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INDONESIA: 1965-1966 Massacre: Four Decades of Injustice

Fabian Junge


(Ed. note: A coup on Sept. 30, 1965, triggered an orgy of violence in Indonesia that killed hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people within a one-year period—an event that eventually brought Gen. Suharto to power for more than three decades. In addition, hundreds of thousands of people were imprisoned and tortured during this period. Most of the victims were members of the Communist Party of Indonesia, or Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI), people accused of being Communist Party members or political opponents of the Suharto regime. The subjects of this story are survivors of this national tragedy. 

The author was a German intern with the Asian Human Rights Commission [AHRC] for approximately six weeks in 2005 in the AHRC office in Hong Kong and an additional six weeks in Indonesia. He has been involved with issues in Indonesia since 2001.)


Ibu Surati: 'My Only Hope Is for My Grandchildren to Lead a Normal Life'

Education and community work played a central part in the life of Surati Suparna binte Djaswadi, born in 1925 in East Java, and her husband. The two primary school teachers and their daughter, who was born in 1957, lived and worked in the Central Javanese city of Solo where they were well-respected members of their community. To a large extent, this respect was due to the active role Ibu Surati played in the community. Together with fellow teachers, she taught illiterate adults. She also was an active member of the district council and the Indonesian Teacher's Association, known as PGRI in Indonesia. Moreover, she was involved in the preparation of community and religious festivals every year.

Ibu Surati (Photo: Fabian Junge, AHRC)

Arrest and Imprisonment

The harmonious life of Ibu Surati and her family was destroyed by an incident in far-away Jakarta that altered the fate of not only herself but of a large number of victims and of Indonesia as a whole. It began in early October of 1965 when she heard the news on the radio about the murder of six important generals by a so-called Sept. 30 Movement, allegedly an attempted coup masterminded by the Communist Party of Indonesia (Partai Komunis Indonesia or PKI). About 10 days later large numbers of army troops under the command of Col. Sarwo Edhie Wibowo arrived in Solo and began arresting ordinary men who were detained in the town hall. Among those arrested were many of Ibu Surati's friends and fellow teachers. Although the mayor of Solo had informed Ibu Surati at a special meeting for teachers that the killing of the generals was an internal affair of the army and that she need not worry, the men were arrested for their alleged involvement in the coup attempt and affiliation with the PKI. She and her husband though did not worry about their own safety as they felt they had not done anything wrong. As they later discovered, however, they and millions of other people in Indonesia would all have reason to worry.

At about 7 o'clock on the night of Oct. 16, a group of armed youth came to Ibu Surati's house asking for her husband. As he was not home, they ordered her to immediately follow them to the subdistrict director's office. With surprise, Ibu Surati noted that the youngsters were masked as she recognised all of them as her former pupils. The familiarity of the youngsters and her clear conscience gave her no reason not to follow the youngsters as she thought she had nothing to fear.

When they arrived at the office, however, the subdistrict director was not there. Instead, several policemen in civilian clothes awaited her and took her to the sectional police station. There she was questioned by one of the officers with whom she was acquainted. He told her that she was here to be protected.

"From what do I have to be protected?" she asked.

"The situation now is not safe," he said, "so we have to protect you. Tomorrow I'm going to bring you to the town hall."

Hence, on the next day, Oct. 17, Ibu Surati picked up her daughter, who had spent the night with a neighbour, and they were detained in the town hall.

When she arrived, Ibu Surati's husband had already been brought to the town hall. Although they were among the first to be detained, the town hall filled up quickly until, according to Ibu Surati, more than 1,000 detainees lived in its empty rooms. The detainees were mostly simple people: labourers, peasants and people who earned a living selling traditional medicine or food. The women and men were then separated. Among those detained were many other teachers she knew. Since they all felt they had done nothing wrong, they remained calm and had no fear. The detainees were guarded by paramilitary youth groups under the command of Col. Sarwo Edhie, the army colonel responsible for many massacres of alleged PKI members and conspirators in the coup attempt of Sept. 30, especially in Central and East Java.

Soon after she moved into the town hall, Ibu Surati heard stories about the torture of male prisoners. According to what she heard, those tortured were forced to confess that they had been in Jakarta around Sept. 30 and were involved in the coup attempt and the PKI. With horror, she learned about the torture of a friend, the principal of a reputable senior high school, who was forced to confess his involvement in the coup. Moreover, he was asked to state the name of his president. His answer?quot;the great leader of the revolution, President Sukarno"—was followed by a severe beating with a sickle, for he was expected to utter the name of Gen. Suharto, the person who masterminded the massacres of 1965 and 1966 and who used them as a means to become president of Indonesia and rule the country until 1998.

In addition to paramilitary groups, the prisoners were partly guarded by military officers. Ibu Surati recalls that one night an air force officer who guarded her room told her that he had received orders to kill all the prisoners in the town hall.

"Ibu," he said, "I have been assigned a task." 

"What task?" she asked.

"We have been ordered to execute all prisoners," he replied.

After this news, Ibu Surati and the other prisoners in her room lived in constant fear. Every day could be the day their execution was to take place. In the end, however, they heard from the same officer that he had talked to Col. Sarwo Edhie and that he had refused to fulfil his task. Consequently, the summary execution of all prisoners in the town hall was prevented.

After she had been detained in the Solo town hall for one year, she was moved to a prison in Ambawara in Central Java where she was detained for about five years. The prisoners here consisted of other teachers, students as young as 12 years old, university lecturers and other members of the intelligentsia. During her whole detention, Ibu Surati was never brought before any court, was never found guilty of any crime and was never told why she was being detained.

In the military-run camp, the detainees lived in poor conditions in barracks of 50 to 70 people. Ibu Surati and the other prisoners also suffered from the harsh treatment and arbitrary punishment of the guards. In addition, the barracks were dirty, and there were insufficient sanitary facilities. Moreover, the daily rations of food never satisfied the prisoners' hunger. They survived mainly because some prisoners were sent food by their families and shared this with the other detainees. For Ibu Surati, who was sent food by her neighbours, parents of her former students and the illiterate people she had taught, it was this solidarity among the prisoners that made the hard life in Ambawara bearable.

Soon after her arrival in Ambawara, Ibu Surati received news that all her property had been seized. Government officials had taken her furniture and other items, and the small petrol station she and her husband had run had been dismantled and taken away. She also learned that her house was now inhabited by a civil servant. Fortunately, some neighbours managed to save many of her important documents.

Discrimination and Hardship after Imprisonment

While Ibu Surati was detained until 1971, her husband, who had been moved from the town hall to the Sasanomulyo prison in Solo, was released in 1968. He and their daughter visited Ibu Surati as often as they could. They were allowed to see each other only from a distance. A barbed wire fence forced them so far apart from each other that they could communicate only by shouting.

After her release in 1971, Ibu Surati was brought back to Solo by a government official. Since her house had been taken away from her, the small family had to rent a room in a boarding house. Her husband had not been allowed to return to his work as a teacher after his release in 1968 and now worked as a car washer.

Upon her return, she was issued a special identity card that indicated she was a former political prisoner; and for several years, she was obliged to report monthly to the subdistrict director. Until today, she has to renew her identity card every five years unlike ordinary Indonesians aged 60 years old or above who receive a lifelong identity card. Meanwhile, Ibu Surati found, just like her husband, that she was not allowed to return to her former profession as a teacher, and thus, she had to find other ways to make a living.

Fortunately, she did not share the fate of many other ex-political prisoners as her neighbours treated her as a friend and helped her in any way they could. In the beginning, for instance, they gave her food and money. Later they helped her find work—first by selling rice, then in a textile factory and later they supported her so she could open a small kiosk on the side of the street selling food and newspapers.

Ibu Surati and her husband though struggled hard to support themselves and their daughter. Their efforts to support themselves were not made any easier when they discovered they had to pay higher school fees than other families for the primary education of their daughter. Moreover, during her first semester of secondary school, she was dismissed because of the background of her parents as former political prisoners. Even today the thought of this injustice saddens Ibu Surati.

"They told me not to be angry," recalls Ibu Surati, "but, of course, I was. This is unjust. I always treated the school staff with respect, and I fulfilled all my obligations as a good citizen. We are not PKI. I suffered; my child suffered. My only hope now is for my grandchildren to lead a normal life."

She and other former political prisoners, however, have not been able to fight against this injustice. The fear created by the massacres and the political imprisonment, the social stigma and pressure, forced her to remain silent.

"They took my work, my house, my dignity, but I just remained calm," she says.

Although she was not allowed to return to her former workplace, Ibu Surati never received an official letter of dismissal. In 1980 or 1981, she wrote a letter to the minister of public welfare demanding her rights as a civil servant and teacher as well as official clarification of her status as a civil servant. She also asked the Dept. of Education and Culture, the village head and subdistrict director, but they all refused to be responsible for her.

Today Ibu Surati lives in Jakarta together with other women who became political prisoners in the wake of the 1965-1966 massacres, and she is actively involved in the advocacy of her rights and those of other victims of this tragedy. When asked what justice would mean for her today, she stresses that "the government should rehabilitate us; compensation is not so important." She wants to be treated equal before the law and administration, wants her status clarified and her reputation to be restored. Moreover, she wants to be cleared from the PKI stigma and hopes for equal opportunities for her grandchildren. She does not want another generation to face the same discrimination she has had to endure.

Anwar Umar (Photo: Fabian Junge, AHRC)

Anwar Umar: 'I Do Not Want to Die without Meaning in My Room or on My Mattress'

Since he was young, Anwar Umar's life centred around organisational and political activity. Born in 1929 as the sixth child of a farmer in a village near Lampung on the island of Sumatra, he went to the Lampung as a young boy. Here he soon began his political career. At the age of 16, he joined a military group during the Japanese occupation and after the end of World War II rose to the rank of sergeant during the independence struggle against Indonesia's Dutch colonial master.

In 1950, he went to Jakarta to seek his fortune. After working as a stenographer for two years, Umar accepted a civil service position in the newly established Transport and Communications Dept. He was married in 1951 and later became the father of eight children.

During his 14 years in Jakarta, Pak Umar joined various political organisations. He was active in an association of veterans of the independence struggle, became the secretary-general of a union of civil servants in the transportation sector and joined a movement demanding provincial status for Lampung. As a result of this latter involvement, he returned to Lampung in 1964 to work as an assistant to the governor of the newly established Lampung Province. Soon he was elected as the secretary-general of the Lampung division of Serikta Buruh Se-Indonesia (All-Indonesia Labour Union), a non-partisan trade union. Although he admits that the union's interests were similar to those of the PKI, he stresses that he never formally participated in any political party. Through the events of Sept. 30 in 1965 in far away Jakarta, however, Pak Umar's political activities were ultimately restricted, and the remainder of his life was relegated to the margins of society.

Arrest and Imprisonment

Soon after Sept. 30, 1965, the police and military began arresting alleged PKI members and functionaries in Lampung. Although Pak Umar was not a member of the party, a district leader close to him advised him to leave for Jakarta and go into hiding. Before he left, however, he signed a three-page document denying any affiliation or involvement with the PKI.

On Oct. 23 that year, Pak Umar left for Jakarta to live in the area around the Government Printing Office. He arrived late at night, and a man identifying himself as a messenger from the rukun warga (neighbourhood office), or RW, shortly came up to him and told him to report to the person in charge of the neighbourhood. When Pak Umar entered the office, however, he was surprised to be met by a group of military officers and several other men who had been summoned. The officers ordered him to sit down at gunpoint, and one of them shouted, "Which one of you is Anwar Umar?" After the officer had shouted several times, Pak Umar stood up and identified himself. He was then taken to the Mis Tijijih Building in the Pasar Senen area of Jakarta where he was detained for one night without any food. This night was the beginning of an 11-year nightmare of imprisonment under degrading and inhumane conditions.

Not knowing why he had been arrested, he was moved to Jatinegara Prison the next morning, which was guarded by a unit of the military police. The first few nights he had to sleep in the open space of the prison yard with about 800 other detainees. When the number of prisoners swelled to about 3,000 during the next three days, Pak Umar was moved into a cell occupied by about 60 other prisoners. Because the cell was too overcrowded to lie down, no one could sleep. Some prisoners in the hot and stuffy cell even drank their own urine as no drinking water was provided.

After several days, they were moved to Cipinang Prison. In the hot afternoon sun, they were ordered to strip down to their underwear and crawl into their cell on all fours. Whoever looked back was kicked by a guard with heavy military boots. Overcrowding was again a part of prison life with about 45 prisoners per cell. For one week, Pak Umar and his cellmates were left to themselves without any food or water. After one week, his family discovered where he was detained and visited him. They brought him food and water, but Pak Umar felt sad that there was not enough to share with all of his cellmates.

His inhumane prison conditions, however, were not his only problem; for after several days at Cipinang, Pak Umar was physically tortured, an experience of intense suffering which would leave a wound on his mind for the rest of his life.

On the day his torture began, as he passed through the prison yard, he could already hear the heart-wrenching screams of a woman in great pain. He was led into a separate room where police officers bound his hands with electric wire that was connected to a 20-volt battery. They then tortured him with electric shocks, causing such pain that Pak Umar screamed and cried and his whole body bounced up and down and trembled.

After the electric shocks, he was ordered to sign a confession. Among other things, this confession stated that he was a courier for the PKI between Lampung and Jakarta and that he had conspired to murder five generals. Strangely, the document did not mention the names of these generals. Pak Umar was confused and did not understand what he was being asked to sign as he was not aware at this point in time of the events of Sept. 30.

When he refused to sign the document, he was brought into another room where about 10 police and military officers, as well as a public prosecutor, awaited him. They started beating him heavily with their fists. One police officer named Ahmad also hit him with a chair until it broke under the weight of the blows. Another officer then grabbed his head and hit it against the wall several times.

Bleeding, bruised and hardly able to walk, Pak Umar was brought back to his cell. There a friend, who was a member of the Central Committee of the PKI, whispered to him: "Sign it [the confession]. It is better than dying or being an invalid for the rest of your life. Later we will bring the case to court, and everything will work out fine for us." In the end, when brought back to the torture chamber, Pak Umar took the advice of his friend and signed the confession.

He was never brought before a court, however, and was never given an official, legal verdict. Instead, he was soon moved to Tangerang Prison where he was held until 1976.

Like the other prisons where he had been held, conditions in this prison were also poor. The rice for the prisoners was mixed with glass splinters or sand so that many prisoners died of internal bleeding or malnutrition.

"The food they gave us was only intended to make us die slowly," recalls Pak Umar.

In order to survive, he tried to clean his rice and separate it from the glass or sand. However, this was near to impossible, and soon his health deteriorated. When he was scheduled to be deported to Buru Island, it was only because he suffered from malnutrition, malaria and hepatitis that he did not end up in this infamous concentration camp. Instead, he was brought to a prison in Salemba where he received weekly health check-ups and medical treatment. After six months, he was returned to Tangerang Prison. Now he and his fellow prisoners had to work for a farming and animal husbandry project, the revenue of which was for the military. For his labour, Pak Umar received nothing except some extra food.

Life after Prison

Pak Umar was released on Sept. 26, 1976, after receiving a letter from the Komando Pemulihan Keamanan dan Ketertiban (Command for the Restoration of Security and Public Order), or Kopkamtib, signed by a person named Capt. Sudomo. For another three months, he was put under house arrest. Afterwards, he was not allowed to leave Jakarta for six months and had to report to the military police weekly. When the period of his house arrest concluded, he moved to Rawasari in East Jakarta.

Although Pak Umar worked as a civil servant for more than 12 years, he never received a pension. His identity card bore the label Eks Tahanan Politik (Ex-political Prisoner), or ET, which branded him a Communist and traitor in the eyes of the State and larger part of society. Because of this status, he was denied access to further work in the public service sector and lost his right to a pension as well. Moreover, there was no social or public institution to take care of his welfare or others like him because of the hostility against him and other former political prisoners.

Hence, after his release, Pak Umar's hard and lonely struggle for survival at the margins of society began. In prison, he had learned how to do massage from a fellow prisoner; and for the first year after his release, he supported himself with this skill. Afterwards, he worked as an English-Indonesian translator in a small enterprise. Later, between 1982 and 1984, he was a scholar at an Islamic foundation, for, among other skills, he knew how to read Arabic, recite Koranic verses and pronounce the ritual prayers. When the elderly scholar who gave him this responsibility became sick and gave up his position, Pak Umar could not continue this job, however. It was clear that other scholars in the foundation would not want a former political prisoner who had been branded a Communist to work for them, although Pak Umar was always careful to conceal this stigma.

Pak Umar was also denied his right to free assembly, to form organisations and was subjected to surveillance by the person responsible for his neighbourhood—the rumah tetangga or rukun warga (RT or RW)—the lowest administrative unit in Indonesia. For example, he had to report when he received visitors and was not allowed to receive or talk to foreigners coming to the neighbourhood. He faced discrimination not only from the person in charge of the neighbourhood but also from many of his former neighbours who related to him with distrust and hostility.

The bitterest experience after his release, however, was the rejection of his family. He had missed them and craved to be with them for 11 years, and now, when the dreams of his days in prison were almost realised, he painfully found that his family, in effect, no longer existed.

His wife had stopped visiting him in prison after several years. At the end of his house arrest, Pak Umar returned to his family and stayed with them for several days; but after the second night, he learned that his wife had married another man in the belief that he had been sent to the Buru Island prison camp and died there. She did not want him to live with her again though. In rage, Pak Umar was about to physically harm his wife when his eldest child and neighbours separated them. Since then, Pak Umar has lived alone and has had no contact with his wife, although they were never formally divorced.

Pak Umar also deeply regrets that he was not able to even support his children's primary education. Even sadder, his eldest son committed suicide in 1975 when Pak Umar was still in prison. Seeing no future in his life, he hung himself from a tree in front of his house. Pak Umar learned about this tragedy only after his release. Until today, Pak Umar hardly has any relationship with his children, which he blames on the long separation from them and the confrontation above with his wife. His life without a family though has made his struggle more difficult and lonely.

The year 1998 was a time of great political turmoil and change for Indonesia. For Pak Umar, this was the moment to become politically active once again. He joined student demonstrations calling for Suharto to step down and even made a speech during one of them. In late 1998, after the downfall of Suharto, Pak Umar and other former political prisoners formed the Komite Aksi Pembebasan Tapol-Napo (Action Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners), or KAPTN, which seeks the release of individuals imprisoned for political reasons under Suharto.

Because he has not been able to find work for a long time and did not receive support from his family, he now depends on the good will of people in his neighbourhood or at the human rights group Kontras (Commission for Disappearances and Victims of Violence) where he has worked as a volunteer for the past few years.

Today Pak Umar, by all standards, lives a life of poverty. He occupies a room of only five square meters. He lives alone, has to cook for himself, clean and repair his own clothes and does not have a regular income. He can only rely on himself and does not want to be a burden to anyone, he says.

Nevertheless, Pak Umar continues to struggle against political injustice, not only against him and other victims of 1965, but also on behalf of those who suffered for more than three decades during the Suharto regime. For himself, justice today chiefly means rehabilitation, which would include the end of all discriminatory practices against former political prisoners. For example, he wants a lifelong identity card, just like every other Indonesian citizen above 65 years of age, instead of being required to renew his identity card every five years. Moreover, he insists that the government clarify the historic events surrounding the 1965 tragedy so that he is no longer considered unpatriotic and a traitor by society. Lastly, he demands compensation for his life of suffering. To realise these demands, he vows to continue his search for justice:

"I want to keep on fighting—for myself and for others. If I die, I do not want to die without meaning in my room or on my mattress. I want to die in the middle of struggle between my friends. This is my biggest hope. I do not desire anything else."

Sumimi: A Day at Work Ends in Nearly 10 Years in Prison

Sumimi, daughter of a policeman and homemaker in a family of six, was born in Banyumas in Central Java and schooled in Sukabumi. With an education up to the secondary school level, she mostly held administrative jobs. She began her active role in Gerakan Wanita Indonesia (Gerwani), or the Indonesian Women's Movement, in 1954 and even became the director of Gerwani's office in Wonosobo. In 1959, she transferred to the education department of the organisation. Gerwani was an Indonesian-wide women's movement that concerned itself with giving free education to those who were illiterate and poor. After the coup of Sept. 30, 1965, Gerwani was labelled as a part of the PKI. Through radio and newspaper propaganda, Suharto spread the myth that members of Gerwani had mutilated and performed occultlike sexual rituals with the six generals and a colonel on the night before they were dumped into the well known as Lubang Buaya. This myth was used to instil in the Indonesian population an image of the PKI as something evil and to justify the subsequent cruel treatment of Gerwani's members.

A Decade of Detention

A normal day in the Gerwani office in Wonosobo was interrupted on Nov. 17, 1965, by a visit by the district military command (KODIM). Tugiman, a KODIM officer, asked for her husband; but when the officer was told that her husband was in Bandung on a family-related visit, he requested Sumimi to come to the KODIM office to give her statement. He did not tell her though why he needed a statement. He assured her that she would be back home when her husband returned from his trip. Nov. 17 though was the first day of her detention, a period of imprisonment that lasted almost a decade.

Although there was no viable grounds for her detention, Sumimi suspected that, since her husband was not available, she was detained instead. Her husband had been the secretary of Barisan Tani Indonesia, or BTI (Indonesian Peasant's Front), as well as the leading representative of the peasant division of the People's Labour Association.

Sumimi met her husband in the same detention centre one-and-a-half weeks after her unlawful arrest. That was the last time she ever saw him though. During the following months, she heard he was transferred to Wonosari in Yogyakarta Province where Sumimi's relative Pati in Wonosari was the last to see him. Sumimi's husband and thousands of others were rumoured to have been discarded at the infamous Luwung Grubuk, a water drainage pipe that ran directly to the sea. No one was ever shot there but rather was blindfolded with their hands bound with wire, thrown into the luwung (drainage pipe) and then sucked into the ocean.

Sumimi had her own plight to overcome, however. She and 21 others were transferred to Wirogunan in Yogyakarta Province on the back of a truck and then again months later to an all-female detention centre in Bukit Duri in Jakarta where she remained for nearly 10 years. The closest she ever got to a trial or any other process of justice was in the early days of her detention in Wonosobo when the prosecuting attorney of Wonosobo brought her to an orphanage to be interrogated. As an officer of Gerwani, she was capriciously accused of attempting to alter the state ideology of Pancasila that advocates a belief in one God, humanitarianism, nationalism as expressed in the unity of Indonesia, consultative democracy and social justice. She was also accused of taking part in a three-month military training programme in Lubang Buaya, the site where the seven high-ranking military officers had been killed by the so-called Sept. 30 Movement. Sumimi only offered negligible verbal opposition during her interrogation for fear of being tortured or raped or any of the other oft-heard notorious punitive actions.

Moreover, she suffered from being separated from her family. Her children were not allowed to visit her. They were even told repeatedly that their mother had been killed after she was transferred from Wonosobo. It was only good fortune that Sumimi's cousin worked at the same detention centre in Jakarta and helped inform her family that Sumimi was still alive.

There were no other investigations to support Sumimi's defence until February 1974 when officials from the World Health Organisation (WHO) probed into the matter and concluded that detainees in Jakarta, like Sumimi, only wanted to return home.

Unfortunately, Sumimi's experience was not unique. Many others who were only remotely linked to Gerwani faced a similar predicament, reflecting the pervasiveness of injustice following the tragedy of 1965.

Life after Imprisonment

Sumimi's attempt to return to a life of normalcy became an arduous struggle. She had to deal with the loss of her husband, unemployment and social stigmatisation. She tried to search for her husband in several detention centres but to no avail. Her former civil servant registration number, or Nomor Induk Pegawai (NIP), as well as her job at the government office where she had previously worked before joining Gerwani was taken over by new personnel as though Sumimi did not exist anymore. She, however, never received any monetary damages for the loss of her position years ago, much less any compensation for her detention in prison. She had to set up a food stall by the street to sustain herself and her family, at least temporarily. The support she received from her extended family and fellow church members did alleviate some of her hardships, but life was never the same again.

Sumimi lost a good portion of her life to the obscure and murky politics of the time. Indonesians under Suharto not only had to fear being labelled as Communists because that was not the only excuse for a person to be arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned. As Sumimi's experience has shown, as long as one was regarded to have questionable political affiliations, they could unjustly suffer for years without any legal structure to protect their rights.

Posted on 2006-01-30
Asian Human Rights Commission

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