The Bali massacres of 1965 happened nearly fifty years ago — so why the big deal now?

In an earlier post I explained why I don’t like surfing Bali’s east coasts.

Now I have a novel coming out soon about those times. On June 28th, I will be presenting a reading at Bar Luna, Ubud.

Bones of The Dark Moon Cover full

BONES OF THE DARK MOON: A Contemporary Novel Exploring Bali’s 1965 Massacres. (Read an excerpt)

When I told my family, my fifteen-year-old son said, “Why, what happened in 1965?”

He isn’t the only one who doesn’t know. According to a 2009 survey, more than half of the Jakarta university students interviewed hadn’t even heard of the mass killings of 1965, in which tens of thousands (some historians say a million) people were killed throughout the country, fifty thousand in Bali alone.

And they are Indonesia citizens, who are taught their country’s history. How much more so foreign visitors to this Island of Paradise who remain unaware of this dark trauma lingering beneath the surface? (And sometimes coming to surface as bones long buried in unmarked graves)

Briefly, then. In 1965, President Sukarno, founding father of the Republic of Indonesia, maintained a balancing act between two antagonistic forces seeking political power: the Partai Komunis Indonesia, the world’s third-largest communist party, and a grouping of nationalists, foremost among which were the army’s generals.

1965 5
(Photo: Portrait of Sukarno adorning a PKI rally that he addressed; a charismatic speaker, he could mesmerize the masses)

On the evening of 30 September 1965, rogue pro-communist army units kidnapped and killed six of these generals, claiming them to be in subversive league with the American CIA and throwing their corpses down an unused well in the village of Lubang Buaya, near Halim Air Force base in Jakarta, staging quarters for the coup.

1965 7
(Photo: recovering the corpses from the well)

The kidnappers, however, made no attempt to kidnap Major-General Soeharto, head of the army’s strategic reserve command and at the time a political unknown, who led a successful counter-raid against Halim. What subsequently followed was one of history’s bloodiest and least known massacres. Tens of thousands of of Communists and leftists were summarily executed throughout the archipelago, and others thrown into detention camps and held for years without trial, their families ostracized. There are various interpretations of why this happened: the PKI were back-stabbing traitors and Soeharto saved the country; Soeharto deviously took advantage of the murders to seize political control; the CIA masterminded the whole thing to get rid of the PKI. All these various viewpoints are presented in the novel. And there’s a love story, too.

1965 4
(soldier bayoneting a Communist while other await their deaths)

1965 3
(a nationalist lynch mob in action)

All this happened nearly fifty years ago. Why is it important now? According to Laksmi Pamuntjak, acclaimed writer and critic, in a recent interview, “Indonesia needs to be reminded of 1965-6 precisely because it is still struggling to come to terms with legacies of violence/authoritarianism in order to shape new futures. Especially because the military is not strictly under civilian control and the government, and for the most part, still serves the interests of the same elite that prospered under [Soeharto’s] New Order. What happened in 1965-6 in Indonesia is one of the 20th century’s bloodiest state-sponsored massacres. As long as the state continues not to address this fact – in the face of so much incriminating evidence of the Indonesian military’s active involvement in the killings – there is a danger that future generations will become increasingly distanced from it. These generations will assume that it is okay for state-sponsored human rights violations of such scale and magnitude to go unchecked, with the impunity it continues to enjoy.”

When the second of Bali’s terrorist bombs went off in 2002, I heard numerous expatriates marvel at how the Balinese maintained their composure and did not retaliate against their Muslim brothers. This is true (but not as true as many Bali-philes would like it to be*) – and I think one reason cool heads prevailed was that these cool heads, the elders and community leaders in Bali, privately recalled the terror and tragedy of 1965 and did not want to see it happen again.

*(The day after the 2005 bombing, a Balinese mob outside the Kerobokan prison had managed to rip off the front steel door to lynch Amrozi, one of the first Bali bombers, who was incarcerated in that jail, before they were stopped by a heavy police presence. Amrozi was transferred to a prison in Java and executed some years later)

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7 Responses to The Bali massacres of 1965 happened nearly fifty years ago — so why the big deal now?

  1. J.M. Daniels says:

    “The day after the 2002 bombing, a Balinese mob outside the Kerobokan prison had managed to rip off the front steel door to lynch Amrozi” is sloppy scholarship. You may mean in the days after the 2005 Bali Bombing crowds gathered outside the Kerobokan prison. Amrozi was only arrested on November 5, 2002, making “the day after the 2002 bombing” demo outside the prison illogical.

  2. Mea culpa mea culpa mea maxima culpa….after living through both bombings and involved in the aftermath, you’d think the dates would be burned into my memory. Just careless typing, not careless scholarship.

  3. mikey 0 says:

    critical waves of cultural turbulence explode on the beaches of time…imperialists colonise the rising tide of mass anxiety on many shores…leaving the surf filled with the floating corpses of the past…michael oblowitz/sea of darkness

  4. Jordi says:

    Do you guys know where to buy/find the Sea of Darkness documentary? It looks wicked but I haven’t been able to find it… Was it ever released? thanks

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