The mass killings of 1965, or, why I don’t like surfing east Bali’s beaches

A hot day in December, 1965. I was nine years old, a blond, sun-crisped Bali bulé boy, and a Balinese man I’d never seen before hunched on the parlor sofa of my parent’s house in Klungkung, east Bali. He reeked of fright: acrid, bitter, biting. He was silent, hands clasped between his knees. A former member of a Communist party’s community organization, he was helpless, hopeless, marked for death, a marking that painted not by gray-skinned pallor but by stink. I’ll never forget that smell.

Outside on the street in front of our house marched squads of Balinese men in black with machetes and spears, some with guns. The taming–the killing teams. Efficient. Deadly.

They were the victorious nationalists, rampant and on the hunt for Communists, who only a year previously were poised for political power and the control of the country’s future. In those black, brutal months, with a madness sweeping over the island, an estimated 50000 Balinese were slaughtered by other Balinese, killed for being Communists and for being leftist and for having said the wrong thing, even (in one recorded case) for having provided a pressure lantern for a Communist mass rally.

Klungkung had a large PKI presence, with many of the high caste Brahman families being party members. Kids I’d played with on the streets and fields and banyan trees simply disappeared. Thousands of corpses were tossed into estuary ravines by the seashore, and into the ocean itself. A journalist staying with us told of seeing a raft of bodies floating in the surf, sharks leisurely feeding.

This is why I don’t like surfing the eastern black sand beaches and sandstone ledges. There’s something spooky to that water, the roaring surf, the deep offshore trenches. There’s one particular place near Klungkung, now on the surf guide radar, that I’ve flatly refused to surf — I get goosebumps just standing on the beach.

When we moved to Gianyar when I was a teen, I had to will myself to paddle out at Lebih beach and the breaks around there, but I never lasted long. It wasn’t sharks, or being out alone—the other world, the what the Balinese call the unseen realm, shimmered very close all around me. The Balinese have a word for places like this–angker–and they would know exactly what I’m talking about, which is not really “spooky” but mystical, spiritually charged, dangerous.

I don’t know how many visiting surfers, or even resident expat surfers, know of this dark and terrible chapter of modern Balinese history, but I can tell you that every Balinese of a certain age has memories of that violent time, memories they are reluctant to talk about. Every coastal village and town in Bali that has turned into a surfing destination hides its own secret killing fields, its forgotten burial grounds.

Here’s a photo from 1964, of civilians receiving quasi-military training in the public Denpasar Puputan square. I don’t know if these men are leftists, in which case they would soon be killed, or nationalists, in which case they would be doing the killing.

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15 Responses to The mass killings of 1965, or, why I don’t like surfing east Bali’s beaches

  1. a well-written and very impactful personal account. thank you. i have brahmana friends in klungkung who were born near that moment, and as a result, with parents dead or in flight/hiding, they were unable (ever) to complete the normal ceremonies for their birth and early life, and so they to this day (in contrast to the rest of their families, with whom they live) do not have their brahmana titles (a simple “wayan” whose sisters are dayus, a “kadek” whose parents are ida bagus and dayu, etc). i didn’t understand their stories when they told them to me 17 years ago, did not understand what this actually meant, or how it could have come to pass. i have come to understand much better during the intervening years. your account adds nuance and detail.

  2. Janey Pugh says:

    A terrible dark time when many scores were settled and people did things they did not wish to do.

  3. A Balinese friend from Klungkung, once told me of the night he walked all night along that coast, to search for his younger brother, a promising university student, a brilliant linguist. He found his body on Pantai Lebih, dead, murdered for his leftist views, for his intelligence, for his promise. Another friend told me about witnessing the executions in Petulu, as a nine-year old, curious about all the strange goings-on in his neighborhood. Why all these trucks carrying people off? Why did their teacher disappear? Why did his mother tell him not to go out. So with a few friends, he followed the trucks and witnessed machine-gun executions from behind the trees. Everyone who lived through that time had to contend with the terrors and never talk about what they knew.

  4. Anonymous says:

    If you need a family perspective on the 1965 event and the aftermath, you may read a newly released book tittled “Melawan Lupa: Narasi-Narasi Komunitas Taman 65 Bali”.



  5. Anonymous says:

    Indeed, and not only the Eastern beaches, the south Western coast too was a favoured spot to throw the “communists”. One didn’t need to even have leftist views, perhaps one had offended a neighbour, or a brother wanted another sibling out of the inheritance line – drop a word in the right ears and they too would disappear. I had the ghastly experience of one man, who had escaped from “custody” while awaiting the death trucks, running through my yard chased by a machete and kelewang weilding killer squad, hacking at him as he ran. Strips of flesh sliced and hanging off him, through my yard, round my well and out again. He finally died up the road and round the corner, head smashed open with an empty petrol drum. It was a ghastly terrifying time. And so much more ghastly for those targeted.

  6. guy says:

    indeed a terrible time, Uluwatu gives me the same feeling as “angker” as I know the storey of 1913 and the Dutch military expedition.

  7. Pingback: BONES OF THE DARK MOON: A contemporary novel exploring Bali’s 1965 massacres | Bali and Indo Surf Stories

  8. Pingback: The Bali massacres of 1965 happened nearly fifty years ago — so why the big deal now? | Bali and Indo Surf Stories

  9. TD says:

    Fuccing Absolute Madness that a Human Being would Kill Another for Different Beliefs…just because those beliefs threatened said int’l industrial businessmen of that time?
    I hope that is not the writing on the wall for our near future…Mankind seems to be ramping up something terrible.
    to plot against one’s Family or Neighbor Smacks love Right in the Face…Pure Fear and Greed pushed by Foriegn interests…shamefull!
    Death by Dollar!

  10. wizerunek says:

    I don’t know whether it’s just me or if perhaps everyone else encountering problems with your blog.
    It seems like some of the written text in your content are running off the
    screen. Can somebody else please comment and
    let me know if this is happening to them as well? This could
    be a problem with my web browser because I’ve had this happen before. Cheers

    • Nobody has reported this problem yet. I’ll highlight it as a PS on the next post and see if anyone has the same issue. You could try a different web browser (if you are on Explorer, try Google Chrome), see if that works.

  11. I am a regular vistor of east Bali, last year i med a man how was involved in the killing, but at that time I dit not know. Later some one told me his background. Now i am searcing for more information on this suject. Books ans so. For anyone how wants to know more about this terrible time . Ther is a movie named “the act of killing” handeling that period in history.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Very well-written – I’m hoping you would elaborate more. I’m wondering about the accuracy of a small detail, though: “angker” is an Indonesian word. The Balinese word to convey a similar meaning is “tenget”.

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