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Long-Discredited Fear of Communism Reappears in Indonesian Criminal Code
But mysteries remain of 1960s violence
Even though communist ideology is long obsolete in Indonesia, there appear some who are still afraid it will revive. That fear is embodied in the provisions in the controversial Criminal Code (KUHP) recently passed by the House of Representatives. It is closely connected to some of the darkest events of Indonesian history, when as many as half a million people died in a spasm of violence as neighbors killed each other.
While global attention has been focused on the bill’s provisions against extramarital sex and other issues, the provision slipped by that anyone who propagates Communism, Marxism, and Leninism is threatened with criminal penalties ranging from four to 15 years in prison.
But in Indonesia, any whisper of communism calls up memories of the 32 years of the New Order era under the Suharto dictatorship from 1967 to 1998, when communism was commonly used as a shibboleth to bully the masses into acquiescence. The events of what as come to be called “the year of living dangerously” have never been adequately clarified.
The bearer of the communist ideology, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), had become a major force in the 1960s. The government still campaigns to suppress it, including through a film titled "The Treason of the G30S/PKI" which is shown every year, especially in September. In fact, the history of those events has been blurred beyond recognition. The film highlights allegations that the PKI carried out a rebellion on September 30, 1965—which began with the kidnapping and murder of seven Indonesian Army generals.
The killing in return sparked large-scale arrests of high-ranking PKI members and their sympathizers, which devolved into mass killings in the streets. Human rights activists estimate that more than 500,000 people were killed in the savagery, with eyewitnesses actually describing rivers that ran with blood at the height of the violence.
Those who survived and were imprisoned without trial were ostracized upon release. Their families and grandchildren are discriminated against in various aspects of life, including being prohibited from becoming government officials. PKI members are identified with people who have no religion, something that is difficult to accept in Indonesia, with the world’s largest Muslim population. The party itself was dissolved through a decree in 1966 by the Provisional People's Consultative Assembly.
The new Criminal Code Article 188 concerning “Crimes Against State Ideology” states that anyone who spreads or develops the teachings of communism, Marxism, and Leninism or other views that are contrary to Pancasila —state ideology— in public orally or in writing, including spreading it through any media, shall be imprisoned for four years. It spells out penalties up to seven years if the act of spreading the teachings is carried out with the aim of replacing Pancasila. The criminal threat continues to increase up to 15 years if spreading the ideology causes riots and deaths.
Many academics and human rights activists argue that communist ideology is long dead and its existence is only as a science that continues to experience dynamics according to the times. So it is odd if this is considered a threat to replace Pancasila. The history of the G30S/PKI has always been a matter of debate, especially in September, because there has been no agreement on the actual occurrences. Efforts to correct history, reconcile, and even settle it judicially have continued to encounter resistance from several parties, including some Islamic groups and the military.
Chairman of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI) Muhammad Isnur said the articles in the new Criminal Code are multi-interpretable and could be used to silence critical voices, as in the New Order era.
"This article is very dangerous," Isnur told local media. "The term 'other views that are contrary to Pancasila' reminds us of the obligations of the single principle of Pancasila during the New Order era. At that time, anyone who did not adhere to the single principle of Pancasila was muzzled."
The use of communism and other ideologies to attack political opponents has long been practiced in this country. During President Joko Widodo’s the current reign, the suppression of views deemed to be contrary to Pancasila occurred when the government disbanded Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) which was accused of wanting to replace Pancasila ideology with a caliphate or Islamic state. The disbandment drew criticism because of the strong smell of revenge after the Islamic organization sparked demonstrations in 2016-2017 against former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama—Jokowi's ally—who was accused of insulting Islam.
The issue of communism during the New Order era was used to destroy anyone who interfered with government interests, including the current, powerful Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP). The PDIP even today continues to face allegations that the party is the reincarnation of the PKI, and that its leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri, and Jokowi himself are accused of being descendants of PKI members.
It was this accusation that prompted Jokowi to repeatedly deny that Sukarno, the first president and Megawati’s father, betrayed the Indonesian nation. He said that the document revoking Sukarno’s power as head of government for issuing policies considered to benefit the communist group was withdrawn in 2003 and is no longer valid. The accusations against Sukarno himself were never proven because he was never tried.
Jokowi's statement was more likely an attempt to clear the name of the PDIP, and Sukarno's descendants from accusations of involvement rather than being aimed at correcting historical narrative errors. Clearing Sukarno's name is important for the party to counter the narrative of links between the two, especially ahead of the 2024 elections, with Megawati's daughter, Puan Maharani, predicted to run for the presidency.
Although several PDIP officials urged the government to formally apologize to Sukarno and his family, Jokowi did not grant it. The Indonesian government has so far refused to apologize for the massacres in 1965. In fact, many are pushing for an apology as an entry point to uncovering the truth and realizing reconciliation, drastic changes to the history education curriculum, and so on.
In a 2015 meeting at the state palace, Jokowi reportedly told the then-General Secretary of the Muhammadiyah Central Executive Abdul Mu'ti, that the government had no intention of apologizing for the 1965 tragedy because "if we apologize, we will face NU, Muhammadiyah, and the Armed Forces."
Nahdlatul Ulama or NU and Muhammadiyah are the two largest Islamic organizations in Indonesia. According to historical records, the conflict in 1965 didn’t only include PKI members and the government and army, but also Muslim residents, including NU members who took to killing with a vengeance. The fourth president, Abdurrahman Wahid, known as Gus Dur, apologized in early 2000 for the 1965 tragedy, not on behalf of the government, but Nahdlatul Ulama, sparking opposition from some NU members. Gus Dur admitted that the organization he once led had been heavily involved in the killing of sympathizers, cadres, and even people accused of being communist without valid evidence.
Efforts to straighten history and reconciliation have continued in the two-plus decades after Suharto's downfall. In August, the government issued a presidential decree (Keppres) “Concerning the Formation of a Non-Judicial Team for the Resolution of Serious Past Human Rights Violations, which states that the team is responsible to the president and has the task of making disclosures and efforts to settle 13 cases of gross human rights violations, including the 1965 tragedy.
The decree also makes it possible to rewrite history, reconcile and resolve judicial questions. This is important because the events of the G30S/PKI are still a mystery, especially regarding those that occurred on those days and after, especially regarding the killings of PKI members in various regions. Indonesia still has a considerable task in cleaning up some of its ugliest history.