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Nonetheless, we can surmise that they had their disappointments. One of these must have been lack
of official and national recognition for their role in the massacres, the one moment in their otherwise
humdrum criminal lives where they could imagine themselves as among the saviors of their country.
The problem laid with “Jakarta”, and the stance that Suharto and his henchmen took with regard to the
slaughter. The striking thing was that these ruling circles handled the annual commemorations for 1965
by largely concentrating on October l’s first victims – as national heroes.
Every town had streets named after these generals, and in Jakarta a special museum was created in
their heroic honor. A state-sponsored film – for which annual viewings were compulsory in all schools
and colleges – consisted entirely of mourning for the generals, and execration of the diabolical PKI. But in
Medan, no general, or indeed any military officer, had been killed.
Furthermore, the basic official account of the last three months of 1965 depended on rhetoric of
popular fury at PKI bestiality. American journalists at the time liked to explain, in colonial-speak, that the
primitive population had gone amok. The military’s propagandists employed this idea, describing the
army’s role as curbing and calming down this wave of “spontaneous” popular violence. (In fact, there
is overwhelming evidence that the massacres in Central Java started with the arrival of the red-beret
commandos in mid-October, and in East Java one month later when these professional killers moved
There were, thus, no heroic slaughterers honored by the Suharto regime. The most notorious red-beret
officers never made it up to the top levels of the military. Finally, the euphemistic official language of
the regime precluded heroism. Thus communists arrested by the military, then executed or imprisoned
for years without trial, were said to have been di-amankan, which can be translated as “secured”, for the
sake of keamanan or “public” security. In later years, when generals got the itch to write their memoirs,
they used the same euphemisms. They had “secured” communists, not least to protect them from “the
anger of the people”.
The regime never boasted about the massacres and never announced any figures of the number who
had died. This entire propaganda strategy, also aimed at foreign audiences, left no place for “heroic
killers” in Medan’s imagery. But hadn’t the gangsters helped to save the country? So, willy-nilly, they
set up their own monument to themselves, a 30-foot (nine-meter) high chrome “66” next to the city’s
railway station. An ignorant traveler could take it for a logo for some new fast-food competitor for
Furthermore, had these old timers been adequately rewarded in practical terms? If one looks at the two
killers featured in Sungai Ular, one can see that they are actually nobodies. Elderly men, with decaying
muscles and petty bourgeois clothes and homes, few visible signs of prestige, no medals, only local
fear. To be sure, the top gangsters have acquired splashy mansions, luxurious cars, expensive kitschy
jewelry and wristwatches, and some important but local official posts. But these emoluments were not,
primarily, immediate rewards for yesterday’s “heroism”, nor were they much then publicized, but rather
evolved incrementally over mundane decades of dictatorship and criminality. They are not “in national
history”, in a country where national history is very important and national heroes abundant.
This condition helps to explain some of the peculiarities of the figures we can see in Joshua’s films. His
camera offers them the possibility of commemoration, and transcendence of age, routine, and death.
When the more ghastly of the two killers in Sungai Ular is shown in his petty bourgeois home with his
wife and family, he is re-narrating some of the most terrible tortures and murders that he inflicted. The
family is used to this endless domestic reenactment. His plump wife giggles to keep him happy, and the
children pay no attention at all.
He boasts of his magical powers, saying that the widows of communists come to him for healing. True?
Maybe, but their arrival at his house is merely a sign that 40 years later they are still afraid of him. His
invisible medal is this abiding terror. A kind of dim hierarchy is still visible, when the two veterans have
to decide who will play communist and who killer.
They have a commemorative idea about film, actually Hollywood films which they loved from their
teens. The Lone Ranger, Batman, Patten, Shane, Samson, MacArthur, Rambo, et al – all real or imaginary
men – are figures of immortality for killers who are heroic patriots, not grand gangsters. This doesn’t
mean that they don’t live within local cultures – supernaturalism, Gothic horror comics, and kitschy
Joshua thus comes to them as a kind of providential “Hollywood” ally. They will die soon, but maybe he
will make them immortal.
Yet they are stuck. They do not have available to them anything that can represent the communists.
While Suharto was still dictator, his regime could issue must-watch films showing the bestiality of the
PKI, and mourning the murdered generals. But such films have gone out of circulation since his fall 12
years go. The “Medan boys” have nothing like this, and local history of events 45 years ago is gradually
headed for oblivion or myth.
So some of them have to act the communists themselves, sometimes even in drag. As nationalist
gangsters, they have no place in a national history into which the Indonesian Army as a corporate
institution with an “honorable” patriotic record can be inserted. Their gangster-ism is filmable only in
terms of costume, body-language, and kitschy imaginative success. (This attitude resembles the outlook
of American Cosa Nostra people, who, journalists report, love going to gangster movies and identify with
At the same time, these old men realize that they are also within a market of industrial fantasies, access
to which comes through the American, who is young enough to be their son. This is a market, which,
over the years, has increasingly blurred the boundaries between the established genres of heroic
war films, gangster films, and horror films, at the expense of the former and to the advantage of the
latter. (Shining Shane gives way to cannibal Hannibal Lecter. This condition makes it imaginable to have
Apocalypse Now replace Bataan.) But it allows for fantasies not available in 1965.
We can take Anwar Kongo as exemplary. He proudly shows himself as a sadistic murderer, but… he is
haunted, so he enacts, by the ghosts of his victims; but then he congratulates himself on helping to
send his prey straight to Heaven, as if in a “black mass” retroversion of jihad theology. He shows his
weird authority by forcing (?) his favorite large, overweight, thuggish henchman Herman to dress up
as a communist woman. “She” appears with the depressing, glitzy outfit of a well-off, middle-aged
transvestite in a TV competition.
A real communist woman, a gaunt, shriveled, terrified widow in her 70s, would never do. Actually there
are no limits (let’s see what we can do!) except that only he and his boys can appear in the film. There is
a kind of despair at work.
This despair is actuated by Joshua. The gangsters reenact whatever they wish and can imagine, but they
cannot control what “their” film will be like in the end. Joshua is a conundrum. He is there, like Rouch,
beyond the camera’s reach, an unseen interrogator, pal, witness, kid, judge, and motherfucker. They
have no idea how to control him because they are his actors and there is no final script that they master.
He is not part of their film but they are part of his. There are no famous Hollywood films with invisible
characters interrogating Joshua’s in them. This is a source of anxiety. (Joshua has written to me that
while many of these people trust him almost completely, others are becoming suspicious that he may be
The inevitable response is a strange mixture of motivations.
First, Excess: “Beat this, motherfucker! I sent them all to Heaven and they should be grateful to me.”
Second: Recourse to the filmic supernatural. “That bastard Ramli was so magically invulnerable that it
took us ages to kill him, and we had to cut off his dick first!”
Third: Pride. Today, 45 years after 1965, “They are still terrified of us”.
Fourth: Hope. “We’ll be famous around the world, even after we die, no matter if young Indonesians
don’t want to think about us, and the government will never give us the monuments we deserve.”
Fifth: Truthfulness. “There was no amok, and we loyally carried out the instructions of the national
Last: the smugness of impunity. “Kid, we can reenact anything at all, and there is nothing anyone,
including you, can do to us.”
All the same, they are, like everyone else, under sentence of death from the day they are born. They
know they will soon be buried, and nobody will give a damn. There is no one who can send them
straight to Heaven.
1. The PRRI (Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia) was announced after Jakarta
rejected an ultimatum demanding Sukarno’s return to being merely a symbolic head of state, the
formation of an anti-communist extra-parliamentary cabinet, etc. It was substantially aided, financially
and militarily, by the CIA. Its stronghold was Sumatra, and its core leadership came from wellentrenched “native son” officers, though various prominent leaders of parties (mainly Masjumi) were
included to give the PRRI a better international reception. Not long afterward, a comparable movement
appeared in Sulawesi, which allied itself with the PRRI. It should be added that regional discontent with
Jakarta’s policies and growing insubordination among Outer Island commanders had forced the central
government to declare martial law for the whole country in March 1957. This declaration can be said to
mark the start of the military’s eventual domination of the country over most of the next 40 years.
2. Among Batak purists, the Nasution clan was often suspected of mixed blood impurity, ie a mix of
Batak, Minangkabau, Indian, Atjehnese and Arab. This may explain why Effendy’s street title was Effendy
Keling (Indian). It is also possible that he was not born into the Nasution clan, but was adopted into it.
3. In late colonial times, the most feared urban gangsters in the Indies were Eurasian and Chinese,
that is, from marginalized social groups. During the revolution, some of the Eurasians took the side of
the Dutch, while Chinese gangsters were recruited into the Po An Tui, a pro-Dutch force that tried to
protect Chinese from Sinophobic violence. In the 1950s, over 200,000 Eurasians fled to The Netherlands,
willingly or unwillingly. Still, as we have seen above, the two most feared killers under Suharto, Murdani
and Yapto, were both Eurasians. Chinese gangsters still existed, but Baperki, the dominant political
organization for Chinese Indonesians was, under the capable leadership of leftwinger Sjauw Giok Tjhan,
mindful of the bad reputation of the Po An Tui, so that it did not have a serious gangster element. After
October l. 1965, many Baperki members were killed, tortured, and imprisoned, and the organization
was banned as “communist”. Hence, “on the streets” Chinese had no organized protection bodies of
their own. This situation opened the way for their fellow “foreign Asian” business rivals, especially, in
Medan, “Indians” and Arabs” of various kinds, to take over. If one looks at Joshua’s list of the names of
PP leaders and backdoor masterminds, one will be struck by the number of them who are, wholly or
partially, of Punjabi, “Afghani”, and Arab stock. All Muslims, of course.
4. In the middle 1980s, I was contacted by a lady lawyer in Germany, asking me to provide professional
testimony for a youngish Indonesian pleading for sanctuary. In written correspondence, the man said
he had fled to Germany on the advice and with the help of his father, a middle-ranking officer in the
army’s military police. He had been a member of a gang, mostly sons of military men, that made its
living by “guarding” bars, discos, nightclubs. The gang strongly supported the Suharto government and
helped to make every election a “success”. Then, out of the blue, came Petrus and he had to run for his
life. I told him that since Petrus was aimed solely at gangsters, and this was widely known, the only way
to get the German court to believe that they should grant him sanctuary was to admit that he was a
gangster. The curious thing is that he could not bring himself to do so, insisting that he had always been
loyal to the regime, and where required carried out its policies. This is a perfect example of left-hand
bureaucratic consciousness. What, me?
Author: Benedict Anderson is the author of Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origins and
Spread of Nationalism and an authority on Indonesian politics and culture. He is professor emeritus of
government at Cornell and an editor of New Left Review. His published work on the Indonesian coup
of 1965 spans the years 1966-2012. His most recent publication is The fate of rural hell: asceticism and
desire in Buddhist Thailand (Calcutta: Seagull Press, 2012).
This article is adapted with a new introduction to a chapter in Killer Images: Documentary Film, Memory
and the Performance of Violence, edited by Joram Ten Brink and Joshua Oppenheimer. Copyright 2013
Joram Ten Brink and Joshua Oppenheimer. Reprinted with permission of Columbia University Press.
(Republished with permission from Japan Focus)