Indonesia’s insistence on the death penalty will haunt its people and the nation for decades to come.

In late 1965 Beny was a young policeman serving in Nusa Tenggara Timor, Indonesia’s far eastern province that’s closer to Darwin than Jakarta.

It was a turbulent time for the Republic, then only two decades old.  A moral tsunami was sweeping the nation, the waves generated in the distant capital where a military coup had dethroned first president Sukarno.

His successor General Suharto said the army acted because the godless communists were about to seize control.  He ordered a purge. An estimated 500,000 died.

Citizens were condemned as reds though membership of the Communist Party had been legal. They were imprisoned, brutally treated, then forced to the beach or jungle and shot.

Beny was among the official executioners.  He squinted down the sights of his rifle, aimed at the bowed heads of neighbours he’d known and pulled the trigger.

The defenceless targets were so close he could hardly miss. Then he saw what he’d done – the shattered skulls, the splashed brains and the gore. Over several months he killed 17 men.

When the insanity eventually passed a sort of nervous normality returned.  Memories of the terror were buried along with the victims, but could not be stilled.

A teenage daughter discovered her parent’s awful secret. To help lay the ghosts she later wrote his story published as a chapter in Memecah Pembisuan or Breaking the Silence (Monash University Publishing).

Speaking of her research she said: “He told me that he was very much affected by the killing. He felt as if he were going mad. Two years after the killings, my parents got married.

“The first year of their marriage was very hard for my mum. My father beat her a lot. Only after they performed some traditional rituals, visited a local shaman, and prayed every midnight for several months in the church, did my father become calm.

“For the first four years of their marriage they did not have any children. My mother had some miscarriages. So they prayed and asked forgiveness from God and promised God that if they had children, they would dedicate their first one to God.”

That child is now the Rev Dr Mery Kolimon, a leading advocate for reconciliation as co-editor of Forbidden Memories – Women’s Experiences of 1965 in Eastern Indonesia (also from Monash University Publishing).


Rev Dr Mery Kolimon.

Her father had someone to shrive his soul and died quickly of a heart attack.  Other executioners burdened by their terrible deeds went insane or committed suicide. Their distressed families seldom understood why their loved ones were going crazy and causing so much strife.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s films about the 1965 massacres, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence reveal the unstoppable mental torments suffered by the executioners despite outward bravado.

Along with its agents, the state is also a victim.  Last year the Indonesian government savaged its reputation as a modern civilised nation by killing eight drug traffickers including two Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.

Australia, Brazil and the Netherlands withdrew their ambassadors. There were protests around the world.  Attorney General Muhammad Prasetyo claimed the shootings were “more orderly and more perfect” than earlier executions. Now more are planned.

Prasetyo said he delayed the next round in respect for Ramadhan which ended on 7 July. Sometime soon five local and five foreign convicts, mostly drug traffickers will be tied to posts at Nusa Kambangan prison and gunned down at midnight.

Prasetyo reportedly told journalists:  “Conducting executions during the holy month will not sound right.”

Nor does the sound of gunshots in jail whatever the month and wherever in the world.  Judicial killings have long ceased to be right along with crucifixions, burning witches and dismemberments.  All nations have a history of enacting ghastly punishments.  Most have matured, repented and reformed.

Along with 31 US States, Indonesia has yet to find the moral courage to join the majority.

Supporters of the grizzly procedure say it’s a deterrent but show no figures.  If true, drug trafficking would have ceased long ago. What is known is that Indonesia’s legal system is so rotten there’s no certainty the convicted are guilty as charged.

Brazilian Rodrigo Gularte, 42, had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Priest Charlie Burrows said the condemned man could not understand that he was to die in the last batch.

Filipina Mary Jane Veloso got a last-hour stay when new evidence showed she may have been an unknowing drug mule.

Polls show locals approve of capital punishment. Indonesia often demonstrates its inferiority complex through demands to be treated as a great nation. The public thinks executions prove its position with a tough guy president giving the finger to the international community.

Those scheduled for the next mass execution are men from countries like China and Nigeria which also retain the death penalty.  There are no Westerners or pretty women listed this time, which probably means protests will be muted, diluting the abolitionists’ campaign.

Indonesia is also hypocritical.  Around 280 citizens are on death rows overseas, principally Saudi Arabia where maids allegedly despatching their brutal bosses seem to be a regular tragedy.  Spurred by an outraged media the Indonesian government pleads for clemency, not always successfully.

Among those involved in the coming gruesome ritual are 150 marksmen undergoing training, though no skill is needed to shoot a sitting target.  Authorities say some rifles will be loaded with blanks so no-one can be sure they were responsible.

This is nonsense. Army trainees who have used live rounds and blanks are well aware the kick is different.  The guilty will know.

Like Dr Kolimon’s dad they’ll spend the rest of their days reliving the unholy nightmares, tormenting themselves and families.

Attorney General Prasetyo should rest well for ensuring no wrong sounds upset the peace of Ramadan.

Australian journalist and author Duncan Graham lives in East Java and writes for the Indonesian media.