In rare testimony, men describe a 1960s massacre aimed at suppressing communism — and backed by the U.S.
SURABAYA, Indonesia — The men bound the thumbs of dozens of suspected communists behind their backs with banana leaves and drove them to a torchlit jungle clearing. As villagers jeered, the prisoners were killed, one by one.
“There was no resistance,” remembers Sulchan, then the 21-year-old deputy commander of an Islamic youth militia. “All of them had their throats cut with a long sword.”
Sulchan was a killer in one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century, where up to a half-million people were massacred in 1965-66 in a purge of communists backed by the United States government. The bloodbath swept into power the dictator Suharto, who ruled for three decades. Today, Indonesian history books make no mention of any deaths, and government and military officials depict what happened as a necessary national uprising against a communist threat.
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In a series of interviews with The Associated Press, Sulchan and three other killers said the massacres were, in fact, a carefully planned and executed state operation and described some of its horrors for the first time. In their rare testimony, all the men spoke of what they did with detachment and often pride, and they expressed no regret.
The CIA refuses to talk about the operation even today, citing security reasons. But documents released by the National Security Archives in Washington, D.C., show that the U.S. Embassy passed the names of dozens of Communist Party leaders, and possibly many more, to the Indonesian army, along with some of their locations. Documents also show that officials from the U.S. Embassy in Indonesia passed on information to Washington about the killings of 50 to 100 people every night. The U.S. Embassy declined to comment.
Even after Suharto’s death in January, many who aided the purge are still in positions of power or influence, including former and current government, military and intelligence leaders, experts say. And the suppression of information about the abuses of the era means there has been no redress for the families of the dead.
“In all the newspapers and magazines published since late 1965, it is extraordinarily rare to find a perpetrator’s description of the killings,” says John Roosa, a professor at the University of British Columbia who wrote the book “Pretext for Mass Murder.”
A frenzy unfolds
The testimony of the four men gives a glimpse into how the killings unfolded.
The frenzy began shortly after Sept. 30, 1965, after an apparent abortive coup in which six right-wing generals were murdered and dumped in a well near the capital, Jakarta. Suharto, an unknown major general at the time, stepped into the power vacuum. He blamed the assassinations on Indonesia’s Communist Party and claimed they were targeting Islamic leaders.
No conclusive proof of communist involvement in the coup has been produced, but the party was then the largest outside the Soviet Union and China, with some 3 million members. It also had an armed wing and serious financial clout. Its growing ties with China and Russia worried Washington, D.C., at a time when the Vietnam War was intensifying and fears of communist takeovers in Southeast Asia were running high.
The four men interviewed by the AP were members of the local Islamic youth militia, Banser, or of anti-communist youth movements in East Java. They were in their 20s at the time, and Sulchan and his superior jointly commanded a 200-member branch of Banser.
Sulchan, 64, now a preacher, says the “order to eliminate all communists” came through Islamic clerics with Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama. Sulchan led the first killing in his neighborhood — that of a schoolteacher, Hamid, said to have had communist ties.
We “hit him in the head with a sledgehammer, and he died instantly,” says Sulchan. He points calmly up the street to the spot of the slaying, a piece of cracked pavement and an abandoned kiosk overgrown with weeds.
On another day, his men decapitated a man named Darmo because they feared he would return to life and take revenge. His head was hung from a banyan tree in the town square and his body dumped on the other side of the river, says Sulchan, sitting on the tiled floor of his mosque.
On one night, Sulchan’s platoon helped unload 20 to 30 prisoners at the execution site and beat to death a man who tried to escape. The rest were forced to the ground and killed. A man pleaded with his executor to tell his child to study the Quran, Islam’s holy book. The executor agreed, then murdered him, too.
The bodies were dumped in a ditch. Such scenes were repeated across Java, Sumatra and the eastern island of Bali for several months in 1965 and 1966.
“I felt righteous”
“I am convinced the actions were justified because communists were the enemy of my religion,” says Sulchan. “I thought: This is what people get for not submitting to religion. I felt righteous.”
Sulchan’s superior, Mansur, commanded the Banser militia for two years and describes a highly efficient operation. Mansur, who like many Indonesians goes by one name only, collected the names of suspected communists in the region. Their houses were marked in red on maps, and he ordered his men to round them up.
Those who resisted were killed on the spot. Others were taken to detention centers, then trucked to killing fields and shot, stabbed, beheaded and beaten to death, he says. He saw the slaying of hundreds of unarmed detainees in his village, whose remains now lie beneath a trash-strewn lot.
“We didn’t want the country to become a communist state,” says Mansur, sitting on a porch bench after returning from Friday afternoon prayers, wearing a tidy Indonesian batik shirt, thin spectacles and an Islamic cap. “I don’t have any regrets.”
A few miles away, businesses and homes said to be communist were plundered and their owners driven away, says Munib Habib, who led an anti-communist student movement. The houses belonged to Indonesian-Chinese, a much-resented minority in Indonesia targeted again in 1998 riots.
“We were informed by a spy that they were hoarding staple foods. We went to the shops and dragged out the owners,” says Habib, 64, now a Muslim cleric and local politician.
Satuman, a former member of the youth wing of the National Party who now lives in a simple cement house with his son, says the kidnappings and killings targeted not only known communists, but retired army and navy members, peasants and teachers.
He says he saw people taken in trucks from the local prison for mass killings in the evening. About 60 people were shoved to the ground and butchered as they screamed, he says. Then the bodies were dumped in a freshly dug trench, some of the victims apparently still alive.
“The soldiers opened fire into the hole,” remembers Satuman, 68.
The men spoke proudly of saving the nation from a communist takeover targeting Islamic leaders. However, the claim that the massacres were necessary is baseless, Roosa, the professor, says.
“Most of the killings were simple executions of helpless detainees,” he says.
Communists still banned
Even today, a ban on the Communist Party remains in force in Indonesia, and people marked as ex-political prisoners endure lingering mistrust and discrimination.
Suharto commanded widespread respect, with the Indonesian president and tens of thousands of mourners attending his funeral in January. But shortly after, Indonesia’s Human Rights Commission launched an inquiry into the abuses of his reign.
Gustaf Dupe, who says he spent four years in jail without trial and was tortured and beaten, leads an association of 6,500 family members pushing for the government to acknowledge its role in the killings and to return confiscated property.
“Some mass graves have been discovered,” says Dupe. “But there is still opposition to digging them up, identifying the bodies and reburying them in a humane and religious way.”
Associated Press writer Irwan Firdaus contributed to this report.