became nostalgic and proud of the achievements they made in the past half century. Millions paid their last respects to Lee Kuan Yew who passed away last March. There was an evident surge of patriotism in the country which could be a factor why the ruling party got a landslide victory in the election held a few days after Singapore’s 50th Foundation Day. Perhaps many voters were euphoric over Singapore’s rise as a global city and this sentiment benefited the party which has ruled the country from the very beginning despite the growing clamor for political reforms.

If Singapore is keen on remembering its humble origins, Indonesia is hesitant to find out what really happened during the reign of terror in 1965. There were expectations that President Jokowi would initiate steps to address the unresolved issues surrounding the 1965 tragedy. Last August, he proposed the formation of a reconciliation commission. But the country’s major political parties and the military rejected the idea and warned that it could spark a new conflict. Early this month, a literary festival aimed at sharing stories of people who survived the 1965 massacre was shelved due to pressure from the government.

Suharto may be dead, but his subordinates are still influential. That explains why it is extremely difficult to persuade the government to establish the truth about the events surrounding 1965.

Fortunately, an International People’s Tribunal is being organized next month in The Hague to determine the accountability of the Indonesian government in relation to the mass killings in 1965.

In the Philippines, Marcos remains a divisive figure. Three decades after his ouster, the Philippines is still an underdeveloped nation. His critics blame him for the problems besetting the country while his supporters continue to assert that removing him from power proved more costly to the nation. Even Marcos’ heirs hold elected positions today: his wife is a representative in Congress, his eldest daughter is a provincial governor, and his only son and namesake is an incumbent senator who is running for vice president in next year’s election.

The junior Marcos claims that Filipinos have already moved on and that martial law is no longer an issue that can be invoked against his family.

Fifty years after Marcos became president, his family and supporters are aggressively seeking to defend his legacy. They wanted to revise history’s verdict on Marcos and his martial law regime to boost the electoral chances of Marcos’ son.

There are many uses of history: it can be celebrated to unite a country (Singapore), it can be repressed to hide the truth (Indonesia), or it can be amended to influence the future (Philippines). This is politics as usual. But it should not distract us from pursuing the essential goals of seeking out the truth and fighting for justice.