From A World to Win News Service

On the Indonesian Documentary The Act of Killing

by Susannah York |November 28, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


November 24, 2014. A World to Win News Service. Cutting off heads is an efficient way of killing people. It's cleaner. Beating people to death means there is too much blood to clean up and it smells awful. At least that is the expressed opinion of Anwar Congo and his band of ghoulish executioners, who are the stars/actors in the award-winning documentary, The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. In a surreal movie within the documentary, men who killed suspected communists and others by the hundreds of thousands after the CIA-sponsored coup in 1965 reenact the torture and murder with pride and pleasure. They are still considered heroes by the Indonesian power elite and enjoy impunity. The effect created by the disconnect between the awfulness of what they did and their continuing status and vanity makes this film extremely disturbing.

For background on the making of the film, see the July 19 interview with the director, Joshua Oppenheimer, at Democracy Now! (“The Act of Killing”: New Film Shows U.S.-Backed Indonesian Death Squad Leaders Re-enacting Massacres.)

The Indonesian military overthrew the government headed by the elected president, Sukarno, who was allied with the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI). As part of the documentary, several mass murderers make their own "movie" of execution scenes and discuss their justifications for doing what they did. They take Oppenheimer and the camera to the places where they did this, an urban building they blandly call "the office" and small villages. As they recreate their history, they explain why they felt they had to eradicate communists, calling them "cruel" people who redistributed land to the peasants and therefore deserved to die—an official history that bombards every schoolchild in Indonesia to this day.

Estimates of the number of people killed range from half a million to more than a million during the year following the 1965 coup, including communist leaders and cadre, trade unionists, intellectuals, teachers, land reform advocates, ordinary peasants, ethnic Chinese, women and children. Bodies clogged rivers in many areas of Indonesia. Many hundreds of thousands more were herded into concentration camps and spent years there.

Oppenheimer did not originally intend his documentary to turn out the way it did. Initially he wanted the victims to speak out, as this sordid history is all but forgotten or has gone unnoticed outside of Indonesia, but the climate of repression and fear they still lived in prevented that. The killers live all around them and the army kept intervening, detaining the crew and confiscating their equipment and tapes. When the issue of whether to continue the documentary was discussed with some human rights advocates, Oppenheimer was persuaded to talk to the villains who openly boasted of their role. It was felt that in this way, he would no longer be harassed by the military, the murderous nature of the whole regime would be revealed to all Indonesians, and some justice could finally be achieved.

Oppenheimer persisted in feeling compelled to expose what he considered mass murder on an unimaginable scale. Being in Indonesia reminded him of Nazi Germany, albeit in Indonesia they were still in power. Many of his family perished in Nazi Germany, and while growing up, the family dinner discussions often revolved around how this kind of genocide should never happen again anywhere in the world.

After eight years of research and interviews with 40 death squad leaders who were recruited by the Indonesian army to help carry out the hard work of torture and cutting off heads, Oppenheimer met Anwar Congo, a gangster and revered founder of a right-wing military organization. Congo understood what a documentary was. He was influenced by lavish Hollywood musical productions and gangster movies from which he and others learned some of their brutal techniques. He and his cohorts were eager to recreate what they did for Oppenheimer and his film crew. They considered the documentary a historical piece the whole family could watch. Many of the film crew were Indonesians who remain anonymous for fear of retribution for making this documentary.

When Oppenheimer saw some flicker of remorse in Congo's eyes, he decided that his film would not be about all the executioners as originally intended, that what Congo was doing with this reenactment was struggling with the nightmares that haunted him. The process of making the film confronts Congo, and some realization of the acts he committed begins to take place even while the others are totally immune to such feelings, having been permanently dehumanized by their acts.

Throughout the documentary, different issues are discussed among Congo and his collaborators and different meetings arranged with important politicians in power who support the reenactment of this history and speak proudly of their own historical role. In one situation, we meet a journalist who denies he knew these killings were going on, even though he was working above the "office" at that time.

Congo and friends ridicule him, saying that what they were doing was an open secret and all the neighbors knew, so how could he not know? Elsewhere in discussions, someone raises why don't the children of those killed take revenge, and someone replies to general laughter, "Because we would kill them all."

In another setting, one of the film crew tells his own story. When he was t12, his step-father was taken away in the middle of the night and he and his mother found the body days later. No one helped them; they were shunned by their neighbours and could only bury the body in a shallow ditch. While telling this story, he insists repeatedly that this is not a criticism of what Congo and his group have done. Later this person plays the role of the victim for the film within the documentary. The recreation of the scene is so realistic that he breaks down and begs that they give his wife and children a message before he dies, thinking that they were actually going to kill him for telling the story of his step-father.

Oppenheimer asks the executioners if they fear being brought up on charges of war crimes under the Geneva Conventions. One of Congo's sidekicks in the massacres, Adi Zulkadry, replies negatively, saying, "War crimes are defined by the winners. I'm a winner." While watching their film reenactment, Adi is concerned that they are the ones that look cruel, not the communists. Others reply that this is their history, the truth, but Adi responds that too much truth is not always a good thing. He warns that this film is going to make them look bad.

In another scene, Congo acts out the role of the victim who is about to have his head cut off. Clearly unsettled by this experience, he declares he won't play the victim's role again. Having experienced the loss of dignity, Congo asks Oppenheimer if the people he killed felt like he did during his reenactment. Oppenheimer replies that they felt far worse because they knew they were going to die.

Congo, who estimates that he personally killed about a thousand people, is only a small perpetrator among many in the massacres that took place in Indonesia in 1965-66. Behind him stood not only the Indonesian army and the gangsters they recruited, but the biggest criminals and murderers of all, the U.S. government. The 1960s was a time of national liberation struggles around the world and Washington considered President Sukarno a problem. The U.S., then ramping up its intervention in Vietnam, was eager to replace him with a puppet. General Suharto's military coup was hailed in Time magazine as "the best news for the West in Asia in years."

Giving guidance and coordination to the coup d'état behind the scenes was the U.S. and a band of CIA advisers to the Indonesian army. The U.S. provided money, weapons (especially small arms for killing at close range), and radio communication equipment so that the army could efficiently proceed with the killings across Indonesia's 18,000 islands. The CIA provided a "killing list" with 5,000 names of PKI party leaders, prominent opposition figures, leftists, leaders of unions, and intellectuals. As the killings progressed, U.S. advisers assessed the manhunt, checking the names of the dead off the list.

The U.S. claimed to have no knowledge of what was happening during that year. But the supply of radios is perhaps the most telling detail. They served not only as field communications but also became an element of a broad U.S. intelligence gathering operation constructed as the manhunt went forward. Perhaps the most irrefutable evidence of the U.S.'s attitude was that they and the UK kept coup leader General Suharto in power for more than three decades.

Although these crimes were somewhat overshadowed by the immensity of the U.S. war against Vietnam, in later decades declassified documents and cables helped reveal the bloody hand of the U.S. in Indonesia. Former senior U.S. diplomats and CIA officers described in lengthy interviews how they aided Suharto in his attack on the PKI. "It really was a big help to the army," said Robert J. Martens, a former member of the U.S. Embassy's political section in Indonesia. "They [the Indonesia army] probably killed a lot of people, and I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that's not all bad. There's a time when you have to strike hard at a decisive moment." Martens worked under William Colby, then director of the CIA's Far East division and later head of the CIA.

Although not part of the documentary The Act of Killing, it is worth mentioning that 10 years after the coup, the Indonesian armed forces unleashed another bloodbath with the invasion of East Timor, killing about 250,000 people, a third of its population, again with the help of the U.S. government. The more than 20 years of Indonesian military rule in East Timor were some of the bloodiest and most brutal in Southeast Asian history.

How could the 1965 human slaughter of a million people go on for several months with so little resistance when Indonesia had one of the largest communist organizations in the world, enjoying an immense popularity among the workers and peasants? The Communist Party of Indonesia was a non-revolutionary party with a strategy of parliamentary politics, in coalition with nationalist forces like President Sukarno. The PKI believed that there could be a peaceful transition to socialism and that the state had a "people's aspect" in Sukarno, seen as a hero who led the Indonesian independence struggle against the Dutch. Sukarno foolishly declared that his power base was the PKI, the army and the Islamist forces, but the U.S. helped organize most of the army and the Islamists to overthrow him and hunt down and kill PKI members and decimate their social base among the people.

The PKI did not understand that local bourgeois forces and the world imperialists would never allow them to come to power and saw them as a threat to their interests and control of an important country geopolitically and also rich in oil and other resources. In the context of the times, the overthrow of Suharto was a declaration of the U.S.'s intentions to dominate the region and the world. With a wrong understanding of the role of the military, to protect the state and crush any attempts at taking it over, the devastating results were that the party and their supporters were left unprepared to resist and the people paid the price.


A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine, a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world's Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.


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