Indonesia's 1965 Tragedy: Hope Returns After 51 Years

by Kartika Pratiwi September 30, 2016

Poster by NobodyCorp

30th September, 1965, was a day that symbolized the political transition between the first Indonesian president, Soekarno, and the new order regime of Soeharto. Soekarno himself was a nationalist who promoted ideas of the people standing against colonialism and imperialism, so his biggest supporters naturally came from Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI), or Communist Party of Indonesia.

On the 1st of October, at a time when all other media was banned, the Indonesian army’s official newspaper published stories accusing leaders and members of the PKI of being responsible for the killing of the several generals in Jakarta.

In about three weeks following the events in Jakarta, mass killings began to take place all across Java. Scores of people were summoned and executed by mobs with the support of military personnel. The victims included members of the PKI, progressive and liberal organizations, civilians, artists and academics who were critical of the government, and even people who did not have any relations with the communists at all. It turned into a witch hunt where fingers could be pointed at anyone the mobs desired.

It was estimated that between one to two million were killed, and others who were accused and survived were being isolated and imprisoned on islands. Some who were studying or sent abroad by Soekarno were not able to return to Indonesia. These are just a few examples on a long list of violations that have had a deep impact in education and the younger generation.

Before the 1998 reformation, most of society viewed the discourse on the ‘1965 Tragedy’, as it came to be called, based on history as narrated by the New Order regime. History teachers in Indonesia had to use the prescribed perspective in books that were controlled by the regime, and students were made to watch Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI (The Betrayal of the 30th of September Movement/Indonesian Communist Party). The film, which was shown in schools every year following the massacre, was a dramatized account of the 1965 Tragedy, constructed to propagate the idea that communism is fundamentally evil.

However, the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998 motivated many to dig deeper for the truth. This motivation was further fueled by several new findings on the brutalities that occurred, and a tribunal which found the Indonesian government guilty of massacre. Multiple groups continue to use film, music, literature, and other initiatives to provide an alternative discourse to history.

The narratives featured in these documentary films were multi-dimensional, including testimonies of the victims or their family members who were either directly involved or who witnessed the trauma and its social impact. Some of the productions, such as The Act of Killing, were even able to highlight the perspectives of the perpetrators, and are being used for advocacy.


Another such film is Jembatan Bacem (Bacem Bridge). The film is based on a bridge in Solo, Central Java, which was the location of a massacre of people who were assumed to be or were communists. After 40 years, a ritual ceremony was held to mark it as a memorial site.

In 2013, EngageMedia organized a video project called Video Slam 2013, which brought together 14 filmmakers from across Indonesia to remix and subvert the official government propaganda film, Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI. Some of the resulting videos took a more serious approach, while others chose to be comical or satirical.

We hoped that the activity would serve as an entry point, especially for those involved in the project, to break the taboo and end the silence around discussing that period in Indonesia's history.

Photograph by GigsPlay.com

In music, a new choir group called Dialita (an abbrevation of “Di Atas Lima Puluh Tahun” or “Above 50 Years Old”), whose members are woman survivors and families of the 1965 victims, just released an album which is available for free download.

Songs by Dialita were mostly composed by individuals during their imprisonment from the late 1960's to 1970's. For the album, the group collaborated with young musicians, wanting to share their life journeys with inter-generational perspectives. They perform not only to help reconstruct history, but also for personal fulfillment, and to cope with trauma after being silent for almost 50 years.

A popular electronic act named Filastine also teamed up with young Indonesian musicians to produce an adaptation of the controversial song ‘Genjer Genjer’.Though the original song was about a poor woman picking genjer (a river plant that was mostly consumed by the poor at that time) to sell at the market, it was used as a rallying theme by the PKI. When Suharto took power in 1965, the songwriter was killed and the song banned.

Photograph by Indra Wicaksono

Papermoon Puppet Theatre, a prolific theatre group from Yogyakarta, has also been organizing performances and workshops to raise awareness and encourage dialogue. Their work, Mwathirika, which uses puppetry and multimedia to portray first-hand accounts of those detained, has traveled to various locations around the world.

Museum Bergerak

In 2015, another initiative that was launched was Museum Bergerak, which was an interactive public space for younger Indonesians to examine and appreciate archives, stories and memoirs that came directly from victims and survivors. Clothes, shoes, photos, sketches, bicycles and much more were installed into the museum/exhibition in a corner of Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta. To their owners, the exhibited objects were treasures, helping them recall their experiences from 50 years ago.

A number of online platforms aiming to help citizens educate themselves on the period have also emerged, including Learning 65, Kotak Hitam Forum, 1965setiaphari, Genosida 1965, and Ingat 65.

By looking back in time through art and other media that help to clarify and renew historiography, there is hope that generations of young Indonesians will be able to join the dialogue to bring the nation towards reconciliation and justice.