A scholarly account of a forgotten bloodletting.
Commemorated in Peter Weir’s 1982 film The Year of Living Dangerously, the Indonesian massacres of 1965-1966 are little known outside the archipelago. Robinson (History/UCLA; "If You Leave Us Here, We Will Die": How Genocide Was Stopped in East Timor, 2009, etc.) works archives and interview sources to reconstruct what he characterizes as an “awful juggernaut of arbitrary detention, interrogation, torture, mass killing, and political exile.” Though the ruling and founding president of the republic, Sukarno, was at least nominally on the left, he was more populist than socialist. In any event, his army, led by a general named Suharto—who deposed Sukarno not long after—rose up and killed at least 500,000 suspected communists, imprisoning 1 million others, many for more than a decade. It will come as no surprise to readers that the U.S. was actively involved in the anti-communist enterprise; it is sobering, however, to realize just how close this involvement was and how guilefully American agents worked the angles. Wrote an officer at the U.S. Embassy, “Army feels it has hands full restoring order and stability without creating impression it going to massacre Communists.” It did, of course, massacre communists, burying them in mass graves. But more, old vendettas and scores were settled, ethnic and religious rivalries were exploited, and the military consolidated power while suppressing the media and other institutions. Robinson notes how this suppression played out in the hands of different army commanders. In Aceh, he writes, the army “opted to kill rather than detain alleged supporters of the [communist] movement,” while in West Java, near the capital of Jakarta, relatively few supposed rebels were killed. Only in the following decade, writes the author in conclusion, did many Westerners pay attention to the massacres, and then as a result of human rights efforts to free political prisoners who were still detained.
A useful contribution to regional history and a much-needed voice in the “path of silence” that followed a murderous time.