Bali’s mass killings of 1965, or why I don’t like surfing the East coast — what happened exactly anyhow? Part 4 (and last)

Part the First
Part the Second
Part the Third

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The Communist Party of Indonesia, or the PKI, put considerable effort into the political indoctrination of the armed forces. To this end, the PKI created a secret agency called the Biro Khusus, or the Special Bureau, whose existence wasn’t known until after the events of Gestapu (whether it actually existed in the nefarious shape that the triumphant nationalists unveiled is another one of the bones of contention). But by many accounts, Special Bureau was tasked with infiltration and covert enlistment of military units to the Communist cause. The PKI had success with the navy and air force, but the army generalship was staunchly nationalist. They had the guns, and men with guns aren’t real good with sharing them. With support from Marshal Omar Dhani, commander of the air force, Special Bureau (so one version of the story goes) planned the elimination of the top army generals. Their main target was General Nasution, who in the photo above is the handsome dude on the left. Major-General Suharto, on the right, was chief of Kostrad, the army strategic command. He was mostly unknown outside the army. Even the US embassy political officers and military attaches whose job was to keep track of who-was-who had little clue who he was. The PKI, as it turned out, overlooked Suharto in their planning. Whether they did so deliberately (thinking he was on their side) or as a critical oversight is another point of much debate.



Merdeka Square in the heart of Jakarta was one of the main settings for the Gestapu Affair. Many of the principal players — Soeharto at Kostrad, Sukarno at the Presidential Palace, the Americans at their embassy, the radio and telecommunications buildings which are almost always the first take-over target of any coup attempt — are all clustered together around Merdeka Square. In the center of the square is the National Monument celebrating Independence, one of Sukarno’s projects. Sukarno sure loved the women, so wags called the National Monument “Sukarno’s public erection.”


The other main setting is Halim Air Force Base (arrow), about 15 kilometers from Merdeka Square. In 1965, Halim was out in the country. The red x marks a small farming hamlet called Lubang Buaya at the outskirts of the base.

On the evening of September 30th in 1965, Lt.-Col. Untung, head of the Presidential Guards and other rogue leftist army soldiers and PKI supporters, along with the head of the Air Force Marshal Omar Dhani and the PKI Chairman Aidit gather at Halim Air Base.

Using jeeps and trucks the soldiers fan throughout the city to the homes of seven top army generals and burst through the front doors. Their main target General Nasution escapes by leaping over the back wall of his house into the Iraqi Ambassador’s garden, breaking his foot, but his young daughter is shot and his aide is taken away. Three generals are shot dead at their homes. Their bodies, and the generals who are kidnapped alive as well as Nastion’s aide, are taken to Halim, where the kidnapped men are killed at Lubang Buaya and all bodies thrown into a disused well.

Rebel soldiers take control of Merdeka Square and seize the radio and telecommunications buildings. At 7 AM, the national radio announces to the nation that the country is under the control of the 30th September Movement, or the Gerakan 30 S – G30S (Gerakan September Tigah Puluh = Gestapu) in order to save the country and President Sukarno from a CIA plot involving subversive army generals, the so-called General’s Council.

The G30S soldiers however did not take KOSTRAD, the army strategic reserves, headed by Gen Suharto. During the course of the day, Suharto talked the rogue soldiers on Merdeka Square into peacefully surrendering and returning to barracks. They had no idea they were involved in a coup – they thought they were protecting the palace — and the G30S planners had forgotten to provide food and water, so Suharto had pretty easy time convincing the hungry and thirsty soldiers this was a waste of time.

Suharto also re-secured the Telkom and radio buildings and went on air later that night to announce that he was in charge of the Army and it was his duty to save President Sukarno from the bad guys, who now are the G30s rouge elements.

Subsequently Suharto and his soldiers attacked Halim Air Force base but without meeting much resistance. The only reported casualty is a water-buffalo shot dead.

Chairman Aidit fled on a plane to Joyga and went into hiding.

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The bodies of the murdered generals were recovered from the disused well. It so happened that on 30th September there was being held at Halim Air Force base a youth training camp, with young Gerwani girls taking part. Rumors began to spread that the Gerwani women had viciously tortured the three living generals and Nasution’s aide before they were killed.

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TVRI, the one and only television station, broadcast the generals’ funerals. Suharto attended in battle dress fatigues. President Sukarno did not attend the funeral but sent his foreign minister, a callousness which shocked the country. All the diplomatic corps attended, except for the Chinese delegation. This too was noted. Adding to the country’s growing sense of outrage was the death of Nasution’s young daughter who did not survive her wounds.

Anti-communist Nationalist and Muslim youth organizations were present at the funeral. There is an anecdote that one of the army leaders stepped over to one of the youth leaders and spoke to him one word: sikat. This Indonesian word means “to scrub clean” but in the context has the added connotation of “wipe them out.”

With the support of the Army, fueled by horrific tales of the alleged torture and mutilation of the generals at Lubang Buaya, anti-PKI demonstrations and then violence soon broke out, starting in Aceh and moving east to Central and East Java. Aidit was captured and executed and tossed in an unmarked grave. It is famously said that when this was reported to General Suharto, the reporting officer asked, “this was what you wanted, right?” and Suharto only gave that enigmatic smile of his.

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On the same streets where PKI had recently demonstrated against the colonial-imperalists, now nationalists demonstrated against the PKI

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A mob burnt PKI headquarters. Other PKI and leftist buildings and institutions were ransacked and torched as well.

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The army rounded up PKI cadres and members of leftist organization (in this photo, members of the People’s Youth).

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They rousted villagers in the middle of the night…

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…to interrogate…

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and then to kill.

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Teams fanned out…


…and killed.


Lynch mobs formed…

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In Bali the killings didn’t start until December. Bali was on lock-down. Everybody on the island pretty much knew what was going on in Java. Each day, the local paper published dozens of confessions, PKI members recanting their PKI membership and declaring loyalty to the national cause. I don’t think that helped them much.

The Balinese death squads were calling the tameng, men dressed in black. One squad marched in front of our house in Klungkung while one of the men they hunted was in our living room with the curtains closed. I still remember his stink of primal fear. He sneaked out of the house — probably to check on family — and was killed.

In the years that followed, anyone driving through Bali would see seeing burned-out hulks of houses and razed villages, silent witness to the horrors of 1965.

How many were killed? Estimates vary from tens of thousands up to a million. I’ve traveled throughout Indonesia from Aceh to Timor and Rote, and everywhere I’ve been, I’ve talked to the older folks in private, who told me that in their area dozens and hundreds and thousands of people were taken out and killed. I believe a reasonable figure is a half-million victims.

This doesn’t included the those thrown in prison and detention camps, the tahanan politik, or TAPOL. These included many Gerwani women, who were demonized as wicked and evil.

gerwani detainees 1972

This photo is of Gerwani detainees taken as late as 1972, when things started easing up in the camps.

So why are these events that happened 50 years ago relevant today? Because it could happen again, just like that. No one expected it to happen in 1965. Nobody expects it to happen today. But it could. Easily.

Well-known poet and writer Laksmi Pamunjtak puts it like this: “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 the 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.”


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