Virulent anti-communism has made a glorious comeback in the last couple of months.
What happens when the anti-leftist discourse of the authoritarian yesteryear is embraced through and through by conservative elites and social forces? A red scare. In Indonesia, virulent anti-communism a la the New Order has made a glorious comeback in the last couple of months, showing the nation’s inability to deal with its tumultuous past despite democratic reforms.
To be completely fair, in recent years there has been more open discussion about the 1965 massacre. Artistic and civil society initiatives such as Joshua Oppenheimer’s award-winning films The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, the International People’s Tribunal of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity (IPT 65), as well as the launching of a graphic history primer entitled “The History of Indonesian Leftist Movements for Beginners” have reframed the debate about the massacre. But we have begun to see backlashes.
First, in February, there was a protest against the Belok Kiri (Turn Left) Festival by a group of mass organisations which demanded the cancellation of the festival of leftist thinking. Then there was another raid against the screening of a documentary on Indonesia’s gulag for leftist political prisoners called Pulau Buru Tanah Air Beta (Buru Island: My Homeland) in March. To make matters worse, the notoriously conservative Minister of Defence, Ryamizard Ryacudu recently called for the confiscation of leftist books.
Even land grabbing by state, military, and corporate authorities has been justified under the grounds that the citizens who own the lands are “communists.” For instance, last year, in Cilacap, at least 8,000 hectares of land were taken away from local communities using that excuse.
In short, anti-communism has been effectively used as a pretext to stifle dissent and normalise dispossession.
Indonesia’s anti-communism did not emerge out of a historical vacuum. Anti-communist propaganda has been common since the 1965 mass killings of Communist Party members and alleged sympathisers. Such propaganda has been used to legitimise and justify New Order authoritarianism. What is remarkable is that this rhetoric has regained popularity during the presidency of Joko ‘Jokowi; Widodo, the so-called civil society president.
Activists and observers have speculated that the reemergence of anti-communist rhetoric is indicative of the split between military reformers and hardliners in response to attempts to open up dialogue regarding the 1965 massacre and the military’s role in it. Jokowi himself seems to adopt a “wait-and-see” and “free-market” approach to the issue, waiting for whatever stance that will emerge from the generals’ quarrels. But whatever the truth is, we know that the return of New Order-style anti-communism has a huge impact on society.
Obviously this does not mean that there is a total absence of government initiative to deal with issues surrounding the 1965 massacre. In April the Indonesian government sponsored the National Symposium on the 1965 Tragedy with mixed results. While this step can be seen as a breakthrough from the state’s regular approach to the issue, there is no clear achievement from the symposium. What we know is since then the anti-communist campaign has got even louder.
The hysteria reached its peak in the “Securing Pancasila from the Threats of PKI and Other Ideologies” Symposium taking place in Jakarta and organised by a group of conservative retired generals and hardline Islamists on 1 June in commemoration of Pancasila Day. As expected, the symposium parroted New Order anti-communist propaganda and rejected any possibility of truth-seeking and reconciliation surrounding the 1965 massacre. Essentially, it merely served as a propaganda machine of reactionary elites and their supporters. Some of the symposium’s attendees even threatened a journalist who covered the event and labeled her as “pro-Communist.”
And we have not even counted individual remarks made by staunch anti-communist generals such as Kivlan Zein and Kiki Syahnakri who see rural welfare and human rights as proxies of a communist campaigns instead of basic citizenship demands. While activists may laugh at and dismiss the generals’ rhetoric as absurd, irrational propaganda, the fact is they continue to influence public imagination on “communist threats” in Indonesia.
At this stage, it is safe to say that the latest recent red scare in Indonesia represents an all-time high since the end of the New Order regime. What is worrying is that it has manifested in the most vulgar form – through acts including book banning, perverse historiography, and outright intimidation. Without a proper response from Indonesian social movements to counter these threats against civil, political, and socioeconomic rights, the chances are that authoritarian and illiberal practices under the guise of anti-communism will continue.
Given the current make-up of elite power and interests surrounding Jokowi’s administration, it is most likely that the Indonesian state will turn a blind eye to such practices. This is a clear setback for democracy and attempts to promote impartial historiography, justice, reconciliation, and truth-seeking regarding the 1965 massacre in Indonesia.
Karl Marx once said “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” What has been going on in Indonesia seems to be the other way around: farcical moments of red scare have turned into a tragedy for Indonesian democracy.
Fathimah Fildzah Izzati is a researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI). Iqra Anugrah is a PhD candidate in Political Science and Southeast Asian Studies at Northern Illinois University. Both of them are editors for IndoPROGRESS, an online journal connecting progressive scholars and activists in Indonesia.