In 1957, President Sukarno precipitated an increasingly bitter political standoff, suspending parliamentary rule. He installed a more authoritarian system of “Guided Democracy” into a formulation he called NASAKOM—nationalism, religion and communism—in which none of the three competing groups that these ideologies represented would prevail. By then, all groups were aware that Sukarno’s health was in decline and to many observers it appeared that the main beneficiary of “Guided Democracy” was the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).[i] Two years before, in the 1955 first free post-colonial elections, PKI won 16.4% of the national vote and was the 4th largest party, with an estimated 3 million members and 20 million affiliates.[ii]
In early 1965, Sukarno announced that he backed arming and training the workers and peasants to make up a “Fifth Force,” responsible to him personally. PKI’s energetic efforts to recruit support throughout society on a wide variety of issues won itself enemies among the military, the PNI, Muslim and Hindu groups. The army also feared a “shadow war” with the Communists, as sympathizers, agents and double agents were placed in key positions. The army did not know how far the Communist penetration of government institutions had gone.[iii]
An aborted coup in October 1965 was blamed on the PKI and prompted elements in the Indonesian military, led by then General Suharto, to a purge of the PKI across the country.[iv] In most areas, the killings started with an influx of anti-Communist troops from the outside. Knowledge that the armed forces sanctioned the killing of Communists was enough to set off massacres in some areas. The military often supplied weapons and rudimentary training to anti-Communist vigilantes. The army and vigilantes organized raids on houses and villages suspected of harboring PKI members.
Typically, the victims were attacked at night using weapons like the parang (the single-bladed machetes used by Indonesian peasants, or shot. At times bodies were mutilated. Victims were often detained for weeks or months before being secretly killed. Attackers most commonly referred to “black lists” to identify victims. In some cases entire communities were killed. Victims were strikingly passive and offered little resistance, possibly in the hope that this would prove that the PKI had not been involved in the Jakarta coup. Only in Central Java where PKI was strongest were there attempts by PKI to set up stockades and defend Communist villages and, after most of the killings ended, PKI remnants tried to maintain a guerrilla base in East Java—but these efforts were suppressed.
The violence was perpetrated mostly by anti-Communist army units, civilian vigilantes who were mainly drawn from religious political parties and the Indonesian Nationalist Party PNI. The violence was organized, purposive and systematic.[v] Violence aimed at the decisive destruction of the PKI and the ascendance of General Suharto’s military-dominated regime.
In thirty-nine articles and studies compiled in 1990 by Robert Cribb, a prominent expert on Indonesian history, the range of victims falls between 78,000 and 2,000,000. In official statements by the Kopkamtib (the Command for the Restoration of Security and Order of Indonesia), the dead are estimated at between 450,000-500,000. [vi]A scholarly consensus has settled on a figure of 400,000–500,000, but the correct figure, as noted by Cribb, could be half or twice as much.[vii]
Its goals largely met, the army oversaw a normalization of the situation. The purge forced all Indonesians to make an unambiguous choice for or against the PKI, and reinforced the military’s position once it was in power, demonstrating its willingness to kill on a vast scale and do so again if needed. The purge effectively put a lid on open, party politics (not lifted for more than 30 years).[viii] The PKI was formally dissolved on March 12, 1966 by then General Suharto after receiving “Super Semar” or President Sukarno’s order to preserve security and order. Former PKI members remain blacklisted from many occupations including government jobs.
We coded this case as ending through a process of normalization after the military achieved their goals as planned. We also note that it is characterized by mass popular violence to capture the element of vigilante violence behind the killing, even though much of the violence was instigated by the military.
Cribb, Robert. 2001. “Genocide in Indonesia 1965-6” Journal of Genocide Research 3:2, 219-239.
Cribb, Robert. 1997. “The Indonesian Massacres.” In Century of Genocide: Critical Essays and Eyewitness Accounts 3rd ed., edited by Samuel Totten and William S. Parsons, 235-262. New York: Routledge.
Douglas Kammen & Faizah Zakaria. 2012. “Detention in Mass Violence”, Critical Asian Studies, 44:3, 441-466.
[i] Cribb 2001, 228.
[ii] Cribb 1997.
[iii] Cribb 2001, 235.
[iv] Cribb 1997.
[v] Sudjatmiko1992, 183.
[vi] Sudjatmiko 1992, 4.
[vii] Cribb 2001, 233.
[viii] Cribb 2001, 235-236.