Medan Murders Most Foul, and With Relish 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.

Photo captions:

2a = Great Mosque, Medan (Credit: Andre Vltchek)

2b = Japanese military attack Rabaul, 1942

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