John Gittings

The Black Hole of Bali

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More than half a century after the appalling Indonesian massacre of 1965-66, information and discussion of what really happened is still resisted by powerful political forces there, especially in the armed forces and among hardline Muslim militia. Western media too have never paid much attention to it, and already in 1990 the 25 years' anniversary was widely ignored. Fortunately The Guardian decided to send me to write a special feature which I think is still worth reproducing. The truth, as I found out, never lay far beneath the surface.


The Guardian, "Inside Story", Saturday-Sunday 8-9 September 1990.

The 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.

John Gittings reports:


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 seven generations.”

The massacre of at least a quarter of a million Indonesians -- it could be twice as many -~ 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 per-fect 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 oc-cupies several hectares of well-lawned land.

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 Seventies.

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 since.

 The confident 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 to take 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 could not interrogate him.” 

There is more still to the mystery of  the Suharto-Latief  relationship. Latief's  real role was to monitor Suharto on behalf of 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 Suharto's loyalty to President Sukarno. “l looked in his eye and could see that Sukarno had lost the game. Suharto hated the President." Several com-manders 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  communists”. 

Dossiers of the atrocities committed  intensively in October to December oi  i965 and several years to come, make  grimly repetitive reading. 

The well, the forest, the river, the sea,  and then again the well. Allfavoured  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 disembowclled 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 suspects  --  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  ashamed.” 

“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 Su-  harto 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- finding 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 under-reported.

 In Denpasar, 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.)  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 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 Zreo 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.  



The Guardian,24 November 1990

John Gittings

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.

Pramoedya  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 Buru Island.

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 area. 

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 friends. 

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.