Books

An Indonesian tragedy

Uday Balakrishnan | Updated on: Aug 19, 2018

Title The Killing Season: A History Of The Indonesian Massacres 1965-66 Author Geoffrey Robinson Publisher Princeton University Press, 2018

Geoffrey Robinson’s book lays bare the perils of the army capturing state power

The Indonesian army and its civilian collaborators killed over half a million people between October 1965 and March 1966 and imprisoned and tortured millions more. Almost all those targeted were members of the PKI (the Communist Party of Indonesia) and supporters of President Sukarno, the left leaning first President of the Indonesian republic.

The trigger for this mass killing was the murder of six generals of the Indonesian army and the dumping of their bodies in a well, in October 1965. The PKI was accused — wrongly it transpires — of murdering the generals, allegedly with President Sukarno’s backing.

The true story of the mass-killings has remained largely untold, because successive regimes in Indonesia, for over half a century, pusillanimously chose to purvey the official version, that the Indonesian army had saved the country from certain anarchy, by taking the tough and brutal measures required to halt a communist bid to take over the state.

The record is now set straight by Geoffrey Robinson, a professor of history in the University of California, Los Angeles, in his well researched book, ‘ The Killing Season — A History of the Indonesian Massacres, 1965-66.’

Professor Robinson tells us, that what happened in Indonesia in the mid-1960s was not the crushing of a Chinese inspired, communist bid to take over the state as has been widely believed. Rather, it was the handiwork of the Indonesian army, determined to oust the country’s popular President, Sukarno by eliminating his supporters, liquidating all the members of the PKI, and taking control of the state.

According to, Professor Robinson, evidence now available strongly suggests that General Suharto, who, replaced Sukarno as Indonesia’s President, masterminded the whole thing — including the murder of the six generals and leveraging that to crackdown on the PKI, and oust President Sukarno from office.

‘The Killing Season’ is much more than a historical narrative of a terrifying period in Indonesia’s history. It doubles up as a devastating indictment of a collaborating West, which knew from the start that an army-led massacre was underway in that country and, far from stopping it, did everything possible to aid its perpetrators with money, weapons and advice.

Western connivance

Accessing previously unavailable primary sources, Professor Robinson establishes how complicit the Americans and the British had been, in the bloodbath unleashed on Indonesians by their armed forces, while flagging the shameful role of the western media, with even respected Pulitzer prize winning journalists and newspapers like The New York Times , toeing the official line.

The Americans, Professor Robinson concludes, “helped ensure that the official version of events prevailed, and have prevented the investigation and prosecution of what, by any measure, were among the worst crimes of the 20th century.” Fifty years after the awful events of 1965-66, not a single Indonesian soldier or civilian who took part in the mass killings has been prosecuted.

The ‘Killing Season’ more than matches Frank Dikotter’s classic, ‘Mao’s Great Famine.’ in depth of research and exceeds it in its raw descriptions of torture and murder. It is peppered with accounts of the cruelty, sadism and sexualised violence the army and its civilian collaborators indulged in, while murdering so many across Indonesia.

“In many cases,” Professor Robinson writes, “women were killed by being stabbed through the vagina with long knives until their stomachs were pierced. Their heads and breasts were then cut off and hung on display in guard huts along the road… Male victims had their penises cut off and these too were placed on bamboo stakes along the roadside or hung from trees.”

Professor Robinson, who had earlier worked for Amnesty International, writes with a passion and indignation one does not normally associate with historians. The chapter-wise endnotes — taking up nearly a quarter of the book — bring out the painstaking research that went into it, while complementing the main text brilliantly.

Deification of army

A big takeaway from Professor Robinson’s book is the need for countries to rein in their armed forces. Indonesia’s inability to do so has left it as a weak democracy, with the army continuing to call the shots, as in the case of Pakistan or Burma. It is only after a fearsome struggle, that President Erdogan of Turkey was able to put his soldiers back in their barracks and reestablish civilian control over his country.

Strong authoritarian rule, such as what many in India believe only the army can provide, appears to be a tempting alternative to the uncertainties and frustrations of democracy. They’d do well to read ‘The Killing Season. ’ Step by step, it tells us how the military, manipulating public opinion, took over a large country of immense diversity like Indonesia, and psychologically damaged its people for generations to come, through sustained deceit and violence.

The thoughtlessly competitive deification of our soldiers by the media and our politicians is conferring on our armed forces a sense of righteous invincibility. Unthinkable as it might appear, It is just possible that some day, a rogue general, commanding wide support within the army, might consider it his patriotic duty to overthrow a corrupt political order and set things right.

We must be ever wary of men who command guns. Experience tells us that a flawed democracy is any day better than a country run by its soldiers. Professor Robinson’s book tells us why.

The writer is a former civil servant and visiting faculty, Centre for Contemporary Studies ( 2011-18), Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore

Published on August 19, 2018
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