Skip to comments.Survivors detail Suharto-era massacres
Posted on 01/27/2008 3:11:35 PM PST by NormsRevenge
BLITAR, Indonesia - Hiding out in the dense, humid jungle, Markus Talam watched Indonesian soldiers herd manacled prisoners from trucks, line them up and mow them down with round after round of automatic weapons fire.
It was 1968, and the killings were part of a final offensive by forces under Gen. Suharto to wipe out the communist party and secure his position as leader of Indonesia, now the world's most populous Muslim nation.
"They gunned them down and dumped their bodies in a mass grave dug by other prisoners. I remember the sound of the guns clearly: tat-tat, tat-tat, tat-tat ... over and over again," said Talam, 68, who was later jailed for 10 years after being named a leftist sympathizer.
Suharto, who died on Sunday at a Jakarta hospital, seized control of the military in 1965 and ruled the country for 32 years, suppressing dissent with force and supported by an American government at the height of the Cold War.
Estimates for the number killed during his bloody rise to power from 1965 to 1968 range from a government figure of 78,000 to 1 million cited by U.S. historians Barbara Harff and Ted Robert Gurr, who have published books on Indonesia's history. It was the worst mass slaughter in Southeast Asia's modern history after the Khmer Rouge killing fields in Cambodia.
A frenzy of anti-communist violence stained rivers with blood and littered the countryside with the bodies of teachers, farmers and others.
"They used to dump the bodies here," recalled Surien, a 70-year-old woman who lived near a bay used as an execution ground. "People called it the beach of stinking corpses because of the smell."
The CIA provided lists of thousands of leftists, including trade union members, intellectuals and schoolteachers, many of whom were executed or sent to remote prisons.
Another 183,000 died due to killings, disappearances, hunger and illness during Indonesia's 1975-1999 occupation of East Timor, according to an East Timorese commission sanctioned by the U.N. Similar abuses left more than 100,000 dead in West Papua, according a local human rights group. Another 15,000 died during a 29-year separatist rebellion in Aceh province.
In recent interviews around the city of Blitar, a former communist stronghold, survivors of the atrocities recounted a life on the run, living in caves, being beaten and beheadings of other captives.a
"I am disappointed. I saw great cruelties and am lucky I am not dead," said Talam, whose simple two-room home overlooks a valley dotted with overgrown mass graves.
Dragging on a clove-cigarette with trembling hands, he described how he was detained by police but escaped. He stumbled across dead bodies in shallow graves and slept in dank caves with hundreds of others, eating what the jungle had to offer for 50 days, until being picked up.
Talam, a former member of a left-wing union for park rangers, said he was tortured and beaten repeatedly during interrogations while detained on remote Buru island, where about 12,000 political prisoners were held, 1,100 miles east of the capital, Jakarta. "Why has no one been put on trial?" he asked.
In fact, the dark era remains largely unknown to many Indonesians. Those believed responsible still wield influence in politics and the courts. Details of the communist purge are banned from school books, and the military has blocked efforts by relatives to unearth mass graves.
Near Blitar, a prominent monument and museum honors the crushing of the communist threat, and the Communist Party is still banned in Indonesia today.
There is no official record of the shootings Talam said he witnessed by the Indonesian army near Blitar, which lies 310 miles east of Jakarta.
Though Suharto was swept from power in a 1998 pro-democracy uprising in this nation of 235 million people, no one has ever been tried for the bloodletting, in part because some of Suharto's former generals remain in powerful posts today.
"One of the enduring legacies of Suharto's regime has been the culture of impunity," said Brad Adams, the head of Human Rights Watch Asia.
Moreover, public interest in reviving a turbulent past is muted in the largely poor country, where people are more concerned with day-to-day survival, said Putmuinah, an 80-year-old former communist city council member in Blitar.
"The ones who should be held accountable for those crimes are Suharto, his government and his regime," she said. "Suharto ordered the elimination of communists and left-wing sympathizers."
Putmuinah hid in a cave south of Blitar before being picked up and detained for 10 years. "They robbed me of the opportunity to raise my seven children," she said.
"They beheaded many of us because we were members of the union for women," she added. "I was spared torture because I knew the commander who arrested me."
Suharto's regime capitalized on existing tensions between Muslims and atheist communists, inciting the nation's powerful Islamic groups to join the purge.
Hasyim Asyhari, 67, a former member of a conservative Sunni Islamic youth group in the Blitar region, said the group received army orders to identify, hunt down and kill communists.
He said he is proud of saving the nation from communist domination and helping "turn communist sympathizers into good Muslims."
"We used farm tools, daggers and clubs" to kill prisoners, Asyhari said in an interview. "I followed the orders of the government."
This was the setting for “The Year of Living Dangerously,” starring Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver.
Soeharto came to power when the country was in a mess, partly because of the communists influence during the time of his predecessor, Soekarno. Unlike Polpot or Hitler, I don’t think Soeharto mastermind all the killing of the communists in 1960s, although for sure he didn’t prevent it from happening.
And how many MORE would have died if Indonesia was under communist control? Those numbers pale with the 1/3 of the total population of Cambodia that was killed under Pol Pot's communist regime or under Stalin's iron control...
Curious as to how the article shows the muslims and communists in a good light but the CIA as bad.
In a way, the actions against the communists in Indoneasia mirrors what went on in Chile and several other nations and the US’s reaction to it. While massacering innocent unarmed civilians is inherrently wrong, there was a Cold War going on. If the communists in these countries had been unimpeded, they probably would have ensured equal if not worse tragedies to say nothing of the end result of the Cold War.
I’ve been asking myself a question since reading this article...
What is so horribly wrong with that was done? There is no peaceful coexistence with communists. They make the fight a true either/or.
The only real options available when confronted with an implacable enemy is to kill them or submit to them. Jailing them doesn’t do squat. You’ve got to release them sometime, and even if jailed for the rest of their lives, they end up as indoctrinators of their fellow inmates and inspiration to those still unjailed.
What other options are there when opposed by an openly hostile ideology that demands your culture’s obliteration and replacement?
The biggest problem here is that Suharto didn’t do these things to defend liberty and democracy.
All his people suffered while he prospered
ET? AP does not mention it because the US didn’t care. Duh.
On 4 or 5 December, while still in Beijing, Kissinger received a cable from the State Department suggesting that the Indonesians had “plans” to invade East Timor.(25) Thus, Ford or Kissinger could not have been too surprised when, in the middle of a discussion of guerrilla movements in Thailand and Malaysia, Suharto suddenly brought up East Timor. Suharto noted that while Indonesia has no territorial ambitions, Fretilin has not cooperated with negotiations and has declared its independence unilaterally. The current situation, he said, will prolong the suffering of the refugees and increase instability in the area. Suharto then assured the Americans that the four other parties favor integration, with the apparent implication that a mere majority among the parties to the conflictabsent a popular referendumalone constituted an act of self-determination. We want your understanding, Suharto continued, if we deem it necessary to take rapid or drastic action.
Ford and Kissinger took great pains to assure Suharto that they would not oppose the invasion. Ford was unambiguous: We will understand and will not press you on the issue. We understand the problem and the intentions you have. Kissinger did indeed stress that the use of US-made arms could create problems, but then added that, It depends on how we construe it; whether it is in self defense or is a foreign operation. Thus, Kissingers concern was not about whether U.S. arms would be used offensivelyand hence illegallybut whether the act would actually be interpreted as sucha process he clearly intended to manipulate.(26) In any case, Kissinger added: It is important that whatever you do succeeds quickly.
Indeed, timing and damage control were very important to the Americans, as Kissinger told Suharto: We would be able to influence the reaction in America if whatever happens happens after we return. . . If you have made plans, we will do our best to keep everyone quiet until the President returns home. Kissinger also asked Suharto if he anticipated a long guerilla war, apparently aware that a quick military success would be easier to spin than a long campaign. Suharto acknowledged that there “will probably be a small guerilla war” but he was cagey enough not to predict its duration. Nevertheless, his military colleagues were optimistic; as one of the architects of Indonesian policy, General Ali Murtopo explained to a U.S. scholar some months before the invasion, “the whole business will be settled in three weeks.”(27)
“It just calls them East Timorese. The AP never told us that when the Muslims were killing the Catholics. And, they dont tell us now.”
Sorry I don’t buy that. Everyone knows that Islam is the Religion of Peace.
I am not defending Suharto’s human rights record but I AM questioning the bias of the article. Just about every communist government killed a large amount of their citizens to maintain control. In fact, I don’t think I ever heard of ANY communist government that respected human rights... Have you?
I just dont want to call this guy as a saint.
In light of what the communists have done in other lands, Suharto made a choice - them or us. He did what he had to do. Trying to accommodate the communists would never have worked.
The nature of the Communist war led ultimately to the "dirty wars" of South America and the Indonesian iteration of the war was the same but at Asian levels of mechanical savagery. In a less than modern country the communists had to be rooted out totally or they would prevail and slaughter their own enemies and perceived enemies.
The Indonesian events of 1968 were a significant reason that the Dominoes of 1975 did not fall beyond Indochina. It does not surprise me that the CIA might have been involved. America was the principle stronghold of resistance to Communism and the one country seriously opposing the Soviets.
It began as a purge of Communists and turned into an ethnic cleansing of Overseas Chinese. The Communists were mostly Chinese. Sukarno had used the Communists to hold power and would have ultimately lost Indonesia to them if he had continued to rule. Indonesia in 1968 was very much part of the Viet Nam War.
It is probably pretty accurate but from the viewpoint of the Communists-as-victims. It went down the way things go down in Asia. Methods and outlook have not changed much since Attila. The Human Wave attack in Korea were the Huns or the Mongols with rifles.
That’s true. In 1968, Indonesia’s population was over a hundred million. A Pol Pot or Ho Chi Minh-style ‘remaking’ of the society would have cost-at an absolute minimum-ten times the figure of one million that is frequently cited.
And that figure, to me, is very suspect. Remember how for years the figure of 15,000 dead was given for Pinochet’s takeover? Only after his regime left power was the true figure available-around 3,300 for his entire 16 years of rule. Most were killed in the first three weeks, and many were hardly the starry-eyed idealists portrayed by the left. Chile’s army fought pitched battles against marxist militias in the streets of Santiago.
Hopefully, a full airing will one day be given for Indonesia’s dark year.
We called it a Cold War but it was quite hot in many places. In reporting it things were all compartmentalized and it was made to appear as different local actions, but it was all the same war, from Argentina to Ethiopia to Indonesia and Vietnam.
Indonesia as a whole propspered under Soeharto, especially when you compared it with Soekarno's period. Yes, he and his family prospered more than others.
Don’t forget Korea on that list of hot cold warism.
and Mozambique and Angola and Peru and China and Quemoy and Burma and Algeria and... and... and...
“Another 186,xxx died due to killings.” Makes sense.
Their is no doubt that the communists in Indonesia were backed by Russian and China. Killing off the communists and back Soeharto gave Indonesia a whole new direction and opened it to US and the west and drove out the Soviets.
This was part of the containment and reversal strategy in Asia.
I started working with Indonesian business’s in 1971 while based in Asia and helped to organize and develop one of the biggest private companies there. That company now has hundreds of “middle class” employees.
and... and... and...
For a Cold War, it had a lot of hot fronts.
The sad thing that is overlooked in the discussion of Suharto is how his victory over Indonesian Communism rendered the whole Vietnam war so goddammed unnecessary.
The ‘Domino Theory’ was based on the assumption that if Vietnam fell then so would Thailand and Malaysia and then the Communists would get what they really wanted; Indonesia. Indonesia was the target of the Japanese in the Second World War and it was the target for the Communists. With its vast reserves of oil, rubber, tin, copper, bauxite, gold etc it was the jewel in the crown.
In 1965 Indonesia had the third largest Communists party in the world and they looked set to take over the country from the shambolic rule of Sukarno. But then Suharto handed their asses to them on a plate and in three months without using a single US soldier he wiped out the Communists and utterly destroyed them. After that Indonesia was firmly anchored in the western sphere of influence.
With Indonesia secure, and Malaysia and Singapore likewise under the Brits and Australia in the south and an American supported Philippines there was no need to worry about Indo-China, if they fell to Communism it would be no great loss to the world, as indeed happened but instead 55,000 young Americans were to die in a pointless war and America was to suffer a defeat from which it has still not fully recovered.
The one strategic benefit of the Vietnam War was sucking the USSR into Afghanistan. That was the Big Domino.
Indonesia’s dark year shut the lights off for the USSR and China in Indonesia.
Indonesia was, indeed, the prize for that whole part of the world. Control of Indonesia would have given the Communists control of the major part of world sea traffic including oil transport, as well as another large source of oil.
You are comparing apples to oranges here. Nobody on this board would say Suharto was a "saint."
The truth was Suharto used brutal methods to eradicate the communists threat.
The only other option for the people would be total capitulation to the communists. Then we would be talking about this thirty some years later about how MILLIONS of people died...
Ethic Chinese disguise their roots with weird names like Soeryadjaya to blend in with their dangerous hosts.
Economics was a major part of it. Politics played its part, too. The Communists tried to organize a coup and the reaction did not stop with the dead and captured actors. It was an excuse to capture the Chinese money and eliminate them from positions of power and influence, social as well as political. Henry VIII’s move against the Catholic Mmonasteries and Catholics generally came from the same desires. The Catholics controlled much of the wealth in Britain and Henry was broke. That move also served to detach Britain from the Continent. Suharto detached Indonesia from the Communist enterprise while getting control the resources. There is not much new under the Sun.
All his people suffered while he prospered
Which leads to the question, what were the conditions that recruited people to the communists?
Oh they were worse. much worse.
No doubt about it.
The Indonesian communists were worse than Suharto, I presume you mean. How so? Did they kill as many as Suharto did?
But back to my question, what were the conditions that made the Communists attractive to so many poor Indonesians?
I mean the conditions were bad under Sukarno.
That lead to the popularism of communism.
Suharto didn’t really alleviate the oppression he just rounded up the rabble rousers and killed them.
Megawati Sukarnoputri finally brought some democracy to the place, though there are so many poor with no opportunity’s there it is staggering.
You might want to ask yourself what still makes communism so attractive to so many mindless idiots here in the US.
Rational reasoning is not always required or even desired. Fairy tales and make believe are a huge portion of the communist pipe dream. That, and appealing directly to the most base and destructive hatred of envy that can reside in men’s souls.
Of course, among the elites of the world, there’s ever only been two options since the fall of the aristocracy.
Everything must either be fascism or communism. The uniquely evil American thing is never even considered as a possibility.
“I mean the conditions were bad under Sukarno.”
I think of Sukarno as being a Robert Mugabe type leader, a man who fought for his people’s independence but who then went on to bankrupt his country in pursuit of his own egomania.
Or you can find and eliminate the factor which makes them your implacable enemy.
The radical element is supported by Saudi oil money. We started really having problems with them once Saudi money started funding radical madrassahs and radical imams. The radical mosques would dry up and blow away if they had to get their funding from people who needed to actually work for a living
I think the communists also frequently exploit real injustices. For example, in South Vietnam, the US kept urging the government there to implement land reform, also a communist cause.
In Indonesia during Suharto's time, I wonder what injustices, like feudal land arrangements perhaps, the communists exploited.
It was actually ‘land reform’ (as I recall many liberals called Ho Chi Minh an “agricultural reformist”, so much nicer than “Communist” don’t you think?) that caused the problems for the Communists in the first place.
Thinking they were on the verge of victory under Sukarno’s rule they started “actions” in the villages, seizing the lands belonging to “landlords” or “capitalists”, in effect anyone with a half decent landholding saw their property being stolen by cadres sent down from Jakarta. Very quickly people began to resist the Communists, by 1965 there were extensive networks of anti-Communist resistance fighting the land grabs by the Reds.
Following the abortive coup of September 1965 the Army under Suharto was able to mobilise these anti-Communist forces and the Communists were utterly routed.
It was not the army but local people who exterminated the Communists, local people very unhappy about having their land stolen by political apparatchiks.
I think "up to a million" is pretty damned bad. If that's the best you can do.....
FWIW, I had a friend in college who is Indonesian of Chinese descent. He remembers being hidden under the floorboards of his house several times, when his parents thought Suharto's thugs were coming.
They were lucky enough to be quite wealthy, and survived because they lived in a walled compound, and had a well-armed private army to protect them.
A hell of a lot of other folks weren't so lucky. They weren't communists, but they were Chinese.
Same as always ... horrible exploitation by rich landowners, and vast political corruption, and violence used to keep the uppity ones down. We all know that Communism relies on lies and oppression, but flourishes because communists aren't the first in the area to use lies, corruption, and oppression.
Communism works because it exploits legitimate grievances. That's why it's popular in the poorer areas of Mexico, for example.
Forgive me for my ignorance, but why was Suharto targeting the ethnic Chinese? Were they grouped with the Communists?
Communism was a convenient excuse -- the real issues appear to be more class- and ethnically-based. There's a lot of backstory, including racial tensions and Indonesia's colonial history.
Wiki offers the following discussion on Chinese Indonesians. As always, there were a lot of reasons, not least of which was that the Chinese were fairly dominant in the Indonesian economy.
Yeah, that’d work. Like it takes so many millions of petro dollars to wire up a suicide jacket.
It’s the ideology that breeds the malcontents. Life is always about dealing with injustice. There will never be a fully and completely just and equal society or culture or community.
Only those living on their knees with their sucks grafted to the propaganda spigot of the socialist utopianists swallow that kind of silliness.
The Chinese did suffer disproportionately under the anti-Communist purges but unfortunately they were disproportionately represented in the Communist party, as they were in Malaya a decade earlier. It was very foolish for such an industrious hardworking people to get invoved with such an ideology but perhaps they thought in a Communist society aligned with China they might get a fairer deal. Sad that as usual they became the scapegoats for legitimate anger as they were in 1998, the Chinese are the Jews of SE Asia. I am glad to say their position is much better nowadays and hopefully that will continue.
It wasn’t only the Chinese who were victims however, by the time Suharto came to power there was a nascent multi-sided civil war already raging in central and east Java and in Bali. Chinese, Balinese, Madurese, Javanese, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, rural, urban, Communist, Islamist etc they were all at each other’s throats due to Sukarno’s misrule.
Suharto and the Army exploited this chaos and united the disparate groups to fight the Communists, it was an awful time but once order was restored Indonesia had a much more peaceful and prosperous future compared to the nightmare a Communist takeover would have been.