The Act of Killing, the U.S.-Indonesia Alliance, and the Consequences of Forgetting

Among the casualties of the U.S. government shutdown is President Barack Obama’s trip to Indonesia for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. In calling President Yudhoyono of Indonesia on October 3, to express his regrets over the last-minute cancellation, Obama, according to the White House, “reaffirmed the importance of the U.S.-Indonesia partnership.”

It is a partnership that, despite its long-standing global significance, typically garners little attention in the United States. But it merits careful scrutiny, not least for what transpired 48 years ago. The beginning of October 1965 saw the kidnapping and murder of six Indonesian generals, killings that the Indonesian military (TNI) quickly blamed on the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI). As suggested by the title of historian John Roosa’s important book, Pretext for Mass Murder, the event and its framing was an excuse for the TNI to kill on a horrific scale.

In what the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency called “one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century,” the TNI and its paramilitary henchmen targeted the PKI and its alleged sympathizers, killing many hundreds of thousands over a several-month period and bringing Major General Suharto to power. Yet there has never been any accountability for the reign of terror, either in Indonesia or in the United States, which aided and abetted the slaughter.

There are present-day consequences for such impunity, a number of which Joshua Oppenheimer demonstrates in his chilling and epic documentary, The Act of Killing. It is an impunity that the film tries to explain by opening with a quote from Voltaire: “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they are in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”

The unpunished murderers of large numbers that are the focus of Oppenheimer’s film are members of a paramilitary gang in the Indonesian city of Medan who helped to perpetrate the 1965-66 carnage. The trumpets are those of the Indonesian state, particularly the country’s military that led the killings, and those of the military’s supporters and cheerleaders abroad.

The film centers around Anwar Congo, who, now in his 70s, comes across as a thoughtful and gentle figure with a quick smile, a warm patriarch who plays lovingly with his grandchildren. Almost fifty years ago, at the height of the terror, he was the head of a local gang, one that operated out of a cinema that showed films starring the likes of James Dean, Elvis Presley and John Wayne. Congo, by his own admission, killed around one thousand individuals.

Many of the killings took place on the rooftop of a building right across the street from the cinema. Congo and colleagues would often exit the cinema late at night, intoxicated by the escapism provided by the movies, and go to the rooftop where they would execute their prisoners.

The film’s title is a double entendre in that Anwar Congo and his henchmen saw themselves, in many ways, as acting out killings, as performing them in the same way that was depicted on screen.  Indeed, Congo says, he got the idea of strangling his victims with a wire noose he would tie to a pipe and tighten with a piece of wood from mafia movies. This mode of killing was much cleaner than the bloody ones he carried out in the earlier days of the terror.

The film is also about acting in that Anwar Congo brings Oppenheimer and his colleagues to the sites of his crimes and recreates many of them in vivid and often painful detail. Along the same lines, the documentary is comprised of a film within a film as Oppenheimer’s team encouraged Congo and his friends to dramatize their actions in the way they wanted them depicted. They thus decide to create and stage what are often very bizarre, almost surreal scenes as part of what Anwar Congo envisions as a “beautiful family movie.”

The documentary is not the one that Oppenheimer set out to make. His original goal was to make one that focused not on the perpetrators, but on the victims and their loved ones who survived. Quickly, however, it became obvious that such a film was too politically sensitive given that those responsible for the slaughter in Indonesia have never been held accountable, and, in many ways, remain in power. Indeed, the level of impunity is such that they and their political heirs continue to wield the trumpets, openly bragging about and celebrating what they did.

One such heir is the governor of the Indonesian province of North Sumatra, the main city of which is Medan, who warmly receives Anwar Congo in his office. The governor asserts that everyone in the area during the era of the slaughter was scared of the death squad leader except him as, the official explains, “he looked after me when I was a kid.”

Any doubts that strong ties between the state and the paramilitary gangs are matters of the past are erased when the governor contends that “Communism will never be accepted here, because we have so many gangsters, and that’s a good thing. .  . . [I]f we know how to work with them, all we have to do is direct them.” Similarly, Indonesia’s vice-president (2004-2009), Yusuf Kalla, in speaking to a rally of the national paramilitary group Pemuda Pancasila (of which Anwar Congo and his cronies are members), states that not everyone can live within the law lest Indonesia become “a nation of bureaucrats.”

As the documentary painfully demonstrates, Indonesia is far from becoming Kalla’s feared “nation of bureaucrats.” Anwar and his buddies brag about killing, among many others, Chinese Indonesians in the mid-1960s—with one boasting of his killing of his girlfriend’s father. Decades later, Oppenheimer and his colleagues record them flauntingly entering a marketplace where they shake down Chinese shopkeepers for “donations” to aid Pemuda Pancasila’s work.

It is hard not to walk away from the documentary despairing about the plight of contemporary Indonesia. However, the very fact that the film was made speaks to the heroic efforts of myriad elements of the country’s dynamic civil society to bring to light the horrors of what took place in 1965-66, to seek justice for the survivors, and to overthrow the repressive aspects of the society that are its living legacy. That such efforts are possible speak to the significant openings that now exist ever since Suharto was forced to resign in 1998 in the context of Indonesia’s version of “People Power” and considerable cracks in the post-terror “New Order” apparatus.

Still, although the film is the subject of intense discussion in Indonesia, including in the mass media, there have been no public showings, only private ones, demonstrating that severe restrictions remain as to what is permissible. This is revealed by one of the more chilling aspects of the film when the credits roll at the end: the Indonesians who helped make the film, including one of the co-directors, are listed as “Anonymous.”

Here in the United States, by contrast, The Act of Killing has been shown in myriad venues. It has also engendered many, typically glowing, reviews. What it hasn’t led to is the type of national introspection that seems to be taking place in growing sectors of Indonesian society. And given the ugly U.S. role in the 1965-66 slaughter, as well as subsequent complicity in myriad atrocities by Suharto’s regime in Indonesia proper and in the invasion and occupation of East Timor (matters effectively “forgotten” in the U.S. corridors of power), it certainly should.

As Oppenheimer mentions in an interview on Democracy Now!, a journalist by the name of Kathy Kadane revealed in 1990 that officials in the U.S. embassy in Jakarta compiled lists of PKI cadres throughout the country. They provided upwards of 5,000 names to the Indonesian military in 1965, people who “were captured in overwhelming numbers,” according to Robert J. Martens, a former member of the embassy’s political section—among other forms of assistance. Embassy officials, Kadane reported, “later checked off the names of those who had been killed or captured.”

“They probably killed a lot of people,” Martens said referring to Indonesia’s military, “and I probably have a lot of blood on my hand, but that’s not all bad. There’s a time when you have to strike hard at a decisive moment.”

Martens’ cold admission echoes the openness of Adi Zukaldry, an old friend of Anwar Congo with whom he reunites after many years to help re-enact the killings.  Rejecting the notion there is some sort of absolute international standard by which to determine the legitimacy of mass violence, he explains to Oppenheimer that “War crimes are defined by the winners, and I’m a winner.” To illustrate the assertion, he invokes the unpunished crimes of former U.S. President G.W. Bush and also states: “Americans killed the Indians. Has anyone been punished for that?”

It was hard not to recall Adi Zukaldry’s words as I read the transcript of Obama’s speech before the U.N. General Assembly on September 24. Obama spoke of the importance of U.S. leadership—something he went to great pains to distinguish from U.S. imperialism, the very notion of which he characterized as “useful propaganda”—and how “the world is better” for what he euphemistically referred to as U.S. “engagement” on the global stage.

One gets the sense that, like Robert Martens, Barack Obama sleeps well at night regardless of how much blood might be on his hands. By contrast, Anwar Congo, who struggles to sleep, comes across as someone who is very human in the complex array of feelings he experiences. He admits that, back in 1965-66, he was able to do, and tried to forget the horror of, what he did through dancing, listening to music, and consuming large amounts of alcohol, marijuana, and ecstasy. Almost five decades later, it becomes clear that, by the end of the film, he is a deeply pained, broken man.

While Obama spoke in his phone conversation to Yudhoyono of “his affection for the people of Indonesia,” countless Indonesians continue to suffer the consequences of impunity for the myriad crimes enabled by the U.S-Indonesia alliance. This past August, the Pentagon announced the sale of eight Apache attack helicopters to Indonesia. Such support from Washington can only embolden the TNI as it continues its brutality in West Papua, and elsewhere in Indonesia.

According to Oppenheimer, his hope in making the documentary and facilitating the reenactment of some of the killings was “that the outcomes from this process would serve as an exposé, even to Indonesians themselves, of just how deep the impunity and lack of resolution in their country remains.” When Anwar Congo tearfully asks Oppenheimer near the film’s end, “Have I sinned?” one sees that the film has already succeeded to a significant degree.

If such success is possible in Indonesia, it is also possible in the United States. Whether or not it will occur depends in no small part on those of us who call the United States home, and our willingness to take responsibility, as well as to derive inspiration from those in Indonesia who courageously fight for justice under far more challenging circumstances.

Joseph Nevins is an associate professor of geography at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. His latest book is Dying To Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (City Lights Books, 2008). Read other articles by Joseph, or visit Joseph's website.