PAGE 2 / PART 2
Generally speaking, the collapse of the currency helped to create a pervasive atmosphere of fear,
uncertainty and anger.
These tendencies help to explain why the largest and worst massacres took place
in the country’s villages, where land was most seriously contested and the big-party mass organizations
were most active.
The fatal weakness of the PKI emerged from its decision to take the parliamentary road. It was not
an irrational decision, given the vast extent of the archipelagic country and its huge ethno-religious
diversity, as well as the party’s commitment to “national integrity”, and the menacing proximity of
America’s armadas and air power. But it meant that the party was mostly above ground, its members
well known nationally and locally, and it had no armed power of its own at all.
The PKI attempted to substitute for this weakness an increasingly harsh rhetoric, which did not add to
its real power and frightened its every-day enemies. Meantime, the anti- communist army leadership
increasingly backed, openly and surreptitiously, rightwing social, political, religious, and intellectual
organizations. Communism was banned within its own ranks.
Origins of the slaughter
Army leaders, helped by advice and half-concealed support from both the Pentagon and the CIA – then
reeling under heavy reverses in Vietnam – had long been looking for a justification for a mass destruction
of the party. Now the September 30th Movement and the murder of the six generals provided the
opening they awaited.
Almost immediately, the army-controlled media started a lurid and successful campaign to convince the
citizens that the Movement was simply a tool, manipulated behind the scenes by the party. By no means
was it an internal military mutiny. The communists were said to have been planning a vast extension of
the murders to the civilian population all over the country.
The army’s campaign began on October 3, when the bodies of three of the generals were exhumed
from a dry well in a remote part of the Air Force’s Jakarta base. (They had not been killed at home, but
kidnapped to this area and then shot dead). The media, using blurred and retouched photos of the
bodies, claimed that the victims had had their eyes gouged out and their genitals sliced off by sex-crazed
communist women. (Many years later, thanks to military carelessness, the post-mortems written up on
October 3 by experienced forensic doctors, and directed personally to Suharto that same day, came to
light. No missing eyeballs or genitals, just the lethal wounds caused by military guns.)
In a move that would have pleased Goebbels, the Movement’s full name was deleted in favor of
Gestapu (GErakan September TigA PUluh). No one noticed that the word order here is impossible in
the Indonesian language, but is syntactically perfect in English. Very few Indonesian generals then had
perfect English). On top of the hyperinflation, this cunning Big Lie propaganda had the desired effect:
massive anti-communist hysteria.
The coolly considered plan of Suharto and his henchmen for the physical and organizational destruction
of the party was based on the huge numbers of its members, affiliates, and supporters. To accomplish
this mission as rapidly as possible, army personnel were not enough; civilians had to be involved on
a large scale, with half-concealed military direction, financing, intelligence, transportation, and even
supply of weapons.
As secretive corporate bodies notionally devoted to external defense against foreign enemies, armies
almost never boast about mass murder (see the mendacious handling of the Rape of Nanking by the
Japanese military and the near-genocide of Armenians by the Turkish army). International scandal was
to be avoided as much as possible. National armies are not supposed to slaughter their fellow-citizens,
especially, as in the case of the PKI, if they are unarmed and put up very little resistance.
Who were the primary collaborators?
The two provinces with the highest number of victims, Muslim East Java and Hindu “Paradise Island”
Bali are exemplary. Both provinces were densely populated, ethnically quite homogeneous, and with
strong, conservative, traditionalist leaderships. The key thing to bear in mind when we come to consider
North Sumatra is they were longstanding strongholds of the two well-rooted legal, “national” political
parties, other than the PKI, both with very large organizational and popular bases. In East Java it was the
traditionalist, orthodox Muslim Nahdlatul Ulama, with its militant youthful-male affiliate Ansor. In Bali,
it was the PNI (National Party) led locally by landowners, Hindu priests, and members of the two upper
castes of Satrias and Brahmins.
Small Catholic and Protestant parties with their affiliates were also used in places where these religious
minorities were influential. (The large “modernist” Muslim party, Masjumi, fiercely anti-communist, was
organizationally unavailable, since it been banned and disbanded in 1959 for its role in the civil war of
1958-59, of which more later).
These civilians were not professional killers. Once the massacres were over, they “returned to ordinary
life” while the military went on killing large numbers of people in East Timor, Atjeh and Papua over the
final two decades of the Suharto dictatorship. Many of them, in an atmosphere of media-generated
hysteria, genuinely believed that “they will kill us if we don’t kill them first”. Needless to say, the military
had no interest in punishing any of those involved, but their immunity was also guaranteed in part by
the national institutions to which they were affiliated.
Aftermaths? During his brief presidency (October 1999-July 2001), Abdurrrahman Wahid, the
charismatic, “progressive”, and politically astute Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) leader, decided to ask
forgiveness from surviving ex-communists. He did so, however, not for individual killers, but for Ansor
in particular and the Nahdlatul Ulama in general. (No other national-level politician has followed his
More striking is the fact that over the past decade many young members of Ansor, born well after 1965,
began systematically to help communists who had managed to survive the massacres and years and
years of brutal imprisonment. Fairly recently, a reconciliation meeting was held in Jogjakarta between
NU and ex-communist women. Everything went well, until an elderly communist described in detail how
she had been raped and tortured by Ansor members. As she spoke, a young Muslim girl stood up, ashenfaced, and then fainted. Among the rapists and torturers she recognized her own father.
It is interesting to note that, quite early on, stories circulated widely that “amateur” killers had
mental breakdowns, went mad, or were haunted by terrifying dreams and fears of karmic retribution.
Otherwise, silence. Nothing to boast about in public or on TV, one might say.
Medan and North Sumatra: Local history
Joshua’s Medan/North Sumatra was and is very different. The strange, dull name already tells one
something. It simply means “field” or “open space”. It was the last major city begotten by Dutch
colonialism – beginning to rise only in the 1870s and 1880s, when the colonial authorities was realized
that the surrounding fertile and near-empty flatlands were perfect for the development of large-scale
agribusiness – tobacco, rubber, palm-oil, and coffee plantations. One of the earliest oilfields in the
colony was also discovered there just in time for the automotive revolution.
The area was thinly inhabited by Malays, related to the Malays across the narrow Straits of Malacca in
today’s Malaysia. In so far as there were any rulers at all, these were very small-scale and without much
armed power, even if some called them “sultan”. For their own reasons, the Dutch protected these
petty rulers and allowed them to share in the profits of the expanding economy; but the “sultans” had
to do what they were told.
Medan was created in the era when the Dutch colonial regime abandoned monopolistic mercantilism
and adopted British-enforced economic liberalism and open markets. Hence a motley crowd of investors
– Dutch, British, German, Austrian, American, and eventually Chinese and Japanese – poured in.
From the start, there was the huge problem of creating a submissive labor force. The local Malays were
too few and anyway not interested, and the large numbers of young Chinese imported from southeast
China and Malaya-Singapore soon proved too refractory and mobile to be long usable. The answer came
with the recruitment of indentured laborers from poverty-stricken, overpopulated Java.
It was a kind of modern slavery. Laborers were not only pitilessly exploited but had to sign contracts
preventing them from quitting and making sure that their “debts” to the companies that transferred
them to Sumatra could rarely be repaid – thanks largely to company stores. Thus, at least until the onset
of the Great Depression, Medan was a bit like a Gold Rush town.
One can watch the process by comparing the figures in the only two censuses the colonial rulers
ever held. 1920: 23,823 natives, 18,247 so-called foreign orientals (Chinese, Arabs, Indians)
3,128 “Europeans”, who included Japanese, for a total of 45,248. 1930: 41,270 natives, 31,021 foreign
Orientals, and 4,293 “Europeans”, for a total of 76, 544.
It was the only significant Indies city in which the native population had only a tiny 53% majority. (The
1930 total population was a bit smaller than the capital of today’s Solomon Islands; meantime Medan
has grown to over 2 million). From Minangkabau West Sumatra, Atjeh (Aceh), and Batak Tapanuli came
traders, newspaper and magazine publishers, reporters, ulamas, and Protestant small businessmen,
schoolteachers, preachers and low-level officials. Non-indentured Javanese moved in too, serving as
small and medium merchants, lawyers, newspapermen, teachers, foremen, accountants, nationalist
activists, and civil servants.
The Field was thus far more variegated than any other Indonesian city, including even the capital
Batavia (today’s Jakarta): Europeans of various kinds, Chinese, Americans, Indians, Japanese, Arabs,
Minangkabau, Bataks of many sorts, Atjehnese (Acehnese), Javanese and so on. None formed a
dominant majority. As a consequence, there was religious variegation too: Protestant British, Dutch,
Americans, Germans and Toba Bataks, Catholic Dutch and Austrians, Confucian and Buddhist Chinese,
Hindu and Muslim Indians, strong Muslims like the Minangkabau and Atjehnese, and syncretic HinduIslamic Javanese.
But of course, there was always a stable racial hierarchy, with Whites and “honorary-white” Japanese at
the top, Chinese, Arabs and Indians in the middle, and natives mostly at the bottom.
The Field also was notorious for its Wild West social mores – gambling and prostitution were
widespread, and handled by mainly Chinese taukes and a mixed ethno-racial rag-bag of thugs. (To
get a nice picture of Medan at that time, one can profitably read the final, confessional chapter of
Mangaradja Onggang Parlindungan’s weird masterpiece, Tuanku Rao). Opium was a state monopoly.
In early 1942, the Japanese military, having disposed of the British in Malaya and Singapore, took over
the Dutch East Indies in a few weeks.
Sumatran and Bornean oil was the military’s main interest, but the plantation economy also fell into
its hands. However, effective Allied bombing of Japanese shipping soon made the export-oriented
agribusiness economy collapse, leaving in place only domestic demand and the military’s local needs. In
North Sumatra, the indenture system broke down to make way for smallholder producers of foodstuffs
like rice, vegetables, tea, and coffee, as well as castor oil. To make this new wartime economy work, the
Japanese authorities opened the door to “illegal” occupiers of agribusiness lands, including a huge wave
of Protestant Toba Bataks from the interior.
After the American atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese state surrendered
unconditionally, but several months passed before the British and Dutch could bring colonial military
power back to the Indies, and in this vacuum the Republic of Indonesia was born on August 17, 1945.
In the exhilarating, chaotic first year of the revolution (1945-46), there were a number of regions
in Sumatra and Java which experienced vengeful revolutionary onslaughts on “collaborators” with
Japanese and Dutch, semi-feudal local aristocracies, abusive civil servants, and so on. The most chaotic
and bloodthirsty of these occurred – unsurprisingly – in North Sumatra. The local petty sultanates were
overthrown with ease; many of the Malay “aristocrats” were murdered and their wealth stolen or
confiscated. Indonesia’s greatest poet, Amir Hamzah, was among the victims.
Toba Bataks, Atjehnese, Simalungun Bataks, and Javanese seized Japanese or Dutch guns, and fought
each other for the spoils without being able to establish any coherent political order. The Republic’s
Socialist-dominated government was appalled by all this, knowing that it would blacken the country’s
name overseas, enrage colonial-era investors wanting their properties back, and alienate possible
diplomatic allies. Gradually, with military help, some kind of order was established, after which the
Dutch succeeded in reoccupying Medan’s plantation belt. But not for long.
In December 1949, after four years of intermittent war and negotiations, the Netherlands signed over
sovereignty of the old colony to a “Federal Republic of Indonesia”, one of whose components was
North Sumatra (then still called East Sumatra), headed by surviving local aristocrats. But within a year,
federalism disappeared, the aristocrats succumbed, and today’s Unitary Republic was established.
The central condition of this transfer of sovereignty, insisted on by the rapacious Americans, was that
all Dutch (and British and American) pre-war properties be returned to their colonial-era owners. The
situation was particularly volatile in the surroundings of Medan. In the last two decades of colonial rule,
the Field had become a hotbed of anti-colonial nationalism. This trend accelerated in the last year of
Japanese rule and after the declaration of independence. The radical language of “revolution” made a
deep impression too, mostly for the good. But revolution also allowed hardened criminal elements to
operate under its aegis, sometimes with half-genuine revolutionary commitment.
2a = Great Mosque, Medan (Credit: Andre Vltchek)
2b = Japanese military attack Rabaul, 1942