'My conscience told me they had to be killed'

Mr Anwar with a knife being pressed to his face in a re-enactment from the documentary, The Act Of Killing. The film shines a light on a particularly dark chapter of Indonesia's history. An estimated 500,000 to over one million Indonesians died in the 1965 to 1966 anti-communist blood-letting.

INDONESIA - Anwar Congo, 72, recalls almost wistfully the agony of his victims as he watches video footage re-enacting scenes from over 40 years ago, when he tortured and killed hundreds of suspected communists and their supporters in Medan.

"I can feel what the people I tortured felt," he says. "I did this to so many people."

He also revisits a building where he helped strangle some people with wire, a technique borrowed from mafia movies. "I know it was wrong, but I had to do it," he explains. "My conscience told me they had to be killed."

If the roles were reversed, wouldn't the communists have done the same, reasons the one-time cinema ticket tout and small-time gangster.

These chilling scenes are from the acclaimed documentary, The Act Of Killing, which offers an unflinching, close-up look at the recollections and justifications of several leaders of "death squads" in the 1965 to 1966 mass killings of Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) members.

An estimated 500,000 to over one million Indonesians died in the anti-communist blood-letting.

The film - in which the former executioners re-enact their roles, taking turns to act as victim - opened in cinemas in the United States and Europe in July to rave reviews.

The film is tentatively slated for release in Singapore on Nov 28, its local distributor Indie Entertainment Company says.

Thousands of Indonesians have watched the documentary at private screenings across the country over the past year.

From this week, the producers are making the film - called Jagal, or slaughterer in Bahasa Indonesia - available for free download in Indonesia as the country marks the 48th anniversary of the abortive 1965 coup that preceded these killings.

The film was shot entirely in Bahasa Indonesia, and subtitled for audiences elsewhere.

Information Ministry chief spokesman Gatot S. Dewa Broto told The Sunday Times that the ministry, which regulates online content, would not consider any action unless there were complaints from the public.

Even with its limited audience, the film has provoked debate here about the merits of shining a light on a particularly dark chapter of Indonesia's history. Some clearly find it unwelcome.

American filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer has been warned on Twitter that the film could be renamed The Act Of Being Killed if he returned to Indonesia. Local film crew remain anonymous out of fear for their safety.

Threats aside, Mr Oppenheimer worries that if the film is banned, it would give paramilitary groups such as Pemuda Pancasila - whose leaders are featured in the film celebrating their fight against the communists - an excuse to resort to violence.

Culture of impunity

Academics and historians have largely welcomed the airing given to an episode of Indonesian history, the details of which have long been obscured by the government. The next step that is needed, they say, is an official acknowledgment of what happened and a rejection of the justifications for the mass killings.

Without that repudiation, Indonesia will not end a culture of impunity and the lawlessness it breeds, they argue.

"There is always the fear these incidents will repeat themselves," Professor Asvi Warman Adam of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences tells The Sunday Times. "We cannot allow this to happen in a nation governed by law."

A chilling reminder came earlier this year when a group of soldiers took the law into their own hands by storming a prison in Cebongan, Yogyakarta, and killing four men detained for the death of their colleague.

Asked in the film whether he fears reprisals from families of his victims, Mr Anwar, its central character, coolly replies: "It's not that they don't want to take revenge, they can't. Because we'd exterminate them all."

The act that started it all took place in the wee hours of Oct 1, 1965, when several army officers calling themselves the September 30 movement (G30S) kidnapped and killed six generals and threw their bodies into a well.

They deployed troops in central Jakarta, went on radio and said they were acting against a cabal of "CIA-backed power-mad" generals who sought to depose then President Sukarno.

But the rebellion was swiftly put down by the Army Strategic Reserve command led by then Major-General Suharto, who shortly secured authorisation by the President to restore order.

Many of the rebel leaders fled, only to be later captured and sentenced to death.

The coup attempt was blamed on the PKI. It was the Cold War then and the PKI's militancy and growing influence worried elements of the military, nationalist and Muslim organisations.

In the months after Oct 1, neighbours turned against one another, and suspected Reds were rounded up and killed by members of civilian militias, prodded into action by the military. Some, like writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer, were exiled to a penal colony.

Amid the anti-communist purge, General Suharto chipped away at the power of President Sukarno until in 1967 he had to resign. The next year, Gen Suharto was appointed president and went on to rule for the next three decades.

See no evil

Although Indonesia has seen a dramatic opening up in political freedoms since Suharto's fall 15 years ago, history textbooks and TV documentaries are largely mute on the 1965 atrocities. The current administration remains reluctant to address the issue of who was responsible for the mass killings.

"Many military officers and government officials simply fear any discussion at all, by anyone, about the killings. The killings were done secretly, by and large; people just disappeared," said historian John Roosa, author of a book on the period, titled Pretext For Mass Murder.

"There has been an official line regarding G30S (which is: the PKI did it) but not about the killings," he told The Sunday Times.

In 2009, Indonesia's then Attorney-General Hendarman Supandji banned a translation of Dr Roosa's book on the grounds that it could "erode public confidence in the government, cause moral decadence or disturb the national ideology, economy, culture and security".

The publisher persuaded the constitutional court to strike down the law on book banning as unconstitutional, but the attorney-general clarified that books it had earlier banned would stay banned, though it has not enforced it.

Last year, Indonesia's national human rights commission Komnas HAM completed a fact-finding study and described the 1965 to 1966 mass killings as a gross state-sponsored human rights violation - findings backed up by several researchers.

Komnas HAM also recommended the setting up of a committee for truth and reconciliation and a state apology to victims' families and survivors.

Senior officials shot this down, saying that while there were victims, Indonesia would not have been where it was without the crackdown. "What if it happened the other way around?" Coordinating Political, Security and Legal Affairs Minister Djoko Suyanto told reporters, expressing a view held by many senior officials.

And when the National Archives proposed the opening up of government files from the period earlier this year, Democrat Party MP and Major-General (Ret) Salim Mengga warned that any declassification would "spark conflict".

It is unclear how ordinary Indonesians and officials will react as The Act Of Killing becomes more widely viewed and its unsettling exposure of the past sinks in.

As Komnas HAM sees it: "If we are to transform Indonesia into the democracy it claims to be, citizens must recognise the terror and repression on which our contemporary history has been built. No film, or any other work of art for that matter, has done this more effectively."

zakirh@sph.com.sg


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