Bali’s mass killings of 1965, or why I don’t like surfing the East coast — Part 2 — what happened exactly anyhow?

Your blog correspondent is visiting family in America and at some stage will be gobbling gobblers — ie Thanksgiving turkey — I am scheduling a series of posts in my absence.

Part the First


One day last year my 14-year-old son wandered into my curtain-closed den in Sanur, Bali, where I was scribbling, scribbling, scribbling (which is antique-speak for clicking clicking clicking on the keyboard). I told him I was writing a novel about the terrible events of 1965.

Why, what happened in 1965? he asked.

In a 2009 survey of Jakarta university students, half of those interviewed didn’t know either. After all, the Gestapu Affair (as it is commonly called), and the subsequent mass killings, happened nearly half a century ago. What relevance is it today?

There are a number of most excellent reasons why it is relevant, not the least of which is the true cliche that those who don’t remember their history are bound to repeat it (and such is human nature that those who do remember repeat it anyway). But here’s another reason closer to home. Almost every Indonesian and Balinese you meet of a certain age, who lived through the events of 1965 or the years that followed, have vivid memories of that horrible time. They don’t talk about it much, they don’t like talking about it, but it is there. It is the unhealed trauma under the surface of this paradise island.

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It fact, it sometimes comes to the surface. In mid-January of 2013, on this beach in Gianyar, high waves eroded three mass and unmarked graves. In 1965, rice fields and coconut groves and river estuaries graced this coastlne, empty at noon (for noon is an angker time when the veil between the worlds thins dangerously) and abandoned at night, a good place to dump bodies by the thousands.

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The discovery of these bones made the local papers. The fact that the Gestapu Affair remains a sensitive topic is illustrated by the quoted comments made by the village head, who displayed a finely calibrated sense of waffle: “Maybe these bones are those of 1965 victims, but maybe not, because many unidentified corpses were also buried here until 1997.”

The village head stated that the bones would have a cremation ceremony “agar nanti tidak terjadi masalah” — “so later there won’t be problems” — which is a wonderful line to practice the art of reading between them.

On Bali, such a gruesome discovery of forgotten bones is nothing new. Many of these graves have been periodically uncovered over the decades, often by seaside villa and hotel construction.

What happened in 1965, and why? Books, tomes, and PhD dissertations have been written about this subject, but for those who know little but are interested, here’s a brief (some will some woefully inadequate) overview, glossing over the details that academics and historians and conspiracy buffs discuss and dispute to this day. To Indonesians and Balinese who are reading this, I’d also like to mohon maaf. As interesting as this short pictorial essay might be for those who would like to know more, for those who lived through it, or had family who lived through it, it is personal. It’s more than facts. It’s flesh and it’s blood, the killers and those killed.

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Here is one main actor. On 17th August 1945 in Djakarta, as it was then spelled, Sukarno declared to a crowd of about 500 people the country’s independence from the Dutch, who’d long been the archipelago’s colonial master. The fiery, charismatic leader of the struggle for Independence was also declared president of the Republic of Indonesia, though the Dutch would not recognize independence until 1949, after battles and bloodshed. The man on the right in the photo is somebody we’ve all heard of every time we fly into Soekarno-Hatta aiport. Mohammad Hatta was the other signer of the declaration of Independence, and Indonesia’s first vice president.

President Sukarno, the Great Leader of the Revolution, led the country in what he called Guided Democracy. He was a much beloved figure but by most standards of statecraft his governance left a lot to be desired. You could say inept. But he had a firebrand’s charisma. One of the leaders of the global non-aligned movement, he famously declared to the United States, to hell with your aid. (And at a public ceremony he pranked the American ambassador by offering him durian to eat, knowing full well that the Ambassador could not stomach the stinky fruit, but such is diplomatic protocol that the Big Bule had to take a bite).

I remember as a boy how Indonesia seemed to kept together by tin and baling wire. Spare parts for anything were almost impossible to find, so you jury-rigged what you could. The bus’s fuel pump broken? No problem, just put a boy on top of the cab with a jerrycan of fuel feeding a tube to the carburetor.

Sukarno was a genius at balancing the main political forces. During the decades building up to 1965, there were three main political/social forces. One was the military, in particular the army, the other were the Muslim organizations such as the Nahdlatul Ulama as well as other nationalists, and the third was the Partai Komunis Indonesia, founded in 1920


Here’s another player in the Gestapu drama. Chairman Aidit of the PKI was the man who would be president after Sukarno.

pki headquarters

By 1965, approximately when this photo of PKI Jakarta headquarters was taken, the PKI had 3 million members, the world’s third largest Communist party. Note the becak, Djakarta’s mass rapid transport system of the time. Note too the empty roads, empty not just because this was 50 years ago and people lived poorer and slower and more contentedly with less but also because half the city’s vehicles were broken down at any given time. We kids off to boarding school overnighted in Jakarta, sometimes several nights, and we’d ride in becaks to Sarinah Department Store, the swankiest shopping center in town and which had the country’s first escalator. The Hotel Indonesia and Hotel Bali Beach had the first elevators, but boxes that went up and down were boring. But moving stairs with a view? We’d go up to the top, come back down, and do it all over again. Like a carnival ride.

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Sukarno wasn’t a card-carrying member of the PKI, but he was a patron. In the photo above he’s addressing a PKI rallies at Senayan Stadium in Jakarta, a stadium that Sukarno built with Russian money to host the 4th Asian Games. The PKI had rallies everywhere. They denounced the Seven Village Devils (landlords and their cronies) and the Three City Devils (the capitalists and their ilk). As a boy, I remember constant rallies on town squares (wide and open and weedy — my dad taught his kids how to drive on the Denpasar Puputan square — dodging cows and their cow pies).

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Another common sight: PKI-organized marches and demonstrations against America and its allies and anti-revolutionary bourgeoisie capitalists. These evil elements were the NEKOLIM, the neo-colonialists and imperialists. The good guys were the NASAKOM, an acronym made up of nasionalis, agama, Komunist. A strange combination putting together religion (agama) with an officially atheist political party but this was how Sukarno strategically balanced power.

The PKI was a mass organization, meaning anyone could join. If your boss was a Communist party member, you probably joined too, not because you believed in Communism but you wanted to keep your boss happy and your family fed. I’d say that many PKI members weren’t dedicated Marxists. They just signed on the dotted line for various reasons.

(Okay, this blog post has reached 1113 words, wait that’s 1116, no 1117…oh never mind…it’s long enough. Blog posts should be short, so I will continue next week…)


Read an excerpt of the novel

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