Indonesia’s Communist Ghost Continues to Haunt the Nation

No security discourse in Indonesia can be held without consideration of entrenched beliefs in conspiracy theories and the urge to maintain a state of alert against a variety of threats – both visible and invisible. One of the most powerful perceived threats, if not the most commanding, is that of communism, which is alleged to have made a widely-publicized revival in recent months.

Staunch anti-communist figures in mass organizations and the military have claimed the now-defunct Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) is being resurrected in the symbolism of T-shirts and through left-wing initiatives and efforts to address Indonesia’s 1965 massacres.

Considered objectively, there is little chance that communism, an ideology at the brink of extinction in most of the world, will make a comeback in Indonesia. Yet, despite the far-fetched possibility of a communist revival, many are steadfast in their belief that efforts should be taken to eliminate the red peril.

Indonesia’s most vocal anti-communist supporters this year have held rallies, symposiums and received backing from the country’s top security officials. This begs the question of what is the sub-plot in this jousting against an invisible enemy.


Brief background

Indonesia’s communist history has little equivalence in other countries. The country’s venerated founding father Sukarno allowed the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) to rise in influence and militancy until the mid-1960s as part of his unstable “Nasakom” coalition between the military, religious groups and the communists.

The development of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was accompanied by an arrogance of power that was directed not only at landowners and other elements of Indonesia’s feudal past but also at intellectuals and journalists who did not share its vision.

At the same time, many outside the communist movement viewed it as untrustworthy from the start. A communist-led uprising at Madiun in East Java in 1948, while republican forces were still fighting the Dutch, was seen as the utmost betrayal. Yet the PKI had so much support that Sukarno could not afford to ignore it.

Then came the events of 1965, a time when the Cold War and heightened concerns among Muslims and the military of the ideological and strategic role of the PKI, and continuing posturing by the PKI itself, was accompanied by talk of the creation of a ‘third force’ or popular militia that threatened to challenge the military’s monopoly on security.

Shattering the fragile consensus was an event that would change Indonesia forever. On the evening of September 30, 1965, six generals were killed by a group calling themselves the 30 September Movement, abbreviated as G30S. The national radio service, RRI, was used to broadcast announcements of a takeover of government and the Palace was ringed by troops loyal to the plotters.

Suharto, one of the most senior surviving generals, assumed control of the army after a day of chaos during which Sukarno refused to commit himself to either side. Suharto presented the G30S as a nationwide conspiracy to commit mass murder and quickly wound up the coup plotters from his strategic vantage at the Army’s Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad), just down the road from the Palace.

What followed was one of the bloodiest massacres of the 20th Century, claiming the lives of at least half a million people in the months that followed. The incident also brought Suharto to power and ended the rule of Indonesia’s first President Sukarno.


Incomplete Reformasi

In many ways, Indonesia’s history between 1965 and the fall of Suharto in 1998 does not differ substantially from many countries where strongmen were undemocratically brought to power under the auspices of the US government of the day to limit the expansion of communism, as Washington battled Moscow for influence.

But while nations like Chile addressed their bloody past after their return to democracy in the 1990s, Indonesia has swept under the rug the massacres of 1965 as well as decades of persecution and systematic stigmatization. It has also retained laws banning the PKI as well as Marxism-Leninism. Suharto-era cronies remain dominant in the nation’s political and economic circles and while most will acknowledge that crisis-hit Indonesia needed to undertake reforms at the turn of the century, few have argued that history textbooks should be rewritten.

Those attempting to set the ball rolling on any meaningful discussions about Indonesia’s past have faced rejection, at times violent. After all, a considerable fraction of Indonesia’s elites today has questions to answer about alleged human rights abuses during the Suharto era, beginning with the 1965 massacres, or are part of their patronage networks.

US filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer’s award-winning documentaries The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014) have received praise precisely because they show something uncommon in the rest of the world: a post-authoritarian nation celebrating mass killers produced by the old regime as heroes and allowing them to retain power.


Perpetually latent

To illustrate the exceptionality of Indonesia’s case, Oppenheimer compared it occasionally with Germany, two nations which have experienced genocide; except that in Indonesia many of the perpetrators are still in power. “With this contrast between survivors and perpetrators, I felt I’d wandered into Germany 40 years after the holocaust, only to find the Nazis still in power.”

Ironically, House of Representatives Deputy Speaker Fadli Zon attempted to use the same comparison in June to illustrate the opposite. “Why don’t we (Indonesia) take the example of Nazis with their fascist ideology? In Europe, Nazism has become a sensitive issue and has been hated by everyone. Nazi and communism have something in common as the two have been related to violence and torture. If Nazi and fascism have been officially deleted in Germany and even Europe, why cannot Indonesia erase the PKI and its communist ideology?”

Zon’s counterintuitive comparison encapsulates the way communism is being represented today in Indonesia – perpetually latent, lending itself to be linked to any ideas and threats, particularly threats to the establishment. As Zon’s comment exemplifies, most Indonesians lack a thorough understanding of history, facilitating such misrepresentations.

The threat of a communist revival is not about what happened before 1965: it is an attempt to cover up abuses, both physical and economic, that have occurred since then. Attacking communism is to attack any criticism of the current state of inequality in Indonesia and to defend the status quo.

Nazism is a sensitive issue in Europe for its dark past, but it is a topic widely discussed and embraced by some right-wing groups today. Communism is a sensitive issue in Indonesia for advocating atheism as well as other aspects, but if communism was openly discussed and even embraced by some groups today, the state would take repressive measures against anyone responsible.

Yet exclusively blaming a poor understanding of history for the prevalence of anti-communist sentiment in Indonesia would let many off the hook.

Organized anti-communism has been a versatile tool for anyone in a position of power at the national and local level since 1965. Indonesian historian Ariel Heryanto in a 1999 article “Where Communism never dies,” published in the International Journal of Cultural Studies, says the events of 1965 gave birth to “their own narrator,” making anti-communism a master narrative to secure the Suharto regime’s legitimacy and to serve “an indispensable function in the protracted political stability and order.”

While anti-communism may no longer be central to Indonesia’s stability, there are many residual ways in which its rhetoric is still used. Communist stigmatization today is no longer related to the events of 1965, it is made up of layers upon layers of communist associations retold year after year until they become truth.

“It requires multiple intermediaries or references. It is increasingly difficult to argue that a contemporary enemy is bad simply because s/he is a Communist survivor in a post-Cold War world. Allegations of political crimes can only be presented in a series of associations with something innately evil called Communism.” Heryanto states in the article.

“The further away the past Communist stigmatization is from the present, the less stable and less direct is the relation of the signifier ‘Communism’ to any signified or referents. In the 1990s the key signifier can refer to anything and anyone. Communism turns into a floating empty signifier, purged of any fixed historical referent, just like sexy women, cars or jeans in advertisements of late capitalism, as (British historian) Roy Porter puts it.”


Anything and anyone

This “anything and anyone” in the 1990s was exemplified by Heryanto in the way top government officials of the Suharto regime tried to frame Sofjan Wanandi, a Chinese tycoon who is currently the chairman of Vice President Jusuf Kalla’s advisory team, for a relatively minor bombing on January 18, 1998.

Officials accused the now-defunct left-leaning and banned Democratic People’s Party (PRD) of being responsible for the incident and Wanandi of backing the crime financially. According to Heryanto, Wanandi, a Suharto crony until that point, had just reportedly made a “couple of political errors,” including failing to support Suharto’s anointment of Habibie as the vice president.

Wanandi was questioned and his picture appeared on the front pages of major print media accused of being a neo-communist by implication for backing the PRD.

“The government’s act (against Wanandi) indicates an ideological stagnation and bankruptcy. Second, the incident demonstrates how a protracted use of the past anti-Communist bogey gets more and more complicated. It requires multiple intermediaries or references,” he explained.

But despite becoming increasingly complicated for those still mastering anti-communist rhetoric, vilifying enemies never gets old.


The bogeyman returns

Concord Strategic asked Heryanto, now a professor at Australian National University, whether he thought that the efficacy of the ‘communist threat’ rhetoric has declined since 1999. “Slowly and gradually it has declined. (But) there is no way to measure it precisely. On the basis of public discussion to date, plus other published reports and personal observations I have managed to gather, I have no doubt the efficacy has declined. But as the title of the 1999 article says, the bogeyman never dies,” he told Concord.

“It is in the interest of some of the political elite to revive it (the communist threat), only to make it an object of public attack again, in the periodical cycles of its reproduction for the past half century.” he added.



Heryanto facilitated the above chart showing changes in Indonesia’s public perception of threats from 1984 to 1985, with communism increasing in prominence 20 year after the massacre. No survey known to Concord has in recent years asked a similar question, but recent events suggest that anti-communist paranoia remains alive and well in many parts of society, particularly among Islamic and nationalist mass organizations as well as the police and military.

After a start of the year dominated by homophobic rhetoric by government officials and public figures as well as vigilante actions by hard-line mass organizations, in May the attention turned to communism. It reportedly began with strangely simultaneous events.

A 36-year-old man was detained on May 7 for wearing a T-shirt displaying the hammer and sickle communist symbol in Kepanjen district, Malang, East Java. The man claimed he did not know what the symbol meant while the T-shirt was reportedly merchandise from an American band.

The next day, a 22-year-old man was detained for wearing a T-shirt with the hammer and sickle communist symbol in Bandar Lampung, Lampung while police also interrupted a music festival in Mojokerto, East Java after one of the bands performed a song titled “Genjer-genjer,” which was composed in 1942 by Muhammad Arif, a member of the PKI-affiliated Lekra artists collective.

Also on May 8, five people were detained for selling T-shirts displaying the hammer and sickle symbol at the Blok M Square and Blok M Mall shopping malls in South Jakarta. One of the detained sellers also said he did not know the symbol was linked to the PKI. These T-shirts were reported to be merchandise of German thrash metal band Kreator. Similar stories were reported in other provinces in following days.

The incidents have similar precedents in the recent democratic area as well as in the 1990s. Throughout the 1990s, Heryanto notes in his article that key-rings and T-shirts with the hammer and sickle were seized for the same reasons, as well as copies of the album Magis of Indonesian rocker Atiek C.B.

There were also reports in 1995 of a hammer-shaped children’s balloon which made a noise that sounded like ‘arit,’ the Javanese word for sickle, in Java. A USSR character of the popular videogame Street Fighter was also controversial due to its communist associations.

These peculiar examples show how the boomerang effect of anti-communist rhetoric works. In his article, Heryanto shares the following quote from former State Intelligence Agency (BIN) chief Sutopo Yuwono (1969-1974):

The funny thing about the world of intelligence is the technique of psywar (psychological warfare). As intelligence officers, we make up issues, and we disseminate them in the press, radio or television. We treat them as if they are real. When they are already widespread, usually people will talk about them and they tend to add to and exaggerate the issues. Finally the issues will come back (to the intelligence bodies) in reports. What is so funny is that these reports incline us to believe that these issues are real, hahaha. In fact, we get terrified and begin to think, ‘what if these issues are real?’ Hahaha.

The side-effect of these past techniques – some would argue that they are still present – is the creation of a perpetual state of undependability, where any political, social, cultural or economic object or initiative can be undermined with baseless accusations.


Raising the alarm

Days after ‘signs’ of a communist revival began to re-emerge earlier this year, President Joko Widodo instructed security and law enforcement agencies to continue confiscating items linked to communism to prevent the ideology’s revival in Indonesia.

According to National Police chief Gen. Badrodin Haiti, Widodo was concerned about increasing reports of communist materials being found across the country, as they could trigger social conflicts. “There will be a reaction from the public fearing the revival of communism in the country. We should be more aware of these things,” Haiti said, adding that police should enforce the 1966 parliamentary decree banning the PKI and Marxism-Leninism.

“We will give directives to our subordinates to take a legal approach to alleged communist activities, whether in their spread or development, and attributes, (such as) T-shirts, symbols and even films,” Haiti said.

But while Widodo may have sought to reassure the public with increased scrutiny, he gave the impression of believing the threat is real, helping anti-communist mass organizations seize the media spotlight.

The following day, a group of retired Armed Forces (TNI) officers announced that they would be holding a symposium to oppose state-sponsored efforts to reconcile with the victims of the 1965-1966 anti-communist massacres between June 1 and 2 during the annual commemoration of Pancasila Day. As many as 70 mass organizations including the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) attended the meeting, which also featured unscheduled presentations by Armed Forces (TNI) chief Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo and Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu.

Parallel to the symposium, former Kostrad chief Maj. Gen. (ret.) Kivlan Zen organized rallies in Central Jakarta and Solo, Central Java on June 3 and 5 respectively which saw thousands of members of Muslim organizations gather.

Vice President Jusuf Kalla became one of the few leaders to attempt to counter anti-communist narratives, saying on June 3 that reports about the re-emergence of communism had been greatly exaggerated.

“I think it is too exaggerated a claim that the PKI can be born again. PKI is a communist force. Communism is an ideology about equality. Perhaps, people see it from a different perspective,” he said, adding that communist ideology had failed in several countries.

But what Kalla had in common sense, he may have lacked in ulterior motives, which appeared to be one of the main motivators for those driving the anti-communism bandwagon.



Heryanto told Concord that some possible answers delving into the aims and objectives of those pushing the anti-communist drive include “anxiety about the possibility that those responsible for the massacre could be indicted for crimes against humanity.” Indeed, the anti-communist symposium, which Concord attended on June 2, was a self-declared counter-symposium to the April 18-19 symposium sponsored by the government, the first ever to address the tragedy of the killing of the communists after the failed coup attempt.

“One lesson I took from being an invited speaker (the only one from outside Indonesia) was that the symposium manifested, more clearly than ever before, doubts, indecisiveness and divisions both within the country’s political elite, as well as among their critics and human rights activists over what to do with the haunting past, and how to move forward toward some kind of closure,” Heryanto wrote in ANU’s New Mandala website on May 2.

Minister Ryacudu made this clear by stating on June 2 at the symposium that suspected communists killed in the 1960s military-backed massacres “deserved to die” and noted that US President Barack Obama did not apologize for the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima on his recent trip to Japan.

“Millions of people died because of the bomb, and that was war,” he said, adding that those killed in the 1960s massacres had mounted an “uprising” so the victims “deserved to die.” His comments were greeted with applause by the hundreds attending the symposium.

“Indonesians are forgiving people. If former PKI members do not want to forgive and move on, it just shows that they are not completely Indonesian,” he said, inviting any communists left in the country to find more suitable countries to “implement” their ideas.

But Ryacudu’s presentation was not only about condemning communists and hitting back at attempts to address the past. His Powerpoint slides were a collection of current threats to Indonesia’s integrity, ranging from drug use to cyber warfare, to potential ones, such as war in the region – of which he admits there’s a slim chance.

The minister also used the presentation to reiterate that Indonesia faces the prospect of proxy war by unconventional actors. In one slide, he put liberalism, communism, socialism and religious radicalism in a bag of “materialistic ideologies” which form the basis of proxy wars.

Proxy wars, he explained, attack with ideas and “brainwash” their targets to take control of another country’s rule of law. Ryacudu, who has previously alleged the LGBT movement is part of a proxy war, proposes that adherence to Indonesia’s state ideology of Pancasila, a “non-materialistic” ideology, is the only recipe to combat these threats.

He even bizarrely claimed in his slides that Indonesia could break apart if its national ideology is not observed, stating that this was the cause of the collapse of Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and Syria. He finished his presentation by promoting the National Defenders Program, popularly known as Bela Negara, which was introduced by the Defense Ministry last year and aims to train millions of civilians in national defense and instill a greater sense of patriotism among the public, including young children.

Also present at the symposium was TNI chief Nurmantyo, who only referred to communism to explain its relationship with his perception of long-term threats. Nurmantyo began his presentation with an old topic of his, Malthusian global unsustainability and resource scarcity, which he argues are the underpinning factors for proxy wars to undermine Indonesia and steal its valuable resources.

His arguments included a prediction that by 2043 there may be mass migration from the northern and southern hemisphere into regions around the equator, such as Indonesia, and not the other way around, apparently ignoring both the effects of climate change and demographic trends. He also presented a map of world conflicts as of 2013 to highlight that most were caused by resource competition, even in Ukraine, which he claimed produces around 10 million barrels of oil per day, higher than Iran, Iraq and Nigeria.

Facts appear to have little influence on Nurmantyo’s desire to present a narrative. Independent sources say that Ukraine produced only around 80,000 barrels of oil per day, and that was before its current problems crippled activity in the country.


More current ghosts

In the second part of his presentation Nurmantyo argued that neo-liberalism is more dangerous than communism, as it constitutes an initial point for an individual to become a communist. “(Neo-liberalism) is the process of becoming an atheist leading a person to become a communist if we add socialism to the equation,” he added.

Nurmantyo said that neo-liberalism eventually creates “discrepancies” between traditional enterprises and privately-owned businesses or foreign institutions. “If economic discrepancies emerge, it will be another opportunity for communism to rise,” he said. Recent cases where T-shirts with the hammer and sickle symbol were confiscated were a lesser threat compared to “rising social discrepancies.”

Illustrating this, he claimed at one point that Europeans living in liberal nations are ceasing to attend Christian Sunday mass and that their houses of worship are being replaced with “luxurious homes, bars and restaurants and libraries.”

Ryacudu and Nurmantyo were not the only ones to use the anti-communist spotlight to sell vaguely-related theories.

The chairman of the hard-line FPI, Habib Rizieq Shihab, used the event to condemn liberalism and atheism while House Deputy Speaker Zon said Indonesia’s democracy does not have room for communism – thus ruling out leftist political choices that could threaten the hegemony of current political parties including his own Greater Indonesia Movement (Gerindra).


Something to suit everyone

The ideas highlighted by Ryacudu, Nurmantyo, Shihab and Zon as well as other mostly military and religious figures, including from the country’s largest Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama, were summarized in a nine-point declaration that came closer to their individual agendas than to any plan to identify and combat an alleged communist revival.

This is a summary of the symposium’s nine-point declaration:

  1. That the 1948 Madiun affair in East Java and the G30S in 1965 were attempts to replace Pancasila with communism.
  2. That the PKI must apologize for those attempts to overthrow Pancasila and that it must cease all its activities, which the symposium concluded are real and ongoing as “demonstrated by the attempt to host three congresses since Reformasi (1998), reverse history as well as share videos and films to slander the New Order, TNI and Islam.”
  3. To thank God Almighty for not allowing the PKI’s two coups to succeed.
  4. To acknowledge that a process of reconciliation with the victims has already taken place naturally and therefore does not need to be addressed.
  5. Ask the government, NGOs and society to abandon attempts to reopen old wounds, which could trigger horizontal conflicts.
  6. To ask the government to consistently apply laws and regulations banning the PKI as well as Marxism-Leninism.
  7. That the awakening of communism cannot be explained without the four amendments to the 1945 Constitution between 1999 and 2002, giving unparalleled freedom to liberalism and individualism.
  8. That in order to strengthen Pancasila, the government should reinforce its teaching in the national education system, including in informal and higher education.
  9. Invite all state bodies to promote integration and vigilance “against anti-Pancasila groups (New Order style surveillance as well as proxy wars by foreign actors (Nurmantyo’s touch).”



After seized T-shirts and interrupted concerts, the controversy quickly escalated to receive attention from senior security and government officials in the same way that other social anxieties are brought back to life occasionally in Indonesia.

“In Indonesia, the declared enemy can be communist one day, the West, Chinese, LGBT or radical Islam on other days,” Heryanto told Concord, adding that those in power cannot always rely on one source of perceived threats to launch their propaganda.

Yet at the end of the day, the government has ignored Nurmantyo and Ryacudu’s agendas, leaving its priorities unchanged. Heryanto said in June that government officials including President Joko Widodo and then Coordinating Minister for Politics, Security and Legal Affairs Luhut Panjaitan – who has since been moved to maritime affairs and replaced by another retired general, Wiranto – may not be happy with provocative anti-communist statements, but they can live with them for now.

“Luhut was here on our (ANU) campus a couple of days ago. The topic you raised (Nurmantyo and Ryacudu’s agendas) was also part of our discussion. His response was, those retired generals could be noisy and irritating. But, he said, who cares what they say. This is a democratic country, people can voice their views. I think he was not entirely honest. I think he cared more than he admitted. But he has a point, and he is clever to adopt the broad perspective of things. He did not want to over-react,” Heryanto explained.

The media coverage of anti-communist paranoia and events such as the anti-communism symposium helps preserve communism in the collective conscious to remind anyone embracing liberal ideas that they should apply self-restraint.

However, it remains to be seen whether the government is immune in the long term to the agendas of people like Ryacudu, who has succeeded in getting his Bela Negara program off the ground and running and who could achieve the same with other initiatives.

As long as anti-communist rhetoric remains a worthwhile tool to build support for certain programs and repress affronts to the political and security establishment, it will remain a useful weapon in the arsenal of powerful individuals wishing to shape society in terms of their own vision.


A version of this article was first published by Concord Review on June 16, 2016. Free trial subscriptions are available.

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