Domestic mass murder on a large scale is always the work of the state, at the hands of its own soldiery,
police and gangsters, and/or ideological mobilization of allied civilian groups.
The worst cases in the
post-World War II era – Guatemala, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Sudan, Bosnia, Rwanda, Liberia, China, East
Pakistan, East Timor, and Indonesia – show much the same bloody manipulations.
It is equally the case that the killer regimes do not announce publicly the huge numbers killed, and rarely
boast about the massacres, let alone the tortures that usually accompany them. They like to create a set
of public euphemisms endlessly circulated through state-controlled mass media.
In the age of the United Nations, to which almost all nation-states belong, in the time of Amnesty
International and its uncountable NGO children and grandchildren, in the epoch of globalization and
the Internet, there are naturally worries about “face”, interventions, embargoes, ostracism, and UN-ish
investigations. No less important are domestic considerations.
National militaries are supposed heroically to defend the nation against foreign enemies, not
slaughter their fellow-citizens. Police are supposed to uphold the law. Above all, there is need for
political “stability”, one element of which is that killing should not get out of control, and that amateur
civilian killers should be quietly assured that “it’s over” and that no one will be punished.
But every norm has its exceptions. In the article that follows below, readers are invited to reflect on
Joshua Oppenheimer’s two recent sensational films about organized gangsters in and around the city
of Medan (in northeastern Sumatra) who played a key, but only local, role in the vast anti-communist
murders in Indonesia in the last months of 1965. [The two films are Jagal – its English title The Act of
Killing – and Sungai Ular, or River of Snakes]
Almost 50 years later, they happily boast about their killings, with the grimmest details, and relish
their complete immunity from any punishment. They are also happy to collaborate with Oppenheimer,
contribute to his films, create bizarre reenactments of 1965, and do not hesitate to dress up their
underlings to act as communists (male and female). The problem is to explain why Medan was the scene
of the exception, within the larger framework of Indonesian politics from the late colonial period to the
The final irony is that Joshua’s (and the gangster’s) film is banned in Indonesia – that is to say, by Jakarta.
It is worth mentioning that in the early years after Suharto’s fall from power in 1998 (remembered as
the time of Reform) censorship of publications almost disappeared. Long-forbidden works by dead
communists – going back as far as the 1920s – were resurrected. Accounts by communist survivors
of their suffering in Suharto’s gulag circulated without being banned. A flood of conflicting analyses
of “what really happened in 1965” sold well, especially if they claimed that the secret masterminds of
the Gerakan 30 September were Suharto, the CIA, or MI-5.
It seems that the post-Suharto authorities assumed that the masses were not readers, and the
distribution of the books by the market would depend on the character of regional readers (say, plenty
in Java, very few in Medan). TV and the cinema were another story, since they appealed to large nonreading publics. Controversial films could arouse old and new hatreds and seriously threaten “stability”.
Typically, the notorious Suharto-era film about Gerakan 30 September – or G30S – year after year forced
on schoolchildren, was now silently taken out of circulation.
There is a jolting moment in Jean Rouch’s famous “anthropological” film Moi, Un Noir, about a small,
attractive group of young males from then French colonial Niger trying to find work in the more
prosperous, but still French colonial, Cote d’Ivoire. We see them periodically at work, but most of
the film shows them at leisure, drinking, joking, hooking up with women, so that the atmosphere is
generally lively and cheerful.
But toward the end, we find the main character, who calls himself Edward G Robinson (parallel to
a friend who names himself Lenny Caution), walking with a sidekick and an invisible Rouch along a
riverside levee. Quite suddenly he starts to re-enact for the camera an ugly scene from his real or
He was among the many francophone Africans who were sent as colonial cannon fodder to fight for
France against the Ho Chi Minh-led Viet Minh – before the fall of Dien Bien Phu. He seems to enjoy
replaying his bloody killing of captured Vietnamese. His sidekick pays no attention, making us realize
that he has seen this shtick many times and knows it by heart. So the brief show is meant for Rouch and
Once the scene is over, and the cheerful tone resumes, the viewer is immediately assaulted by the
obvious doubts and questions. Why did Rouch include this short scene in an otherwise friendly film? Did
Oumarou Ganda aka Edward G Robinson, who was Rouch’s main collaborator, insist upon it? Why did
the African perform this way, quite suddenly? Did he really do what he re-enacted?
Why the sudden turn from jokes to horror – and back? Did Rouch intend to situate the Niger boys of
that generation in the large framework of the ferocious decline and fall of France’s empire? Was Gonda
releasing a kind of frustration about his life, and resentment of the French, perhaps even of his patron
and friend, the famous Rouch?
When I watched the film, some years ago, it occurred to me that the crucial motif to think about was
simply impunity. Like everyone else involved in France’s huge, disastrous military endeavor to recover
colonial Indochina between 1946 and 1954, the young African soldier could not be punished for “acts
of war”, no matter how sadistic and in contravention of the Geneva Convention. He would always be a
hero of a very small sort thanks to this impunity.
At the same time, impunity is nothing without repetitive, boastful demonstration to different audiences.
Drifting, poor, irregularly employed, Ganda takes on the menacing “Don’t mess with me, motherfucker!”
persona of Edward G Robinson, the master actor of gangsters in the Hollywood of that era – who usually
dies at the end of each film, but comes back as saturninely alive as ever in the next. But the film goes
on to show the local hollowness of the impunity. In French Côte d”Ivoire, the colonial authorities put
one of Ganda’s comrades into jail, and clearly would not hesitate to nab the hero of Vietnam if he broke
the local laws. At the end, he is beaten up by a large drunken Portuguese sailor in a quarrel over a
Always somewhere in the back of my mind, this episode tentatively offers me a way to think about
Rouch-fan Joshua Oppenheimer’s extraordinary films about the massacres of communists in Indonesia
in 1965-66, and their next-century reenactment before the camera. One of these films – Sungai Ular, or
River of Snakes – shows (to me at least) a connection between the situations of Rouch and Joshua, as
well as deep differences. The grisly re-enactment of the torture and murder of doomed communists on
the bank of this river, half a century after they happened, is also about impunity and boastfulness.
The two starring elderly brutes take the young man from anti-communist USA as more or less on their
side, just as Edward G Robinson took Rouch as a sympathetic anti-colonial Frenchman. But they also
evince a kind of “Don’t mess with me, motherfucker!” attitude which they regularly practice for various
other local audiences. They are not suspicious of Joshua’s motives, and Joshua gets his own immunity
from this guilelessness and also from inviting them and other killers to participate as they wish in the
film-work, not merely as actors, but also as, up to a point, film-makers.
Another tie between the films is, as we shall see later on, the collaborators’ fascination with Hollywood.
This time not Edward G Robinson, outlaw, but Rambo and the Duke, patriots.
Yet Joshua’s performing killers do not have their exact counterparts – so I think – in other parts of
Indonesia; for example, East and Central Java, as well as Bali, provinces where the numbers of those
barbarously tortured and murdered were far higher than in North Sumatra where the serpentine river
flows. The question is why? In what immediately follows, I will try to offer a historical explanation that
deals with the national-level and official version of 1965 and its commemorative aftermath, and at
the same time contrast North Sumatra with East Java, which can be thought of as the most striking
October l, 1965 – In the wee hours of that Jakarta morning, six important generals were murdered by
soldiers and NCOs belonging to president Sukarno’s elite guards, the Tjakrabirawa Regiment. At 7 a.m.,
a military group calling itself the September 30th Movement announced over the national radio that it
had taken action to forestall a coup to overthrow Sukarno four days later, on Armed Forces Day. The
deaths of the generals were not mentioned.
A few hours later, two key announcements followed. One declared that in place of the existing cabinet,
a large Revolutionary Council would temporarily take power for protection of the president. Its
membership was a weird mixture of left and rightwing civilians and military men, but also included the
leadership of the September 30th Movement: one general, one colonel, one lieutenant-colonel, and two
or three lower down.
The second announcement was even stranger. The Movement said that lower military ranks were
enraged by the corruption and sexual license within the military high command, which also neglected
the poverty of the rank and file. Therefore, all ranks above that of lieutenant-colonel were abolished,
while all supporters of the Movement would be promoted two ranks. A spectacular – and stupid –
mutiny, in effect, creating a crisis of solidarity among clique-ridden generals and colonels.
The Movement did not last long. After 3 p.m. it went off the air, to be replaced at 7 p.m. by
proclamations in the name of General Suharto, commander of the army’s elite Strategic Forces, who,
curiously enough, was not a target of the Movement. By midnight, the mutiny had been crushed, and its
leaders scattered and on the hopeless run. The capital’s newspapers, except those of the military, were
closed down the next morning, and national TV, along with national radio, fell into Suharto’s hands.
The PKI (Partai Komunis Indonesia – the Indonesian Communist Party, Asia’s oldest) had made the fateful
decision once Indonesian Independence had been recognized by the Dutch colonialists and the rest of
the world (near the end of 1949) – to take the parliamentary road to power, shutting down a few small
guerrilla bands left over from the revolution of 1945-49. In the first national elections (1955), it was
already the fourth of the four huge parties that dominated parliament.
When provincial elections were held two years later in the densely populated and impoverished island
of Java, it secured the largest number of voters, but still less than 25%. After that, elections were not
held again. The primary reason for this was the government’s decision in the spring of 1957 to declare
nation-wide martial law in the face of warlord-ism, regional discontent, and rising, fanatical anticommunism in the so-called Outer Islands, most significantly in Sumatra and Sulawesi.
The situation deteriorated till the point that in February 1958 a civil war broke out between the now
military-dominated government in Jakarta and its Sumatran competition, the PRRI, or Revolutionary
Government of the Republic, led by a mixture of national-level “modernist” Muslim politicians, regional
warlords, and many of the local inhabitants. A sister-rebellion in Sulawesi soon joined the Sumatrans.
The rebellion, in spite of being heavily supported by the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency, was
rather quickly crushed by mostly Javanese troops loyal to the High Command, ironically with help from
both the Pentagon and Moscow.
By the time President Sukarno repealed Martial Law in May 1963, the army had entrenched itself in
national power and refused to tolerate any further nation-wide elections on grounds of “national
security”. But, protected by Sukarno, who used it to counterbalance the dangerous anti-communist
army leadership, the PKI rapidly expanded its popular support by putting its energies into its mass
organizations, rather than the parliamentary party. By early 1965, it was the largest communist party in
the world outside the communist bloc, with over 3 million members, and perhaps 18 million followers
in its mass organizations: for women, students, intellectuals, peasants, agricultural laborers, workers,
fisher folk, youths, artists and so on. (It was far better organized and disciplined than its political-party
The shift had momentous consequences. Electoral politics are punctuated in time from this election
to the next; but mass organization politics are tensely ceaseless, day in day out, especially when no
elections are foreseeable. In the early 1960s Indonesia became increasingly polarized between right and
A major factor was economic decline and an inflation that eventually became beyond control. People
on fixed salaries and pensions, mostly civil servants, tried to maintain their standards of living by
corruption, embezzlement, and investing in farm land. This last not only put pressure on land-hungry
small farmers, tenants, and rural laborers, but clashed with the PKI’s attempts to enforce a weak land
reform law, fiercely resisted by landowners old and new.
Where such landowners were respected ulamas and rich hajis, resistance was often couched in terms
of religion versus atheism. Many of them shrewdly donated surplus hectares to mosques as unalienable
wakaf property, and sat on the boards administering these gifts. Now religious, no longer personal
private properties, they were difficult for the PKI to attack, since even poor and land hungry Muslims
would come militantly to their mosques’ defense.
1a = Source: CIA
1b = General Suharto front left, 1965. (New York Times)
1c = Rural Medan today (Credit: Andre Vltchek)