“If I don’t speak up, nothing will change!” - Chinese-Indonesians during the 1965 Indonesian genocide
In November 2021, Correspondents of the World organised an online conversation with special guest Dr Soe Tjen Marching on the experiences of Chinese-Indonesians during the mass killings and imprisonment of alleged communists during 1965/66 in Indonesia. Find out what stories Soe Tjen and other witnesses had to tell about this period usually shrouded in silence.
Indonesia, East Asia
In November 2021, Correspondents of the World organised an online conversation with special guest Dr Soe Tjen Marching on the experiences of Chinese-Indonesians during the mass killings and imprisonment of alleged communists during 1965/66 in Indonesia.
The continuing silence surrounding the events that took place in and after 1965/66 in Indonesia makes this a little known - and little talked about - part of history; both within the country and abroad. We recently published a personal story by Veronica who interviewed her Balinese grandfather I Made on his experiences. As a teenager, I Made witnessed villagers associated with the communist party being transported away and never to be seen again (you can read Veronica and I Made’s story here). To follow up on this topic, we invited Soe Tjen, lecturer at the SOAS University of London, herself Chinese-Indonesian and personally connected to this history, to give a short presentation and create a space for exchange, learning and discussion.
In 1965 Suharto took over power in Indonesia through a military coup and started a violent campaign targeting members of the communist party and anyone suspected of being associated with it. In this setting, the Chinese-Indonesians, a minority group, who were discriminated against even before the New Order Regime under Suharto, became an easy scapegoat as Communist suspects. Ultimately, the genocide took the lives of an estimated 500,000 to 2 million lives, and was labelled one of the worst mass murders of the 20th centuryby the CIA. One of the reasons why these events are little talked about is that they were considered a success in the endeavour of purging Communism, and foreign actors such as America and Britain were supportive of Suharto’s policies.
The killings of 1965 Indonesia has often been compared to the Holocaust in Germany, but according to Soe Tjen, it was more brutal and sadistic, because in Indonesia the persecution was less systematic, and anyone could become a victim. People would turn against their own friends and families, killings were often preceded by torture, and female victims would be raped. Thousands of the victims were incarcerated and kept in labour camps, but this has meant that numerous survivors still live to tell their stories. Soe Tjen interviewed many of them in her book “The End of Silence,” however, many also decided to remain quiet.
The shame and stigma attached to this meant that female ethnic Chinese were doubly silenced, one for being Chinese and second, for being female. Soe Tjen has endeavoured to make their voices heard, but many remain reluctant to talk about it. As a consequence, Soe Tjen decided to turn the information she had gathered from numerous interviews into a novel – Dari Dalam Kubur. Her novel itself was a demonstration of how censorship on this topic is still in place in Indonesia. It was first accepted by a major publishing company, who came back to her demanding that some details had to be altered or even omitted. In the end, Soe Tjen turned towards a smaller, progressive publisher.
Shinta Miranda, one of the few outspoken Chinese-Indonesian women along with Soe Tjen who dares to speak about the 1965 period, joined our conversation. Certainly, one question we were all curious about was where she got the courage to speak up.
Shinta Miranda told us that as a small child, she witnessed her own father being taken to prison. He would later be released, but was paralysed due to the hardships of his imprisonment, and passed away six years after being released. Her mother was fired by her employer, a university in Jakarta. While her mother later was able to get a scholarship from the British Council to study in Edinburgh, and her other siblings followed her mother overseas, Shinta decided to remain in Indonesia.
I want to keep the memory of my family and remain useful. I want to keep reminding myself of what happened to my family [here]
However, living in Indonesia and speaking about a topic which still has a lot of stigma and secrecy attached to it, is not easy and dangerous. Both Shinta and Soe Tjen receive threats off- and online, but for Shinta who lives in Indonesia these threats are more acute and intimidating. Challenging a government-produced version of history in Indonesia is still a difficult task and will remain so, as long as people who were in power during and in the aftermath of 1965 occupy influential positions in current-day Indonesia.
Both Shinta and Soe Tjen voice with bravery that they will keep going. In fact, Soe Tjen ended this very personal discussion with the statement that it is not the government, nor the threats of others, but their own families, which persuade many Indonesians who were victims of 1965 not to speak out. This fear has been passed down to the newer generations.
Soe Tjen only started to really understand her mother’s fear after she watched the controversial documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer, “The Act of Killing”, released in 2012. The saddest part for her is to know that by speaking out she would go against her mother’s pleading to remain silent.
I sympathise with [my mother] fully, but at the same time, the urge to speak up is getting bigger. And for me, if I don’t speak up, nothing will change. Everything will stay the same. I am sorry to my mother. But what can I do when my own mother asks me not to speak up, it’s so sad, no?
The end of silence is still far off. As long as 1965 is not admitted and acknowledged by the government, discrimination against Chinese Indonesians, and the fear of another Red Scare will continue. The Red Scare happened in May 1998, when rioters killed hundreds of people and raped women of Chinese descent.
Racially-fuelled hatred arose again during the Covid-pandemic. Only the personal accounts of people such as Soe Tjen and Shinta Miranda can highlight that recounting history has several narratives and perspectives. From their stories, we can learn of the plight that thousands of Indonesians and Chinese suffered during the 1965 genocide, and we hope that others will pluck the courage to speak up too and initiate change.
You can still watch a recording of the talk here.
About Soe Tjen
Soe Tjen is lecturer of Indonesian at SOAS, London and her research interests include Indonesian literature, gender studies, as well as Indonesian history and politics in particular in relation to the 1965 genocide. On this topic she has written two books - “The End of Silence: Accounts of the 1965 Genocide in Indonesia” published by Amsterdam University Press in 2017, and “Dari Dalam Kubur” (in English: From Inside the Grave) by Marjin Kiri in 2020.
 School of Oriental and African Studies
 The use of the term genocide for the mass killings in 1965/66 is still contested, because the official definition of genocide by the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, does not include acts against political group. However, in 2015 the International People’s Tribunal, held in The Hague, Netherlands, has declared Indonesia responsible for committing crimes against humanity, including genocide against its members.
 New evidence has revealed, that British officials secretly supported the anti-communist campgain. For further information, read: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/oct/17/revealed-how-uk-spies-incited-mass-of-indonesias-communists
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