The strength and weakness of ‘The Act of Killing’

The recent documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer, ‘The Act of Killing‘, provides a chillingly intimate portrait of some aging thugs who, nearly fifty years ago, took part in one of the greatest acts of mass murder of the last century: the 1965-66 slaughter in Indonesia.


Scene from ‘The Act of Killing’. Three aging members of the 1965 death squads visit the scene of their crime.

The principal targets of this act of terror were the workers and peasants of Indonesia, especially those who supported the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI), the Beijing-oriented Indonesian Communist Party. This party, which had been the largest Communist Party in the world outside the Soviet Union and China, was physically annihilated. The killing was orchestrated by the Indonesian military forces, led by the rightist general Suharto who seized power in a coup in October 1965, but many of the murders were actually carried out by rightist gangs working with the military. The frenzy of killing spread to include Indonesians of Chinese descent, teachers and other educated layers, and, as the film shows, the rightist thugs also took the opportunity to carry out personal vendettas. When some terrified PKI supporters appealed to the authorities to be spared, the price of staying alive demanded of them was that they denounce their friends and join in the murder spree themselves.  Somewhere between half a million and a million people are estimated to have been killed.

The scale of the massacre is comparable with the later killing fields of Cambodia and Rwanda, and with the earlier Nazi holocaust in 1930s Germany. Yet in comparison with those events, the catastrophe in Indonesia remains largely unknown or forgotten by the wider world. The perpetrators remained in power for more than thirty years after the event. Thus they were able to conceal and justify their crimes. Rather than being brought to justice, the murderers went on to enjoy a lifetime of being lauded as heroes, and many accumulated great wealth. As the film demonstrates, in many respects they remain in power to this day. Meanwhile the relatives of those killed, those who languished in prison for decades, and other victims left alive, have been condemned to silence for forty years.

Things are changing now, as I noted when I visited Indonesia earlier this year. Following a sharp economic downturn in 1998, protests erupted in Indonesia that led to the downfall of the Suharto regime. Cautiously, family members of the victims of 1965 began to speak out about the atrocities they had suffered, including ongoing persecutions. The hero status of the rightist thugs has been publicly challenged. The oft-repeated justifications of the massacre poured forth in anti-communist propaganda for decades have been re-examined and questioned.

The Act of Killing

Still from ‘The Act of Killing.’ Re-enactment of the burning of a village, 1965

The great strength of ‘The Act of Killing’ is that it broadens this re-examination of the 1965-66 slaughter within Indonesia, and takes it to the wider world. The thugs who co-operated with the making of the film evidently saw it as their opportunity to restore their somewhat tarnished image as heroes. Thus they agreed to re-enact on film scenes from their past, such as the garotting of prisoners and the burning of villages, boasting of how many people they had personally killed.

There are glimpses of their status and power in present-day Indonesia, such as a celebrity-show-style TV interview in which they boast of and joke about their exploits to a sycophantic interviewer. In another scene, one of the thugs demonstrates how he can still extort protection money from some local Chinese traders. There are glimpses of just how wide-reaching were the effects of the extermination campaign, such as when one of the friends of the thugs suddenly and unexpectedly interrupts the conversation to reveal that his own father was abducted and murdered in that time.

The Act of Killing

Scene from ‘The Act of Killing.’

The film becomes increasingly bizarre as the thugs portray their own imaginative fantasies of self-justification, culminating in a surreal scene with women dancing in front of a waterfall, where a murdered communist presents one of the thugs with a medal and thanks him ‘for killing me and sending me to heaven,’ to the music of the song ‘Born Free.’

But for all the fascinating insights into the psychology and outlook of the murderers, this is, after all, a matter of secondary interest in any re-examination of the events of 1965. Of far greater importance both historically and politically is the question of how and why the slaughter happened. How is it that this Communist Party of several  hundred thousand members, experienced and battle-tested through their role in the struggle for Indonesia’s independence, was liquidated without a fight? That is the real question that needs to be investigated.

It would be unfair to criticise the film for what it does not contain. ‘The Act of Killing’ accomplishes what it sets out to do, and never attempts to answer this underlying question. Be that as it may, I still came away strangely dissatisfied. The film gives us a horrifying portrait of the ruthlessness of the enemy, but little sense of those who resisted them. In this way, it made the murderers appear much more powerful than they actually were.

There is another documentary, called 40 years of silence, available on Youtube, which features the testimony of several courageous individuals and families who have broken the silence of forty years and begun to speak about their experiences as victims of these crimes. This film certainly helps to redress that imbalance.

The underlying question remains: how did it happen? The answer lies not in the psychology of the rightist generals and their militias, nor even in the support they received from the US, but rather in the political course of the PKI, and it remains deeply buried. The PKI itself was largely annihilated, murdered along with the central leader responsible for that political course, D.N. Aidit. The leadership of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, which shared the responsibility for the suicidal political course of the PKI, made no attempt to analyse the defeat at the time, and certainly has no intention of discussing the question now.  Nevertheless, in broad outline, some things are clear. I will discuss these questions in a future post.

Coming soon: my new Ebook on the Indonesian catastrophe of 1965
China, class collaboration and the killing fields of Indonesia in 1965


6 responses to “The strength and weakness of ‘The Act of Killing’

  1. How is it that this Communist Party of several hundred thousand members, experienced and battle-tested through their role in the struggle for Indonesia’s independence, was liquidated without a fight?

    The PKI was a Stalinist party whose political strategy was inspired by the “two stage” theory. This “theory” claimed that the working class in countries like Indonesia is not ready for socialism. Its first priority consisted in consolidating capitalism and establishing an alliance with the so-called nationalist bourgeoisie, i.e. the president Sukarno. This alliance, which confused and paralysed the PKI at the moment of truth, was to prove fatal.

    During the first days and weeks of the beginning of the massacre, the PKI leaders tried to reassure the masses that supported them with the hope that “Bung Karno” (Brother Sukarno) was going to protect them. No protection would be forthcoming. In wars, as in class struggle, numbers are not the only determining factor. The initiative for the offensive, the dedication with which the objectives are fought for are factors which weigh more than numbers. The determination was on the side of the ruthless class enemy. Political vacillation and hesitation was on the side of the leadership of the PKI.

    Read more:

    • I agree. The PKI had been following a class-collaborationist course of supporting and trusting in Sukarno – with the full support of their mentors in Beijing – for more than a decade prior to 1965. And this was the key condition for the success of the rightist generals and their militias.

  2. Pingback: The fatal course of the Communist Party of Indonesia – Part 1 | A communist at large·

  3. Pingback: China, class collaboration, and the Indonesian killing fields | A communist at large·

  4. James, I finished reading your ebook on the 1965-66 catastrophe, and I found it to be a valuable and enlightening summary of the betrayal and subsequent collapse/surrender of the PKI. I think that your well-sourced argument makes the case for how the PKI was led to the slaughter. (Incidentally I agree with you about the images that proliferate on the Web: they are poorly sourced, and their attribution is unreliable. One of the problems of the cut-and-paste culture of the internet is that no one seems interested in provenance or attribution. That is a more subtle form of historical forgetting but one that is technologically induced.)

    I personally think there is one more aspect that needs some light; i.e., how did the paramilitary groups become organized. Even if a million people give themselves up to slaughter, there is still a massive organizational effort need to recruit and organize those who will do the slaughtering. I wonder if there remains enough records to piece this information together at this late date.

    This was not your purpose and I am not suggesting it was a defect of your work, which I think is a very useful analysis of an event, for which useful analyses are in short supply in English at least.

    • Thanks very much for your comments.
      On your last point: how did the rightist gangs get organised? I also wondered about this, but couldn’t find much hard information. What follows is largely guesswork:

      I think the situation varied a great deal in different parts of the country. In some places, like East Java, the landlord-based counter-revolution was organised through the religious orders and their schools as well as the army. They had ties to the leaderships of earlier anti-PKI parties and cliques, and they had their ‘youth groups’ ready and organised months in advance. In other places, it seems to have been a much more ad hoc recruitment of local petty criminals based on promises of rewards offered by local moneyed interests – this seems to have been the case in Medan with the people in “Act of Killing,” for example. They seem to have been mostly apolitical people, and really only came together in the act of slaughter itself. In Bali, it’s even more of a mystery – there, of course, the Islamic hierarchy didn’t exist. In Bali, the deep hatred of the PKI local administrations seems to have been key. My guess is that repentant ex-PKI officials played a larger role in Bali than elsewhere, organising the slaughter as the price of saving their own skins. They would have had the necessary administrative means and even perhaps a certain level of organisation, if whole local sections of the PKI could be brought over to the counter-revolution.

      But nothing much happened in Bali until months after the coup. In all these cases, it is important to remember just how long it all took – months and even years. So perhaps not such a large force of murderers was required.

      Anyway, as I say, this is mostly guesswork. If you find any hard facts, let me know.

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