May 19, 1998. Thousands of protesters fill Jakarta’s streets, their chants ringing out over the clamour of the city. Emboldened by righteous indignation, they march on Parliament, occupying the building. A colourful patchwork of banners adorns the rooftop.
Over the past few months, anti-government riots have swept across the nation, prompted by food shortages, skyrocketing prices and multiplying accounts of kidnappings and clandestine arrests at the hands of the government. After 32 years of dictatorship under President Suharto, Indonesians have had enough. Their message is clear: Suharto must go.
Days later, the protestors are jubilant: Suharto has announced his resignation. In a short and sombre ceremony, televised nationwide, deputy BJ Habibie, is sworn in as Indonesia’s new head of government.
One year later, Indonesia holds its first free elections in almost half a century.
It’s an occasion when, for once, the protestors get their way. On this day, democratic ideals triumph over the Goliath of corruption, nepotism and elitism.
Even more extraordinarily, they also won the long game: today, Indonesia remains the world’s third largest democracy.
But all is not resolved. Twenty years on from Reformasi, atrocities committed during Suharto’s New Order regime are still being uncovered.
Dr Jess Melvin, Postdoctoral Associate with the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre at the University of Sydney, has taken on the task of investigating some of the more secretive features of the Suharto years. Invited to speak at ANU Indonesia Project’s Indonesia Study Group, Dr Melvin discussed her most recent publication, The Army and the Indonesian Genocide: Mechanics of Mass Murder, which explores the origins of wave of communal violence in 1965 that swept Suharto to power.
The violence, which resulted in the deaths of approximately one million unarmed civilians, has always been portrayed as the result of a spontaneous uprising. For years, Indonesian authorities have maintained that the military had no responsibility for the killings.
Dr Melvin’s research brings to light new evidence that challenges this official line. Using documents from the former Indonesian Intelligence Agency’s archives in Banda Aceh, Dr Melvin’s argues the military agency was behind the killings in Aceh.
“This new evidence enables us to dramatically rewrite the narrative of what we understand actually happened in 1965,” said Dr Melvin during her recent talk.
“[These documents] indicate very clearly that the military had been keeping very close records of what had happened in 1965,” Dr Melvin explained.
“There were very clear orders and chains of command that could be discovered in these records that indicate that the campaign was launched by the military,” she added.
Not only was the military responsible for the violence in Aceh, she asserts, but the killings were also part of a co-ordinated, nationwide campaign – one that can be traced all the way up to Suharto himself.
“It was a campaign to seize control of the Indonesian state,” said Dr Melvin. “The killings were implemented in order to consolidate this seizure of state power,” she added.
Her book suggests a complex and sophisticated strategy that mobilised several military commands to carry out Suharto’s plan.
“We see different territories being used in different ways,” she said. “But it’s not unusual in a campaign of this size to see this sort of semi-autonomous, territory-specific approach. The Holocaust was also implemented in a similar way: there were different chains of command that were used in different regions,” Dr Melvin said.
“But [in this case], the chain of command leads up to Suharto,” she added.
According to Dr Melvin’s research, the military also outsourced some of its operations to civilian paramilitary groups. Machine guns and rifles were distributed among these civilian groups days before the killings took place, with the explicit indication that they be used to assist the military in its campaign.
Villagers were often coerced into participating in the violence, preparing the killing sites or carrying out the executions under military orders.
Dr Melvin argues her findings reveal a level of organisation and premeditation that far outstrips that which was previously thought.
“This is a very different story from what we hear. It’s usually said that the military didn’t seize power until much later,” she explained.
It’s a discovery not everyone is happy with. In the interests of maintaining stability, the Indonesian government has tried to keep evidence of atrocities committed during the Suharto era largely under wraps.
“At the time of Reformasi, there was a lot of hopes that there would be an investigation into the crimes of the New Order regime, and there was an expectation that Suharto and those around him would be put on trial,” said Dr Melvin.
“From the mid-2000s, there was the beginning of the sense that this investigation into what happened in the past might actually be destabilising for Indonesia,” she added.
In a country where nationalism and conservatism are both on the rise, Dr Melvin’s open criticism of the Indonesian army is sure to rock many boats.
By CAP Student Correspondant, Dot Mason.