BLACK HOLE OF BALI
Guardian, "Inside Story",
massacre of some 250,000 Indonesians in 1966 has remained the atrocity that
everyone preferred to forget. That is until now. President Suharto is seeking
re-election but faces tough opposition as the terrible truth comes out.
SUNSET in Bali, the sky suddenly
black but with
great splashes of stars. Geckos croak, dogs bark, a fan whirrs. The small
balding ex-civil servant ﬁnally gets to the point, smiling nervously. I am
about to hear a horrible tale of what happened on this magic island 25 years
ago. “The killings were so very cruel. A hundred in a line, chop, chop,
chop." He makes a cutting gesture
as if wielding a paddy knife. “All dead in a hole. Another hundred." He
points vaguely into the darkness down the lane: "All dead in a well.”
Then he smiles again. “It was terrible -- the White and the Red."
The White? He
slaps the bare wall behind him. “The killers put whitewash in the eyes of the victims.
So the eyes would not take their picture to the other world." The Red? He
dabs his ﬁnger in an imaginary puddle, and moistens his tongue. “Then they
drank the blood. So that the spirits of the dead would not follow them for
The massacre of at least a quarter of a million
Indonesians -- it could be twice as many -~ which began late in 1965, is the most over-
looked atrocity of the past half century. It was carried out under the guidance
of the army, which effectively rules the country today. But if the West knows
little about this atrocity, most Indonesians know even less. Twenty-ﬁve years
ago, President Sukarno, the founder of independent Indonesia after the war,
ruled ﬂamboyantly holding together an uneasy coalition of Muslims, communists
and the army. Friendly with Beijing, Sukarno was regarded by the US as just as
big a threat to their interests as the communists in Vietnam.
The coalition came apart on September 30, 1965 when
six generals were killed in a botched left-wing coup. Then came the real
slaughter as the army took its revenge on a grand scale, with background
applause from Washington.
The little-known General Suharto, who had
mysteriously escaped assassination, co-ordinated the killings. The charismatic
communist leader Aidit, accused of plotting the original botched coup, was shot
without trial. The anti-left pogrom killed thousands who had never even heard
of Karl Marx while old scores were settled. Deprived of mass support, Sukarno
had to resign in March 1968 (he died in isolation two years later) and Suharto
has occupied the presidential palace ever since.
A quarter of a million people don't usually
disappear without someone taking notice. But in western terms the right side
won, and besides Indonesian politics have always been obscure.
Silence was also enforced by the man who beneﬁted
most from the killings —President Suharto himself. The bodies have not been
disinterred. There has been no Argentinian-style inquiry into those who
disappeared. No statistics have ever been compiled. Only recently has a group
of ex-political prisoners dared to begin compilation of a grim dossier. But my
friend on the north coast of Bali knows who did the killings — for a very good
reason: he was one of the killers. This mild little man had learnt how to ﬁght
in the bitter struggle against the Dutch after the Japanese surrender in 1945.
Not to have joined the death squads in 1965 might have made him a target
instead. (Many innocent people died because they had scruples, or because they
had stolen someone’s cow or someone's wife, or just because they were too
rich.) Yet he insists on blaming the massacre on the communists: “They had
prepared their own holes in the ground. They were very strong in the villages. If
the coup had succeeded in September, they would have done the same.”
The killings which are officially remembered are
those of that night - September 30, 1965 when six generals and one officer were
seized in a ragged coup and their bodies dumped in a well near Halim Airbase on
the coast outside Jakarta. The site at Crocodiles Hole IHoole is now an
open-air memorial to the official version
which gave the army the perfect
pretext for its anti-communist purge, setting
General Suharto of the Security Reserve en route to the palace.
The brown earthen shaft of the well is now enclosed
in a ﬁne marble platform surmounted by a
traditionally carved teak pavilion. Life-size ﬁgures of the seven victims tower
on a plinth above a frieze depicting what is supposed to have happened that
night. In the central scene, the officers are bound and tipped head-ﬁrst down
the shaft while laughing, “communist women" in ﬂimsy upper garments frolic
in the foreground. The memorial to the seven occupies several hectares of well-lawned
The hundreds of thousands who then died in Bali —
famous for its elaborate rituals of cremation -- and all over Java had no
funeral. Foreigners who tackled the events of 1965-66, writing in the early
Seventies before the world lost interest, mostly ended up by invoking the mysteries
of "Javanese political culture" and the wayang puppet play to conclude that what
really happened was
unfathomable. So many scenarios , . . So many tales . . . Was it the Communist
Party (PKI) led by Secretary-General Aidit, encouraged by China with its theory
of Peoples War, which launched
the coup? Or was it a botched
attempt by left-wing officers with which the communists reluctantly went along?
Was it instead the work of a right-wing army faction manufacturing a provocation
from which it could then profit? Was the CIA involved, supplying the names for
an anti-communist hit-list? And what about General Suharto waiting in the wings
. . . ?
Tongues are stirring again 25 years on in Jakarta,
partly because Suharto's desire to run again as President in the next elections
in 1993 has divided the Establishment. There is talk of tape recordings by 1965
participants being lodged in the banks. A security chief has published his
memoirs. Sukarnoites and ex-political prisoners, some still with friends in
high places, exchange tales they heard and never forgot in the prison camps of
The truth, as I recently discovered in Jakarta, is
not so shadowy, though much more research needs to be done. The story cuts
across the classic rival theories of right and left. The communist leader Aidit
played a crucial and ultimately fatal role. Suharto has a massive case to
answer. The US name-list did not cause the massacre, but Washington was
pressing hard for action.
Aidit, the son of a Sumatran forest worker,
controlled the largest non-ruling party in the world with a membership of three
million backed by mass organisations which included more than a tenth of the Indonesian
population. When the army blamed Aidit and his party for the failed coup, many
independent observers doubted the charge. Why should a strong legal party
launch such an ill-prepared challenge, at a time when President Sukarno was
moving further to the left, and thus open the door to its own bloody suppression?
Why did its members not flood the streets after the September 30 coup? And how
did such a coup square with the doctrine of revolution only being possible from
“below”, not in any way from "above"?
Aidit fled to Central Java and was picked up by a
subordinate of General Suharto who had instructed him to “clear things up”. He
did so literally by executing his prisoner and dropping his body in a well. So
Aidit never stood trial.
Yet the real truth could not remain hidden in the
camps where senior communists and left-wingers shared rats to keep alive. It
was ﬁrst revealed at a PKI secret meeting in December 1965 after Aidit’s death.
“Why were we so stupid to believe without reservation our Comrade Chairman?”
lamented the only surviving senior Politburo member, Sudisman. “There have been
two parties, one legal according to our constitution, and the other illegal.”
He was referring to the “Biro Khusus”_ or Special Bureau, a parallel
organisation reporting directly to Aidit. Its job -- to
penetrate the army -- became for Aidit the most important task of all. He
deceived himself by a statistical sleight of hand. Thirty per cent of the army
supported the PKI, including several generals. Another 30 per cent were
neutral. The remaining 40 were hostile. Thirty plus thirty makes 60 ~— the army
is on our side, Aidit concluded. Mao Zedong had used the same argument (even
the same figures) to
convince himself in 1959 that the Chinese people supported the Great Leap
Forward. ln 1965 the Chinese Ambassador
in Jakarta, informed of the calculation, inquired: “Why don't you start?"
The temptation to take out the right-wing generals, who would have seized the
chance to do the same to the PKI, was too strong.
Aidit had just returned from visiting Algeria where
Colonel Boumedienne had recently seized power. Passing through Paris he advised
the exiled Algerian Communists not to spurn the coup but to take to the
streets. “Go back and paint slogans on the walls," he said. That was his
plan in Indonesia too, but when the coup faltered he issued orders to stop mass
action. The secret communication network worked only too well. Aidit‘s orders
reached the outer islands within two days and the Party he had built from
thousands strong to millions was paralysed.
The September 30 coup was a fatal blunder, and yet
there was good reason to fear that the right-wing elements of the army might
otherwise move ﬁrst, with backing from Washington. The American historian
Gabriel Kolko. trawling through declassiﬁed State Department documents, has
found that the entire three months preceding the coup -- covering US
assessments and policy towards Indonesia -- are either closed to researchers or
“missing”. No other period of modern US diplomacy has been sanitised to this
extent. After the coup when the killings began, the US ambassador, Marshall
Green, expressed his admiration for “what the army was doing". The
relatively obscure General Suharto has enjoyed Washington's admiration ever
retired high ofﬁcial in his comfortable sarong goes very quickly off the
record when I ask him about President Suharto’s
role in 1965. l recall the
argument first made by the Dutch
scholar W. F.Wertheim, that Suharto did
not proﬁt from the affair by accident.
We know that he was warned in advance by one of the conspirators, Colonel
Latief. Suharto admits to having met him
“by chance” in a hospital that very
evening. Latief has always claimed
that at an earlier meeting on September 28 he had already informed Suharto that a group of officers were intending
action. If Suharto already knew, why did
he not warn his fellow generals?
The former high official carefully considers the
question “as a military man".
Colonel Latief was a subordinate not of
Suharto but of the garrison commander General Umar. Why did Suharto not
tell Latief to report to his superior
officer? Or, once given vital political
information by Latief, why did Suharto not himself pass it on to General Umar,
or to his own superior, army commander
General Yani (whose life he might have thereby saved)? Only Suharto knows the
answer, the ex-ofﬁcial concludes. “He interrogated others; others
There is more still to the mystery of the Suharto-Latief relationship. Latief's real role was to monitor Suharto on
the Special Bureau so that it could decide whether or not to include him in
the list of targets. On the face
of it, the commander of the Strategic
Reserve should he high on the list. Yet no soldiers kicked down Suharto’s door
that night. Latief, says an ex-prisoner
who knew him in jail, reported
back that Suharto was neutral and could be exempted from assassination.
What the Bureau did not know was that Latief already had a close relationship
with Suharto whose whole family called him
"uncle". Latief is still alive -- but in jail
and not available for interviews.
An ex-minister of Sukarno recalls a conversation when he tried to test
to President Sukarno. “l looked in his eye and could see that Sukarno had lost
the game. Suharto hated the President." Several commanders approached
Sukarno and begged permission to crush
the general who now threatened him.
Sukarno refused: Suharto gambled correctly on
the knowledge that Sukarno valued
unity above all else.
Suharto, explains one survivor, “knew when to move, and when to
keep still." Now he kept quiet and waited for
the chance to stage his own “Java-style coup". While professing loyalty to
Sukarno, he and his colleagues embarked
on what his intelligence chief at the time, General Yoga Sugomo. has
called “the task of pulverising the
Dossiers of the atrocities committed intensively in October to December
of 1965 and several years to come, make grimly repetitive reading.
The well, the forest, the river, the sea, and then again the well. All
favoured spots for disposing of‘ bodies. Prisoners
were blindfolded. hands tied together
with wire, loaded at night-time into trucks, pushed along muddy tracks
to where the soldiers were waiting. Njoto.
a Minister under Sukarno and
number two in the Communist Party, was removed
from prison by Suharto's men who said they had come to “borrow” him.
The body was never found.
Gangs of Muslim youths appeared in quiet villages while terrified neighbours looked on: “At 3pm, without any questions
asked, Sumo Kemin (a peasant in Banjarjo
village) was taken behind his house. His stomach was cut open, his intestines
disembowelled and he was left just
like that. When she saw what had happened, his wife became hysterical.”
Terriﬁed civilians were forced by the army to pick out communist
people they knew and sometimes liked.
“Mrs Y bowed and passed me in
silence,” one collaborator recalls guiltily. “Sri said in
Javanese: ‘How could you do this to us? You don’t
even know if I'm guilty or not.’ "
“Young people used to join the communists just for
the social life," a teenager at the time in Central Java recalls. “They
joined the Youth League for the dancing. Then they got killed. Now the friends
who informed upon them are
“No one went out after 6pm," recalls a Chinese
whose family fled East Java. “They cut
off women’s breasts; they threw so many bodies in the sea that people
were afraid to eat ﬁsh. My brother
still had to serve in the shop. In the morning young Muslims would come in swaggering.
with necklaces of human ears.”
Communal killing was on such a large scale that its apparently popular character has become an alibi for the authorities.
Even liberal critics of Suharto argue that the blood-letting was almost inevitable
in a deeply divided society. “The wild Indonesian masses,” says one ex-minister, “had to be tamed."
The generals claim that though Sukarno
wept he refused to give them permission
to restore order and that the army was
not responsible. But the most convincing
evidence points in the opposite direction. It was the army which sanctioned
the terror and encouraged gangs of nationalist and Muslim youth to settle old scores. In December 1965 Sukarno sent a fact-
mission to investigate the killings, Everywhere it went, it found that the
army had set the agenda. Loyal citizens presented petitions for banning
the PKI, and the number of dead was grossly
capital of Bali, a senior commission
member eventually smuggled himself out through the kitchen with the help of
the maitre d'hotel. Late at night he met a policeman
still loyal to Sukarno who advised him
that the real total of killings was not 3,000 but 30,000. In East Java a military
police chief confessed that the official toll of 5,000 should be multiplied “at
least eight times". On returning to
Jakarta, the commission delivered its
official verdict to the world press that
“only” 80,000 had died throughout
Indonesia. Sukarno was secretly advised that the real ﬁgure must be
between four to six times higher, (roughly 320,000-480,000.) [Newly appointed] Foreign
Minister Adam Malik, who co- ordinated lndonesia’s new anticommunist turn
of foreign policy with the United States,
later said privately that it could be as high as 600.000. There is even one ex-Minister
who today speculates
that it may have reached a million.
Soon after the abortive coup, a US official at the embassy. Robert Martens, was “asked for help" by an aide to
the pro-Western [then] minister of trade
Adam Malik. He obliged with a list of
several thousand names of communists which
he had carefully compiled.
This was unearthed recently by Kathy Kadane. an
American freelance journalist who quoted
Robert Martens as saying: “l probably
have a lot of blood on my hands, but
that’s not all bad.” Mr Martens has
since protested that if he said that “it
could only have been a wry remark“. Ms
Kadane’s story, published in the Washington Post (and also in
the Guardian) was countered by a
New York Times story supporting
Martens’s contention that he was working
entirely alone, without au thorisation from any senior official. But the deputy
chief of the Embassy at the time has
described Martens as “a unique asset”
who did "an amazing job".
Indonesian generals do not deny that information was exchanged with the US. The then head of military intelligence
says “it was a common thing”. But one of
his deputies protests that they did not need any US data to “obliterate the
conmnuiists": the job was done well enough by General Suharto. Gabriel Kolko's
research shows conclusively
that US oficials in both Jakarta and Washington
strongly encouraged Suharto and his allies to act against the communists. ln
November the generals asked for weapons and communication gear to arm the Muslim and nationalist gangs who were hampered
by primitive equipment. The US quickly promised covert
aid, labelled as "medicines". In view
of this clear evidence, Kolko concludes that the controversy over Mar tens’s
list “pales into secondary importance”.
1965 was the Year Zero for the large but invisible
community of “Tapols" in
Indonesia today -- the survivors of the
117,000 political prisoners who were incarcerated for up to 13 years.
They are still not allowed to meet in groups of
more than ﬁve, or travel outside Jakarta without permission.
Foreign travel is banned altogether.
Their ID card number bears the simple
but crippling preﬁx Ex-Tapol.
Seizing any chance to gather on a
legitimate social occasion -- birthday,
wedding or funeral -~ they are instantly
recognisable: lined faces, slow smiles and eyes
that have seen a great deal.
The most famous abroad is Pramodya Ananta Toer, the
writer nominated several times for the
Nobel Prize whose quartet of historical
novels -- all banned in Indonesia ---
was drafted during 13 years on Buru island prison camp.
Pramoedya insists that the term “massacre” should be applied
not just to those who died before the end of
1965, but to the thousands more who died
in the camps. Tapol sources record an incident at Wonogiri, Central Java, on
July 7, 1968, when 112 prisoners
were stripped to their pants and socks,
blind- folded and shot. The only survivor was
a rich Chinese man.
“Barbarism is unforgivable," says Prarnoedya.
“If not now then later, history will condemn.” There was little condemnation at
the time. Instead a senior State
Department official described "the reversal of the communist tide” in
Indonesia as a “historic turning point”.
The Indonesian massacre -- at
least 250 times as large as the Beijing
massacre -- made few headlines. It is time to haul these bodies out of
their black hole.
A WRITER WAITING FOR A CHANGE OF WIND
Guardian,24 November 1990
SARTRE sent him a typewriter: he never received it.
They lived, 17 people in a hut, next to the
ﬁelds they had cleared in the forest.
For three years he had no paper on which to write; for 10, no newspapers -- or
radio. They built dams without cement or stone, and pulled up pampas
grass with their bare hands.
Ananta Toer (“Pram”), one of the
greatest living writers but known only
dimly abroad, was sent to Burn Island by the generals who still run
Indonesia today. He was the most famous
of the 117,000 Tapols -- political prisoners -- seized by the army in 1966 after
an abortive leftwing coup.
Pram’s books are banned in Indonesia -- students get seven years in jail for circulating them -- and his
English translations are out of print. But William Morrow in New York,
with an eye to a future Nobel Prize, now plan to publish all his main works.
They have started with The Fugitive, written during a much earlier spell in a
Dutch colonial prison. Next year they will publish the ﬁrst volume of his
magniﬁcent historical tetralogy This
Earth of Mankind, composed in his head during those pa-perless years on
But Pram, whose whole work has hailed the diversity
of man, is now immured behind a physical and spiritual wall. No Indonesian
journalist may interview him, he must register monthly with the police, and
is conﬁned to the Jakarta
This Earth of Mankind, which dramatises the growth of national consciousness in the anti-Dutch
struggle, sold hundreds of thousands
of copies before being banned. The
Attorney-General claimed it contained “hidden
elements of Marxist ideology.” Pram’s
friends say the real reason for the ban
was more practical: the authorities feared that the enormous royalties might
be used to subsidise his former Tapol
Asked if he would seek permission to accept one of many invitations to
go abroad, Pram replied: what is
the use of begging? The authorities can never
return his liberty, youth, and freedom to write creatively. “We are still prisoners outside prison.” What
was he writing now? “Nothing,” he said. “I stay at home. I meet some friends. I am waiting for
a good wind.”
By the mid-1960s Pram - though not a communist himself -- had become
active in the pro-communist Institute of
People’s Culture (Lekra), and in its
polemics with anti- left writers. Their version of events then has now has prevailed.
He is denied
the right of reply.
There was not much tolerance on either side. But it would
be bizarre to argue that literary
polemics must lead to the prison
island. Pram’s optimism is reserved for
others. One day the youth of Indonesia will discover, he says, that democracy
is more powerful than weapons.