Top Menu

Dear Reader, we make this and other articles available for free online to serve those unable to afford or access the print edition of Monthly Review. If you read the magazine online and can afford a print subscription, we hope you will consider purchasing one. Please visit the MR store for subscription options. Thank you very much. —Eds.

No Reconciliation without Truth

An Interview with Tan Swie Ling on the 1965 Mass Killings in Indonesia

Intan Suwandi is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Oregon.

Introduction: The September 30th Movement, 1965

In the early morning of October 1, 1965, self-proclaimed left-wing troops raided the houses of seven top army generals in Jakarta. In the process, six of the generals were killed—three were shot during the kidnapping attempt, while the others were taken to Lubang Buaya, an air force base located in the south of Jakarta, and then killed. The seventh general, Nasution, managed to escape. The perpetrators announced on national radio that they were troops loyal to President Sukarno, and they aimed to protect the president from the danger posed by the right-wing “Council of Generals”—who, they said, were planning to launch a military coup d’état. These troops called themselves the September 30th Movement (abbreviated in Indonesian as the G30S), and named Lieutenant Colonel Untung, a commander of the presidential guard, as their leader.1

This movement was very short-lived. Within one day, it collapsed. Major General Suharto, then the commander of the army’s strategic reserve (KOSTRAD)—who “surprisingly was not captured,” although he was “logically” one of the “prime targets for the strike”—took control of the army during the morning of October 1 and quickly crushed the movement.2 Details of what happened behind the scenes with this movement remain murky, although some interpretations have suggested that the G30S was an internal struggle within the army.3 Nevertheless, one thing is clear: what happened on October 1, 1965 marked the fall of Sukarno and the rise of Suharto, who was soon to rule Indonesia under his military dictatorship for more than three decades. The brutality of Suharto’s New Order is probably not news for people familiar with Indonesia. But there is “an episode the West would prefer to forget,” as journalist John Pilger put it, that accompanied Suharto’s rise to power: the destruction of Communism and the mass killings that followed—a phenomenon claimed by Time magazine in 1966 as “The West’s best news for years in Asia” or, as presented in the title of James Reston’s 1966 column in the New York Times, “A Gleam of Light in Asia.”4

Having taken control of the situation, Suharto declared the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) as the dalang, or “puppet master” behind the G30S—an accusation that was never supported by evidence.5 The following years saw not only the destruction of the PKI—then the “largest nonruling Communist Party in the world”—but also the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Indonesian Communists and those perceived as such.6 From 1965 to 1966, a series of mass killings occurred across the archipelago, especially in Central and East Java, Bali, and North Sumatra.7 In Central and East Java, where some of the worst massacres happened, most of the killings were done by army units, in particular the para-commando unit RPKAD, along with civilian vigilantes associated with anti-Communist groups. One of them was Ansor, the youth movement of the Muslim political organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU).8 In general, the military had a significant role in providing weapons, training, and encouragement to the vigilantes in various regions in the country. The killings themselves often took place “when anti-Communist army units arrived in a region.”9

No less important is the role played by the United States, along with Britain, which aimed to destroy Indonesian Communism in this period of carnage. U.K. Ambassador Andrew Gilchrist called for “propaganda” and “psywar activity” to ensure the “destruction and putting to flight of the PKI by the Indonesian Army.” The United States aided Suharto’s forces through the “direct involvement of the CIA, the close cooperation of the U.S. Embassy and State Department, and the guidance of the Johnson administration’s National Security Council.” In a November 1965 memo, the CIA suggested that the United States should not be “too hesitant” about “extending assistance provided we can do so covertly.” Thus, when the Indonesian generals asked the United States for weapons needed “to arm Muslim and nationalist youths in Central Java for use against the PKI,” the United States quickly agreed to give covert aid, “dubbed ‘medicines’ to prevent embarrassing revelations.”10 Perhaps Bradley Simpson summarized it best: “The U.S. response to mass murder in Indonesia was enthusiastic”—and we are talking about the very same event that the CIA itself referred to as “one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century.”11

The atrocities did not stop here. Within a decade, over a million and a half were captured, tortured, and imprisoned, most of them without trial, “on the grounds of their Communist connections.” And for those who escaped death in prisons, their lives remained extremely difficult upon their release. They were continuously subjected to discrimination, both by the state and by their Communist-phobic society.12

Tan Swie Ling, born in Pekalongan, September 12, 1938, was one of these political prisoners.13 He was captured in December 6, 1966, along with Sudisman, a surviving leader of the PKI who was staying with him at that time.14 He was then brought to Markas Operasi Kalong, one of the places where the G30S detainees were “delivered” and interrogated. Tan spent thirteen years in confinement—the first few years of which were in a military prison in Jakarta—before he was released in 1979. He survived severe torture, isolation, starvation, and a life-threatening illness that almost killed him in prison.

What was he guilty of? That is a question that, according to Tan, can only be answered by those who captured him. “To my knowledge, I’m not guilty of anything,” he said. “I just remember that early one morning, somebody knocked on my door. As soon as I opened it, a gun was pointed right at my forehead.” For Tan, the arrest that morning was nothing but an abduction: “Since the moment I was captured until I was released, I did not receive a single warrant or letter explaining the reason I was arrested. And this happened to hundreds of thousands of people who were imprisoned.” In the eyes of those in power, Tan told me, people who were believed to be involved in the G30S were no longer seen as human beings; “We were merely pests, and needed to be exterminated.”

Fifty years after 1965, I met with Tan in Jakarta.15 He shared with me his personal experience as a political prisoner, as well as his political-economic analysis of the G30S and its aftermath, especially in the context of imperialism. These are his thoughts, his story as a survivor.

On Being a Political Prisoner: One-Eighth of an Egg and a Three-Headed Monster

IS: In one of your books,16 you wrote about some gruesome experiences, your own and your fellow prisoners’, having to deal with torture, uncertainties in the length of imprisonment, and being held in an isolation cell. What made you survive and kept you from losing hope?

TSL: The number one factor is, of course, what we choose in life: Do we want to play around or be seriously determined in living our lives? I don’t know why, but then, I chose the latter. Second, as soon as I was sure that I was going to be in prison for a long time, I had to determine what I should do next. When we speak of long-term imprisonments, the main problem is the problem of the stomach, correct? It’s about food. Now the issue is, how do you deal with this problem?

There was a period when people were so afraid of hunger. When some prisoners were sent food [by their families or friends], other prisoners would stare at them, with eyes wide open. If these people were eating a yam, they would peel the yam and make tiny balls out of the skin. Then they would throw them at the others, and these other prisoners would quickly grab and eat them. That’s how bad it was. Why did they do that? Because they were afraid—afraid to die. So how we deal with this type of situation, that’s important. But I also had several friends who never abandoned me. They cared for me. Because of them, I could manage to have clothes that didn’t even have holes in them.

But you see, people can change. When people were first put in prisons, they were so afraid of being hungry. When they’re afraid like that, they became individualistic. If they had food, they ate their food in the middle of the night, hugging the food box tightly to their chest. Eating all of it just by themselves. But as time went by, they changed. They could think, “I’m not hungry. I can share my food.” Up to the point that when someone was sent a boiled egg, he would share that one egg with seven other prisoners. He broke the egg into eight small pieces, and he sincerely accepted that one-eighth share of his. This is why many people who weren’t sent food could survive—including me. So this fear of death could be overcome if our lives were led by good spirits—that is, solidarity, the sincere act of sharing your boiled egg with seven other people—and many lives could be saved. The ones in power wanted us to die slowly through starving us. But when the prisoners understood that food could be shared, nobody died. That was, for me, a very unforgettable experience.

IS: You also mentioned that the prisoners were not allowed to think. The authorities didn’t want political prisoners to have access to materials for intellectual activity. You were only allowed to read the Qur’an, the Bible, or other holy books, while other readings were forbidden. It was even difficult to play chess, since they thought of chess as a game that requires thinking. What did you do to keep your mind occupied and not to “surrender” to what they wanted?

TSL: Well, if you weren’t allowed to obtain the stuff you needed to play chess, you made them. We had a lot of materials then. Old, rotten chairs were plenty. Then I looked for a long nail, and tampered with it until it could serve as a sharp tool to shave the old wood. That’s how I made the chess pieces. The prison guards could take them away from us anytime in a surprise inspection. But no worries, the new ones would be available in no time!

IS: What about the times when you were put in an isolation cell? You wrote about how you would pace back and forth and keep your mind busy.

TSL: That was actually unintentional at first. The goal was to exercise my legs. During one of my early interrogations, an officer knocked me down by hitting the back of my knees with a one-meter-long thick ruler, just like a lumberjack cutting down a big tree. Anybody would fall as a result of that, and I had a problem walking because of it. So when I was put in the isolation cell, I tried my best to heal my legs. The only way was to keep on moving, going back and forth, back and forth. With a room that tiny, I felt like a monkey with his waist tied to a pole, pacing left and right. But after a while, my mind started to wander. The first thing that came to mind was, “What should I do to escape from prison?” But after that, I started to be able to think clearly. I didn’t really have many choices—I tried to remember what I had learned in the past, what was taught to me, the things I learned from the books I had read. When I began to recall all these, my mind worked. I tried to recall [sociopolitical and historical] questions and put effort to answer them. It kept going and going. That saved my mind.

IS: What about your experience after you were released from prison? What were some of the things that an ex-G30S political prisoner had to face after imprisonment, and how did you deal with the hardships?

TSL: One of the hardships is of course regarding life, how to live. Coming back to the “stomach problem.” Many of these ex-political prisoners had difficulties in fulfilling their basic needs, including the need to eat. Many of them tried but most of them failed. There weren’t many who succeeded. I also experienced these difficulties, but I was very lucky because my wife worked extremely hard. She did anything she could, making and selling baked goods, everything.

Another hardship was that, after I came out of prison, many people were afraid of me. For example, before I was imprisoned, when I still lived in Pekalongan, I held an important role in Baperki, which dealt a lot with Chinese Indonesians’ issues.17 People there respected and accepted what I did for the organization, even though I was still very young. But after I came out of prison, people sneered at me. And they showed no sympathy whatsoever.

I was trying to come back to activism after I was released. For Chinese Indonesian (Tionghoa) minorities, the citizenship issue was a central problem then, and I wanted to be a part of the effort in seeking solutions to it. But it was very difficult. One important step, I thought, was to amend the 6th clause in the Indonesian constitution (UUD 1945), and later to abolish the SBKRI [legal proof of citizenship, imposed mostly on Chinese Indonesians]. That was my goal. That clause was the root of racism against the Tionghoa.18 This had been proposed previously by several Chinese Indonesian figures, but we had the right momentum when Megawati [Sukarnoputri] became president. It had to be done. I could not do it by myself, of course. Political work can’t be done merely by individuals, so I asked others to work with me, especially on the SBKRI issue. I went to various Chinese Indonesian organizations, but almost all of them avoided me because of who I was. They refused by saying that this was a “small matter.” I told them, “Yes, it’s a small matter. As a matter of fact, let me correct you, it’s smaller than a small matter. It’s like a mole on your body. But if that mole exists in a certain place on your feet and because of it you’re not able to walk, what would you do?” In the end, only one organization agreed to work with me, and it was the Indonesian Badminton community (KBI). I approached its leader, Tan Yoe Hok, and several badminton champions, and they welcomed my proposal. When we finally succeeded, suddenly there were so many parties that claimed this victory as a result of their own hard work! But I learned from the old Chinese martial arts stories: no need to boast, it is the work that’s important. And how your achievements can actually benefit others.

But that was what happened, the obstacles I had to face. And people were afraid of me. Someone like me…I don’t know, maybe in their eyes, I appeared to be a three-headed monster.

On Imperialist Powers and the Destruction of Communism

IS: Now perhaps we can talk about your analysis of the G30S, which you also wrote extensively about in your book. I’m hoping that you can explain them briefly here—your own accounts of the event, and what you think really happened.

As we know, Suharto’s New Order used the G30S as an excuse to wage their decades-long “war” against Communism. In their version, the PKI was blamed as the mastermind behind the movement. And this led to its destruction and the mass killings that followed, as well as subsequent anti-Communist sentiment. You said that this New Order propaganda was so successful that even some of the captured PKI officials themselves believed that the PKI was to blame (“Because of the PKI, I’m suffering like this” was commonly heard in the prison). But you maintained that—despite their weaknesses and mistakes—the Party, along with its main leaders, was not responsible for the G30S. At its root, the real players behind the scenes were the imperialist powers or nekolim (especially the United States through the CIA), who wanted to destroy Communism in Indonesia and the world. Can you talk about this a little?

TSL: To make a long story short, the U.S. involvement was central due to several reasons. One of them is the extraction of Indonesia’s natural resources—think about the mines that still operate today. If there was no “gold” coming out of all this, the United States wouldn’t even do the things they did. Obviously the main reason was economic, with human beings sacrificed on the altar.

The issue of the United States is not by any means simple, but we can see it this way. The United States can be considered as a “modern” nation. They were established after the American continent was “discovered”—as they call it—by Columbus. A “discovery” followed by genocides against the natives. This “discovery” could not be separated from the whole development of capitalism itself, particularly the need for capital to expand out of Europe. Expansion—”globalization”—since the very beginning has always served as a means for capital to control, oppress, and exploit “backward” societies.

The United States, then, has a “historical mission” (tugas sejarah). What is this mission? It’s none other than protecting and advancing the development of capitalism. In any circumstances, with or without violence, it will do anything, whatever the costs, to defend the interests of capital. That’s how I see it. It can, for example, destroy countries. Look at what happened to the countries in the Middle East, to Iraq. If these countries were not seen as an obstacle to this “mission,” I don’t think they would meet such a horrible fate. But the United States had determined that these countries hindered its goals, and therefore had to be destroyed. That’s the character of an imperialist.

IS: So Indonesia was seen as an obstacle and therefore had to meet the “fate” of the G30S and its devastating aftermath?

TSL: For sure. If we look at the U.S. targets…just see how the United States treated Saddam Hussein. He was stubborn as a mule, therefore he had to die. But how did they treat Ferdinand Marcos? He was certainly not Saddam Hussein, so they let him die happily while enjoying a vacation. Now, what about Suharto? Suharto was no Saddam Hussein either, so the United States let him die in a noble way, à la Javanese aristocrat. He was buried with all the aristocratic glory, and the law could not touch him until the end of his life! Could all that happen without the decisions made by the United States, as one of the imperialist powers? I don’t think so. A person’s life, a nation’s fate, many of them depend on these decisions. This is the role of imperialism in the world.

IS: Still in relation to this idea that Indonesia was an obstacle to the interests and goals of imperialism—you wrote a bit about how the destruction of the PKI was a means to bring down Sukarno. Can you elaborate on that? What was the “sin” of Sukarno and the PKI from the perspective of the imperialist powers?

TSL: Sukarno was, what do you call it, a loudspeaker. He gave fiery speeches everywhere—speeches despised by the United States. People like him “understandably” had to be “taken care of.” The United States initially just wanted to get rid of Sukarno because of his “propaganda,” but it ended up doing more than that. It was because they realized later that they wouldn’t be able to get rid of Sukarno without getting rid of his protector—that is none other than the PKI. They had to attack the PKI first, and the rest followed.

IS: But were there other reasons why Sukarno was seen as “dangerous” by the imperialist powers, besides the fact that he was vocal? What about his important role in the Non-Aligned Movement?19

TSL: Obviously. The United States and the West could not live without sucking the life out of others. And Sukarno always emphasized this point. He was a hardliner when it came to his anti-colonial and anti-imperialist stance, so he was a main target. If Indonesia at that time considered imperialism as the enemy of revolution, then Sukarno was the enemy of imperialism.

The imperialist powers heavily objected to the effort of the oppressed nations in gaining sovereignty. They had to prevent this from happening. Take the Vietnam War for example—something that became the center of attention at that time. What was the point of this war? From the perspective of Vietnam, this was about how they could break free from imperialism. But what was the goal of the United States? It was an effort to keep the anti-imperialist movements from spreading among the oppressed nations. That was the reason they “took care” of Indonesia: we behaved dangerously back then. We hurt the United States with our loud voice. We had the role of striking the anti-imperialist bell, “Toeng, toeng, toeng…Amerika is evil, Amerika is bad!” So, on the one hand, the United States was strongly against the sovereignty of the oppressed nations. On the other hand, Sukarno emphasized the need and the means for these ex-colonies to together free themselves from the imperialist powers. The two don’t really mix together, do they? And then why the PKI as a target? PKI was the fence for Sukarno, and they also borrowed his voice as their loudspeaker to spread their propaganda. So pretty much it was like that.

IS: And how does all this relate to the imperialists’ war against Communism?

TSL: In these ex-colonies, who was really behind their struggles to gain sovereignty? Communist movements. So the United States concluded that the “ungrateful little pricks” were the Communists. And hence they thought that Communism had to be beaten to a pulp. Exterminated from the world.

But speaking of U.S. involvement, it all started a while back [in 1947], when the United States was parading in the name of the Good Offices Committee (Komisi Tiga Negara) to interfere with the negotiation between Indonesia and the Netherlands. Why all of a sudden did the United States want to be involved in a “domestic business” between the two countries? I don’t think there was ever a clear answer to that—and you know what that means: it was for their own interests. And what was one of their main interests? To stop Indonesia from spreading Communism.20

IS: Maybe we can talk about the continuation of such interference in the subsequent years of Indonesian politics. In their effort to exterminate Communism, how exactly did the imperialist powers infiltrate local politics and use their local channels to destroy the PKI? And who were these compradors (kaki-tangan)—the military, the local bourgeoisie, the religious political parties?

TSL: Well, the cooperation between the imperialist powers and the Indonesian military is clear. No question about it. They needed each other. No matter how strong and able a foreign military is in destroying their enemies, they would need the role of “treason” from within the local politics of their targeted countries. Sure thing, the treacherous parties wouldn’t admit what they did was treason. They would even claim that they did a heroic act to their nation. And the United States wouldn’t say blatantly that they were using the local military to advance their own goals. But if that was really the case, we wouldn’t have any problems, would we?

And yes, the political parties—they had their share. When Republik Indonesia was born and we could have political parties, they of course had their own figures. And for sure these figures, these people, would advance the interests of their own parties. If you were a party like the PKI, you would understandably not want to cooperate with the imperialist powers, including the United States. You would be against it. But for most of the other parties, it was indeed in their interests to be close to these powers. During that period, funding was a big issue. And how did you get funding? By living a life of servitude to imperialism.

IS: I want to talk more about the PKI, since you also wrote about it in your book. But before we come to that—how close were Sukarno and the PKI?

TSL: They were indeed close. One evidence of their close relationship was that Sukarno entrusted the writing of his speeches to Njoto, one of the main leaders of the PKI. Every time Sukarno was going to give a speech, including the Independence Day speech, he asked Njoto to write it for him. That was no small matter, especially with the Independence Day speech, since the speech would serve as some kind of a guideline for the following years—a resource for the Indonesian peoples that could inspire their thoughts and their work. Moreover, this trust was well received by the PKI, to the point that they never doubted Sukarno’s sincerity and friendship. As Sukarno said, “the PKI is my sibling as well as my friend.” Unfortunately, this made some PKI officials bigheaded. But from what I myself observed, Sukarno was not all talk. He proved his words. No matter how big the pressure was, Sukarno was never willing to disband the PKI. Until the last moment, he always defended the Party. So yes, the relationship between Sukarno and the PKI was quite close. But we also have to remember that in both parties—within the PKI and especially within Sukarno’s circle—there were “insincere” individuals. We don’t need to look too far; just look at his own daughter, Megawati. Has she ever been loyal to her father’s ideals? But I guess that’s how politics works.

IS: Do you think Sukarno and the PKI were “on the right track,” so to speak, in their struggles against imperialism? And would any of the G30S carnage have happened without Washington’s involvement?

TSL: Well now, if there was no such U.S. involvement, I think we would have seen peace [laughs]. As to whether Sukarno and the PKI were on the right track, I would say, probably not. The PKI themselves were not free from bourgeois characteristics. Take this small example. One of the main working guidelines (Tripanji) upheld by the Party was concerning the Indonesian revolution. D. N. Aidit wrote it.21 But later he said that it was really Mao Zedong’s work. Why would he do something like this? This is certainly a concrete example of the petty bourgeois characteristics that were still attached to our leaders. Aidit felt the need to use Mao’s big name because he thought, that way, people would be more likely to believe in his words—”Wong this came from Mao, kok, so how could you refute it?”

So no, I wouldn’t say that they were on the right track. In reality, what existed within the PKI…I doubt that we can see them as the “ideal” Communist thoughts. And with Sukarno, we can’t deny that, in some ways, he did use the PKI as a tool to boost his own fame on the international stage, “Since you don’t mind my using you, why not?” So they “took advantage” of each other.

IS: Since we’re talking about some of the problems within the PKI, what do you think was the PKI’s biggest weakness that made them vulnerable?

TSL: As I said, the Party’s bigwigs were still swimming in the ocean of the bourgeoisie. We couldn’t expect them to recover from this bourgeois disease. And what were the symptoms of this disease? One of them was great “subjectivism.” What I mean is…let’s take Aidit for example. When Fidel Castro succeeded to be the number-one person in Cuba, he was envious! He thought, “How come Fidel could do it, but I couldn’t?” This is purely a bourgeois thought. And it brought Aidit to the land of doom.

IS: If we consider all these weaknesses, can we say that the PKI was really a considerable threat to imperialism? Were they really militant then, or was their focus geared towards securing their power in the parliament, following their perceived success in the 1955 election?

TSL: Now that’s another symptom of the bourgeois disease that the Party carried. They believed that revolution could be won through electoral victories.22 Unlike, say, China, which was committed to the real struggle—”let’s fight even if we bleed!”—the PKI had the illusion the electoral system could lead them to a revolutionary success. So, I’m not sure what it was about them that was particularly threatening.

IS: But as you said, they were still seen as an important target by the imperialist powers.

TSL: Yes, they were. I think one possible reason why the PKI was seen as a threat is because the imperialist powers only compared Indonesia with countries like Laos, Cambodia, and so on. But they mistakenly didn’t compare us [Indonesian Communism] with Vietnam. Now that would have been embarrassing!

IS: What else do you think Indonesians and the rest of the world should know about the G30S—things that are not told by “official accounts” that you know and want to share?

TSL: I just want to say that everything that the New Order told you was a lie. Among the most atrocious was the lie they perpetuated about the Gerwani women—that they were dancing naked and torturing the army generals.23 With all these lies, the New Order bragged about the “sanctity” of Pancasila.24 Little do people know that it was all a trick. A magic trick.

IS: Where do you think we are today in terms of dealing with the consequences of such a sinister magic trick? Is Indonesia ready to admit what really happened, or are we still lulled by the trick?

TSL: Especially recently, there have been lively discussions about human rights and the atrocities that happened after the G30S. There are debates about how to approach this issue. Some people argue that we have to approach it through the legal route, the justice system. This means that we will bring the perpetrators to the court. To what extent we can achieve this, I don’t think anyone has provided a good answer. Others argue that to deal with what is inherited from all these atrocities, we have to “reconcile.” But I think we can’t reconcile without bringing out the real truth—the real account of history.

In my view, we have to take the political route. The violation of human rights that happened amidst the G30S was born out of the political realm, and therefore we have to bring it back to that realm. We can’t ignore the political history that underlies such brutal violations. Don’t forget the seizing of parliamentary (MPRS, or People’s Consultative Assembly) power by the army generals led by General Nasution.25 This is the origin of the banning of certain “isms” in Indonesia, including Communism. This gave justification to the slaughtering of human beings just because they are seen as followers of these “isms.” So before we can do anything meaningful, we must first and foremost lift the ban on those “isms.” Then we can talk about further steps—bringing the perpetrators to trial, wanting to reconcile, or whatever.

I mean, the current government seemed, at first, to start sliding their butts to move towards the better part of the sofa. But up until now, we haven’t seen any progress. People have demanded that our current president, representing the government, apologize for the atrocities that happened.26 I think that would be a notable gesture. But we don’t think an apology alone will be sufficient. What we need is an admission—that all this time we are not told the real account of the event. Admit what really happened. There is no way we can do a real reconciliation without first admitting the truth. So the political move should be prioritized.

IS: It appears that this is also related to the problem of Communist-phobia (komunisto-fobi) that you mentioned in your work. This somehow reminds me, it is not uncommon for commentators or observers—including those from the West—to repeatedly claim that they condemn the post-G30S mass killings and mass imprisonment of those who were accused or alleged Communists. The assumption, it seems, is that it’s okay, or at least less problematic, if the victims really were Communists, because somehow “they deserved it.” What do you think of this?

TSL: That’s why we need to rethink this issue a little—when our friends out there talk about “human rights,” they need to explain where they’re heading. If the intention is to make unclear matters even more blurry, or create further problems, that’s what could happen. But if the intention is to solve problems, then such assumptions should not exist.

So what if we are Communists? What’s wrong with being a Communist? If we recall the process of how the PKI was formed, the process of the development of Communism in Indonesia, we should remember that—for a very, very long time—Communists had always been hunted. But because the one that was hunted never stopped walking forward, it grew. If they had given up, it would have been over. If we only talk about “the law,” or the legal system, just like those people I mentioned previously, we should ask this question: When, legally speaking, have we ever said, “dear Communism, we welcome you with open arms”? Never! Since the beginning—take the peasant rebellions [against the Dutch] in 1926 for example—Communism had been banned. Not only banned, but people who were involved in these rebellions were captured, then exiled to Boven Digul. These were people who had understood the cost of their political choice. But it gave birth to the wrong conception, that these people were horrible criminals. They weren’t criminals! They were people who did so much for this country. They defended the rights of our nation to be sovereign. I think our young comrades have to apprehend this—in this country, Communism has never been granted life by the law. It has been surviving and growing through its own struggles.

On the Question of Sovereignty and the Future of the Left

IS: You emphasized several times in your book that Indonesia, like many other nations in the “third world,” was caught in the middle of foreign politics. We were being sucked into the Cold War current. Indonesians were pitted against each other by the hands of the imperialist superpowers in their efforts to destroy Communism. You argued that this is the reason why sovereignty is extremely important, so that we won’t be forever played like puppets (wayang). Can you talk a little bit more about sovereignty, and in what ways a nation like Indonesia can stand on its own feet and determine its own fate?

TSL: OK, I have to say one thing. Now we hear a lot about Trisakti [economic independence, political sovereignty, and cultural autonomy]—you know, the slogan that the current [Jokowi] regime keeps on boasting.27 Trisakti actually came out of Communism. When did we have this? When the majority of our people had the pride and courage to make a stance: to accept what we should accept, and to reject what must be rejected. For example, about being sovereign (berdikari). What is the key to sovereignty? Our own production. If we can’t produce our own goods for our needs, all the talk about sovereignty is nothing but empty words. And where did we get this wisdom? From the Soviet Union. Sukarno learned how the Soviet Union could win against Germany in the Second World War, and then came to the realization that sovereignty was the key. Only when you’re sovereign you can achieve great things. So berdikari is not merely jargon [as it seems to be used by the current regime].

IS: This talk about sovereignty also reminds me of what you said regarding capital. Quoting Sukarno, you explained that human beings are determined by their material conditions—an idea that, to my knowledge, is held by Marxists. And you argued that human societies would lose their humanity if they keep following the ways of capital. The question is—how can oppressed nations struggle against the forces of capital?

TSL: A nation can have control over its own production if they are free and independent. So to achieve this, what should be done? We need to refer to the principles of the “Revolution Development” (Pembangunan Revolusi). If we can’t achieve that, or worse, can’t understand that, don’t expect to gain sovereignty. And to understand these principles, we need to go back to what I said about a nation’s “historical mission.” What is Indonesia’s mission? To free ourselves from oppression by the imperialist powers.28 And we need to build strong political organizations that can help us achieve this.

IS: Speaking of the struggle to free ourselves from imperialist powers, we just commemorated the sixtieth anniversary of the Asia-Africa (Bandung) Conference. So after sixty years, what do you think—can we, the “third world,” the oppressed nations, continue our struggle against imperialism and form a solid movement based on solidarity?

TSL: Ideally, we can. And we should. But it’s difficult in practice. As long as we haven’t been able to unite the oppressed nations, we can’t achieve that. And that’s the biggest problem—we’re still not united.

IS: In the end, maybe we can talk a little bit about the future, about the next direction based on what we have learned from the past. It’s been fifty years since the G30S happened, and it’s been seventy years since Indonesia declared its independence. As a nation, what are the lessons that we need to learn from all the painful experiences we’ve had? And what messages would you like to convey to the Indonesian left today?

TSL: One of the direst consequences of the G30S and the rise of the New Order was the decapitation of the Indonesian left. We were knocked down, and for fifty years we could do nothing. Imagine—we could not get back up! Even a boxer in the ring can usually get up before the count of ten. But it’s been half a century for us.

When the G30S happened, the defeated Indonesian left could only point their finger at D. N. Aidit. He was blamed for everything. In some ways, yes, it’s understandable that he had to bear the responsibility for what happened as the number-one person in the PKI. We could say it was a failure. But it’s not right if we only hold on to this way of thinking. What came out of it was nothing but blame and arrogance. They all said back then, “If only you people had listened to me, or followed me, this disaster wouldn’t have happened!” This shows arrogance—they basically appointed themselves as the smartest ones, the most righteous of all. So this was what happened after the G30S, this kind of development. And perhaps this can help explain why we could not get back up after being knocked down. I haven’t seen signs of the rise of the left. Maybe it’s caused by a disappointment that was too big. I wonder if this can be healed. If we can go past this, then it will be good. If not, we’ll be carried away by this tsunami forever. It’s not really a cheerful answer, is it?

So yes, the left has been destroyed. But—OK, this may sound like a message from someone who’s waiting for death—don’t give up! Keep on going. Where? Well, to your destination. What is the destination? To build strong political organizations. One thing, though—all this totally depends on the young generation. What about the old one? Don’t count on them. They have plenty of problems, complicated ones.

IS: But there is hope.

TSL: Of course there is! If we don’t even have that belief, let’s just go back to our slumber [laughs].

IS: Last but not least, what lessons might be drawn from the world socialist movement that is now reemerging, sometimes referred to as the Movement Toward Socialism?

TSL: We should not collide against each other. In the 1960s, many times, when the Soviet Union did something, China would disagree, and vice versa. Whenever Yugoslavia did something, the Soviet Union objected. But if we see the reality of what happens in Latin America, I think we need to learn from the concrete things that our comrades there have done. We don’t need to envy them, we must learn from them instead. From this, we’ll gain experience and knowledge from a diversity of nations—we’ll learn from each other and appreciate each other’s achievements. It’s about solidarity among socialists.


  1. See John Roosa,Pretext for Mass Murder(Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006); Robert Cribb, “Genocide in Indonesia, 1965–1966,”Journal of Genocide Research3, no. 2 (2001): 219­­–39; Saskia Eleonora Wieringa, “Sexual Slander and the 1965/66 Mass Killings in Indonesia,”Journal of Contemporary Asia41, no. 4 (November 2011): 544–65.
  2. Wieringa, “Sexual Slander and the 1965/66 Mass Killings in Indonesia,” 548; The Editors, “September 30, 1965,” Preface to Benedict Anderson, “Petrus Dadi Ratu,”New Left Review3 (May–June 2000): 5.
  3. InPretext for Mass Murder, Roosa describes Sudisman’s (a PKI leader) speech before his 1967 military tribunal. Sudisman claimed that the PKI “considered the movement as ‘an internal Army matter.'” This means that the Party, as an institution, “knew nothing” about the movement. Moreover, Sudisman stated that “a group of progressive military officers acted on their own initiative, and certain members of the Party, acting as individuals and without informing or coordinating with formal Party organizations, provided assistance to those officers” (74). Drawing on the U.S. Embassy’s and the CIA’s reports, Gabriel Kolko states that “the most probable explanation [of the event] is that it was primarily an internal military struggle with which both Aidit (the PKI chairman) and Sukarno maintained a cautious but essentially opportunistic relationship.” Gabriel Kolko,Confronting the Third World(New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), 178.
  4. John Pilger’s quote was taken from his documentary on Indonesia and globalization, The New Rulers of the World, 2001, Reston’s column includes the story of the rise of Suharto as a part of a report on “the more helpful political developments elsewhere [besides Vietnam] in Asia”; James Reston, “A Gleam of Light in Asia,”New York Times, June 19, 1966. The quote fromTime magazine was taken from “Vengeance with a Smile,”Time, July 15, 1966, 22–26. It favorably reports the rise of Suharto’s regime that marked the end of Sukarno—whose “hatred for the West made the Kremlin seem a neutralist”—after two decades of “egotistical misrule.” Then it continues to nonchalantly report the killings in East Java, where the heads of decapitated “suspected Communists” were “impaled on poles outside their front doors for widows and children to see.” But “there was little remorse anywhere,” the article assures, and it ends with a cheerful conclusion—”Indonesia’s dramatic new stance needs no additional push to make it more than what it is: the West’s best news for years in Asia.”
  5. Scholars who argued that this accusation was unsupported by evidence include Benedict Anderson, Ruth McVey, and Harold Crouch; see Roosa,Pretext for Mass Murder, 73.
  6. Rex Mortimer,Indonesian Communism under Sukarno(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974), 19. The PKI was officially born in May 23, 1920, as a “synthesis of Marxism and the Indonesian workers’ movement”; D.N. Aidit,Kibarkan Tinggi Panji Revolusi!(Jakarta: Yayasan Pembaruan, 1964), 9. However, the Party’s development could be traced back to shortly before the First World War broke out, when it began as a Marxist socialist organization founded in the Netherlands Indies. As Ruth McVey writes, “it can claim to be the oldest major Indonesian party and the first Communist movement to be established in Asia beyond the borders of the former Russian Empire”;The Rise of Indonesian Communism(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1965), xi. Within a few decades, failed revolutionary attempts—especially the 1926 rebellion against the imperialist Dutch, who then outlawed the Party—forced the PKI to go underground and see many of its leaders and cadres executed or exiled, before it “was allowed to surface again” not long after the Madiun affair in 1948. In 1951, D.N. Aidit and his young colleagues took the leadership of the Party, and under this leadership, it grew rapidly. In August 1965, the Party claimed approximately three million members, along with millions more members in their affiliated organizations; see Mortimer,Indonesian Communism Under Sukarno,41–42, 366.
  7. The term “1965” is often used by the public to address the G30S and its aftermath. Scholars usually apply the 1965–1966 timeframe in their discussion of the mass killings, referring to the most intense period of the massacre. But “occasional flare-ups” continued in different parts of the archipelago until 1969. Many have suggested different numbers for the massacre victims—the common estimate ranges from approximately 500,000 to around a million; Robert Cribb, “Introduction: Problems in the Historiography of the Killings in Indonesia,” in Robert Cribb, ed.,The Indonesian Killings, 1965–1966(Clayton, Australia: Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University, 1990), 3, 12. Sarwo Edhie, the commander of the RPKAD, an army unit that held a major role in the mass killings, claimed that the number reached three million. But as Roosa notes, all these numbers are largely guesses: “No careful, comprehensive investigations have been conducted”;Pretext for Mass Murder, 261.
  8. See Cribb, “Introduction,” 26; Wieringa, “Sexual Slander and the 1965/66 Mass Killings in Indonesia,” 545, 552. Wieringa also mentions a confession by members of Ansor in a meeting that was set up locally by Syarikat Islam (SI/Islamic Union) in 2003 as a “reconciliation effort.” They declared in tears that they slaughtered the PKI members because “they thought they had been doing the right thing” by “‘cleansing’ society from the perceived Communist evil.” Moreover, “in any case, they said, they had little choice as they had acted under threat of the military.”
  9. Cribb, “Genocide in Indonesia, 1965–1966,” 235.
  10. Bradley Simpson, “International Dimensions of the 1965–68 Violence in Indonesia,” in Douglas Kammen and Katherine McGreggor, eds.,The Contours of Mass Violence in Indonesia (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2012), 58, 62–63; The Editors, “Notes from the Editors,”Monthly Review 67, no. 5 (October 2015): c2; Kolko,Confronting the Third World, 181.
  11. Simpson, “International Dimensions of the 1965–68 Violence in Indonesia,” 62; The CIA quote was cited in Jonah Weiner, “The Weird Genius of ‘The Act of Killing,’New Yorker, July 15, 2013.
  12. Cribb, “Genocide in Indonesia, 1965–1966,” 236. Cribb’s estimate for the number of people in detention was also used by Roosa inPretext for Mass Murder.
  13. About Tan Swie Ling: Raised in poverty, Tan could not enjoy the privilege of receiving “proper” education. But even in his early youth, he was active in organizations, and activism has been an intimate part of his life since then. He moved to Jakarta in 1964 and acted as secretary general of Permusyawaratan Pemuda Indonesia (PPI/The Consultative Association of Indonesian Youth). PPI is an independent youth organization but often regarded as an affiliate of Baperki (see note 17). Since the fall of Suharto in 1998, Tan has been active in an organization built and run by him and his colleagues, which focuses mostly on the sociopolitical issues that relate to the Chinese Indonesian community, including racism against them. The organization used to publish magazines titledSinergi Warga BangsaandSinergi Indonesia. Since 2003, the organization became known as LKSI (Lembaga Kajian Sinergi Indonesia or “the Institution for the Study of Indonesian Synergy”), in which he is a chair. Tan has also written several books, among them areG30S 1965, Perang Dingin, dan Kehancuran Nasionalisme: Pemikiran Cina Jelata Korban Orba [The September 30th Movement 1965, the Cold War, and the Destruction of Nationalism: Thoughts of a Chinese Plebeian, a Victim of the New Order] (Jakarta: Komunitas Bambu, 2010), andMasa Gelap Pancasila: Wajah Nasionalisme Indonesia[The Dark Period ofPancasila: The Face of Indonesian Nationalism] (Depok: Ruas, 2014).
  14. Sudisman was a member of the PKI Politburo’s Dewan Harian(Working Committee), the center of the Party leadership. He also served as the Party’s secretary general throughout Sukarno’s Guided Democracy. Along with four other colleagues—D. N. Aidit, M. H. Lukman, Njoto, and Sakirman—Sudisman had taken over the leadership of the Party in 1951. Aidit, Lukman, and Njoto were “secretly executed by the military” in late 1965; Rossa,Pretext for Mass Murder, 74, 140. In his “dignified and moving speech” to the court, Sudisman “refused to plead for his life, aligning himself instead with the fate of his fallen colleagues” (he specified that “all four are dead,” including Sakirman). Sudisman himself was sentenced to death by the military tribunal in 1967; Mortimer,Indonesian Communism Under Sukarno, 12–13. The moment before Sudisman was moved from the military prison (RTM) to be executed, Tan managed to say an impromptu goodbye to his beloved friend by singing a PKI hymn, “Ode to the Party”—amidst the guards with guns who surrounded them. He writes, “I will always remember Sudisman, a Communist leader whom I admire and respect”; Tan,G30S 1965, Perang Dingin, dan Kehancuran Nasionalisme, 275.
  15. The interview took place on August 30, 2015. It was done in Bahasa Indonesia. All translations are mine. I am indebted to several individuals who offered their kind help and friendship. They made this interview possible.
  16. Tan,G30S 1965, Perang Dingin, dan Kehancuran Nasionalisme. This is the book that I referred to in my questions throughout the interview. The interview can serve, among other things, as a brief version of what Tan explains in this book.
  17. Baperki stands for Badan Permusyawaratan Kewarganegaraan Indonesia (“The Consultative Body for Indonesian Citizenship”), an organization founded in 1954 by Indonesians of Chinese descent. After the G30S, the New Order banned the organization. Baperki’s university in Jakarta, Res Publica, was burned, and many of its leaders and members became victims of the G30S aftermath, because the organization was seen as closely tied with the PKI; see for example Joseph Saunders,Academic Freedom in Indonesia(New York: Human Rights Watch, 1998).
  18. Chinese minorities in Indonesia have been subjected to “discrimination, harassment and occasional pogroms for the last 250 years.” Due to their vulnerable position, they often became the “scapegoats sacrificed in times of social unrest”; Cribb, “Genocide in Indonesia, 1965–1966,” 235; Dan La Botz,Made in Indonesia(Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2001), 62. Discriminatory practices inherited from the long history of colonization continued to serve as a “master’s tool” in the New Order’s racist politics. As an activist, Tan played a significant role in several political achievements in fighting these practices, although his role has been largely underestimated. These achievements include the amendment of the 6th and 26th clauses of UUD45—that previously served as a means to discriminate against “non-pribumi” (“non-natives”) through the use of term “Indonesia asli” (“native Indonesian”) to determine political rights and citizenship. Tan coordinated a team to propose the amendment to the parliament in 2000. The proposal was accepted. Another achievement was the successful effort to abolish SBKRI—a legal note required to prove one’s citizenship, a burden placed mostly on Chinese Indonesians. Due to this, many were prevented from gaining basic rights as citizens. The success was marked by the issuance of a new citizenship regulation in 2006; see Tan,G30S 1965, Perang Dingin, dan Kehancuran Nasionalisme, 409–14, 464, 469–81.
  19. The Non-Aligned Movement—consisting of a group of mostly newly independent countries—was established in Belgrade in 1961. But the initiative came from “the first major conference of developing countries of Africa and Asia” in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955. The conference was attended by twenty-nine states, with Indonesia as one of the five sponsoring countries. They gathered to discuss “ways and means by which their peoples could achieve fuller economic, cultural and political cooperation” as sovereign nations in the polarized world of the Cold War. Moreover, the states aimed at “formulating their own independent positions” that reflected their interests as developing countries; see Odette Jankowitsch and Karl P. Sauvant, “Introduction: The Non-Aligned Countries,” in Jankowitsch and Sauvant, eds.,The Third World without Superpowers, vol. 1 (Dobbs Ferry: Oceana Publications, 1978), xxxi–xxxii.
  20. Tan (G30S 1965, Perang Dingin, dan Kehancuran Nasionalisme, 113–15) explains that the United States took advantage of its position as the head of UN-formed Good Offices Committee (KTN) in the Renville Agreement in 1947. Their aim was to take control of the conflict resolution between Indonesia and the Netherlands, in line with U.S. interests of preventing the spread of Communism—the fundamental basis of U.S. foreign policy in the Cold War era, following the end of the Second World War.
  21. Dipa Nusantara Aidit (referred to as D.N. Aidit) was the chairman of the PKI Central Committee (see also notes 6 and 14). He joined the illegal PKI in 1943, and was elected to the PKI Central Committee in 1947. In early September 1948, he became a full member of the Politburo; Mortimer,Indonesian Communism Under Sukarno, 35–38.
  22. By 1965, the PKI was a major player among the three contending forces within nationalist movements in Indonesia. These three were labeled developmentalist (nationalist), Islamic (religion), and Communist; see Cribb, “Genocide in Indonesia, 1965–1966,” 226. After the devastating Madiun affair in 1948—a PKI-supported land reform movement that was “ruthlessly suppressed” by the military—the PKI acted cautiously in politics and loyally endorsed Sukarno “as a counterbalance to the power of the military.” It had relied on peaceful means and focused on securing parliamentary power. Thus, when attacked in the G30S aftermath, the PKI could not resist “because it had long since ceased to be revolutionary”; Kolko,Confronting the Third World, 174, 179–80. In his book, Tan argues that—despite the Party’s repetitious talk about the need to defend oneself against attacks—it became too entrenched in their “parliamentary dance.” The Party “failed to understand the concrete form of imperialism, how it worked and how powerful it was.” As a result, Tan writes, the PKI underestimated its enemy and lost the “class survival” ability required in a revolutionary struggle; Tan,G30S 1965, Perang Dingin, dan Kehancuran Nasionalisme, 185.
  23. Gerwani stands for Gerakan Wanita Indonesia (Indonesian Women’s Movement), a socialist, feminist organization closely affiliated with the PKI. One of the myths of the Gerwani women perpetuated by the New Order includes how they severed the abducted army generals’ genitals and gouged their eyes, as well as danced erotically while naked, during the G30S event in Lubang Buaya; see Wieringa, “Sexual Slander and the 1965/66 Mass Killings in Indonesia,” 551.
  24. Pancasila is the “five principles” that serve as the foundations of the Republic’s state philosophy. It was enunciated by Sukarno in 1945—the year Indonesia won its independence—with the hope of uniting, among others, the various ethnic communities and “separate currents of nationalism” that existed within the archipelago. The PKI announced that they adhered to Pancasila in 1954; see Mortimer,Indonesian Communism under Sukarno, 66–67; J.D. Legge,Sukarno: A Political Biography (New York: Praeger, 1972), 184–85. Suharto’s New Order framed the G30S event as the PKI’s betrayal of Pancasila and, from then onwards, October 1 has been designated as the national day to commemorate the “sanctity” of (kesaktian) Pancasila and the defeat of the “Communist traitors.”
  25. General A. H. Nasution was the army chief of staff under Sukarno. Nasution’s profound belief in the military’s mandate in helping run the nation led Sukarno to replace him in mid-1962 with “a slightly less dangerous new chief”; Kolko,Confronting the Third World, 176. Nasution was serving as the defense minister when the G30S happened. Having managed to escape from the kidnapping attempt, he later approached U.S. Ambassador Marshall Green through his aide, “to request portable communications equipment for use by the Army high command”; Bradley Simpson, “International Dimensions of the 1965–68 Violence in Indonesia,” 58. In the 1950s and ’60s, due to his internationally published book,Fundamentals of Guerilla War, Nasution was “widely presented as a man who could use guerilla tactics against left-wing insurgencies”; Robert Cribb, “Military Strategy in the Indonesian Revolution,”War and Society19, no.2 (October 2001): 143. In 1966, Nasution became the head of the Indonesian parliament (MPRS), the institution that named Suharto as the acting president in 1967 and inaugurated him in 1968.
  26. It turned out that Jokowi refused to give an apology. He delivered his statement of refusal to the reporters after the commemoration ofkesaktianPancasila in Lubang Buaya on October 1. He stated, “I have no thoughts about apologizing, up until this moment I have had no such thought”; Ina Parlina and Fedina S. Sundaryani, “Jokowi rejects apology, promotes stability,”Jakarta Post, October 2, 2015, 1.
  27. The slogan is: “Being independent economically, being sovereign in politics, and having a character in culture”; see Sukarno,Dibawah Bendera Revolusi, Vol. 2 (Jakarta: Panitia Penerbit Dibawah Bendera Revolusi, 1965), 587.
  28. The discussion oftugas sejarahin Tan’s analysis is closely related to his concepts ofkebangsaan(which can be translated as “nation and character building”—a concept that was also popular during the Sukarno era) and what he calls “nationalism.” In the interview, Tan said that his work is by no means final, but he came to the conclusion that these issues must be understood within a Marxist perspective, a historical-materialist approach. In his view, countries like Indonesia, as opposed to countries like the United States or those in Western Europe, have different “missions.” Indonesia was born out of the oppression by the imperialist powers. And this should have led to the awareness of its peoples to rise, to unite together to fight imperialist exploitation and oppression. The point is that Indonesia, as a nation, was shaped out of thestruggle of a colonized nation against its oppressors; see Tan,Masa Gelap Pancasila, 23–29.
Comments are closed.