Memories of a Mass Slaughter Could Prevent One in Indonesia

The 1965-66 killings make Javanese less apt to become violent despite poverty and repressive measures.

In the cemetery at the river's edge, under the floppy banana leaves and towering coconut palms, lie three reasons why a popular revolution will be a long time coming in Indonesia.

"Here is Sutomo," Jamari the cabinetmaker says, walking along the grassy, muddy ridges that divide the graves. "And this is Karni, and over there is Padibungkik." The names are those of three men of this village who made the mistake of being communists in the Indonesia of the 1960s. They and perhaps 500,000 other Indonesians died in late 1965 and 1966, targets of an anticommunist onslaught that the US Central Intelligence Agency calls remarkably unpublicized given its relatively high ranking in modern history's hit parade of mass murder.

But the killing spree needs no publicity in Indonesia, where those in their late 30s and older live with their memories and those younger have been told of the human cost of revolution. In a country where a staggering economic crisis has caused some people to want a change of government, many are plainly afraid to push openly for a new leader.

One hears the phrase over and over - from protesters and professors, in villages and air-conditioned offices - "it could happen again."

Bad memories

Mr. Jamari is a wiry man with a narrow, lined face and arched eyebrows that pop up whenever he smiles or squints his eyes in thought. Today he is wearing a neat polo shirt, buttoned at the neck, and the skirt-like cotton wrap worn by men all over Southeast Asia.

He is a carpenter and cabinetmaker, but work is slow these days. All over Indonesia, people find themselves increasingly short of money as prices for food double and triple.

Villagers like Jamari struggle to understand why Indonesia's currency has lost three-quarters of its international buying power during the past eight months, but they know for a fact they can no longer afford to eat rice, their staple food, with every meal.

Some of them blame President Suharto, who has led this country for more than 32 years. By and large he has made Indonesia less poor, better educated, and better fed than when he took over.

Lately the economy has faltered, partly because Mr. Suharto now presides over a collusive and nepotistic ruling establishment determined to enrich itself.

"What people here want is for the president to change. But people are afraid to talk about this - they are afraid 1965 will happen again. They are afraid the Army will come and take them away in the middle of the night," Jamari says.

And from this village, he is asked, were many taken away?

Jamari pauses as the names come back. He begins counting them off on his fingers, including Karni and Sutomo and Padibungkik.

He can think of nine, all men, all members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). Some were killed in the village. Others were abducted and never heard from again. Back then, Jamari says, 800 people lived in Sumurup.

Karni, an official of the village government, was among the first to die. A group from a neighboring village, members of a Muslim youth group known as Ansor, came to Sumurup one night in November 1965. Karni hid, but the mob found him in a cemetery not far from the one he would soon be buried in.

Suharto's role

Several weeks before the mob showed up in Jamari's village, renegade soldiers had seized and killed six top generals in Indonesia's Army.

The assassinations were the galvanizing moment in a years-long struggle between the PKI and a powerful and resolutely anticommunist military.

A general named Suharto quickly took control of the military and countered what seemed to be a coup attempt by the communists.

The role of Indonesia's president at the time, Sukarno, remains ambiguous, but the murder of the generals ultimately left him powerless and Suharto in charge of the country.

In the meantime the military seized the opportunity to liquidate the PKI.

Historians of the era say the Army did relatively little killing, but soldiers guided bands of youths and vigilantes, equipped them with weapons, and rounded up suspected communists.

Muslim groups, who had long competed with the communists for influence, took a leading role, but a variety of animosities were vented.

Muslims also attacked Christians, members of the Dayak tribe in Borneo lashed out at Chinese immigrants, and people on some of Indonesia's outlying islands killed those from the main island of Java.

The worst of the killings took place in East and Central Java, where the PKI was strongest.

Possible recurrence?

Could this bloodletting indeed happen again? Indonesia today lacks the polarizing conflict of the cold-war era, but that realization does little to ease the memories of 1965.

One Western economist, speaking on condition of anonymity, says Indonesians of Chinese origin might be victims of wide-scale violence if tensions were to escalate.

There are only 6 million Chinese Indonesians in this nation of 200 million people, but they control two-thirds of the economy and are the objects of envy.

A sociologist at a prominent university, also speaking on condition of anonymity, posits a different scenario. "What frightens me is that there are some parts of the military that could easily mobilize Muslim radicals ... and they could start conflict."

Keeping the peace within the armed forces is crucial, this analyst says. "The military tries very hard not to show any friction, because the only group that can initiate conflict now equal to the magnitude we had in 1965 is the military."

The memories also keep democracy activists from challenging the authorities too aggressively, although some students have clashed with police during the past two weeks.

Interviewed amid thousands of protesting university students in the central Javanese city of Yogyakarta, a demonstrator concedes the time might come to take stronger action if Suharto's government proves unable to improve the economy.

"Patience has a limit," says Priyo Yuwono, a junior high school teacher who took the day off from work to attend the rally. "But I do not want a bloody revolution. Revolution for us is too expensive."

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