It is difficult to find consensus on how many people were killed in Indonesia’s 1965-66 anti-communist purges. Some estimates put it at 500,000 deaths; others reach three million.
For decades, there was one official story about what had happened: nothing at all.
Only in recent years has it been possible for the official narrative to be freely challenged. And now a new generation of savvy young journalists is doing just that through the Ingat 65 — ‘Remember 65’ — project on Medium to chronicle Indonesia’s hidden history.
Chief editor Prodita Sabarini says that mainstream publications, particularly Tempo, Kompas and the Jakarta Post, have improved their coverage of the political implications of the period, as well as the demands of survivors and their families. But she believes personal narratives, such as those advanced by Ingat 65, are the most powerful tool to ensure the era is remembered.
“I was one of those people who believed communism is bad,” as a result of the skewed education she received. “It was imprinted.”
A project is born
The idea for Ingat 65 was conceived after Sabarini saw the critically acclaimed 2012 documentary “The Act of Killing”, which was banned from cinemas in Indonesia, while completing a prestigious fellowship in the U.S. She was able to speak with the director, Joshua Oppenheimer, and their conversations began to change her perception of the past.
“For me personally, I started to acknowledge the sheer scale of the crime that happened as an adult. After a lot of deep talking and thinking, I returned to Indonesia wanting to do something about ‘65,” Sabarini says.
The film also opened up her eyes to how effective propaganda can be: as a teenager during the final Suharto years, she says, she was unaware that she was living under a dictatorship.
Launched in March 2016, Ingat 65 has been heavily influenced by a New York Times storywall project that saw writers from the transgender community share personal narratives. In that time, Ingat 65 has grown into a moving digital scrapbook featuring personal essays and stories from more than 100 volunteer writers.
“Sharing personal stories is valid, and it works, because there’s no assigning of blame—it’s all self-expression and people trying to claim space,” she says. “Everybody should be able to express themselves.”
It’s an ethos that has paid off for Ingat 65, which has been able to steadily catalogue stories that otherwise would be in danger of disappearing forever along with the aging generation that lived through the massacre.
This project by @prodita on Medium is preserving personal accounts of Indonesia's 1960s anti-communist massacres. By @imerincook
Harassment and intimidation
But the project faces two major obstacles, according to Sabarini, an editor at The Conversation Indonesia who runs Ingat 65 in her free time.
Interest in fully addressing the crimes of 1965 waxes and wanes. Each year around September 30, the date on which alleged members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) assassinated six army generals in a failed coup attempt, schoolchildren are made to watch a Suharto-era propaganda video that justifies the ensuing year of violence, while human rights activists call for resolution. Outside of that period, there is little sustained interest in the case.
And communism not only is still highly stigmatised in Indonesia, but illegal, and being accused of harboring sympathy toward PKI can lead to jail time. Indonesia does not share many of the tougher media restrictions imposed by some of its regional neighbors, but a culture of self-censorship persists amid intimidation by powerful political groups. At a cultural event held in Central Jakarta in 2017, hardline conservatives gathered to protest against young left-wing activists, accusing the group of being communists. While Sabarini had left the venue prior to the altercation, the Ingat 65 editorial team has also been targeted by anti-communists.
“We were cyber-harassed—they took photos from our Facebook [page] and said that we were affiliated with PKI,” Sabarini says.
The attack came just a few months after President Joko Widodo, himself regularly the target of communist slurs from opponents, said PKI should be rooted out.
She is joined by a team of volunteers, largely made up of writers and academic, who have also faced online and physical harassment during periods of intense scrutiny.
“Being associated with communism is dangerous, even if you’re not communist,” says Sabarini. “Some of us were very, very scared, but we do this because we care. A lot of us have never been street activists—we’re just regular people who have jobs and want to do something.”
“We laid low for a bit and then refocused on the core of our movement, which is personal storytelling.”