It has been 50 years since the Indonesian military crushed the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) in a bloody pogrom that’s widely believed to have taken at least 500,000 lives—many of them innocent victims of personal vendettas.
Yet, in what appears to be another effort to retain legitimacy and reclaim some of their previous role in internal security, Indonesia’s generals—and other conservative elements—continue to defy history and insist that communism remains a threat.
Indeed, the latest Reds-Under-the-Beds controversy reached ridiculous levels recently when two people were arrested for wearing T-shirts bearing the letters PKI, which actually stood for Pecinta Kopi Indonesia (Indonesian Coffee Lovers).
The only country in Asia—and indeed one of the few places in the world—where there’s still a communist insurgency is the Philippines, largely the result of the age-old feudalism that continues to dominate the political landscape. After watching the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) implode in the early 1980s, the Thai Army has never revisited it as a threat, instead using social conflicts and the looming monarchical transition as pretexts for political intervention.
While the overthrow of presidents Sukarno and later Abdurrahman Wahid were the result of direct military pressure, the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) has always sought to operate under a contrived cloak of constitutionality.
But the TNI’s re-positioning as an external defence force in the aftermath of president Suharto’s 1998 downfall has never sat well with the officer corps and army retirees, whose contempt for civilian politicians goes back to the struggle for independence.
As silly as it seems, the spectre of the communist bogeyman still fuels fears in a country which once harboured the world’s largest non-ruling communist party and hovered, ever so briefly, on the brink of being transformed into a Marxist-Leninist state. The 1965-66 pogrom forestalled that, but every time there is an effort among political activists to delve into and redress the excesses of that period, the military and conservative Muslim diehards are quick to stoke the underlying phobia.
That’s what happened after President Joko Widodo’s government surprisingly supported a two-day national symposium on the 1965–66 killings, designed to facilitate a first-ever meeting between the military and survivors of the atrocities. But then he felt compelled to balance that act of contrition by instructing the TNI and the national police to uphold the law against efforts to spread communist teachings by seizing books and items containing hammer and sickle imagery.
Predictably, they overreacted. When Widodo ordered a halt to the heavy-handed crackdown, it continued all the same, with hard-line Defence Minister, Ryamizard Ryacudu, claiming PKI elements were behind a renewed Leftist surge.
It was only in the early 2000s that the thousands of Indonesians rounded up and mostly imprisoned without trial in the mid-1960s were no longer forced to carry identity cards stamped with ‘EX-TAPOL’ (political prisoner)—letters that condemned them and their immediate families to a life of discrimination.
Banners thrown up across Jakarta streets warn about the dangers of terrorism, narcotics—and communism. And judging by the views of military conservatives and Islamic diehards alike, it isn’t necessarily in that order.
In 2007, the Attorney General’s Office banned dozens of school text books that neglected to mention the PKI’s involvement in the events of 30 September 1965, in which six top generals were abducted and murdered.
It was that event which led to the overthrow of founding president Sukarno and the emergence of Suharto, a little-known general who, with the connivance of the elite, was to amass extraordinary powers during his 32-year-rule.
Banned from Indonesia until the late 1990s, the late American academic Ben Anderson always cast doubt on the official version. But long after the former strongman was forced to resign, all the official blame remains where it has always been—with the PKI.
Whatever the truth of 1965, retaining the ghosts of the past allowed the elite to underpin the legitimacy of Suharto’s New Order regime. The same has applied to Muslim groups such as Nahdlatul Ulama whose role in the blood-letting has been pushed under the carpet. Unlike Indonesia, Thailand and its military have never retained a communist hang-up, even if at the height of a virulent insurgency in the early 1970s, there were more than 17,000 Maoist guerrillas operating across the country.
Certainly, many Thais recall that when Saigon, Phnom Penh and Vientiane fell in quick succession, the old domino theory, which foresaw the rest of Southeast Asia tumbling under the communist tide, seemed to be close to reality. But once that danger had passed and the CPT became the victim of its own internal dissent and the ideological split between Vietnam and China, it was soon forgotten.
There were few, if any, recriminations—even against senior CPT cadres. The Leftist students who had fled to the jungle filtered back into society, finished their education and joined the ranks of the capitalists.
Perhaps the most remarkable example of Thailand’s relaxed attitude is the story of former prime minister, Surayud Chulanont, who rose to become Thai Army commander despite his father being a member of the CPT central committee.
When Phayom Chulanont died in exile in Beijing, Surayud went to China to bring back his ashes. Such poignancy would have been unheard of in Indonesia. Not only would Surayud have never been recruited into the military, he would have lived the life of a reviled outcast.
John McBeth is a Jakarta-based journalist and this article first appreared in The Strategist on 20th May 2016.