One million – two million – maybe even three million people died in the aftermath of a 1965 military coup led by the general Suharto and supported by the West. Nobody knows the exact number; there were no records kept and no serious investigations made. Storytellers were murdered too; thrown in jail, forced to exile. Manuscripts and books were burned. Film studios were closed down. Thinkers were tortured, murdered, forced to exile.
That’s what happened in Indonesia after the coup that was full-heartedly supported by the West.
Until now, Indonesia remains the most “undocumented” major country on earth. Almost no great books and studies were ever written about it. The few documentary films which were produced rely heavily on eyewitnesses from the West. One reason for this is, of course, that famous “culture of silence”.
In Indonesia itself, after long decades of political and religious brainwashing, it is hard – almost impossible – to find a man or a woman capable of making coherent analyses of the situation. While other large and complex countries like China, India and Brazil are producing great and highly critical books, films and important historical studies pointed at their societies – nothing worth noticing is coming from Indonesia.
There is a shocking uniformity in what Indonesians think: they all have religion, and almost all of them are practicing a conservative branch of it; they almost all believe that PKI – The Communist Party of Indonesia – was responsible for the coup and should remain banned; that East Timor was not a place of horrific massacres but only an insignificant area where “they were killing us and we were killing them”. Until now, the great majority sees nothing wrong with the brutal occupation and oppression of people in Papua, Malukas and Aceh. And above all, almost everybody considers capitalism to be a perfectly suitable economic system for Indonesia.
At closer look, all this is not surprising. Almost immediately after it performed the coup in 1965, the military government, backed by the business elites, began a massive propaganda campaign, reversing the truth by 180 degrees: accusing Communists of staging the coup, murdering seven high ranking army officials and attempting to plunge Indonesia into chaos.
Communists became the first to be destroyed, closely followed by ethnic Chinese, progressives and atheists.
Suharto then launched his “Order Baru” (New Order), a vaguely identifiable brand of fascism based on cheap nationalism, obligatory religious indoctrination and subordination of the individual to authority – something often described as “Javanism”.
Eventually the military, government, big business, religious leaders and servile teachers and “educators” (only half of teachers survived 1965/66 massacres and those who remained in the system, without exceptions, had to collaborate with the regime) united their efforts and fully destroyed all critical thought and free thinking in this fourth most populous nation on earth.
Before the coup, Indonesia was undeniably a very progressive country, leading the world’s non-aligned movement. President Sukarno often described himself as: “anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist and anti-capitalist”. PKI – the Indonesian Communist Party – was the third largest Communist party on the planet. PKI was at that time working very closely with Sukarno and it had no need to perform any sort of coup – it was getting millions of votes, democratically. Indonesia was moderate, truly secular and a multi-cultural nation. Almost no woman was covered by a headscarf; no religion would dare to impose its rules of conduct on the citizens.
But American political elites – from Eisenhower to Nixon – had enough of progressiveness coming from the leader of one of the largest countries on earth. They never hid their determination to overthrow Sukarno’s government and to reverse the progressive course on which his country embarked. Indonesia had been bombed by the US air force from its bases in Philippines, while American politicians were making open threats.
The US was indisputably helping the Indonesian army with the planning of the 1965 coup. Many Indonesian top ranking military officers were paid and/or trained by the American government, while the embassy supplied leaders of the planned coup with the detailed list of names of those people who were later to be systematically liquidated.
After the coup Indonesia almost immediately degenerated into one of the most oppressive, corrupt, intellectually dull and compassionless societies on earth. Sukarno’s Indonesia was built on enthusiasm; Suharto’s on compliance and fear. The speed of change was shocking. But then, in what other society would 2 or 3 million people vanish in less than one year? One of the main reasons for compliance of those who survived was, of course, fear.
The new government served Western political and business interests perfectly well. Almost all public services had been privatized, including drinking water and transportation. Privatization had been accompanied by cronyism from top to bottom. Suharto and his family managed to amass unimaginable fortunes, taking big parts of them out of the country while the whole system was evolving into some sort of complex, institutionalized cleptocracy. But for the West that was all fine, as long as workers at the new multi-national assembly lines continued to be cheap and unorganized, as long as a scared and uneducated majority of Indonesians was not questioning the legitimacy of the system.
For outside “investors” – mining companies, for instance – it was possible to arrange almost any necessary permits to plunder natural resources all over the Indonesian archipelago, as long as the correct person had been bribed, as long as the right price had been paid. National interests were suddenly of no importance. Tremendous fortunes were made by the few, while a majority of Indonesians was descending into hopelessness, living in a lawless, corrupt, dirt-poor and brutal society.
Trade unions were broken and those that survived were forced to represent companies instead of their employees. Opposition had been banned and not only that: even some words like “class” or expressions like “class struggle” were forbidden. Chinese language (Mandarin) and Chinese culture were forbidden, too, including cakes and dragons.
Atheism and agnosticism were banned from the very beginning – even the words themselves. In the present day Indonesia, all mosques broadcast — at scandalously high volume and from the loudspeakers — entire sermons 5 times a day (some lasting well over one hour, basically waking up everybody who lives nearby as early as 4AM). There is no escape from this religious, clearly Orwellian indoctrination that served the dictatorship (by demanding obedience and uniformity) for almost 40 years. There can also be hardly any doubt that there is nothing “secular” left in today’s Indonesia, anymore.
Indonesian cities were fully surrendered to the private developers, became monstrously ugly (especially enormous Jakarta, which can be easily voted the most depressing and unfit-to-live-in capital of Pacific Asia), polluted, lacking green public spaces and even sidewalks.
The countryside, where most of the people still live, has been frozen in time or is simply returning to the middle ages; village chiefs, landowners and religious leaders are again presiding over the fate of the silent and obedient majority.
While hypocritical rulers were passing idiotic religion-inspired laws like the one against cohabitation (since last year a man and a woman cannot live together under one roof, unless they are close family members or are married), and against kissing in public (this proposed law will probably pass next year, again without any public outcry or protests) Indonesia quietly became one of the top exporters of child prostitutes. It has also one of the highest rates of sexual abuse of children anywhere in the world. Not to mention the fact that child beggars are on every major corner of big and small cities, many of them stoned on glue and other chemicals.
Indifference, hypocrisy, corruption (real and moral) is everywhere. Suharto’s design was to feed this country with pop and rubbish news, magazines, newspapers, music, films and books – feed it to everybody; to the rich and to the poor alike – and he succeeded in creating a nation almost without artists, intellectuals, scientists, without real opposition – a culture of emptiness.
. History was never seriously taught. There were lies about the past, lies about the present, false nationalism, religious fundamentalism, market fundamentalism, fear, hunger, lack of hygiene, of drinking water, of hospitals, schools, roads, security, lack of basic human decency and dignity – all this shocked me so much that I decided that I could not have continued to be just a bystander; I had to address the problems.
The truth had to be told; someone had to do it and since nobody seemed to be interested in the task, it simply had to be done by me. And I had to hurry up, because elections were approaching and there were great chances that the military will return to power, making this entire project virtually impossible.
I knew Indonesia extremely well, writing for 10 years about its conflicts, crisscrossing it in all possible directions. But this was different – I had to revisit its entire culture, reverse its past; tell the truth that had not been pronounced for 40 years, expose Suharto’s lies. I had to create a philosophical concept on which to base the film, but there was not much time for thinking.
There was no time for fund-rising, either, and I decided to dump all my savings into the project instead of waiting and risking that I may lose the only chance to make this film. Other team members invested their time and efforts, even money, too.
Thanks to our brilliant production manager, “the best of Indonesia” got involved in our project; those few people who survived indoctrination, prisons, concentration camps, isolation, even scorn. We managed to work with those Indonesians who never surrendered; those who fought, those who never lost their pride.
We worked with Pramoedya Ananta Toer – one of the greatest living Asian novelists – former prisoner at Buru concentration camp; with Asvi Warman Adam who ridiculed the entire state sponsored propaganda theory, arguing that there was no Communist conspiracy in 1965; with the son of the former First Secretary of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) – Ilham Aidit.
We worked with Djokopekik, arguably the greatest Indonesian painter and former prisoner of the New Order. We also worked with progressive Muslim cleric and former President of Indonesia – Abdurrahman Wahid – who repeatedly apologizes to the victims, calling for the history to be re-written and for Islam to be reformed. And we worked with many other people, famous and anonymous – but almost all of them victims, although most of them not even aware of the fact that they were.
And in the end, after the final editing in Hanoi, we dedicated this film to those very few people who fought Suharto’s New Order and to those millions who lost their lives during its reign.
Terlena is a 90 minutes long documentary. It was shot in 2004, before the Presidential election, on several locations in Indonesia: in the capital Jakarta, in Bandung and Depok, in the ancient capital of Java – Jogyakarta and in Bali.
It was written, produced and directed by the American writer, political analyst and filmmaker Andre Vltchek and co-directed, edited and filmed by Finnish filmmaker Linda Puroaho. Production manager, translator and advisor was Rossie Indira, Indonesian architect and writer, daughter of a former prisoner of conscience.
Until now, the film had not been shown in Indonesia itself – all local television stations, refused to take the risk and offer it to the public. It goes without saying that almost all of Indonesian media is still owned and controlled by those who were directly involved in Suharto’s “New Order”.
“Terlena – Breaking of a Nation” will be opening on November 18th, at 12:10PM at Village East Cinemas (screen No.6), 181 2nd Avenue at 12th Street, in New York. Admission is free.
Filmmakers are warmly inviting distributors, critics and filmmakers to attend this event. Invitation is also extended to general public.
ANDRE VLTCHEK can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org