Exposing Indonesia's Cold War Communist Purge The wall of silence in Indonesia surrounding one of the 20th century's worst atrocities is beginning to fall apart. A forthcoming report estimates that in the mid-1960s, the Indonesian military killed up to 1 million suspected communists, and places blame squarely on former military dictator Suharto.

Exposing Indonesia's Cold War Communist Purge

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Also in the region - a wall of silence surrounding one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century is beginning to crack. In the mid-1960s in Indonesia, hundreds of thousands were killed in a government purge of suspected communists. To this day, those who were labeled as leftists are prevented from working as teachers or civil servants.

There have been long allegations of U.S. complicity in the violence, which reshaped Indonesia's political landscape at the height of the Cold War. This was at a time when the U.S. was escalating its fight against communism, in Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Jakarta.


PRESIDENT SUKARNO: I, president, supreme commander of the armed forces of the Republic of Indonesia...

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: On October 14th, 1965, Indonesian President Sukarno transferred command of the military to Major General Suharto. Suharto was seizing power, just days after an attempted coup which he blamed on the Communist Party of Indonesia. The army then began a nationwide campaign to exterminate communists.

A forthcoming report by the National Commission on Human Rights estimates that between 600,000 and a million people were killed. The commission's Deputy Chairman Yosep Adi Prasetyo says the report blames Suharto, who died four years ago, for the killings.

YOSEP ADI PRASETYO: (Through translator) We conclude that there have been gross human rights violations, which can be classified as crimes against humanity. We found that the military and police were involved in the killings, as well as forced disappearances, rape, forced movement of people, torture and other crimes.


KUHN: Survivors of the purge are still fighting to clear their names. At the time, Tumiso Nitikarjita Lukas was a law school student and supporter of Sukarno. For this, he was arrested and tortured. But he refused to admit being a communist.

TUMISO NITIKARJITA LUKAS: (Through Translator) The government must admit the barbaric acts it committed against its own citizens and provide rehabilitation and compensation. Our demands are not like what you see broadcast on the news. We keep it simple.

KUHN: After his arrest, Tumiso was exiled to a remote island until his release in 1979. To this day, he and others accused of being communists are barred from working as teachers, civil servants, and that most respected of Indonesian professions: puppet masters.


LINDA HUNT: (as Billy Kwan) The puppet master is a priest. That's why they call Sukarno the Great Puppet Master, balancing the left with the right.

KUHN: Movie viewers may know the turbulent period from the 1982 film "The Year of Living Dangerously." It starred Mel Gibson as an Australian radio reporter covering the fall of Sukarno.

At the time, the U.S. government was openly supportive of Suharto, fearing that Indonesia would be the next domino to fall to global communism. University of Melbourne historian Katherine McGregor explains.

KATHERINE MCGREGOR: The end of Sukarno was of great significance in terms of the Cold War for Western powers. And for that reason, people also saw things more in black and white terms of, it's just communists being killed; there wasn't a lot of outcry from the Western world.

KUHN: Under the three decades of Suharto's rule that followed, Indonesia essentially had no political left wing - no women's groups, no trade unions, et cetera. Even today, efforts to reexamine the killing of communists face opposition from people like Tribowo Soebiandiono, the vice head of a group of military family members.

TRIBOWO SOEBIANDIONO: (Through Translator) We believe we must, we must still maintain vigilance against the threat of communism. This country is on the brink of collapse. Honestly, corruption is rampant. I don't want to go pointing any fingers, but we can figure it out for ourselves.

KUHN: The Human Rights Commission's Yosep Adi Prasetyo says that the commission's mandate was not to prosecute, but to investigate - and it's had enough trouble just doing that.

PRASETYO: (Through Translator) It's going to be difficult because the president's father in-law is one of the perpetrators that must be held accountable for the massacre and other crimes.

KUHN: For now, it's still too early to tell whether anyone will be put on trial for the killings, or whether victims will get any compensation.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Jakarta.

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