The ghosts of communism past in Indonesia
Their destruction was almost complete through silence, but the stories of the survivors of the war on the Communist Party of Indonesia are now finding ways to be told, writes Tito Ambyo.
A somewhat embarrassing feeling came over me recently. As I was walking one night in Melbourne, a familiar fear made itself welcome in my heart: what if there were ghosts lurking in these dark laneways?
I was reminded of the story of a ghost from my hometown, the city of Bandung - a ghost of a man who was murdered by, I was told, the "atheist communists".
I don't believe in ghosts. But I believe in ghost stories. To be clear, the story behind that particular ghost in Bandung does not stand a basic factual and historical test. There is not a skerrick of evidence to prove that the murder ever happened. No name. No record. No witnesses. Only the alleged murderer is named, and it takes the guise of a group already rooted in dark connotations: 'atheist communists', otherwise known as the PKI - Partai Komunis Indonesia (Communist Party of Indonesia).
In fact, it would have made more sense if the man was a communist, instead of the other way around. Between 1965 and 1966, between 100,000 and one million people were murdered based on allegations of their involvement with the PKI. It was a harrowing episode of Indonesian history, yet there is still so much being hidden and silenced. This is where it is useful to listen to these ghost stories and to try to understand what fears and stories may be hiding behind them.
Many of these fears and stories in Indonesia are now resurfacing. The events of 1966 are back in the public eye since the release of the film 'The Act of Killing', currently part of the Talking Pictures program at the Melbourne International Film Festival. The film tells the stories of those who committed the killing - and boast publicly about it.
But behind the boasting are the silenced: descendants of communist party members, who were banned from various occupations, including the public service and the military. Parents who left their children. Children who were mocked and abused.
A case study published in 2010 by the filmmaker and anthropologist Robert Lemelson tells the story of Joko, a 12-year-old boy suffering from trauma for being an 'anak PKI' - a child of a communist party member. In his case, it wasn't even clear whether his father was a PKI member; an allegation from the son of a village headman was enough to send the father to imprisonment for 14 years.
"My family was unjustly maltreated, slandered, terrorised," says Joko. When he was nine, he witnessed his 17-year-old brother being so severely beaten and stoned that "he bled and experienced uncontrolled defecation, and was forced to walk naked on his hands".
There are numerous other stories like Joko's. One of Anwar Congo's neighbours in the film tells the killers how, as a boy, he had to carry and bury his murdered stepfather as people simply looked on.
The stories of these survivors are now finding ways to be told. But the destruction was almost complete through silence. The stories were suppressed, and 'communism' became a word that was never to be mentioned, except through the mouthpieces of the boastful victors.
And the boastful victors were not only those killers and the Indonesian military who gained power after the PKI was demolished. Speaking to the Australian-American Association in New York in mid-1966, with the killings still taking place, the Australian prime minister Harold Holt used a most astonishing choice of words to describe what was happening in Indonesia:
In Australian media, there was coverage of the events, but they were limited and many looked to be carefully framed within the anti-communist flavour of the period. The academic Richard Tanter looked at two major Melbourne newspapers, The Sun and The Age, which were published between October 1965 and August 1966, and concluded that the "coverage of the killings in both papers was extremely limited, and grossly distorted", and "paternalistic and racialist assumptions of irrationality and immaturity were common".
It is easy to judge this with the benefit of history behind us, but Australian journalists who remember the events and were working back then have told me that they were "astonished" to see the lack of reception from the Australian readers about what was happening.
And the picture that we are seeing now, with declassified information being made available, is that Australia, Britain and the USA were either aware of what was happening or were actively intervening.
The 'ghosts' of communism do not only belong to Indonesia. It is a big part of the history of our region. As we seek to engage more deeply with our Asian neighbours, Indonesian and Australian societies and media must find new ways to tell each other's stories and concerns.
Many experts who talk about engagement with Asian neighbours talk of the importance of the "soft diplomacy". But genuine soft diplomacy can only be built if we have a commitment to face up to the hard issues together.
The story of the ghost near my house in Bandung might be a complete fabrication. But behind that, there are strong narratives of history and a deep vein of fears and concerns that Indonesians are currently facing.
But this is not only about Indonesia. If we want to engage deeply with Indonesia, maybe it is time that we learn our lessons from 1966, and start building a deeper understanding of each other's societies.