ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Politics of Amnesia

Fifty years ago, a failed uprising against pro-US army generals (though not against the country's president) in Indonesia became the scapegoat for pogroms and inaugurated a three-decade long period of authoritarianism. Indonesia became the model for the West in its suppression of popular movements in the global South. The elite in Indonesia and its international allies still do not want to talk about their violent methods. This amnesia and the refusal to understand the experiences of popular politics works to the detriment of democracy in the country.

The night between 30 September and 1 October, 50 years ago, history changed in such a way that few have the courage to talk about it. In Indonesia, radical military officers supported by the leader of the communist party and his aides (but not the party!), attempted to arrest prominent pro-US generals to hold them to account for their conspiracy against the country’s anti-imperialist President Sukarno. Had they succeeded, the left would have finally gained the upper hand. For, while Sukarno’s people dominated politics, and although the Indonesian Communist Party had become the world’s third largest and had succeeded in initiating progressive reforms, these reforms were in exchange for leftist support of Sukarno’s “Guided Democracy.” And “Guided Democracy”, in turn, had come with appointed rather than elected people in parliament and strong presidential and military powers. So even though everything had been justified in the name of anti-feudalism and anti-imperialism (against the Dutch, US and British interests in particular, as well as their Indonesian allies), the price had been too high: the left was now no longer able to win free elections; the military had agreed to nationalisation of foreign companies in return for controlling them on their own; and trade unionism was restricted. Furthermore, uniting farmers behind land reform had proved difficult.

But on the night of 1 October, 50 years ago, everything was lost. One of the pro-US generals escaped and the others were murdered. This allowed a notoriously corrupt and unremarkable general by the name of Suharto to take the opportunity to not only stop the dissident officers’ actions, but also to build broad unity behind disproportionate and senseless acts of revenge on communists and leftist nationalists, who knew absolutely nothing about the conspiracies. According to the Times Magazine, this was “the West’s best news for years in Asia.” And before long, Sukarno was disposed leading to Suharto’s more than three decade-long dictatorship.

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