The Killing Fields of Bali

A “forgotten” genocide the CIA calls “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century”

By Dr. Ronald Anderson
For The Bali Times

Disana,” he said, pointing down into a beautifully sculpted valley, but all I could see were the extraordinary contours of the ricefields stretching out far below me, shapes that had been carved through sheer human endeavor for centuries. Pointing again, the old man repeated word “Disana” (there).
My interpreter, like me, was scanning the far distance looking for something that could not be seen. Then slowly turning to me he quietly remarked, “It just seems so surreal.”
When I ventured to question the old man, his response was simply to shake his head. Clearly, he did not want to talk. “Cukup,” he said, “cukup” (enough, enough) and in a flash he was gone.
But what he had pointed towards was the site of a mass grave, one of many strewn across the island of Bali. They are unmarked, and today exist only in the memory of a few. But within these mysterious burial sites lie the mortal remains of thousands of people.
These, however, are not human remains silently awaiting their splendid Balinese cremation. They are the bodies of mostly men, sometimes women and occasionally children that are meant to be hidden forever and who will never be allowed that most imperative Balinese rite of burial.
They are the victims of the killing fields of Bali, unquestionably the island’s darkest hour.
Nor is this some legendary medieval massacre. This genocidal slaughter happened within living memory, when during the space of some four weeks beginning in late November 1965, it is estimated that between 80,000 to 100,000 people were decapitated, clubbed or stoned to death in Bali.
Perhaps no one will ever know the true number of victims. John Hughes, a Western eyewitness to the horror, recalled one Balinese man telling him: “When people were killed in batches of less than 10, nobody even bothered to keep count.”
The killing spree did not begin in Bali, nor did it end there. The violence began in eastern Java in October 1965 and quickly spread across the whole of Indonesia and continued sporadically for further six traumatic months.
In fact Bali was one of the last islands to become involved in the bloodletting. But when it snapped at the end of November 1965, it was truly horrific, and per capita, the scale of the killings in Bali were by far the greatest.
Over 40 years later the statistics still make grim reading. And even if one accepts the lower figure of 80,000, and most nowadays believe that to be conservative, the fact remains that just under 5 percent of the Balinese population were slaughtered during that four-week period.

The Victor’s Version – Finally

Seek access to the political papers from this time that might make sense of it all and predictably you will be met with a solid wall of state denial: there are no papers, you will be told. It was a period of chaos and mayhem and nothing was recorded.
But there are papers and at least one government report on the killings was written in 1966 by KOPKAMTIB, the new Command for the Restoration of Security and Order.
This highly sensitive report has never been made public, but some, such as the internationally respected Indonesian scholar Robert Cribb, have been told that government’s own estimates put the number killed throughout Indonesia at 1 million. However, as Cribb wryly observes, “given the roundness of the figure, it is likely to no more than a plausible estimate.”
In a similar vein, go out and try to find an Indonesian schoolbook that mentions the massacres with any modicum of objectivity and you will be embarking on a lonely, pointless trek. Even today with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s promise of “transparent governance” ringing in your ears, you will hard-pushed to find much by way of institutional accountability.
Sadly, however, the collective amnesia of Suharto’s regime and beyond has always run deep and almost 20 years were to pass before the government “officially” admitted that anything had happened at all.
When it came, in 1984, it was presented in the form of a somewhat rose-tinted documentary entitled Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI (The Treason of the PKI September 30 Movement).
The hour-long program, commissioned by Suharto, was ordered to be shown to all schoolchildren in Indonesia.
Its central theme was the sanctity of the “family” in Pak Harto’s Indonesia and, of course, his pivotal role within it. He is portrayed as the benign and beneficent protector of his people who destroyed the traitorous PKI, Partai Komunis Indonesia (Indonesian Communist Party), and “saved” the nation from the evils of communism.
As one author, Elizabeth Fuller Collins, has already pointed out, one of the most disturbing aspects of the documentary is that a later survey concluded that more than 80 percent of those who saw it “thought that the version of events portrayed in the film was essentially true.”
But perhaps the “official” mantra of Suharto and his cronies was best summed up in the full title of his infamous White Book published 10 years later, in 1994: The 30 September Movement: Insurrection of the Indonesian Communist Party, Its Background, Actions and Eradication. Somewhat bizarrely, given its title, the book completely fails to mention the killings.
In Suharto’s world the events of 1965-66 were an open and shut case. And on one factual level he was always correct. On the night of September 30, 1965, six senior generals and a lieutenant were kidnapped and murdered as part of an attempt to establish a “revolutionary council.”
The attempted coup, according to the official line, was carried out by a group of disaffected army and air force officers led by Lieutenant-Colonel Untung of the presidential palace guard and supported by the PKI.
Within days, however, most of the key participants were rounded up and all were subsequently executed. After that the modus operandi was simple, if brutal: kill the PKI or be killed by the PKI.
During his 32 years in office, Suharto always maintained this “official line.” It was the victor’s version of history. But try as he might, he could never quite shake off the nagging doubts, particularly outside of Indonesia.
Since then there have been many theories as to who was actually behind the attempted coup, and why. But what is fact is that after quickly marginalizing the incumbent president, Sukarno, it was Suharto, a major-general at the time of the coup, who eventually emerged as the controlling figure in Indonesia.
By the time of his presidential inauguration a year later, in March 1967, and with Sukarno under house arrest, the third-largest communist party in the world, after China and the USSR, had been completely and utterly obliterated.
A recently declassified official CIA report from the period goes further than that. The purge against the PKI and its sympathizers, it records, was “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century.” The report ranks the Indonesian genocide alongside the Soviet purges of the 1930s, the Nazi’s in the 1940s and the Maoist bloodbath of the early 1950s.
Yet, ironically, the US did nothing to stop it and in fact there is overwhelming evidence that they actually supported it together with other international foreign agencies such the UK and Australian governments.
Indeed, when considered within the paranoiac framework of the Cold War, the US’ intervention in Vietnam and Indonesia’s strategic importance in the region, there is every reason to believe it.
Put simply, the US and “the West” could not afford to allow communism in Indonesia to become a dominant political force.

Prelude to the Bali Killings

Spurred on by the tales of the gruesome torture inflicted upon the dead generals (all later proven to be a complete and utter fabrication), the slaughter of PKI members and their supporters began in East Java and quickly spread throughout the island. Throughout October and November, the Balinese, like most others across the vast archipelago, anxiously followed the unfolding terror.
Bali’s role in the killings, as noted earlier, came relatively late, but when it happened, in the words of one onlooker, “it erupted in a kind of temporary mass psychopathy.”
And the reasons for this ferocity are not hard to find.
By the 1960s, Bali had become fecund ground for communist ideology and support for the PKI and its steadily growing membership mirrored the island’s rapidly failing economy.
Throughout the early years of the decade there were widespread crop failures and between 1962 and 1965 the island was plagued by a succession of rat and mouse infestations. Then, in 1964, came swarms of insects devouring all in their path.
The blunt economic statistics of the period also make for painful reading. The annual inflation rate on Bali in 1965 was 500 percent and during the years 1963 and 1965 the price of rice had rocketed by some 900 percent.
The figures on a national level are also grim. The budget deficit was running at 300 percent of government revenues, which meant that if all foreign debt repayments were to be made on time (which, of course, they were not), it would have almost wiped out all of Indonesia’s export revenue: Indonesia was on the verge of bankruptcy.
Therefore, it is no surprise to learn that during these tense and troubled years the Denpasar newspapers were filled with tragic stories of starvation, street begging, mass unemployment, displaced migrants, violent crime and the homeless. Bali, like the rest of Indonesia, was fast becoming a humanitarian disaster area.
The feeling of a collective sense of disharmony is eerily perceptible and the violent eruption of Bali’s most sacred mountain Gunung Agung in March 1963 and then again in May only served in the most powerfully symbolic way to confirm the sense of foreboding doom.
The Gods, it was widely believed, were unhappy with Bali.
The massive eruptions and their aftermath left almost 1,500 dead, destroyed more than 62,000 hectares of rich agricultural and led directly to over 10,000 people suffering from severe malnutrition.
Tipped into this maelstrom of bad economic management and natural disaster was the burning issue of land ownership that struck at the very heart of Balinese society.
The national program of land reform begun by Sukarno’s government in the late 1950s initially won widespread support within the ruling party, the PNI (Indonesian Nationalist Party). But its implementation had been slow, patchy and ponderous.
By 1963, however, the communist PKI in Bali, along with the BTI (a left-wing farmers organization) both tacitly supported by the island’s governor, Sutedja, had made the issue their own and aggressively they pursued the policy of land redistribution all over the island, paying scant regard to traditional land rights or the legal limitations enshrined by law.
On an island then populated by 2 million people enclosed on a landmass of 2,000 square miles, most of which was unsuitable for farming, there had always been a shortage of land. Any manipulation of the status quo rapidly became the cause of seething anger and widespread resentment.
In 1964, for example, the PKI were responsible for the redistribution of some 2,257 hectares of land in the Tabanan area. That action alone directly affected the traditional rights of over 800 small landowners.
When the PKI and their cohorts met any resistance, the land was taken forcibly under the notorious aksi sepiha, which meant that the PKI and their supporters would march to the disputed land and simply demand it there and then from the owner or the tenant farmer who had worked it, perhaps for generations.
The practice, also known in Bali as pendobrakan, was certainly widespread by 1964-5 and often violent. In a well-documented case from Karangasem, I Wayan Kenggo, a tenant farmer, was murdered defending his fields by a group of 40 BTI supporters.
The overzealous culture of violence and intimidation endemic in the PKI was not only confined to the question of land ownership. They frequently undermined Balinese culture and religion by abusing and mocking sacred ceremonies and festivals.
Repeatedly, in areas they controlled such as Jembrana, the PKI  halted repair work on temples and sacred shrines. Another favorite was disrupting banjar meetings by taunting and intimidating the members as they came and went.
In the words of Geoffrey Robinson, an Indonesian historian, by early 1965 “the groundwork was laid for deep bitterness and conflict to develop in Bali.”
By late 1965, Bali was wavering, and as the news of the attacks on the PKI continued to filter through, the island finally imploded.

The Slaughter Begins

No one knows for certain what, or if any one particular incident, finally triggered off the slaughter in Bali, but unquestionably the murder of an army officer and two members of Ansor, an Muslim youth group, by the PKI at the village of Tegalbedeng in Jembrana, on the evening of November 30, was a defining moment.
Within days the island was ablaze and night after night gangs of youths, members of the paramilitary-styled Tamins, affiliated to the PNI, swooped on village after village checking names against supplied membership lists of communist supporters and sympathizers.
Such was the frenzy in the first week alone it is believed that almost 40,000 people died. It was during that first desperate week that the by-now-beleaguered pro-communist governor of the island Sutedja, himself the son of a rajah, was ordered to Jakarta, where he was swiftly executed.
The preferred method of execution in Bali was either by knife or by sword. Death by knife meant you had your throat slit; by sword you were decapitated. Occasionally, when neither weapon was available, people were literally clubbed or stoned to death. Rarely, it seems, were guns used to execute the victims.
Sometimes it would be one or two unfortunate victims in the village who taken away and executed. Sometimes it was whole villages that were razed to the ground with no one spared.
With each atrocity committed, the bodies were either dumped at sea (transported by trucks conveniently on standby from the Indonesian army units) or buried in mass graves deep in the ricefields.
It is believed the single worst atrocity occurred at Negara, in the district of Djembrana, the home of the PKI leader, Puger. On one evening alone, after murdering him and destroying his house, the mob rounded up and executed at least 2,000 local people within the space of six hours.
The frenzy in Bali, it seemed, knew no bounds and as one army general, Sarwo Edhy, the notorious “Butcher of Java” later recalled: “In Java we had to egg people on to kill Communists. In Bali we had to restrain them.”
Those captured PKI supporters who managed to escape instant execution, and there were many hundreds, were detained without trial and often brutally tortured.
Countless others were sent into exile, and many more suffered stigmatization, harassment and ostracism within their communities for decades. Indeed, until very recently many, many people in Bali still had the iniquitous “ET” designation (ex-political prisoner) stamped on their personal identity cards. It was the ultimate badge of shame.

The Slaughter Ends and the Silence Begins: What Now?

Whether from sheer exhaustion or an obscene sense of fait accompli, by the end of the first week in January 1966, the killings in Bali were over.
In the traditional Balinese way, debris was quickly removed and the damage made good. Women who had previously ran to collect food and other essentials across safe, preordained routes were now able to meander as they always had. The daily offerings that dotted every intersection and place of note resumed as though nothing had happened.
The entire island, it seemed, had suddenly awakened from a shocking genocidal nightmare to be literally catapulted into the weird, controlling world of Suharto’s “New Order.” A world where communism was banned, land legislation terminated, parliament purged, trade unions dissolved and severe press censorship brought into force.
In simple truth, Bali, like the whole of Indonesia, had been totally and systematically depoliticized and, almost overnight, had become a completely deformed political culture. As Time magazine would smugly report in July 1966, “it was the West’s best news for years in Asia.”
And so long as Suharto could keep the oppressive legislation in place and remain in the pocket of the West, awkward questions about the killings could be brushed aside with his customary, consummate ease.
No doubt there were hushed talks in the local banjars about the horrific events and unquestionably the large demographic hole that now scarred the island had to be addressed in practical terms.
But like all others in the archipelago, the Balinese were strongly encouraged to forget and strictly forbidden to remember. Families in Bali were torn apart and there are still villages that are “unofficially” at war with each other. In truth, an ingrained culture of silence was forced upon Bali that remains to this day.
But is that how it should continue? Is it merely the case of following Stalin’s oft-quoted maxim: “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”?
Should, therefore, the whole horrible episode remain airbrushed from Balinese history and the Balinese allowed to continue in their collective state of terlena (a word difficult to translate from Bahasa, but roughly meaning a condition of “oblivion bordering on amnesia”)? Just another horrible statistic to be consigned to history.
The Balinese, like most other Indonesians, appear to be split on how to confront this enormous moral dilemma.
At one extreme there are those such as the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer, unquestionably Indonesia’s greatest writer and himself a victim, who was imprisoned, tortured and beaten by Suharto’s henchmen for over a decade.
Pramoedya’s belief was always simple and straightforward: the perpetrators of the killings and the torture must be judicially held to account. Forget chasing the mountains of money secreted by Suharto and his cronies. It was the systematic annihilation of perhaps millions of political opponents that was the real crime and the true, bloody legacy of Suharto’s three-decade dictatorship.
There are other groups who adamantly refused to allow Suharto’s gruesome past deeds to be buried in silence. One of the most prominent of these is the YPKP, the Institute for Research into the Victims of the 1965-66 Killings.
Begun by the late Ibu Sulami, another long-term prisoner of conscience, the institute has been literally racing against time collecting and collating information from surviving victims and witnesses alike.
But then there are those at the other extreme who feel the wrongdoings of the past are not resolved by retribution, judicial or otherwise, but rather through a process of recognition and reconciliation, a sense of recovering the truth from the past to inform the minds of the present.
In mid-2000 there was even talk of a Truth Commission along the lines of that in South Africa after apartheid. But the issue was quickly marginalized to periphery of Indonesian politics.
Perhaps someone, somewhere, realized that the political culture of Indonesia was not comparable to the political culture of South Africa. When Nelson Mandela finally walked free from prison in 1990, South Africa, as a nation, symbolically moved away from its tortured, turbulent past and began again.
But not so Indonesia.
In present day Indonesia, in some quarters, there remains a vested interest in prolonging the tradition of silence. And so long as that vestige from history persists, the real truth of 1965-66 will probably remain hidden, just as the graves in the killing fields.
That said, however, the past need not be a foreign country for the Balinese.
Perhaps as true democracy continues to mature in post-Suharto Indonesia, the Balinese, like the rest of the archipelago, will eventually be able to confront their past, make sense of the slaughter and bring final closure to the whole terrible episode.
The Balinese faced the horror of the bombings of 2002, and again in 2005, with unbelievable courage and self-will. That black period of indiscriminate mayhem was purged, and with that the island was able to go forward with greater strength and belief. So is it now time to deal with the dark days of 1965-66 and remove that terrible stain forever and bring to an end the holiday from history?
There can be no doubting the sheer scale of the challenge, but the amity it could bring far outweighs the lingering acrimony buried deep within the Balinese people – indeed, it should be done as much for the victims of the violence as those who committed it.

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