In the bloody history of the 20th century, the killing fields scattered through the lush greenery of Indonesia’s islands are a rarely mentioned footnote.
In clumps of one or two or even a dozen, unmarked graves containing between 500,000 and two million suspected communists killed in purges between 1965 and 1966 were an unspoken feature of the landscape during president Suharto’s 32-year rule.
But with the 10th anniversary of Suharto’s 1998 fall this month, activists are finally pushing for investigations into one of the last century’s biggest killings, which changed the course of the Cold War and formed the backdrop to the strongman’s rise.
On a clattering rural road in Java, 60-year-old farmer Achmad Nashori recalled how he helped dispose of the bodies.
At his feet was the spot where, more than 40 years ago, he said he was summoned around dawn by local authorities to help bury five communist sympathizers who had been shot dead the night before.
With seven other villagers, he dragged the bodies into a pre-prepared grave and covered them in earth.
“There were those whose heads had been shot off, split open, the insides of people’s guts had been shot out. There were those who had been shot in the back of the neck, the side of the head, the back and the waist,” Nashori said.
Down the road, in anonymous clumps, more graves are believed to hold dozens of victims.
For now, the graves remain undisturbed. Human rights group Kontras is travelling the country talking to witnesses and identifying massacre sites. Indonesia’s official human rights body, Komnas HAM, has also started its own investigation.
But those looking into the case say they are running into resistance from the country’s elite, where few are keen to revisit the killings.
The violence of 1965-66 had its roots in the tense Cold War politics that marked the final years of the reign of Indonesia’s charismatic first president Sukarno, who had fostered the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) as a political force to balance the power of mass religious organizations and pro-Western generals.
But this delicate balance collapsed on 30 September, 1965, with an abortive coup – which was swiftly blamed on the PKI.
An obscure general called Suharto took control of the ensuing crackdown while soldiers and “youth groups” trawled the country, rounding up and executing suspected communists.
“All the local people were ordered to bring hoes to bury to bodies,” Nashori recalled of the killings near his village.
Nashori said the killings in his area were carried out by soldiers and members of Ansor, the youth wing of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization.
NU today is a major force in Indonesia, boasting over 30 million members. Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second-largest Muslim organization, was also involved, historians say, as were a whole range of organizations that now make up Indonesia’s political and religious mainstream.
“These groups were itching to do it following the coup of the 30th of September,” said Greg Fealy, an Indonesia expert at the Australian National University.
“Once they had the green light from the military, away they went.”
Anti-communist propaganda became a mainstay of Suharto’s New Order regime, although the killings themselves were a taboo subject.
“Even though it didn’t talk openly about the killings, (the regime) knew that everyone knew about the killings and it used this for its own purposes,” Fealy said.
In the world at large, too, the killings went largely unnoticed.
In the grip of the Cold War, many Western governments greeted the swift suppression of the PKI – which was rivalled in size only by the communist parties in the Soviet Union and China – with relief.
Many in Indonesia, particularly among the elite, strongly oppose efforts to exhume graves and bring the 1965-66 case to court. Komnas HAM has been the target of multiple protests by religious and nationalist groups.
“The New Order’s propaganda was extremely strong for 32 years, and up until now we also see that the people in the government are an extension of those in power in the New Order, both in terms of people and institutions,” said Yati Andriyani, a campaigner with Kontras.
Nur Kholis, the head of Komnas HAM’s investigation into the killings, said human rights cases were always difficult to push in Indonesia.
“If reconciliation can be reached through legal processes, a court, that’s great. But if that can’t be done, these efforts can also push the reconciliation process by political means,” Nur Kholis said.
“Actually, I’m not too confident about bringing this case to court, but I should try.”