Why is anti-communist paranoia so prevalent in Indonesia?

Being left-wing in modern-day Indonesia is equivalent to a suicide note, stemming from Cold War tensions 50 years prior, Indonesia remains one of the most ‘anti-communist’ countries in the world. Within Indonesian society, involvement in communist activities is so stigmatised that it is punishable as a crime. But why is this the case?

The history behind it

Indonesia’s Socialist Beginnings

Despite the paranoia present currently, Indonesia’s earliest intellectuals were left-wing thinkers, with the likes of Tjokroaminoto, Sukarno, Sumean and Kartosuwirjo, all of whom were important political figures and national heroes in Indonesia’s fight for independence. This early growth in socialist thinking in the Third World occurred as Socialist ideas went hand in hand with postcolonial nationalism; stemming from the desire for newly birthed countries to completely diverge from its colonial counterparts who followed an ideology of capitalism that enslaved these very nations pushed intellectuals to the left.

The most prominent left-wing figure in Indonesian history would be Sukarno, the founding father of Indonesia. His socialistic-nationalistic thinking formed his ideology ‘Marhaenism’, which supported collectivist economy and promoted an anti-capitalist, anti-western message.

Sukarno’s left-wing views were most clearly shown in this speech in which he states (translated):

“If you name yourselves my children, the children of Bung Karno — I don’t want to have a child who isn’t leftist!”

Sukarno’s Indonesia

PKI supporters at a rally during the 1955 general election

As Indonesia gained independence in 1945 Sukarno became Indonesia’s first President. By then he was commonly known for his radical anti-colonial views and distasteful opinions on the West. Despite this, Sukarno maintained neutrality in internal politics as well as in foreign affairs, ensuring Indonesia’s good diplomatic relations amidst the hostile Cold War environment. Although having close relations with leaders of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), Sukarno remained impartial from the PKI and laid his loyalties with his party, PNI (Indonesia National Party). On an international scale, Indonesia’s neutrality was clear as Sukarno became a leading member of the ‘Non-Alignment Movement’ — a movement created for third world states to stay out of the Cold War system and focus on nation-building policies.

1965, the turning point

However, the 1960s marked a turning point in Indonesia’s previous neutrality — with the 1965–66 anti-communist mass killings, the G30s movement and Suharto’s New Order being established, Indonesia’s politics would never be the same again. The release of the US government’s covert CIA black operations showed their role in funding and stimulating the events of the 1960s, making Indonesia yet another pawn in the US’ Cold War scheme against Communism. At the time, the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) was the 3rd largest in the world (after the USSR and China), given that, US intervention was not a surprise, as the PKI continued to grow closer to President Sukarno. The US was not ready to allow another large state to become Communist and were threatened by Sukarno’s closeness to other Socialist nations e.g., Tito’s Yugoslavia and the USSR, in American eyes, dire action was permitted to stop the spread of Communism.

The 1965–66 genocide ensured that all Communist sympathisers were eradicated and that the paranoia of the Communist ideology (that we see today) was spread throughout the nation. The mass killings amounted in approximately 1 million deaths, and although many of these killings are commonly known to have been done by the Army, it was in fact largely cultivated by the Indonesian people. Death mobs were formed, and they hunted anyone thought or who were accused to be Communist, this was usually all based on rumour and executions were usually done for personal gain; be it for job positions or even due to petty arguments. The paranoia stimulated led a nation to carry out genocide by their own means.

US gains and Suharto as President

The events of 1965–66 was essentially a modern-day witch hunt, all in the name of democracy and to consolidate the US’ liberal international order. With the removal of Sukarno and the arrival of Suharto, the US government gained a valuable crony. Suharto’s dictatorship would last a further 31 years and throughout his rule, he would follow the US’ capitalist order by liberalising Indonesia’s economy and allowing large transnational companies to operate in the country (the majority being US-based firms). After all, Suharto had to repay the US somehow for helping him gain power.

Indonesian President Sukarno (left) hands over his powers to General Suharto, Feb 22, 1967, in Jakarta

Indeed, with Suharto in power, the fight for democracy had supposedly been won as Communism would basically be abolished. However, this ‘win’ benefitted Indonesia’s foreign counterparts more than benefitting the country itself. A long-lasting dictatorship, an intense culture of corruption and an over globalised country has left Indonesia unable to progress to its top potential. In hindsight, the US consolidated their Cold War aims more than intended in Indonesia as the stigma around Communism is still so prevalent.

Current Indonesian Law

Since the 1966 events and the arrival of Suharto as President new laws were adopted which criminalise and further denounce Communism. Laws MPRS no. 25/1966 and Undang Undang no. 27/1999 not only prohibits the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) but also bans any symbols, images or phrases that display left-wing rhetoric. Being Communist can even get you a prison sentence spanning from at least 12 years in prison to a death sentence at most.

Throughout both laws, it is constantly reminded in many forms that Communist teachings ‘endangers the survival of the Indonesian nation’ and is a direct ‘contradiction of the Pancasila ideology’ (the official ideology of Indonesia).

However, I want to emphasise that although this is all stated in Indonesian law, since the Reformasi period (the breakdown of Suharto’s dictatorship) and the end of the Cold War, imprisonment of Communists isn’t likely, despite still being entrenched in Indonesian law. However, Communism is still used as a political tool; being referred to as a ‘boogeyman ghost’ for political gain. Left-wing views and representation in Indonesia has completely diminished, with the major political parties circulating around either the centre or right of the political spectrum.

A group burning the Communist flag chanting “burn, burn PKI now” on 25/6/2020

With a nation’s collective memory being filled with memories of genocide and fueled heavily with western anti-communist propaganda; as well as a law that incriminates left-wing politics, Indonesia’s anti-communist paranoia has become so internally entrenched that it may never settle.

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