Indonesia’s most celebrated cultural tradition is the wayang kulit, an ancient form of shadow puppetry that tells the story of the gods and monsters of old (wayang means both shadow and imagination in old Javanese). Didactic and entertaining, these shows are part-ritual, part-leisure for the Indonesian people who know all too well how light and shadows, fact and fiction, form the essence of humanity, society, even reality itself.
Like the deities in the shadow plays, every Indonesian has had to stare down the darkness that enveloped their country. No greater event in the nation’s nascent history casts a darker shadow than the atrocities committed between 1965 to 1966. By 1966, around a million Indonesians had been brutally killed in a grotesque anti-communist genocide against suspected members of the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI).
Until today, there has yet to be a national reckoning for those six months of terror. The people who instigated the purge are still the proverbial dalang—the shadow puppet master—directing the show, and the PKI and its ideology are still forbidden words, shadows forcefully cast out of the national consciousness by the powers that be.
Nearby, across the currents, is a country home to another communist party still waging a war for social transformation. For more than five decades, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) has also been contending with dictatorships and death squads in its own battle for survival and success.
In between shadows and silence are shared histories between the PKI and its “blood-brother,” the CPP, whose future, unlike its Indonesian counterpart, is still not lost to the darkness.
Indonesia in the middle of the 20th century was a nation still in the process of fully unshackling itself from Dutch colonialism. Sukarno, the country’s founding father and revolutionary leader, led the nation of 17,000 islands with a steady hand. Bhinekka Tunggal Ika—“unity in diversity”—was the nation’s rallying cry against colonialism, and this extended even to political ideologies.
“During the Sukarno presidency, the PKI was a mainstream and fully legitimate political party,” said Ariel Lopez, an Indonesian studies scholar and historian at the UP Asian Center. In fact, at its height, he said, the PKI was the largest communist party in the world outside the Soviet Union and China. It had three million card-carrying members, with at least 20 million more in its affiliate organizations—translating to around a quarter of the country’s entire population under the party’s sphere of influence.
President Sukarno was engaged in a delicate balancing act with the country’s different sectors, which espoused a wide array of ideologies. The most powerful groups, aside from the communists, said Lopez, were the Partai Nasional Indonesia or the nationalists, the Islamic organizations, and the military establishment—all of which had misgivings against the PKI but managed to work alongside them in nation-building.
The Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat or Lekra, the PKI’s socio-cultural organization, was one of the driving forces behind the party’s success. Cadres were able to introduce communism to Indonesians, while at the same time serving as a mass literacy campaign for millions of farmers and fishermen. “Through literature, visual arts, and performance arts, the PKI utilized Lekra to enjoin the people to their cause,” said Arlo Mendoza, an Indonesian studies scholar at the UP College of Arts and Letters researching the PKI’s cultural movement.
The Indonesian trade union federation, the youth group Pemuda Rakyat, and the women’s movement Gerwani—with tens of millions of active members between them—were all solidly behind the PKI. In the 1950s to the early 1960s, Lopez recounted, the PKI enjoyed massive support from the public, and this translated to votes. The party consistently won elections and secured positions in the government.
But Sukarno’s delicate balancing act would soon unravel. The overtures of the Cold War—the showdown between communism and capitalism on the global stage—reverberated throughout Southeast Asia.
In the neighboring Philippines, a communist movement had also been coalescing since the early 20th century. Trade union leaders established the first communist party in 1930, the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (PKP). During the Japanese occupation, the PKP figured prominently in the resistance, leading the Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon or Hukbalahap.
After the war, the Hukbalahap participated in the elections through the leftist Democratic Alliance coalition and secured Congressional seats. The Roxas administration, however, prevented the winning candidates from assuming office to ease the passage of the parity amendment under the Bell Trade Act, which secured American economic interests in the Philippines. This duplicitous incident disenchanted many of the Filipino communists from electoral politics and led them to resume the Hukbalahap rebellion.
No other president was closer to the Americans than Ramon Magsaysay. Under his watch, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) perfected the art of covert warfare and propaganda against the communists, which contributed to the decline of the Philippine Left.
Little attention has been paid to the extremely consequential and formative relationship that existed between Filipino and Indonesian communists, which, Mendoza noted, dates as far back as the 1920s. Tan Malaka, an early PKI leader, even visited the Philippines and mingled with the forerunners of the country’s communist movement.
Tan Malaka’s seminal work as a Marxist theoretician, “Madilog: Materialisme, Dialektika, dan Logika,” was avowedly informed by the Philippine experience. He synthesized his knowledge on the Philippine Revolution, Islam, and Marxism, and this work informed the ideology and praxis of the PKI.
During the Sukarno presidency, Jose Maria Sison—who would later lead the reestablishment of the Communist Party of the Philippines—went to Indonesia in January 1960 to study the country’s vibrant mass movement and the PKI’s organizational strength.
“Millions of people were attracted to the PKI and its mass organizations because they had a good critique of the semicolonial and semifeudal conditions, offered a program for national and social liberation, and did excellent mass work,” Sison recounted to the Collegian. This level of organization and mass support has, since its founding in 1968, been an aspiration for the CPP.
Sison also narrated that it was in Indonesia where he truly became immersed in Marxist-Leninist writings. The lax political atmosphere under President Sukarno allowed for the wide circulation of radical literature—a far cry from the Philippines at that time, where the Anti-Subversion Law, which made communism illegal, was still in place. The influence of this trip on the CPP’s founding and ideology, he said, cannot be overstated.
“The Filipino and Indonesian people share a common history of struggle against colonial subjugation, a close similarity of current social systems, and a shared desire for achieving national freedom and democracy,” added Marco Valbuena, the CPP’s chief information officer, in an interview.
In a few years after Sison’s visit, however, the PKI—once the largest non-ruling communist party in the world—would be reduced to ashes.
By 1965, President Sukarno’s health was failing. There was an unmistakable air of anticipation for the power vacuum sure to ensue after the founding father’s passing. Every political player was preparing for the showdown ahead—but none more so than the military, which had stakes in the business sector and was backed by the United States.
Until today, the perplexing series of events that led to the purge are still being debated. But a recent resurgence of interest, along with the newfound courage of some Indonesian academics to finally break free from the silence imposed by the state and society, has finally shed some light on the matter.
“The domestic political struggle on who would succeed Sukarno was exacerbated by the international context—the Cold War was raging at that time,” Lopez noted.
There was talk of a coup being orchestrated by the military’s leaders to oust President Sukarno. On September 30, 1965, a group of soldiers loyal to the president attempted to arrest the country’s military leaders, but the Sukarno loyalists ended up killing the generals. The military establishment immediately branded the ill-fated attempt as a communist attack against the army and used it as a pretext to launch a counter-assault.
“All known PKI members and their affiliates were rounded up and massacred,” narrated Mendoza. PKI members were the primary target, but the violence burgeoned to epic proportions. Feminists, farmers, fisherfolk, and artists were slaughtered en masse. Not wanting to waste bullets, the perpetrators resorted to hacking, bludgeoning, and strangling everyone who had an association with the communists.
As a loyalty test, suspects were routinely asked to kill other suspected communists. In effect, there was a sense of shared guilt for everyone, Mendoza said, and this contributes to the prevailing culture of silence about the purge until today.
The CIA, Lopez emphasized, had a direct hand in the atrocity, as they provided the names of PKI members to the military. This shadowy act of supporting a Left-leaning nation’s military then encouraging them to indiscriminately slaughter supposed communists became a hallmark of American foreign policy during the Cold War, an insidious scheme that the journalist Vincent Bevins called “The Jakarta Method.”
Sukarno was incarcerated and replaced by General Suharto, a staunch anti-communist who opened up the country’s oil and other resources to foreign corporations. The dictatorship would last until 1998, and it would go on as one of the most corrupt regimes in history, with an estimated loot of up to $35 billion.
Last March, President Duterte vowed once more to “finish off” the communists before his term ends, in a firebrand rhetoric unmistakably reminiscent of the vitriol broadcasted in Indonesia in 1965. “Kill them, finish them off if they are alive,” he said, addressing the military and police. “Forget about human rights. That’s my order.”
With a highly militarized bureaucracy, rabid anti-communism reverberating in the public sphere, and Duterte’s death squads—which trace their roots to anti-communist militias from the Cold War—running rampant across the country, the conditions seem to harken back to the Indonesian experience.
Fully aware of this, the CPP said it has considered the possibility of an Indonesia-like purge. “Desperate tyrants will resort to anything to keep themselves in power. Duterte himself has spoken of using the Jakarta Method in his drive against the revolutionary and democratic forces,” Valbuena remarked. “Incidents of coordinated killings carried out by the military and police in the guise of counterinsurgency in Negros, Panay, and Southern Tagalog since 2018 can be seen as dress rehearsal of such a tactic.”
A notable gap in the historical accounts, Mendoza pointed out, is that even after the Indonesian purge, there was still a semblance of contact between the PKI and Filipino communists. “Until 1968 to 1969, the survivors were still trying to reestablish the party with an armed resistance, but to no avail. So, they had to go into exile in other socialist countries.”
Some of the survivors who were not able to go to Vietnam or China, it turns out, were given refuge by the newly formed New People’s Army (NPA) in the Philippines. “A Gerwani member, Pipit, escaped from Kalimantan to the Philippines, and stayed with the guerrillas in Cordillera before going to The Netherlands,” Mendoza shared. During the height of the CPP’s popularity in the 1980s, he added, Filipino cadres were even sent out to Indonesia to help in the mass resistance against the Suharto regime.
For Sison, the purge had a singular lesson for the CPP: They had to establish a standing army. The Indonesian experience is the ultimate negative example of a movement being utterly decimated because it could not defend itself. “The PKI excelled at building the Nasakom [nationalism, religion, communism] united front but was totally unprepared for armed revolution against armed counterrevolution,” the CPP’s chief theoretician said.
The NPA was formed in 1969. Since the formation, however, there have been numerous calls from all sides of the aisle for the party to disband its armed wing and instead participate in mainstream politics. But as both Sison and Valbuena underscored, the PKI’s tragic fate is too large a shadow to look away from. Wayang stories, after all, are cyclical and didactic in nature.
The CPP has its own shadows it is still grappling with—none more harrowing than its firsthand experience with a purge among its ranks. This, coupled with the NPA’s much-maligned image in the media rooted in Cold War propaganda, has, for now, stymied the party’s prospects for a mass following at levels similar to the PKI.
Until today, communism remains a taboo word in both the Philippines and Indonesia—a specter being hunted by the powers that be on all fronts using all methods imaginable. The end of the Cold War did not mean the end of rabid anti-communism. Cold War counterinsurgency—so entrenched in both societies—took on many forms ranging from public stigmatization to draconian anti-communism laws masquerading as “anti-terrorism” legislated in both Indonesia and the Philippines to safeguard capital.
Capitalism asserts itself as the end of history through bloody means, as the grotesque Indonesian experience illustrates. The kind of violence resorted to by those who dare go against capitalism is, in fact, a mere response and protective measure to the inherent violence, whether actual or structural, of maintaining the capitalist system.
In one of the wayang stories, the losing faction in the war is immediately reincarnated and the battle begins anew. Decades after the Indonesian purge, the clash between capitalism and communism rages on. The PKI left invaluable lessons to the CPP. So, in the tradition of the wayang kulit, must the CPP continue in its epic struggle for survival and victory, mindful always of the Indonesian experience. But unlike the PKI, its ending remains untold. ●
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