Behind Indonesia’s Red Scare

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Behind Indonesia’s Red Scare

Why is the Indonesian military again warning of an imminent communist revolution?

Behind Indonesia’s Red Scare

A military trainer inspects participants of the Bela Negara (defend the nation) program as they stand at attention at a training center in Rumpin, Bogor, West Java, Indonesia June 2, 2016.

Credit: REUTERS/Darren Whiteside

Around 50 years after the obliteration of the Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, or PKI), the specter of communism has risen again to seek revenge against the proud nationalists who saved the country from disintegration – at least that’s what Defense Minister Ryamizard Rycadu thinks. For the past few months, hardliners within the military elite have been stoking public anxiety about communism’s re-emergence in Indonesia. Military figures have publicly warned of discreet attempts by communists to launch a revolution and reminded citizens to steer clear of communism or risk imprisonment. Additionally, several organizations associated with the military, most notably the Communication Forum on Indonesian Veterans’ Children (FKPPI), have staged protests and raised banners across the island of Java to warn of communism’s potential ascent.

But the military’s warnings are not just empty threats. Security forces, which consist of the police and the military, have intensified crackdowns on literature, memorabilia, and movies related to communist ideology and the failed September 30, 1965 coup attempt and its aftermath, which saw the imprisonment and killings of hundreds of thousands of suspected communists and communist sympathizers. In May, a shop owner was temporarily arrested for selling reproduced images of a hammer and sickle on t-shirts featuring German thrash metal band, Kreator. Bookstores have had books on leftist ideology and the 1965-66 killings seized by security forces. Ironically, the seizure of academic texts on communism and the killings was supported by the acting head of Indonesia’s National Library. A movie screening in Yogyakarta to celebrate World Press Freedom Day was disbanded by security officials, following a complaint by the FKPPI. The screening, which was organized by a group of journalists and activists, was on a documentary about labor rights, which the FKPPI accused of seeming too left-wing.

Numerous academics, journalists, and activists have spoken out against the “excessive” use of force. Even President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who instructed law enforcement to enforce the laws against the use of communist imagery in May, has said that the crackdowns have been too excessive. National Police Chief Badrodin Haiti also urged security officials to soften up. While the crackdowns have slightly subsided as of early June, the “red scare” has not. On June 3, anti-communist protests, organized by hardline Islamic and nationalist organizations took place at Jakarta’s National Monument. This raises the question: what led to the sudden public and security anxiety on communism?

Jokowi and the Military

Jokowi came to power with weak political capital. His administration has faced frequent attempts by political parties to block his every move, routine images of fights in his cabinet, and public subordination to his political patron, former President Megawati Sukarnoputri. The military, with its powerful territorial command and famed ability to deliver swift action, seemed like an attractive alternative as a power base. The military already had considerable social influence through the operation of its 13 territorial commands, which operate all the way down to the village level. This allows them to get involved in community-building initiatives, which has the added effect of improving their public image.

A May 2015 report by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict worryingly points out how Indonesia’s military is expanding its influence deeper into the realms of domestic affairs and security. For instance, the military has already signed dozens of memoranda of understandings with various civilian agencies in the past two years. They are a key part of Jokowi’s plan to achieve food self-sufficiency by 2017, which empowers the military to set up structures for land cultivation and oversee crop yields. The military is also cooperating with local governments to launch community projects that empower locals, but also has the added objective of collecting information and bolstering nationalism. They have also joined Jokowi’s fight against drugs and terrorism, areas that were previously reserved for the police. Now, the military is also involved in the crackdowns on leftist symbolism.

Ryacudu, whose appointment was mired with controversy, also announced the military’s intention to establish 900 training centers by early 2018 for a civilian defense corps, which has the purpose of defending the country against “proxy wars” waged by communists, radical militants, homosexuals, and other “foreign influences.” The training centers will teach millions of students, civil servants, and others about survival skills and civic education. What is perhaps most worrying about the military’s return to public life is that it is likely to limit the progress to shed light on a long list of past human rights abuses.

Revisiting the 1965-66 Killings

The crackdowns on suspected communist materials coincided with Jokowi’s order for an investigation into the 1965-66 killings. In April, an historic symposium on the September 30, 1965 coup attempt and its aftermath was held in Jakarta and gathered scholars, activists, political figures, and military officials. The event was jointly sponsored by a number of groups, including military officials. Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Luhut Panjaitan (a former army general himself) supports the forum, though he made it clear to participants that the government was not going to offer an apology to the victims of the 1965-66 killings. Nonetheless, he announced that the government will form a team to investigate and excavate mass graves. Panjaitan’s support for the investigation is in deep contrast to that of Rycadu, who decried the symposium. Rather, he argued that there was no need to remember “forgotten parts” of history.

In early May, rumors began spreading around that a communist revolt was imminent. Even a number of prominent retired generals have confirmed that these speculations are genuine. However, it is difficult to see communism gaining much traction in a country where the ideology is already universally panned. History textbooks highlight communism’s failed war with the nationalists. Under the Suharto regime, state-controlled television annually played a screening of Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI (Treachery of the G30S/PKI) to remind the public about the communist killings of six respected generals. The Suharto government has succeeded in eliminating any semblance of communism within the Indonesian people’s psyche to the extent that a communist rebellion is unfathomable.

Indonesia’s recent red scare is nothing more than the security establishment’s attempt to steer the conversation away from reconciliation on the 1965-66 killings. There is genuine anxiety about the possibility that the perpetrators of the 1965-66 killings may be held accountable. Indeed, most of the senior security officials who led the campaigns in the 1960s are long dead. However, some perpetrators, many of whom have flaunted their kill lists (as seen in the Oscar-nominated documentary, Act of Killing), are still around and fear for their freedoms. Additionally, security officials may fear that once an investigation on the 1965-66 killings have been conducted, the public may demand investigations on more recent human rights abuses, such as the 1989 Talangsari Massacre, 1998 Jakarta riots, and killings in Aceh and Papua. Most of the senior perpetrators of these events or conflicts are still alive today and continue to wield some level of political influence.

Hardliners within the military are responding to public demands for an investigation over the 1965-66 killings with excessive crackdowns on communist imagery and ideology. Constant reminders by senior military officials about communism’s continued ban in Indonesia are meant to silence those who seek to propagate information about the killings. They have reminded the Indonesian people about the sanctity of Pancasila (Indonesia’s state ideology) and the threats that communism had posed to the Indonesian state’s stability in the past. On the other hand, the anti-communist protests and campaigns, which are led by organizations associated with the military, are aimed at the government. The FKPPI is working together with hard-line Islamic groups, including the notorious Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI), to confront the government about its decision to deal with the 1965-66 killings. It’s also done to remind more liberal-minded security officials (former or serving), such as Luhut Panjaitan and Agus Widjojo (organizer of the symposium), that they risk losing their influence in the military if they side with Jokowi. This is perhaps said perfectly by former General Kivlan Zen to Panjaitan that “he [Luhut] would have betrayed his seniors [in the military]” if he continues forward with the investigation.

The Indonesian military is more influential than it has ever been since its political influence was lessened in 2004. Their response to the Indonesian government’s decision to investigate the killings is proof that some of its members are not only able to mobilize forces to quickly campaign against the government, but that their extended security role allows them to intimidate the Indonesian people. There are two victims in this whole story: the victims of the 1965-66 killings and other human rights abuses, whose perpetrators are unlikely to be put to justice anytime soon, and the rest of the Indonesian people, whose civil liberties have been further curtailed.

Gatra Priyandita is a PhD candidate at the School of Culture, History, and Language at the Australian National University. His research focuses on Indonesian public diplomacy and domestic politics in the post-Suharto era.