The Indonesian Killings 1965-1966:
Studies from Java and Bali

Robert Cribb (editor)

Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University 1990
A book review by Danny Yee © 1993
One of history's biggest massacres ever took place in Indonesia in 1965/66, when around half a million people were killed in the suppression of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI). The Indonesian Killings is not a formal history of that event, but a fairly eclectic collection of writings on to the subject, both academic analyses and first hand accounts. Since no systematic account of the killings has been written, however, this volume is a good starting point for anyone interested in one of the most important events in modern Indonesian history.

The introductory essay by Robert Cribb looks over some of the historiographical problems associated with the killings. The most obvious is the lack of information, not only about the events that sparked the slaughter (an alleged coup attempt by the PKI in which seven generals were killed) and the details of the killings themselves, but also about their overall scale. This extends to uncertainty about the total number of deaths, with figures ranging from seventy five thousand (a government report released at the end of 1965 when the killings were still underway) to two million (an estimate by emigre refugees).

Interpretation of the events is also extremely complex — the question is not just why the killing happened, but why such ferocity was involved and why people gave up their lives without struggling. Many factors were involved, both locally and at a national level: among them the struggle between the political parties, religion, state power, army propaganda, and violence in traditional Indonesian/Javanese life (the myth of the "peaceful Indonesian" is a form of Orientalism). Some of the consequences of the massacre were overt — the destruction of the PKI and the growth in influence of the army are only the most obvious — but Cribb also considers its role in the development of the state and its psychological effect on survivors. He also makes comparisons with other historical massacres with similar features, particularly those in Kampuchea and the St Bartholemew's Day massacre of Huguenots in 16th century France.

Michael von Langenborg's paper gives a description of the events of 1965/66 from a central, national perspective, and considers the importance of the killings for the history of state power in Indonesia. His basic thesis is that the killings underpin the power of the modern Indonesian state, and that their scale helped legitimise the growth of state power involved with the transition to the New Order.

An essay by Kenneth Young looks at how the particular characteristics of local regions influenced the course of events; although the killing was sparked by national events and followed a common pattern (general unrest followed by military sanctioned and assisted murder by nationalist and Muslim youth groups), its intensity and pattern varied considerably from area to area. In Kediri (in East Java) the violence was largely along religious lines (more orthodox Muslims against less) and, as a result of the settlement history of the area, predominantly intra-communal. In Pasuruan (also in East Java) religion was also important, but the violence was inter-communal. In Bali the division was more political — Nationalist Party (PNI) vs PKI — and more oriented along class lines (although these were confused, with many landlords being PKI supporters). In East Sumatra plantation workers confronted the military directly, and in the Nusatenggara state power was more limited and the killings happened later and at the hands of outside military forces.

Keith Foulcher contributes a short essay on references to the events of 1965/66 in recent Indonesian literature. He treats in some detail Arjip Rosidi's Anak Tanahair, a novel about the life of an artist in the period immediately before the crisis.

The remainder of the works are more source material than analysis. "Rural Violence in Klaten and Banyuwangi" is an account of rural violence immediately preceding the killings, from the point of view of non-communists. Based on interviews carried out in 1979, the accounts seem at times to be aimed at providing "justification" for the later killings (which aren't mentioned directly at all). The fairly obvious bias is presumably due to the absence of PKI leaders able to give their side of the story. So the description of the PKI "coup" in Manisrenggo ends "Manisrenggo itself received a platoon from Battalion F. Gradually the tension subsided and calm was restored." — the latter being a process that must have involved the killing of hundreds of people.

"Crushing the G30S/PKI in Central Java" gives an idea of the official view, 15 years later, of events in Central Java. It concentrates on the movement of military forces and seems mostly concerned to prove that there was a widespread attempt (the G30S or "Gestapu 30th September" coup) by the PKI to seize power; again any mention of the killing of large numbers of people is omitted. On the other side, "Additional Data on Counter-Revolutionary Cruelty in Indonesia" is an anonymous catalogue of killings and tortures from East Java, apparently compiled in the 70s. Of all the included works this gives the most explicit account of actual killings.

Kenneth Orr uncovered some information about the killings while studying the Indonesian school system. The stories he recorded give a vivid picture of the different ways in which the killings affected individuals: a schoolteacher sitting on a hastily assembled investigating committee to decide which of his colleagues should die, helping to prevent completely uncontrolled slaughter by doing so; a clever "entrepreneur" making a fortune selling fake PNI membership cards to known PKI leaders; a massive shortage of teachers in the years following the killings; and a girl in the back row crying silently when the events of 1965 were discussed in a civics class in 1981.

Two of the works deal with events after 1966. In 1968 there were further killings in Purwodadi, about which more information is available. Reports by two journalists sent to cover them are included. Their accounts are extremely emotional; their almost desperate desire to find out the truth is confronted by their complete confusion about who to trust and what to believe. The result is a vivid impression of the uncertainty and fear hanging over the area at the time. "Survival: Bu Yeti's Story" is a moving account of one woman's imprisonment and attempt to lead a "normal" life after her release.

I found The Indonesian Killings a fascinating collection. Some of the material is unpolished, even unfinished, and may not appeal to those who like their history neatly and elegantly packaged in secondary sources, but Cribb's introductory essay at least should be accessible to everyone. The Indonesian Killings raises more questions than it answers, and I look forward to further reading on the subject.

September 1993

Related reviews:
- Robert Cribb - Historical Atlas of Indonesia
- Robert Cribb - Historical Dictionary of Indonesia
- Robert Cribb - Digital Atlas of Indonesian History
- Robert Cribb - End of Empire: 100 Days in 1945 that Changed Asia and the World
- books about Indonesia + Indonesian history
- books about Java + Javanese culture
- books about crime
- more social history
%T The Indonesian Killings 1965-1966
%S Studies from Java and Bali
%E Cribb, Robert
%I Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University
%D 1990
%O paperback, index
%G ISBN 0732602319
%P 279pp