Book Review: The Army and the Indonesian Genocide: Mechanics of Mass Murder

Jess Melvin. The Army and the Indonesian Genocide: Mechanics of Mass Murder. Routledge, 2018.

Jess Melvin has written a remarkable book. Based on archives and many witness interviews, this study is a breakthrough for establishing the case for the Indonesian military’s orchestration and implementation of the 1965/66 mass killings. Due to closed archives elsewhere in Indonesia, the book focusses on Aceh province in northern Sumatra; though it is hardly far-fetched to extrapolate results of Melvin’s spectacular research to other parts of Indonesia.

Following John Roosa’s pathbreaking book Pretext for Mass Murder (2006), Melvin has, 12 years later, written a spectacularly researched book about the events and mass murders in Indonesia in 1965/66. While Roosa’s focus is on the ‘pretext’, namely the run-up and execution of the botched GS-30 Coup of September 30, 1965 and its subsequent systematic exploitation by the military, Melvin outlines in great detail the counter-coup military contingency planning and its grim execution in Aceh Province before and since October 1.

It is well known that Indonesia was a powder keg waiting to explode in 1965. With rumors swirling about the ailing President Sukarno, both the Indonesian military and the large “Partai Komunis Indonesia” (PKI) were jockeying for gains within the context of Sukarno’s “Crush Malaysia” campaign. It also was the time of the Indonesian President’s attempt to play a major international role, aspiring to lead the “new emerging forces” of the Third World, challenging both the United Nations and the International Olympic Committee, and even exploring nuclear arms cooperation with China, a privilege no other ally of Beijing ever enjoyed. Back home, the Army leadership and the PKI were each gearing up to seize power at the expense of the other. They both prepared for possible coups from the other side while hatching their own plots. Each group suspected the other of planning such a coup. Thus, plans were made for either preempting or thwarting potential actions by the antagonist and turn them quickly into a resounding defeat of the adversary. While the PKI and its overconfident leader Dipa Aidit consulted with China and shared the latter’s optimism of magic revolutionary victory, Indonesian military leaders, in cahoots with Western powers, cold-bloodedly waited for a Communist move that would provide a pretext to destroy the PKI and many other internal ‘adversaries’ once and for all.

The final result was a ‘Western triumph in the Cold War’ like no other, if you want to believe the contemporary dispatches from Western representatives on site in Indonesia. While the PKI had hitched itself exclusively to the comparatively weak Chinese communists, the Indonesian military enjoyed the whole-hearted support of diplomats and intelligence operatives not just from the United States and Great Britain, but also from Australia, France, West Germany and the Netherlands. Coup attempt, counter-coup, and mass murder was a result of Indonesian agency, with Indonesians being both the perpetrators and the victims. However, there also was substantial international complicity and agency. The ‘Western community’ was much more than a sympathetic bystander to mass murder, it actively supported monstrous crimes. If ‘the West’ had any concerns, then it was that Suharto and his military would not eliminate enough communists and leave residual pockets intact. This, and the fact that China has in recent years completely shuttered its foreign policy archives, seriously complicates what Jess Melvin convincingly prosecutes as a legal case of genocide, according to the 1948 Genocide Convention. The perpetrators of 1965/66 are not just the local henchmen recruited by the Indonesian military; they are not just the Indonesian military commanders planning and executing the massacres; they are also complicit foreign nationals sitting in Indonesia and foreign capitals.

What Melvin calls the “Indonesian genocide files” are over 3,000 pages of photocopies of classified documents she obtained in 2010 at the “Aceh Government Library and Archives, the site of the former Indonesian Intelligence Agency’s archives in Banda Aceh”. They are indeed “by far the most detailed collection of documents ever received from the time of the Indonesian genocide. They fundamentally change what is known in terms of both chronology and accountability”. Included in those pages are “executive orders initiating the genocide”, the “establishment of death squads”, military campaigns at all Aceh district and sub-district levels, purges of the civil service, and “race-based killings” of ethnically-Chinese persons in Aceh Province in 1966 (22-23). Combined with interviews with outspoken and grateful survivors, mostly proud and unfazed perpetrators and other witnesses, Melvin turns this archival treasure into a gripping and compelling narrative.

In her conclusion, Melvin summarizes the case for a genocide under the 1948 Convention: The military acted with intent and targeted groups protected under the Convention, namely not just PKI members, but also a religious group (“atheistic red Muslims”), and an ethnic group (Chinese). Drawing from Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem”, Melvin sees similar genocidal key factors at play in the Holocaust and in Indonesia. Eventually she outlines why the genocide was a centralized and national campaign of state-sponsored violence and nothing “spontaneous”. With her archival findings, Melvin is the first scholar able to prove the latter and make a strong case that one can “reasonably extrapolate” from the Aceh case to other areas in Indonesia (303). In her final remarks, she demands justice for the survivors and their families as well as accountability and end of impunity for the perpetrators. A “process of truth-telling accompanied by an official investigation” Melvin considers as “the most realistic and practical alternative” (304) to, probably elusive, punitive justice for individual perpetrators. She is certainly right – but the powerful military, its intelligence service, and its religious and political allies in contemporary Indonesia may prevent even such from (ever?) happening.

Bernd Schaefer
George Washington University