The Ashes

Technology, Science and other news
April 10, 2009

Book: Pretext for Mass Murder

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Pretext for Mass Murder  Pretext for Mass Murder
The September 30th Movement
and Suharto’s Coup d’Etat in Indonesia

by John Roosa
Assistant professor of history
University of British Columbia
Vancouver, Canada

The University of Wisconsin Press

Table of Contents:
1. Introduction
2. The Incoherence of the Facts
3. The Supardjo Document
4. Sjam and the Special Bureau
5. Aidit, the PKI, and the Movement
6. Suharto, the Indonesian Army, and the United States
7. Assembling a New Narrative

Among the latest book on the topic, Roosa’s “Pretext” gives an updated analysis of those eventful moments in Indonesian history —the so-called 30th September Movement (Gerakan 30 September), the (deliberately forgotten?) mass killings that followed, and the real coup d’etat that occured.

Roosa builds his analysis on other notable, existing literature, such as:

  • Benedict Anderson and Ruth McVey’s (the “Cornell papers”) analysis that the movement was a mutiny of junior officers;
  • Harold Crouch’s analysis that the movement was an alliance of army officers and the PKI;
  • W.F. Wertheim’s analysis that the movement was a frame-up of the PKI (by Suharto and the military);
  • and the Suharto regime’s “official version”, blaming the whole event on PKI (which we all know should be taken with a grain of salt —a lot, for that matter);

but also has the benefit of time in adding them with various other new sources: either those which have been somewhat overlooked all this time, or those which have recently surfaced after the end of Suharto’s regime. These sources include:

  • the “Supardjo document”, an analysis from Brig. Gen. Supardjo —who is among those who had first-hand knowledge of the movement— on why the movement had failed;
  • an interview with “Hasan”, a former PKI official who had much acquaintance with the mysterious Sjam character (one of the movement’s ring leaders);
  • several memoirs whose contents have relevance to the event, particularly those referring to how PKI chairman D.N. Aidit was quite interested in Algeria’s “progressive” military coup;
  • and declassified U.S. files relating to the event, showing the U.S.’ strong interests and hand in helping the Indonesian army prepare the pretext to destroy PKI and take over power from Sukarno.

With all these sources in hand, Roosa then weaves them together into an interesting detective-like investigation, which presents at first the incoherence of facts, and then attempts to reconstruct them with a more clear perspective and analysis. Embarking from the movement itself, it then follows the relevant factors that one will intuitively question (see the flow of chapters in the Table of Contents) —up until the final, closing scene.

Roosa admits the still many limitations to his analysis, but this book is nevertheless an important and insightful eye-opener for both those who are familiar and not to this particular part of Indonesian history.

As a reader, I noticed Roosa’s expertise as a writer in using the power of words to make his point and evoke both the reader’s thinking and emotion. If there is one sentence I may suggest for improvement (in Chapter 6, page 200, on how the army immediately put a stranglehold on the media): “The army not only had the guns, it had [them pointed at] the newspapers and radio”.

On a slight downside, I also noticed some typos here and there, which I hope the publisher will amend in any following edition.

But the main crux of Roosa’s book, in my opinion, is reminding the public to think beyond (and to reject) the Suharto regime’s “grand narration” of the event —that the movement was the “evil workings” of the “evil PKI” and anyone associated with it, that the mass killings were an inevitable result of the circumstances, while forgetting the army’s (and U.S.) hand in instigating them, and the army’s eventual coup to power.

The first —blaming the whole thing on PKI as a whole— is a blatant hypocrisy of what the Indonesian army even until today typically uses when denying any of their wrongdoings: “that it cannot be blamed as an institution, and that it is merely the fault of rogue elements” (in Indonesian: “tidak bisa disalahkan secara institusi, itu hanya perbuatan oknum”).

The latter —of the mass killings— is what Roosa accurately depicts in the title for his book: a pretext for mass murder.

So even though history is so said to be written up by the victors, the truth shall always be ours —if we refuse to be ignorant of it. And Roosa’s book is among those that will evoke us to seek the truth, and never forget it.

As a final note, I’d like to include some excerpts from the book’s last paragraph (and my translation of them), which pretty much sums up what we should always keep heart and mind, as we finish reading the book, and close its cover:

The tragedy of modern Indonesian history lies not just in the army-organized mass killings of 1965-66 but also in the rise to power of the killers, of people who viewed massacres and psychological warfare operations as legitimate and normal modes of governance.

Tragisnya sejarah modern Indonesia terletak bukan hanya pada pembunuhan-pembunuhan massal yang diorganisir tentara pada tahun 1965-66, tetapi juga pada bagaimana para pembunuh itu lalu jadi berkuasa, dan pada khalayak yang menganggap pembunuhan-pembunuhan itu dan operasi-operasi perang psikologis sebagai hal yang lumrah dan dapat dibenarkan dalam cara memerintah.

A regime that legitimated itself by pointing to a mass grave at Lubang Buaya and vowing “never again” left countless mass graves from one end of the country to the other, from Aceh on the western edge to Papua on the eastern edge.

Sebuah rezim yang melakukan pembenaran diri dengan mengacu pada sebuah kuburan massal di Lubang Buaya dan bersumpah “jangan pernah lagi”, meninggalkan kuburan-kuburan yang tak terhitung jumlahnya dari ujung negeri yang satu ke ujung lainnya, dari Aceh di ujung barat hingga Papua di timur.

Each mass grave in the archipelago marks an arbitrary, unavowed, secretive exercise of state power and mocks the Suharto-era social imaginary in which only civilians commit atrocities and only the military holds the country together.

Tiap kuburan massal di Nusantara melambangkan kekuasaan negara yang gelap sewenang-wenang, dan justru memperolok rekayasa sosial jaman Suharto di mana hanya kaum sipil yang melakukan kekejian dan hanya militer yang bisa menjaga negeri ini bersatu.

The fetishization of a relatively minor event (the movement) and the erasure of a world-historical event (the mass killings of 1965-66) have blocked empathy for the victims, such as the relatives of those men and women who disappeared.

Obsesi berlebihan pada sebuah peristiwa yang relatif tak berarti (Gerakan itu) dan usaha menghapuskan kejadian yang tiada taranya dalam sejarah dunia (pembunuhan-pembunuhan massal pada tahun 1965-66) telah menghalangi empati pada para korban, seperti sanak-saudara dari mereka-mereka yang dihilangkan.

While a monument stands next to the well in which the movement’s troops dumped the bodies of seven army officers on October 1, 1965, no monument marks any of the mass graves that hold the hundreds of thousands of people killed in the name of suppressing the movement.

Sementara sebuah monumen berdiri di sebelah sumur tempat pasukan Gerakan membuang mayat tujuh perwira angkatan darat pada 1 Oktober 1965, tak satu pun monumen menandai kuburan-kuburan massal tempat ratusan ribu orang dibunuh dengan dalih memberantas Gerakan itu.

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