Indonesia faces its shame over massacres

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With a less garrulous or more sober person I might not have risked it, but if the man sitting opposite me wasn't prepared to talk about it then nobody was.

With a less garrulous or more sober person I might not have risked it, but if the man sitting opposite me wasn't prepared to talk about it then nobody was.

I was sitting in a small hotel in Bali, opposite its owner, a plump, overpowering man in his late 50s who was already on his fifth can of beer and his second packet of clove cigarettes. For two hours he had talked non-stop: about Bali, his business and the imbecilities of successive Indonesian governments.

He came from a town in the island's north where, I had read, some of the worst events of those times had taken place. When he wobbled back to the table after taking a call on his mobile phone, I asked the question I had been framing in my mind all the time.

Even as I spoke, I could sense what the reaction would be: surprise, blankness, and finally giggling embarrassment. "So, you have heard about that?" he began. "Well, it was a long time ago, a long, long time. It was a bad time..." He tailed off, the subject was changed, and soon he excused himself. Our jolly evening had come to an abrupt end.

It has happened to me again and again in Indonesia - a warm conversation, brought to a stuttering halt by a mention of Indonesia's great taboo: the massacres of 1965 and 1966. Anyone old enough to remember that time freezes; the young rarely seem interested.

A few days later in Bali, I met a man of my own age, born after the massacres, who had spent a lifetime trying to persuade his own father to talk about what happened. "He just says, 'Oh, there were a lot of Communists. People were killed', but what exactly happened, and who did it, he just won't say. It's amazing. What happened here is up there with Rwanda or Cambodia and Pol Pot, but nobody ever talks about it."

All the more reason, then, to take notice of last week's announcement by the Indonesian president, Abdurrahman Wahid. In an interview on state television, he gave his support to a judicial inquiry into those terrible events and promised "to follow up the findings of the investigations, to punish those who are found guilty".

In five remarkable months in office, President Wahid has already changed his country profoundly, marginalising hardline military officers and undoing much of the international opprobrium heaped upon Indonesia after its rape of East Timor. But nothing will reach deeper into the Indonesian psyche than an investigation into the killings of 1965 and 1966.

They came at the climax of the so-called "Year of Living Dangerously", which brought down Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, the hero of post-war independence.

For years, and to the alarm of Western governments, Sukarno had steered an increasingly erratic political course between hard-line Muslims, nationalists and the flourishing Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). In October 1965, seven army officers were murdered by a group of their comrades in an apparent coup attempt; within a day, the plotters were crushed by a previously unknown general named Suharto. Over the next two years, under the guise of "restoring order", Suharto sapped Sukarno's power, eventually installing himself as president of the so-called New Order - pro-Western, authoritarian and, above all, anti-Communist.

The truth about the October 1965 coup is still not clear - some historians suggest that Suharto may have encouraged it himself, as a pretext for seizing power. But the consequences for the PKI were immediate.

Indonesian commandos, led by Suharto's right-hand men, went out into the towns and villages with trucks, weapons and lists of real and imagined Communists; there they watched while local people - Muslims, nationalists, people with grudges - rounded up their neighbours, shot or macheted them to death, and dumped their bodies.

Two years ago, in East Java, I visited a village named Sumurup, where the local carpenter reluctantly took me to the grave of one victim of the purge.

He told me: "They beat him with sticks and then they held him up and cut his throat with a machete. He was a very kind man - even if he was a Communist, he never seemed like a threat to anyone."

Murders took place all over Indonesia, but were concentrated in Sumatra, East Java and Bali. By the time they petered out in 1966, staggering numbers had been killed: the established estimate is 500,000.

A CIA report called it "one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century". Throughout Suharto's 32-year rule the memory of the massacres was a crucial element of the New Order's machinery of control. In many villages the locals were given the choice of either killing or being killed; guilt at their own complicity was enough to prevent Indonesians from openly discussing what happened. There was the pervasive fear of the same thing happening again.

"What people want is a new president," the carpenter in Sumurup told me, a few weeks before Suharto's fall from power, "but they are afraid that if we are very vocal, the army will take us away in the night and kill us. We are afraid that 1965 will happen all over again."

There are plenty of people in Indonesia who believe that it is already happening - that the bloody conflicts in the provinces of Aceh and Maluku, in Borneo and in Java, represent the beginnings of another downward spiral into mass killing.

Here lies the most urgent reason for reopening the file on 1965, as the Jakarta Post pointed out in a leader on Friday. The New Order, it observed, was a regime not only sustained, but founded on violence. "Almost every major problem was solved by the regime in the only way it knew how: the use of violence."

Indonesians, the paper argued, have picked up the habit, hence the country's many conflicts. If Mr Wahid's inquiry is effective, it will bring a degree of justice to killers and relief to relatives of those killed. But it will also act as an exorcism to millions of Indonesians, still stopped in mid-conversation by the ghosts of their memories and the guilt of the past.