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E. Katharine McGregor

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Critical Asian Studies
41:2 (2009), 195–224
McGregor / Confronting the Past


The Anticommunist Killings of 1965–66
and the Role of the Nahdlatul Ulama

Katharine E. McGregor

ABSTRACT: The collapse of authoritarian regimes and the emergence of new demo-
cratic spaces hold the promise of an opportunity to redress instances of past vio-
lence. Confronting violent pasts is never an easy task, however, especially when dif-
ferent interest groups stand to lose from such a process. This article explores the
role of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) in the 1965
killings and shifting views about this past within the NU today. It examines the dra-
matic move in 2000 of young members of the NU to confront this past and to try to
improve relations between members of the NU and former leftists. The article fo-
cuses on the reasons for the emergence of Syarikat (Masyarakat Santri untuk
Advokasi Rakyat, Muslim Community for Social Advocacy), the nongovernmental
organization behind this reconciliation effort, and on responses to its work. As
Syarikat’s experience shows, combining the dual goals of societal peace and histori-
cal revision has not been an easy task. In its efforts to reinterpret the past, Syarikat is
trying to accomplish two somewhat antagonistic objectives: (1) rebutting dominant
versions of history and raising awareness about the suffering of former political pris-
oners, and (2) producing a version of the past that senior members of the NU can
live with. Its decision to confront one of the most delicate topics in the history of the
NU has had a mixed reception and these responses help us measure the extent of
the NU’s commitment to reform and tolerance.

Following the 30 September Movement against the top army leadership in

1965, the Indonesian military directed the killings of members of the Indone-
sian Communist Party (PKI) and its affiliated organizations, of military men sym-
ISSN 1467-2715 print/1472-6033 online / 02 / 000195–30 ©2009 BCAS, Inc. DOI: 10.1080/14672710902809351
Sulchan, a former member of Banser (pictured here in front of his mosque in Bangil, Indo-
nesia, on 12 September 2008), said that the order to kill communists came through Is-
lamic clerics within the NU. In a series of interviews with The Associated Press, Sulchan
revealed details of his participation in some of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century,
with up to half a million people killed in a U.S.-backed communist purge that swept dicta-
tor Suharto into power in 1965. See Deutsch 2008. (AP Photo/Trisnadi)

pathetic to the PKI, and of Sukarno supporters. The violence spanned the
archipelago, but was particularly intense in Java, Bali, and Sumatra, and resulted
in approximately half a million deaths. The largest Islamic organization in Indo-
nesia and the world, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU, meaning awakening of the
ulama, or religious scholars), supported this violence and some of its members
also participated in the killings. For the duration of the military-dominated New
Order regime (1966–98), there was little public expression of sympathy for the
victims of this violence including hundreds of thousands of people who were
imprisoned following the incident. Instead, in a tightly controlled political envi-
ronment, the Indonesian government continued to warn of the dangers of com-
munism. Members of the NU represented, and sometimes celebrated, their
participation in this violence as service to the nation. Together with the Indone-
sian military they had a joint interest in defending the killings and sustaining the
cornerstone of New Order ideology, anticommunism.
A major reform and democratization movement driven by students, intellec-
tuals, and activists — known as reformasi — began in the late 1990s and cli-
maxed with the resignation of President Suharto in 1998. It was in this new era
of democratic transition that some young members of the NU formed an organi-
zation named Syarikat (Masyarakat Santri untuk Advokasi Rakyat, Santri Society
for People’s Advocacy) aimed specifically at reexamining the NU’s role in the vi-
olence of 1965–66 and improving relations between members of the NU and
former leftists. Syarikat launched a community-based program called “Reconcil-
iation and Rehabilitation for Victims of 1965,” but its efforts were not universally

196 Critical Asian Studies 41:2 (2009)

welcomed. The dramatic difference in opinions within the NU on how to deal
with this past in a new more democratic era makes the 1965–66 killings an inter-
esting case study for examining how societies and more specifically religious
communities deal with the legacies of violence in postauthoritarian contexts.1
This article begins by examining the NU’s support for and participation in the
1965–66 killings and the commemoration of this role in NU publications in the
New Order period. I then turn to analyzing the significant reform movement
within the NU that spurred the formation of Syarikat. One of the most difficult
issues Syarikat has had to negotiate is how to marry the goals of societal peace
and historical revision. Through an analysis of Syarikat’s history projects I probe
the limits of historical revision as an aspect of reconciliation projects. Finally I
reflect on responses to Syarikat’s decision to confront one of the most delicate
topics in the history of the NU. Syarikat’s activities parallel those of nongov-
ernmental organizations (NGOs) and social movements in other countries to
confront past injustices in the spirit of democratic reform and a new commit-
ment to human rights. At the same time, however, they have faced specific chal-
lenges due to their institutional links and growing trend toward conservatism
within Indonesian Islam and a backlash against liberal Islam, interpretations of
Islam that seek to counter literalist versions of Islam.

Background to the Violence

and the Role of the Nahdlatul Ulama
Early in the hours of 1 October 1965, members of an armed group calling itself
the 30 September Movement (G30S) kidnapped and killed six army generals
and one lieutenant general, dumping their corpses in an unused well at Lubang
Buaya in East Jakarta. In the latest scholarly interpretation of the coup attempt,
John Roosa argues that sections of the PKI (Partai Komunis Indonesia, Commu-
nist Party of Indonesia), such as the Special Bureau led by Sjam Kamaruzzaman
and directed by PKI chairman D.N. Aidit played a role in the coup plot, but insti-
tutionally the party was not involved.2 Some members of affiliated PKI these or-
ganizations such as the Pemuda Rakyat (People’s Youth) were reportedly on
standby to mobilize for some kind of action, but they were unaware of the
planned action against the military.3 Roosa titles his work Pretext for Mass Mur-
der, arguing that the military, with Western backing, were looking for a pretext
to crush the PKI. In the context of fears of the spread of communist influence
worldwide and competition with the Soviet Union for spheres of influence, the
United States was particularly concerned about President Sukarno’s increasing
accommodation of the PKI.
In the 1960s the Nahdlatul Ulama was an active political party and it was wary
of the PKI. By 1964, President Sukarno sided with the PKI on all major domestic

1. There is very little research on the topic of Islamic communities and related projects of recon-
ciliation. Abu-Nimer attributes this to an emphasis in Western scholarship in particular on the
connections between Islam and violence. Abu-Nimer 2003, 185.
2. Roosa 2006, 203.
3. Ibid., 220.

McGregor / Confronting the Past 197

issues including, for example, a decision against a merger of all political parties
into one (which would have severely hurt the PKI) and support for the acceler-
ated enforcement of the land reform programs.4 More militant members of the
NU became increasingly discontented with the PKI and expressed alarm at the
growth in party membership to an estimated 3 million in the early 1960s. In
1962, members of the NU’s youth wing, Ansor, responded by founding Banser
(Barisan Serbaguna, Multipurpose Brigade), an armed wing, in preparation for
confrontation with the PKI.5
Prior to the 1965 coup attempt, members of Banser had already clashed with
members of the PKI-affiliated Indonesian Peasants’ Front (Barisan Tani Indone-
sia, BTI) in land reform actions especially in East Java.6 Following lags in govern-
ment implementation of land reform based on the 1959 Crop Sharing Law and
the 1960 Basic Agrarian Law, the PKI called for peasants to begin to implement
their own land reforms. In addition to antagonism over land reform, NU mem-
bers who lived through the 1960s and some of their children continue to claim
in interviews that they were mocked by the PKI in references to the kiai (Islamic
religious leaders) as one of the seven village devils due to their land holdings.
“Seven village devils” was a term the PKI used in its propaganda to denote forces
deemed to be detrimental to the people’s interests. In addition NU members re-
call that members of LEKRA (Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat, People’s Cultural In-
stitute), the cultural wing of the PKI, frequently performed an insulting Java-
nese folk theater performance entitled Matinya Gusti Allah (The Death of
God).8 These NU members also cite several larger incidents preceding the 1965
coup attempt as cases of PKI provocation. One example they offer is the
Kanigoro episode of January 1965 in which members of the communist-affili-
ated youth group Pemuda Rakyat (People’s Youth) and the Indonesian Peas-
ants’ Front attacked an Islamic service held in a pesantren (Islamic boarding
school) in Kanigoro in the Blitar regency of East Java. Members of the People’s
Youth disrupted the service led by a member of the banned Islamic party
Masyumi and defiled the Qu’ran.9
When the 30 September 1965 coup attempt occurred, young NU militants
urged the leadership to quickly back the Indonesian army in blaming the com-
munists for the coup attempt and calling for a ban on the party.10 The NU was
one of the first organizations after the coup attempt to stand openly against the
communists, despite President Sukarno’s refusal to condemn those behind the
30 September Movement. In their official statement on 5 October 1965, the
leaders of the NU Party in Jakarta stated that those involved in the coup attempt
must be “quickly eliminated down to the roots to safeguard the path of the revo-

4. Hauswedell 1973, 129.

5. Fealy 1998, 312–15.
6. Ibid., 320–25.
7. See Mortimer 1972, 26–33, 48–55.
8. Author interviews with Kiai Abdullah Faqih, Tuban, 27 February 2008; Gus Maksum, Kediri, 29
February 2008; and Yusuf Hasyim’s family, Jombang, 29 February 2008.
9. Sulistyo 2000, 139–43.
10. Fealy 1998, 328–32.
198 Critical Asian Studies 41:2 (2009)
lution.” In the statement they requested that President Sukarno and leaders of
the military ban the PKI, the People’s Youth, Gerwani (Indonesian Women’s
Movement), Sobsi (Indonesian Workers’ Union), and others who planned or
participated in the 30 September Movement.12
From around Indonesia, branches of the NU and its affiliated organizations,
Petanu (NU Farmers’ Union), Sarbumusi (Workers’ Union), Muslimat (NU’s wom-
en’s wing ), and Fatayat (the young women’s wing of the NU), all produced let-
ters of support for the campaign to ban the Communist Party. On 30 October,
Ansor instructed all members to heighten their vigilance and “help ABRI [the
military] in any way they could to restore order, guard the unity of the nation
and save the revolution.”13 The instruction also stated that in efforts to crush the
30 September Movement, members of Ansor should wait and only carry out the
instructions from the NU coordinators who had already been assigned at the na-
tional level and who would be selected in the regions by leaders of the party.14
This last instruction alludes to the intention of the central Ansor leadership to
coordinate this campaign closely.
It is difficult to find direct instructions from the NU calling upon its members
to assist the military by killing communists. The instructions were probably
carefully worded, given that Sukarno, who was unwilling to blame the PKI for
the coup attempt, was still president at the time. Yet there were some signs of di-
rect endorsement from the NU for the violence. In correspondence with the
Pekalongan branch of Ansor, for example, the NU Central Board thanked the
Pekalongan branch for their report on efforts to crush the 30 September Move-
ment.15 They also urged that if any NU men became victims of abduction or were
“killed in the battle,” a report should be filed with their name, address, position
in the organization, family details, and an explanation of how they died, such
that appropriate merit would be bestowed upon them as a syahid (Islamic mar-
tyr).16 In January 1966 the NU leadership endorsed a booklet entitled Guide-
book for Indoctrination to Eliminate the Thinking of PKI/Gestapu, in which the
editor claimed it was a form of worship (ibadah) to crush the PKI and that “the
PKI must be wiped out from the face of Indonesia and never given the chance to
exist again.”17
In the months after the coup attempt, members of Banser mobilized, with
varying degrees of military assistance and direction, and rounded up and killed
members of leftist organizations. Several primary accounts detail the roles of
NU members in this violence.18 Secondary analyses of the violence include the
work of Fealy, who focuses on the NU’s role in backing and coordinating the vio-

11. Pernyataan pengurus besar Partai Nahdlatul Ulama berserat segenap ormas-ormasnja
12. Ibid.
13. Instruksi No 1/02/pp/1965 putjuk pimpinan G.P. Ansor 1965.
14. Ibid.
15. Ansor Tjabang Kopra Pekalongan 1965.
16. Ibid.
17. Hamba 1966, 11.
18. Primary accounts include Anonymous 1986, 135–49; Anonymous 1990, 169–76; Deutsch
2008; and Rochijat 1985, 43.
McGregor / Confronting the Past 199
lence, Young, who studies the combination of local and national influences,
including NU–PKI tensions in the killings in Kediri, East Java, and Sulistyo and
Sudjatmoko, who describe the degree of military or civilian direction in the kill-
ings in Jombang, Kediri, and Magetan in East Java, and in Bali (concluding that
local vigilantes instigated much of the killing in East Java).21 Hefner details the
role of Banser in the Tengger Highlands in East Java, where Banser members
came from the lowlands and worked together with the army to carry out purges
of PKI members.22 Robinson also mentions in passing a minor role Banser
played in Bali, where the majority of the population are Hindus.
The NU was not the only civilian organization that supported killings. The
second largest Islamic organization, Muhammadiyah, also provided rapid sup-
port for crushing the PKI, with some leaders declaring this a religious duty. The
secretary general of the Catholic Party, Harry Tjan Silahi was a key founder of
KAP-Gestapu (the Action Front to Crush the 30 September Movement). He
helped mobilize youths from PMKRI (Persatuan Mahasiswa Katolik Republik In-
donesia) to join together with Ansor in the Action Front to attack the PKI head-
quarters in Jakarta.25 In the Eastern islands of Indonesia where communities
were overwhelmingly Christian and Catholic, the army — with varying degrees
of support from the local populations — killed many.26 Commenting on Bali,
Robinson importantly notes that although religion was often used as justifica-
tion for the killing, the military “actively shaped and encouraged a popular dis-
course of anti-communism based on exacting religious ideas and cultural analo-
gies.”27 He claims that those who directed their members to participate in the
violence were driven primarily by political, rather than religious, consider-
ations. Organizations aligned to political parties that were not religiously
aligned, such as the PNI (Partai Nasional Indonesia, Indonesian Nationalist
Party), also participated in the violence.28 Cribb argues the primary causes of the
violence were military agency, local and social tensions, and extreme political
and economic tension that encouraged scapegoating of the PKI and affiliated
organizations. He stresses that military agency alone does not account for the
scale of the violence.29
As the most intense period of killing was underway, General Suharto, who
led the suppression of the 30 September Movement in the capital city of Jakarta,

19. Fealy 1998, 326–40.

20. Young 1990, 72–84.
21. For details on the killings in Jombang and Kediri, see Sulistyo 2000, 159–201. For details of the
killings in Kediri, Magetan, and Bali, see Sudjatmiko 1992.
22. Hefner 1990, 212.
23. Robinson 1995, 300.
24. On Muhammadiyah, see Boland 1982, 145–46.
25. Mudatsir 1983, 65–68.
26. On the killings in West Timor, see Farram 2002, 39–45. On the killings in Flores, Sumba, and
Timor, see Webb 1986, 94–112.
27. Robinson 1995, 279. On uses of ideas of Islam in this memory war, see McGregor (forthcom-
28. On the role of PNI vigilantes in the violence, see Robinson 1995, 300, and, in contrast, how in
some instances PNI members also became the victims of killings by Ansor, see Hefner 1990, 211.
29. Cribb 2002, 551–55.
200 Critical Asian Studies 41:2 (2009)
The Trisula monument in South Blitar, pictured here, “celebrates through statuary and in-
scriptions on the monument, the combined role of the people and the military in crushing
the communists.” (Credit: Vannessa Hearman, Februrary 2008)

began a slow process of taking over power from President Sukarno. He repre-
sented his role in crushing the communists as heroic and was quick to claim the
military had saved the nation from communism. Together with a team of
ideologues he began to depoliticize Indonesian politics commencing with the
freezing of all parties, the consolidation of the government electoral vehicle,
Golkar, and the formation of two alternative parties that the regime also con-
trolled: the PDI (Partai Demokrasi Indonesia, Indonesian Democratic Party)
and the PPP (Partai Persatuan Pembangunan, United Development Party)
formed out of the forced merger of preexisting political parties. Some NU mili-
tants who had moved quickly to back the army in crushing the communists ex-
pected to be rewarded in the new regime. Instead, NU members, who represent
traditional Islam, were forced to merge with modernist Muslims in the sole Is-
lamic party, the PPP. (Previously, the traditionalists and modernists had their
own parties.) The NU party, the strongest Islamic party, was based largely on ru-
ral support from the heavily populated areas of East and Central Java. The
Masyumi party, representing modernist Islam, drew its support from urban ar-
eas and was banned in l960 due to involvement in the Permesta rebellion.30 The
New Order regime created the PPP in 1973 to provide a façade of democracy.
The regime was also aware that based on historical clashes, the involvement of

30. The Permesta (Charter for Universal Struggle) rebellion was a regional rebellion led by military
commanders demanding greater rights and autonomy for regional areas.

McGregor / Confronting the Past 201

traditional and modernist Muslims in a single party would likely be a barrier to
unity and thus reduce the prospect for a political challenge to the regime. Al-
though elections were held every four years, through the “floating mass” doc-
trine,31 the government prohibited the establishment of political branches of ei-
ther the PPP or the PDI at the village level. The NU was further marginalized by
discrimination against those with NU backgrounds for military and civil service
positions and the discontinuation of the practice of awarding the position of
Minister of Religion to an NU man.32 Thus, space for political Islam for the first
two and half decades of the regime was very limited.
For the duration of the New Order regime, the 1965 killings were to some de-
gree celebrated both by the military and also by some within the NU. The Trisula
monument in South Blitar, for example, celebrates, through statuary and in-
scriptions on the monument, the combined role of the people and the military
in crushing the communists (see photo above). NU official histories from as
early as 1971 also eulogized the role of the NU in defeating the communists.
One 1971 publication noted the NU’s quick support for banning the PKI and
also detailed the death of an NU “martyr” on 6 October in Banyuwangi. The in-
dividual was allegedly killed by a PKI member. A battle with the PKI ensued and
an estimated forty Ansor members died. The same publication claimed that
Pertanu and even Fatayat were ready to oppose the communists.33 In the context
of the regime’s central ideology of anticommunism, the NU continued to cele-
brate this history to remind the regime of the NU’s past service and thus of the
debt owed to this community.
In the 1990s, several former Ansor members published works that either
showcased NU’s role in the violence of 1965–66 or reminded Indonesians of vi-
olence committed against ulama (Islamic religious scholars) by the Left prior to
the coup attempt, dating back to the 1948 Madiun Affair, when Pesindo (Indo-
nesian Socialist Youth) troops attacked Islamic religious leaders (kiai) following
Pesindo’s failed attempt to seize local government and as their troops fled Re-
publican forces. In 1990, Choirul Anam, a former Ansor member, wrote a com-
memorative history of Ansor that celebrated their role in crushing the commu-
nists. It refers to the jasa (merit or service) of Ansor as the backbone of the East
Java operations. Anam states that “the communists were enemies of religion,
they had to be wiped out [diberantas].”34 That same year, Agus Sunyoto, histo-
rian and former head of Ansor in East Java, published Lubang-Lubang Pemban-
taian Petualangan PKI di Madiun (The pits of slaughter: The PKI’s schemes in
Madiun). Written together with Maksum and A. Zainuddin, the book focuses
on the events of the Madiun Affair of 18 September 1948, in which lower eche-
lon Communist Party leaders, who were aggravated by Muhammad Hatta’s ra-

31. The floating mass doctrine refers to the 1975 law that restricted the activity of political parties
in rural areas on the basis that the rural population, a “floating mass,” should not be distracted
from the task of development. See Cribb and Brown 1995, 130–1.
32. Fealy 1998, 358.
33. Lembaga Pendidikan Maaruf NU, 1971.
34. Anam 1990, 92.
35. Sunyoto, Maksum, and Zainuddin 1990.

202 Critical Asian Studies 41:2 (2009)

tionalization of leftist troops from the military, attempted to seize control of the
local government. The Pits of Slaughter highlights “communist” brutality in the
Madiun Affair. George Kahin has written that members of the Islamic party
Masyumi, which had the support of NU members at this time, were singled out
for cruel treatment, including torture and execution.37 In the clashes between
communists and santri (devout Muslims) around eight thousand people,
mostly communists, died.38
The publications by Anam and Sunyoto appeared shortly after the end of the
cold war and paralleled military efforts to revive the communist threat with a
new emphasis on the links between anticommunism and religious piety.39 This
effort was in part a response to waning belief in the communist threat, which
created the possibility for greater sympathy toward members of the Left, but it
also involved concerns about the increased emphasis in society on human
rights. In 1996, for example, Sunyoto wrote another publication, Banser Un-
dertakes Jihad to Crush the PKI,40 which is devoted entirely to clarifying
Banser’s role in crushing the communists. In the foreword to the book the au-
thor acknowledges that he wrote the book in response to military objections to
accusations that only the military were responsible for the killings.41 The mili-
tary and the NU were thus already anticipating a reopening of this past in the
late New Order period and both had begun to moderate the previously celebra-
tory tone in publications canvassing their respective roles in the killings.

Changing Ideas and Approaches in the NU 1984–1998

The New Order regime was authoritarian in its control of information and in its
willingness to use force to suppress dissent, but not all avenues of expression or
activism were closed. The government, for example, allowed NGOs to organize
and operate within certain limits from the early 1980s onwards on the basis of
their potential contribution to developmental goals.42 The regime also adopted
a two-pronged approach to Islam, constraining political Islam and at the same
time encouraging the development of cultural Islam (meaning the private prac-
tice of Islam) by means of support for religious institutions and places of wor-
ship. One direct result of the regime’s policy was NU’s decision in 1984 to
withdraw from politics.43
In the early 1980s leaders within the NU decided to “return to the khhitah”
(the original NU strategy). In 1926 when the NU was first formed it was a reli-
gious organization focusing on culture and educational tasks. In 1984 some NU
leaders urged that the NU should return to this original mission because they
felt that there was no more room to move within the political sphere, especially

36. Ibid.
37. Kahin 1952, 300.
38. Fealy 1998, 313, n. 24.
39. See McGregor 2002, 50–55.
40. Sunyoto, 1996.
41. Ibid., ii.
42. Eldridge 2005, 150.
43. van Bruinessen (1996, 163–89) has covered these developments most comprehensively.
McGregor / Confronting the Past 203
in the only Islamic party, the PPP, within which, they felt, the NU leaders had
been marginalized. Abdurrahman Wahid, the grandson of Kiai Hasyim Asy’ari
(NU’s founder) and son of Kiai Wahid Hasyim (a prominent NU leader and for-
mer minister of religious affairs), claimed that in effect the NU “left politics to
play better politics,”44 meaning that given tight constraints over their political
activities their political impact would be greater if they concentrated on internal
reform and participated in politics from the sidelines. Although political inter-
ests drove the decision to return to the khittah, this reorientation brought about
a shift within the NU and created new spaces for younger members of the orga-
In his 1979 work, Khitthah Nahdliyah, Kiai Achmad Siddiq identified the two
core NU values as tawassuth (moderation, keeping to the middle road) and
rahmatan lil alamin (compassion and kindness toward the entire world, ex-
cept for the “implacable enemies of Islam”). He also emphasized education,
charity, and economic activities.45 Reformists like Wahid tried to formulate more
specific recommendations concerning the path the NU should take and empha-
sized charitable work and social solidarity as another form of worship (ibadah),
thus widening the definition of worship from personal observance.46 Wahid was
elected NU chairman-general in 1984 and reelected again in 1989 and 1994.
During this time he oversaw and encouraged many new initiatives in the NU,
with varied responses from more conservative ulama.
Young members within the NU welcomed the return to the khittah, because
they felt the emphasis on elite political struggle during the past decades had led
to neglect of the NU’s educational role and its responsibility for the welfare of its
followers.47 While NU’s older members were more focused on the pesantren
world, the organization’s new generation — who had been exposed to modern
education due to the introduction of more diverse curricula in the pesantren
and at secular schools and universities — favored a return to the khittah. They
were also more receptive to new ideas and social theories.48 This was especially
true of those active in NGOs. Young people who became followers of the re-
formers were mostly from educational institutions, especially pesantren and
madrasah (Islamic schools), but also from the State Institutes of Islamic Studies
(IAIN) and other higher education organizations. In their student years, these
young intellectuals were the leaders and activists in organizations that were af-
filiated with the NU, like the PMII (Pergerakan Mahasiswa Islam Indonesia, In-
donesian Islamic Student’s Movement), the Women’s Corps of PMII, Fatayat,
and Ansor. In the 1980s they became active in study groups within and outside
of the NU. These groups were important venues for the discussion of social and
political issues in the context of limited formal political roles.

44. Quoted in Fealy 2007, 158.

45. van Bruinessen 1996, 177–79.
46. Ibid., 183.
47. Ibid., 174.
48. Prasetyo et al. 2002, 109.
49. Ibid., 124.

204 Critical Asian Studies 41:2 (2009)

In addition to being inspired by the thoughts and writings of Abdurrahman
Wahid, with their emphasis on humanitarianism and civil society, young mem-
bers of the NU were also influenced by wider sources of thought including the
prolific writer and Egyptian philosopher Hassan Hanafi and Fatima Mernissi
who offered new liberal perspectives on Islam. In the 1990s their discussions fo-
cused on the backwardness of the Third World, economic justice, and human
rights, including the rights of women in Islam.50 The emergence of discourses
on democracy, human rights, and gender equality also reflected an effort to cri-
tique the New Order. In the 1990s there was also a boom in Islamic literature
canvassing these ideas, which were generally classified as liberal versions of Is-
lam. Chief among the publishers of such literature was LKiS (Lembaga Kajian Is-
lam dan Sosial, the Institute for Islamic and Social Studies), a Yogyakarta-based
group founded by NU members with the aim of spreading tolerant and
transformative Islam. Thousands of students received LKiS training as social ac-
tivists and went on to form their own organizations.
To spread these new ideas, young members of the NU held training programs
in big cities as well as with students and teachers in village-based pesantren. Ulil
Abshar Abdalla, a prominent representative of liberal Islam, notes, however,
that his generation encountered widespread resistance in spreading some of
these ideas in pesantren circles.52 For example, young NU members frequently
had to ask Wahid to intervene to convince the kiai to allow the training to take
place in their pesantren.53 It seems that there were already significant differ-
ences about how far reform should be taken.

The Founding of Syarikat

When the Suharto regime finally ended in May 1998 there was a sense of eupho-
ria in particular amongst members of the younger generation. Some NU activ-
ists were already involved with the NU-linked organizations such as P3M
(Perhimpunan Pesantren dan Masyarakat, Association for the Development of
Pesantren and Society), LKiS, and Lakpesdam NU (Lembaga Kajian dan Pen-
gembangan Sumber Daya Manusia, NU Institute for Research and Development
of Human Resources), all of which addressed human rights concerns less di-
rectly through the promotion of the discourse of human rights, but the fall of
Suharto presented new possibilities for actively addressing past abuses. With
the end of press censorship and interest in new studies about the 1965 coup at-
tempt among the public, there was also intense media coverage from late 1998
through 2000 in the long-banned topics of the events of the 1965 coup attempt
and the killings. Information about the coup attempt and theories that diverged
from the government’s view had been tightly controlled for over thirty years. In

50. van Bruinessen 1994, 234.

51. Miichi 2003, 22.
52. Ulil Abshar Abdalla was a founder of the NU Institute for Research and Development of Human
Resources (Lakspesdam NU). He is now head of the Islamic Liberal Network (Jaringan Islam
53. Prasetyo et al. 2002, 195–96, 200–1.
McGregor / Confronting the Past 205
a climate of strong anticommunism, coverage of the plight of victims of anti-
communist violence had been minimal.
Because of this newly created space for the discussion of history and in-
creased public attention to human rights abuses during the Suharto period,
some members of Ansor who had been active in the reform movement of
1997–98 began to grapple with the issue of how to deal with the stigma associ-
ated with Ansor’s past. Martin van Bruinessen notes that this stigma was not
confined to groups outside of the NU; even the NU-based student group PMII
was somewhat dismissive of Ansor and Ansor’s paramilitary wing, Banser, be-
cause of the legacy of 1965–66.54 One Syarikat researcher, Taufiqurrahman,
spoke of the burden he felt he bore as a member of the younger generation of
Ansor.55 He said, “The young generation feel a burden…we want this to end. In
my family some participated in the killing and then my grandfather helped the
PKI by hiding them. We did not know what was happening.”56 Another re-
searcher commented to me that after the fall of Suharto, perhaps as more infor-
mation became public about the killings, this stigma became stronger, espe-
cially in activist circles. A key question for Ansor members was how they could
join in the democratization process if their organization in the past was respon-
sible for such crimes.57
In the 1999 NU Congress in Kediri members of the NU decided that in the
new climate of reform they should engage in repentance (taubat) and utter-
ances for God’s forgiveness (istigfar).58 This call was not made specifically with
reference to 1965, but in the same year NU activists from eighteen towns met to
discuss the effects of the 1965 tragedy on Ansor and Banser.59 Their aim was to
try to challenge the stigma of the NU and the PKI as enemies by undertaking re-
search into the role of NU members in the killings. They were further encour-
aged when in 2000 Wahid, who was then president of Indonesia, proposed that
the 1966 ban on communism be lifted and offered a personal apology to victims
of the violence of 1965. Some Islamic groups expressed outrage,60 but Wahid’s
proposal inspired some activists in the NU, mostly young people, to do some-
thing about this past. The Yogyakarta branch of Ansor followed Wahid’s lead and
offered an apology to victims of the violence of 1965.61 At the same time as they
made an apology to victims of 1965–66, the Yogyakarta branch of Ansor, headed
by Nuruddin Amin, stated a long-term commitment to investigate Ansor’s role
in the killings and also to demilitarize the armed wing of Ansor, which had for
decades used military symbols and ideology.62 The Central Board of Ansor had

54. van Bruinessen 2002, 15.

55. Author interview with Taufiqurrahman, Syarikat, Yogyakarta, 25 May 2005.
56. Ibid.
57. Author interview with Rumekso Setiyadi, Syarikat, Yogyakarta, 25 May 2005.
58. Masdar 2003, 4.
59. Author interview with Munib, Lakpesdam NU, Blitar, 29 February 2008.
60. For analysis of these responses, see Purwadi 2003, 59–67.
61. Said 2000, available at (ac-
cessed 22 May 2007).
62. PW Ansor DIY bentuk tim pelurusan sejarah 65 [Ansor Yogyakarta branch forms a team to in-
vestigate 1965]. Kompas, 21 November 2000.
206 Critical Asian Studies 41:2 (2009)
entrusted its Yogyakarta branch with formulating a new concept and profile for
Banser. Then, in December 2000, on International Human Rights Day, NU activ-
ists from eighteen towns in Java founded Syarikat. With its central headquarters
in Yogyakarta, Syarikat now has a network of partner organizations across Java,
with one partner in Bali. Members of the network meet several times a year to
discuss future programs and report on activities.63
Most researchers in Syarikat today are in their thirties or forties and were thus
born after the violence of 1965. In addition to the desire to reform the image of
Ansor and the NU, those joining Syarikat from the beginning of its work until
now are also motivated by compassion for survivors of the violence, including
many people who were imprisoned without trial for long periods following the
coup attempt. This is consistent with the organization’s prescribed focus on
charitable work and vulnerable groups, as set out during the 1984 reform pro-
The background of Syarikat founder and director Imam Aziz highlights the
links between Syarikat and the generation within the NU that was most strongly
shaped by the process of reform and the emergence of new thinking following
the return to the NU’s original mission. Aziz is not an Ansor member, but he is a
former PMII activist. This suggests that Syarikat represents a broader network of
people including those within Ansor who are supportive of change as well as
wider circles of NU activists. A graduate from the State Islamic Institute Sunan
Kalijaga in Yogyakarta, Aziz was involved in setting up LKiS together with other
Yogyakarta IAIN students.64 Before working at Syarikat, he worked for Lakpes-
dam NU. In 1997 Lakpesdam commenced grassroots human rights training in
several pesantren, which inspired Aziz’s focus on 1965.65
In the first few years of operation Syarikat adopted a cautious and calculated
approach to their work. The first step that researchers in the Syarikat network
took was to conduct interviews with a number of survivors of the violence, typi-
cally former political prisoners. Many researchers were surprised to learn of the
extent of the suffering and the violence that occurred.66 These new narratives
about 1965 conflicted dramatically with what they had been told in New Order
history classes. The next steps they took were to promote their ideas in local
communities and to consider what kinds of activities or projects would be suit-
able in each location.
Syarikat describes its activities, which now range over twenty-six towns
across Java, as grassroots based, because it draws on the wide existing network
of NU followers, pesantrens, and organizations. Recognizing the sensitivity of
their work, they aim for slow and gradual change and small-scale initiatives

63. The current member organizations include Syarikat Yogyakarta; Salatiga and Probolinggo;
Lakpesdam branches in Jakarta, Cirebon, Cilacap, Blitar, Klaten, Pasuruan and Banyuwangi;
P3M Jakarta; Incres Bandung; Indipt Kebumen; Kolmaster Wonosobo; LKiS Yogyakarta;LKTS
Boyolali; Gapura Blora; FSAS Jepara; Alur Batang, Lepim Kediri; and SD Inpers Jember.
64. Miichi 2003, 22.
65. Olliver 2004.
66. Author interviews with Sari Eminghayu, Kediri, 29 February 2008; Khusnul Widuri, Yogyakarta,
22 May 2007; and Lutfhfi, Lakpesdam NU, Blitar, 29 February 2008.
McGregor / Confronting the Past 207
without being confrontational. Until 2008, Cordaid, a Catholic relief organiza-
tion based in the Netherlands provided funding for Syarikat’s activities. In its
promotional literature, Cordaid stresses its support for civil society organiza-
tions that “include vulnerable groups, strengthen social cohesion and produce
social capital.” One tension in Syarikat’s work is that by forging links with for-
mer political prisoners Syarikat has prioritized the accumulation of bridging
capital, meaning intragroup cohesion, over bonding capital, meaning internal
group cohesion across the NU community.68
At the same time Syarikat has experienced resistance from within the NU;
making contact with former political prisoners was not an easy process. One ac-
tivist in Lakpesdam Blitar, part of the Syarikat network, reflected that it took
some time to build bonds of trust between them as young members of the NU
and victims. When they first tried to meet former PKI members and people from
formerly associated PKI organizations, they were politely rejected.69 On the
other hand, the families of some activists within Syarikat also continue to feel it
is dangerous to mix with, let alone advocate for, former leftists.70 As a result
some researchers have chosen to conceal their involvement from their families.
This gives some indication of the continuing sensitivity of the issue of 1965 in
NU circles, which I will return to later.

Syarikat’s Mission and Activities

Syarikat uses the word reconciliation to describe the aim of its work, its guiding
slogan is “building a peaceful and democratic Indonesia” by means of a grass-
roots community reconciliation movement. The term “grassroots” refers to the
use of existing NU networks, as well as a community-specific approach to this is-
sue, paying careful attention to local attitudes in each area for which an initia-
tive is planned. The term “reconciliation” is very popular in discourses of
democracy in post-authoritarian contexts, but it has multiple and sometimes
conflicting meanings. Based on a survey of uses of the term, Daly and Sarphin
explain that “reconciliation describes coming together; it is the antithesis of fall-
ing or growing apart. Reconciliation has a normative — almost moral — aspect
as well. It is the coming together (or re-coming together) of things that should
be together.”71 They also claim that politically the term reconciliation is used to
refer to personal healing, interpersonal relationships, community rebuilding,
national stability, and international peace. At a conceptual level the term is used
to refer to justice, with truth, and with forgiveness, but many questions remain
in each specific case about how much of a focus there should be on the past, or
forgiveness or justice.72

67. Cordaid 2006, 14.

68. van Bruinessen 2004, 53–55. The terms “bonding” and “bridging capital” draw upon Putnam
69. Masrukin 2007, 14.
70. Author interviews with Khusnul Widuri, Yogyakarta, 22 May 2007, and Sari Eminghayu, Kediri,
20 February 2008.
71. Daly and Sarkin 2007, 5.
72. Ibid., xiv.
208 Critical Asian Studies 41:2 (2009)
These complexities behind the almost generic term of reconciliation are mir-
rored in Syarikat’s multiple aims. Primarily motivated to strengthen society’s
social fabric and prevent future conflict, Syarikat engages in activities that in-
clude organizing meetings and collaborative projects involving former mem-
bers of the Left and their families and the NU community, creating associations
for women victims, and undertaking efforts to lobby members of the parliament
to address the past and in particular to end discrimination against former politi-
cal prisoners and their families. Syarikat members have worked together with
victims’ organizations to advocate for restoration of victims’ rights, and a reinte-
gration of former leftists into society.74 They also seek to promote truth telling,
using their publications, films, and photographic and artifact-based exhibitions.
Syarikat seeks to enhance the bonds between two groups that have been delib-
erately isolated from one another for almost forty years, due, on the one side, to
the risks of being labeled sympathetic to former communists and on the side of
former leftists, a lingering fear of the NU. Yet their goals of victims’ rights advo-
cacy and alternative truth telling imply potential clashes with the aim of achiev-
ing societal harmony.
Syarikat has tried to foster cooperation, in multiple ways, between members
of the NU and victims. In the Blitar area in 2002, Lakpesdam NU arranged a joint
celebration of the Islamic holiday Syuro accompanied by a cultural perfor-
mance involving former political prisoners, prominent NU figures, and commu-
nity leaders. Syarikat followed this event with a joint community project to in-
stall clean water pipes in South Blitar, an area that had missed out on much
development because it was a former PKI area.75 In 2006 they helped facilitate a
meeting between women survivors in Yogyakarta and the Bantul branch of
Fatayat.76 Lakpesdam NU Blitar and partner organizations in the Syarikat net-
work have also arranged silaturahmi (goodwill) gatherings between members
of the NU and victims such as the one held in Batang and Pekalongan on the oc-
casion of Eid on 28 October 2007.77 With the exception of the 2002 Blitar meet-
ing, most of these efforts involved joint activities or cooperative efforts between
the NU and former leftists without any direct discussion of the past.78 In their
analysis of multiple modes of reconciliation, Daly and Sarphin note that some of
the most effective community reconciliation programs promote reconciliation
only indirectly by means of engagement in joint projects.79 Syarikat’s approach
in the case of these initiatives is similarly nonconfrontational.
Syarikat has also assisted survivors in the task of economic development. In
2005, for example, Syarikat worked together with the Yogyakarta NGO Fopper-
ham (Forum Pendidikan dan Perjuangan Hak Asasi Manusia, Education Forum

73. Author interview with Rumekso Setyadi, Syarikat, Yogyakarta, 21 May 2007.
74. Ibid.
75. Masrukin 2007, 14.
76. Ambarmirah 2007, 7.
77. Saiful 2007, 12.
78. On the Blitar meeting, see Farid Wajidi’s detailed description of testimonies from both mem-
bers of the NU and former political prisoners. Wajidi 2003.
79. Daly and Sarkin 2007, 89.
McGregor / Confronting the Past 209
A photograph from Plan-
tungan women’s prison that
appeared in Syarikat’s 2006
exhibition entitled Remem-
bering What Has Been For-
gotten held in Yogyakarta.
(Credit: Image reproduced from
an exhibition brochure)

for Human Rights Defense) to help women from the women’s survivor organi-
zation Kiprah Perempuan (Women’s Progress) form a savings and loan coopera-
tive.80 When an earthquake hit Yogyakarta in May 2006, damaging the homes of
several victims of 1965, Syarikat launched a program together with local promi-
nent individuals, architects, and volunteers from Syarikat to rebuild the houses
of the poor.81 In other cases it has helped victims’ groups set up small health
clinics for their members.
In 2006 Syarikat, the National Commission on Women’s Rights, and the Ja-
karta-based Women’s Discussion Circle (Lingkar Tutur Perempuan) used Wom-
en’s Day (Hari Ibu) as a way of bringing survivors from the violence of 1965 to-
gether with other women in a wider project aimed at addressing violence
against women.82 For the duration of the New Order regime state-produced ver-
sions of official history claimed Gerwani women were involved in the torture,
genital mutilation, and murder of the military men killed in the 1965 coup at-
tempt. After realizing the impact of this stigma on these women and their subse-
quent reluctance to join in activities,83 Syarikat turned its attention to projects
that focused specifically on women survivors from 1965 and debunking myths
about Gerwani. In December 2006 it held an exhibition in Yogyakarta, entitled
Remembering What Has Been Forgotten, based on photographs collected from
survivors of their experiences in Plantungan women’s prison (see photo
To promote historical revision Syarikat relies on personal accounts from sur-
vivors. Syarikat has facilitated discussions in which university students hear di-
rectly from survivors about their experiences. One sociology program at
Atmajaya University in Yogyakarta, for example, focuses on marginalized com-
munity members by asking them to talk to students about their views. In No-
vember 2007, Syarikat facilitated several victims of the violence of 1965 to meet

80. Ambarmirah 2007, 7.

81. Nusantara, Wulandri, and Ambarmirah 2006, 7.
82. Author interviews with Sudjinah and Lestari, Depok, 21 February 2007; Putmainah, Blitar, 1
March 2008. See also McGregor and Hearman 2007, 379–80.
83. Author interview with Ira Febrianti, Yogyakarta, 21 May 2007.

210 Critical Asian Studies 41:2 (2009)

students in this program. By
sharing their experiences
the victims gave the students
perspectives on history that
they had never heard be-
Syarikat also publishes
the stories of former politi-
cal prisoners in the Syarikat
magazine RUAS. RUAS is a bi-
monthly magazine, which
commenced in September
2001. The print run for
RUAS is usually around fif-
teen hundred; it is read pri-
marily by people in Java, the
heartland of the NU. Copies
are also sent to NU Islamic
boarding schools, survivors
and survivor organizations
and libraries, and to mem-
bers of the parliament as
The cover of a 2006 edition of RUAS focusing on artists,
part of a lobbying exercise writers, and performers who had been imprisoned.
to garner support for the re-
habilitation of former political prisoners. Each edition of the magazine includes
stories of survivors from 1965, mostly those who were imprisoned for some
time. RUAS has profiled the stories of many from Gerwani, the People’s Youth,
the Indonesian Peasants’ Front and also members of various leftist organiza-
tions such as teacher and trade unions and student organizations, whose mem-
bers were accused by default of involvement in the coup attempt because of
their organizational links to the PKI.
The reliance on accounts in the form of live testimonies and published inter-
views in RUAS approximates the globalized practice and discourse of truth tell-
ing prevalent in truth commissions that focus on allowing victims to tell their
stories and formally acknowledging the crimes committed against them. This
focus, however, raises questions about the compatibility between truth telling
and reconciliation in the sense of bringing members of a community together.
David Mendeloff challenges the popular and scholarly view that truth telling
and truth seeking are necessary determinants for peace building. We know very
little about the relationship between truth telling or truth seeking on peace, he
points out, and he argues, therefore, that all assumptions about the links be-
tween truth telling and social healing, the promotion of justice, the establish-
ment of an official historical record, public education, institutional reform, de-

84. Saiful 2007, 12.

McGregor / Confronting the Past 211
A colossal diorama depicting the
alleged torture of a general during
the 1965 coup attempt. The
diorama is located at the Sacred
Pancasila Monument complex.
(Image reprinted from Pusat Sejarah dan Tradisi
ABRI. Buku Panduan Monumen Pancasila Sakti
Lubang Buaya. Jakarta: Pusat Sejarah dan Tradisi
ABRI, 1997. 36)

mocracy and the preemption and deterrence of future violence need to be

examined carefully.85 In some countries, such as South Africa, truth commis-
sions have been promoted because of an assumed link between telling the truth
and “national healing.”86 Syarikat’s history projects are less formal than such na-
tional truth commissions and they are not premised on the idea of truth telling
as a form of healing. Instead Syarikat has prioritized historical revision because
of the perceived need to rebut dominant views of history that hinder the accep-
tance of former political prisoners in society.87 Wajidi also explains that Syarikat
investigates the past for the purposes of “freeing people from it, rather than for
academic reasons. They want to conduct oral history for a practical purpose.
They want to break down stereotypes on both sides of this conflict.”88
The stereotypes to which Wajidi refers have arisen due to widespread circula-
tion of the New Order version of the coup attempt that describes members of
the PKI, the People’s Youth, and Gerwani as not only having murdered the army
leadership but also having mutilated their bodies. This version, which is not
supported by forensic evidence, is reflected in the state memorialization of
these events and can be seen in the life-size diorama at the Sacred Pancasila
Monument (see photo above), in the adjacent museum, in reports of the annual
commemorative day of 1 October, in the state-produced film The Betrayal of the
30 September Movement/PKI, and in school history textbooks.89 This narrative
of the coup attempt, combined with bans on former political prisoners and
their children from working in the civil service as teachers and journalists and
restrictions on their movement has enduringly stigmatized members of the Left.
Annual screening of the film The Betrayal of the 30 September Movement/PKI
ceased in 1998, but the 1 October date continues to be commemorated. The
government’s attempted revision of portrayals of 1965 in history textbooks
came to a dramatic halt when the Attorney General’s Office banned the revised
textbooks because they failed to name the PKI as being responsible for the 1965

85. Mendeloff 2004, 358–63.

86. Wilson 2001, 14.
87. Author interview with Rumekso Setiyadi, Yogyakarta, 21 May 2007.
88. Wajidi 2003, 71.
89. McGregor 2007, 68–104.
90. Pelajaran sejarah kembali ke kurikulum 1994 [History teaching returns to the 1994 curricula],
Republika, 24 June 2005.
212 Critical Asian Studies 41:2 (2009)
coup attempt. In this climate, Syarikat has decided to focus on the long-ne-
glected stories of survivors because they realize that these versions of history are
still marginalized. Syarikat’s goal is to challenge the propaganda that portrays
all leftists as barbaric and untrustworthy.
Syarikat has also sponsored three films dealing with the violence of 1965.
Sinengker: Satu yang Dirahasiakan (That which was concealed) is a Javanese-
language, dramatized fictional account of one family’s experiences of the vio-
lence of 1965. The film focuses on one young woman, Asih, who lives in a village
and whose brother’s association with leftist cultural politics results in his disap-
pearance. Asih loses the rest of her family one by one and goes on to live a tor-
mented life. Despite a willing suitor, she never marries because of her grief and
her unwillingness to trust anyone. The two other films are documentary-style
films focusing on women and their experiences. The first film, directed by
Rumekso Setyadi, Gift for Mother (2006), focuses on women’s stories through
interviews. The second documentary, White and Grey: Women’s Pasts (2007),
consists of six short films made by high schools students from Bandung and
Two common patterns in the accounts from former political prisoners in
RUAS and in these films are an emphasis on the suffering of survivors and a lack
of historicization of the wider political landscape of the 1960s. The interviews
with former political prisoners in RUAS are very short and focus on the lives of
victims just before they were captured, while they were in prison, or after their
release. In some cases, like that of land reform, some attempt is made to explain
what happened before 1965,92 but in most cases little context is provided. RUAS
provides no broader discussion of the role of the Left in the 1960s or, for exam-
ple, of land reform initiatives or other efforts to mediate class differences.
Syarikat emphasizes the suffering of the survivors and hence their experiences
after being arrested in order to humanize these individuals in the eyes of what
they hope is a wide readership across the NU. Yet focusing solely on imprison-
ment obfuscates any sense of agency on the part of survivors.
The absence of historical context in Sinengker leaves it unclear, for example,
who the violence targeted and why. The film, for instance, offers only vague allu-
sions to the associations of the main protagonist’s brother with the PKI: one clip
shows him handing Asih a sickle made out of coconut leaves. Many women in
the documentaries Gift for Mother and White and Grey: Women’s Pasts ac-
knowledge that they were members of Gerwani, but the films do not discuss
Gerwani’s ideology or activities. Why is this? It may be that Syarikat avoids de-
scriptions of the events so audiences can decide for themselves, but more likely
this was a calculated decision based on the contemporary political climate and
the lack of any formal measures to recognize or address this violence.
In the ten years since the end of the Suharto regime, some state-level initia-
tives have addressed selective cases of past human rights abuses, including the

91. Author interview with Rumekso Setiyadi, Syarikat, Yogyakarta, 21 May 2007.
92. See for example, Syamsir 2003, 8–9.
McGregor / Confronting the Past 213
commissioning of fact-finding teams in the case of the May 1998 riots and lim-
ited National Commission on Human Rights investigations into the political im-
prisonment at Buru Island of those with suspected links to the PKI and into the
cases of East Timor, Aceh, and the deaths of Muslim protesters in the Tanjung
Priok incident in 1984. In addition, the Indonesian parliament passed a law on
human rights in 1999 and a law on human rights courts in 2001. Both laws
paved the way for Ad Hoc Human Rights Courts to deal with both Tanjung Priok
and the 1999 atrocities in East Timor.94 In 2004 the parliament passed a law en-
abling the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono began to consider a list of potential
commissioners. The commission was abandoned in 2006, however, after the
Constitutional Court declared the TRC law to be unconstitutional. The Court
was responding to objections human rights groups had raised against proposed
amnesty provisions that would have allowed impunity for those who confessed
Particular cases of human rights abuses in Indonesia have shown more trac-
tion than others. Some progress was made in the East Timor case, largely in re-
sponse to external pressure, and in the Tanjung Priok case, due to the lobbying
power of Islamic parties in the post-Suharto period. In the case of the 1965 kill-
ings, there are no equivalent powerful or significant lobby groups either inside
or outside Indonesia pushing for justice on this case. In addition the case has
less traction because there is no shared consensus that the New Order, espe-
cially in its origins, was a shameful period in Indonesian history. Each time
NGOs or surviving victims have attempted to open this past to public scrutiny or
stake claims for justice, protests, instances of direct intimidation, and violence
have followed. Although human rights are now receiving more attention and
some investigations of human rights abuses have been launched, the continu-
ing influence of the Indonesian military, despite its formal withdrawal from pol-
itics, and the limited capacity of Indonesian courts to uphold the rule of law
have stifled significant progress, perpetuating a continuing culture of impunity
for human rights violators.
The failure of the state to recognize this violence in a formal manner and the
deeply rooted culture of impunity in Indonesia encourages NGOs to represent
survivors of violence in a one-dimensional fashion or primarily as victims. In the
case of Argentina, as Inés Izaguierre has shown, even after the Commission on
Disappeared People was established and subsequent military trials by the
Alfonsín government took place in 1985, human rights organizations continued
their efforts to represent those who had suffered under the previous regime as
victims, in the face of ongoing military efforts to claim impunity. She notes that it

93. For a discussion of the National Human Rights Commission and tribunals between 1998 and
2001, see Eldridge 2002, 145–49.
94. Sulistiyanto 2007, 80–83.
95. A second request for review was filed by interest groups who stood to lose from investigations
into past human rights abuses, but this request was denied. These interest groups did lobby
the court heavily to cast out the TRC law, hence ending any immediate prospects for the forma-
tion of a TRC.
214 Critical Asian Studies 41:2 (2009)
was only after the military confessions of 1994–95 — in which the military ad-
mitted to the atrocities — that family members started to portray their disap-
peared relatives as social and political activists instead of categorizing them in
singular fashion as “victim.” Syarikat’s position on this issue is thus connected
to the wider political context of debates about 1965 and a strategy of first achiev-
ing societal acknowledgment of the suffering of those on the Left in 1965–66.
Syarikat may also be less comfortable about exposing this past because their
primary motivation is to show compassion for these long-marginalized people
rather than necessarily sharing the political ideas of the survivors. Their aim is
not to recover the diverse lives of those who suffered or to emphasize their in-
volvement in social change efforts. Oglesby has observed a similar pattern in
Guatemala in the circulation of narratives about the genocide against Mayans in
the early 1980s, in the wake of the 1999 Guatemalan Commission for Historical
Clarification.97 Although the Guatemalan Commission detailed cases of social
activism by Mayan labor activists and by land reform activists who were subse-
quently targeted in the violence, Oglesby noted that liberal human rights dis-
course tended to frame the violence in an individualized fashion. She attributed
this bias to the agendas of international funding agencies, which are more con-
cerned about peace and stability than reviving histories of past political activ-
ism.98 Similarly focused on the goal of peace, Syarikat tries to avoid commenting
on the past political goals of organizations such as Gerwani, the Indonesian
Peasants’ Front, or the People’s Youth. Elizabeth Jelin extends this argument
concerning the representation of victims further by arguing that there is a fun-
damental clash between the language of human rights and the project of history
writing. In her view, a human rights framework “demands a polarity” between
victim and perpetrator and as a result a victim is depicted only as “a passive be-
ing harmed by the actions of others. The victim is never an active agent.”99 She at-
tributes the decontextualization of historical memory in postauthoritarian re-
gimes in Latin America to the concurrent rise of discourses of human rights.
Syarikat’s tendency towards historical decontextualization is similarly driven by
the original influence of discourses of human rights on these young activists.
Because they are primarily motivated to rehabilitate former political prisoners
and make peace they prioritize the identification of these people as victims,
ahead of conveying historical complexity.

Responses to Syarikat and Efforts to Reexamine 1965

Syarikat has tried to canvass broader support for their work and they have also
featured interviews in RUAS with influential Indonesians about 1965 and how it
should be addressed. In their interviews three prominent Muslim women’s
rights activists — Kamala Chandrakirana (head of the Women’s Rights Commis-
sion), Haji Sinta Nuriyah Abdurrahman Wahid (wife of Abdurrahman Wahid),

96. Izaguierre 1998, 28–31.

97. Oglesby 2007.
98. Ibid., 77–81, 90–92.
99. Jelin 2003, 54–55, as quoted in Olgesby, 2007, 80.
McGregor / Confronting the Past 215
and Nursyahbani Katjasungkama (lawyer) — expressed strong sympathy for vic-
tims of the violence, especially members of Gerwani and other women who suf-
fered. In their comments they also expressed support for Syarikat’s work,
especially its efforts to challenge New Order historiography and the stigmas this
history had created towards survivors of the violence.
The views expressed in RUAS by two male NU leaders are no doubt indicative
of wider views of Syarikat within the NU. Writing in RUAS in 2003 as a member of
NU’s National Religious Council (Syuriah), Kiai Masdar F. Mas’udi commends
Syarikat for its work, but notes it will not easily be accepted by the mainstream
of the NU.101 He also tries to justify the NU’s involvement in the violence of 1965
based on the violence carried out by Pesindo troops against Islamic leaders fol-
lowing the Madiun Affair of 1948. He claims that from the NU’s perspective
“1948 will be raised because they say there were many victims from the Islamic
side. 1948 could be seen as the cause of 1965, so it is not fair to just accuse the
NU of being involved in 1965.”
He acknowledges the scale of 1948 was more limited (several villages were
targeted versus half a million killed in 1965), but claims it will always be brought
up alongside the topic of 1965: “People often say they had already killed us [in
1948]. So it is not surprising in 1965 people said it was a matter of kill or be
killed.”103 Said Aqiel, who is more sympathetic to Syarikat, makes the same paral-
lel with 1948. Both men are correct in stating that 1948 is a common reference
point amongst members of the NU who defend the violence of 1965, but the fre-
quently touted idea that in 1965 people acted only because it was a case of “kill
or be killed,” or out of fears of a repeat of Madiun must be seriously examined.
As the documents and literature surveyed above show, support for the violence
from within the NU was systematic and organized.
Some NU members I have interviewed adopt the more comfortable narrative
that “we were all victims,” arguing that members of the NU were completely ma-
nipulated by the military. This is also true for members of the Syarikat network.
At the first Yogyakarta Ansor “goodwill gathering” in 2002 on the 1965 killings
and imprisonments, an understanding emerged between victims and older
members of the NU “that the two sides had been made into enemies for the pur-
poses of those in power.”105 Even after researching the NU’s role in the violence
members of Syarikat continued to argue that the violence of 1965 was vertical
and not horizontal in origin, concluding that therefore the violence was state di-
rected. This is of course a more palatable narrative for members of the NU.
Again Syarikat seems to have been influenced by the primary goal of bringing

100. Katjasungkana 2004, 4–6; Chandrakirana 2004, 3–6; Sinta Nuriyah 2004, 3–6.
101. Masdar was once hailed as a leading reformer in the NU. From this perspective his comments
in RUAS are disappointing. See van Bruinessen 1994, 221–22.
102. Masdar 2003, 5.
103. Ibid.
104. Said 2003, 6.
105. This is according to Masrukin, from Lakpesdam NU in Blitar. Masrukin 2007, 14.
106. Author interview with Rumekso Setyadi, Yogyakarta, 25 May 2005.
216 Critical Asian Studies 41:2 (2009)
people together rather than fully interrogating the role of the NU in this vio-
It is critical to understand the military’s role in directing the violence of
1965–66 and to recognize cases of coercion, but suggesting that both those who
killed and were killed were “all victims” again obscures historical reality. Unlike
members of the Left, members of the NU were not the subject of mass purges;
they and their families were not terrorized — whether during the period of vio-
lence, while in prison, or throughout most of the New Order regime. They did
not have their property destroyed or taken, and most did not lose members of
their family, unless they were members of the Left. They have not had their
rights restricted for the last four decades.
Hasyim Muzadi, the current general chairman of the NU, was born in Tuban
East Java in 1949 and was sixteen years old at the time of the coup attempt. Mu-
zadi declined to talk at length about the violence of 1965 and tried to deflect at-
tention from the killings, pointing to many other cases worldwide of mass vio-
lence including white Australian violence against indigenous Australians: a
deliberate reference to my own background as a white Australian.107 In our inter-
view he also claimed that the PKI had been “planning a genocide.” This speaks
to another idea circulated frequently in NU circles, namely, that communists
had dug holes in many places as mass graves in preparation for further killings
after the 1965 coup attempt.109 When pressed Muzadi said he supported cultural
reconciliation, which he interprets to mean informal reconciliation and he also
stated that the full rights of former political prisoners should be restored and
that the children of victims should not suffer discrimination, but he seemed to
be wary of Syarikat as an organization stating that “their aims were not clear.”110
The meaning of this last statement is made clearer by the more candid com-
ments Muzadi made in his opening speech to participants in an internal NU
2004 dialogue concerning “victims of the PKI.” Here Muzadi openly addressed
the revival and rehabilitation of “the extreme left wing” during the reform era.
He expressed concerns about organizations “right down to the village level” agi-
tating to investigate the past, arguing that this would only reopen old wounds.111
His reference, presumably, was to victim groups such as YPKP 1965/1966 (Yaya-
san Penelitian Korban Pembunuhan 1965/1966, The Foundation for the Re-
search into Victims of the 1965–66 Killings) that are researching the past and de-
manding various forms of redress. Syarikat has fostered links with these
organizations. In more closed discussions such as this internal NU dialogue
Muzadi has thus expressed fears of former political prisoners gaining too much

107. Author interview with Hasyim Muzadi, PBNU, Jakarta, 19 May 2007. An interesting parallel be-
tween the two cases of the NU and white Australians is that both groups are as Morris-Suzuki
(2005) argues in the case of Australia “implicated” in past violence in the sense that both
groups and their descendants benefited, and continue to benefit, from the violence indirectly.
108. Author interview with Hasyim Muzadi, PBNU, Jakarta, 19 May 2007.
109. Author interview with Abdullah Faqih, Tuban, 27 February 2008.
110. Author interview with Hasyim Muzadi, PBNU, Jakarta, 19 May 2007.
111. Dialog Ulama NU Dengan Keluarga Korban PKI 48 di Madiun and 65 di Jakarta 2004.
McGregor / Confronting the Past 217
influence. Underlying this
concern is possibly a
deeper worry about mem-
bers of the NU being pros-
ecuted for their roles in
In 2006 one of the most
prominent anticommu-
nists in the NU, Yusuf Has-
yim, who was a key leader
in Ansor in 1965,112 invited
members of Syarikat to a
seminar at Tebuireng pe-
santren to discuss the
2004 law that established
the Truth and Reconcilia-
tion Commission. When
they arrived they were
made to listen to argu-
ments about why a com-
mission was unneces-
sary. In 2007, the year af-
ter the Constitutional
Court rejected the Truth
and Reconciliation Com-
The front cover of the May 2007 East Java regional NU
magazine AULA, reading “Beware of the PKI.” mission, Syarikat faced
more direct and open crit-
icism no doubt in an attempt to end further exploration of the NU’s role in the
events of 1965–66. In 2007, for example, the East Java NU magazine AULA de-
voted most of its May edition to warnings about the revival of the PKI (see cover
above). The magazine included attacks on both Abdurrahman Wahid and on or-
ganizations viewed as products of his liberalism, implying a link between liberal
Islam and a communist revival.114
AULA’s editor, Abdul Wahid Asa, is deputy head of the NU in East Java and a
member of Commission C in the regional East Java parliament. In the May issue
he recounted his experience of the aggressiveness of the PKI in the land seizures
of 1964, recalling how in these situations Ansor naturally defended the hajji
(those who had made the pilgrimage, a mark of being a santri) and how NU
later crushed the PKI. Writing more than forty years after the events of 1965, Asa
observed that NU youth who had never witnessed these events
blame their parents and defend the PKI. Their excuse is for the sake of hu-
man rights. These kids are just the victims arising from the failure to

112. Hasyim 2005.

113. Email communication with Rumekso Setyadi, Syarikat, Yogyakarta, 2 May 2007.
114. AULA: Majalah NU, May 2007, 28.
218 Critical Asian Studies 41:2 (2009)
absorb the meaning of
birrul-walidin [Arabic
for being loyal to one’s
parents] and fell for the
propaganda of the com-
munists for the sake of
a few bank notes and
pretending to defend
human rights.
Senior NU member Ab-
dul Muchith Muzadi ech-
oes this direct slight at
young members of the NU
involved with Syarikat,
saying he cannot under-
stand the attitude of the
young “because Islam —
particularly the NU — was
the PKI’s foremost enemy
in the 1960s.” For indi-
viduals like Asa and Mu-
zadi, Syarikat represents
a betrayal of the NU el-
Responses such as
these demonstrate the An article in the May 2007 edition of AULA entitled “NU
hardened attitudes of Cadre Infiltrated.” Covers of Syarikat’s RUAS magazine are
presented as evidence.
some within the NU to for-
mer members of the Left and indicate an unwillingness to let go of their griev-
ances against leftists. There is a strong perception amongst some in the NU that
there is only one valid interpretation of the early to mid 1960s in Indonesia. Ac-
cording to this version of events, members of the NU acted only to protect them-
selves and the Islamic faith in the face of an aggressive PKI and based on their ex-
periences of 1948. They committed no crimes and if anything they were victims
of the communists. On this basis they perceive activists within Syarikat to be be-
traying their roots.
This critique is inseparable from a broader critique of liberal Islam that has
intensified in the last decade both within and outside the NU. Since the fall of
Suharto, Islamists such as Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (Indonesian Mujaha-
deen Council) and Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia (Indonesian Islamic
Missionary Council), who have been able to express their views more freely in
the new democratic era, have criticized liberal Islam, charging that it is a West-

115. Abdul 2007, 9.

116. Subhan 2007, 22.
117. Al Qurtuby 2004, 250–52.
McGregor / Confronting the Past 219
ernized or secularized version of Islam. In 2002, for example, Ulil Abshar
Abdallla, the head of the Islamic Liberal Network (Jaringan Islam Liberal, JIL)
and one of the founders of Lakpesdam NU, wrote an article in Indonesia’s lead-
ing newspaper Kompas suggesting that there is no “Law of God,” only general
universal principles. This statement contradicts the strongly held belief in
shariah, or a set of Islamic laws, that Islamists have increasingly emphasized in
recent years. His article resulted in calls for a death fatwa against Ulil.118
Critiques of liberal Islam have also gained ground within the NU and are
linked to the internal politics of the NU. In 2003 the NU hosted a conference on
Islamic thinking in which some religious scholars attacked liberal Islam on the
basis it had already crossed the limits of fittingness by rejecting the views of clas-
sical ulama. In arguments similar to those of Islamists, these scholars recom-
mended that liberal Islamic ideas amongst young NU should be halted so that
they would not disturb the stability of Islam. The criticisms of liberal Islam ex-
pressed in this conference are inseparable from critiques of Abdurrahman
Wahid because of his central role in driving reformist thinking within the NU,
but they also relate to a wider rejection of Wahid’s influence following his im-
peachment as president in 2001. Growing critiques of liberal Islam within the
NU are indicative of a broader trend identified by Fealy of the abandonment of
the reform agenda.120 As I have demonstrated above Syarikat was a product of
this reform agenda and the new thinking that this produced and for this reason
it is vulnerable.

The Syarikat network of activists shows that some within the NU continue to
support reform and want to help marginalized members of society. Although
Syarikat was founded partly in reaction to the negative stigma attached to Ansor,
members of the Syarikat network continue to advocate for victims eight years af-
ter the founding of Syarikat, indicating they are genuinely concerned about the
plight of survivors. Given the limited means of many survivors Syarikat strives to
address the economic needs of survivors by establishing cooperatives. Through
their history projects and publications Syarikat members have focused on
achieving societal acknowledgment of the suffering of those affected by the vio-
lence of 1965–66. Due to a broader ambiguity about this past, the particular de-
mands of a human rights discourse and Syarikat’s primary goal of bringing
together these people and members of the NU it has, however, carefully avoided
direct discussion of the political lives of those affected by the violence and cho-
sen the more comfortable narrative that both the NU and members of the Left
were victims in the violence of 1965–66.
In his research on Syarikat, completed in 2002, Budiawan argued that de-
spite continuing contestation over which parts of the past should be empha-

118. Fealy 2006.

119. Al Qurtuby 2004, 250.
120. Fealy 2007, 156.
121. Purwadi 2003, 252–54.
220 Critical Asian Studies 41:2 (2009)
sized, Syarikat’s work had the potential to shatter deeply entrenched anticom-
munism in Indonesia. This may hold true for the younger generations in
Indonesia who Syarikat and survivors jointly report show the most interest in
their work and stories. The younger generation have not invested in a mono-fo-
cused version of 1965, but there are still those who wish to keep anticom-
munism alive and to continue to marginalize survivors of 1965 because of the
potential ramifications of admitting to involvement in human rights abuses. The
responses to Syarikat provide further insight into the effects of “truth telling”
and the complex process of promoting new versions of the past. They also con-
firm the assertions of Mendeloff that opening the past does not lead in any
straightforward fashion to “national healing” or reconciliation, particularly
when revising versions of the past has implications for long-standing claims for
Ironically in the new democratic era of post-Suharto Indonesia —with hu-
man rights issues being given greater attention — Syarikat has encountered op-
position because of the links between this organization and liberal Islam. In the
broader picture of human rights advocacy, the case of Syarikat highlights a new
challenge that NGOs face, the growing influence of Islamists and an increasing
tendency to police the limits of acceptable Islam.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: This research is part of a larger research project entitled Islam and
the Politics of Memory in Post-Authoritarian Indonesia, supported under the Australian
Research Council’s Discovery (Project Number DPO772760). Many thanks to CAS editor
Tom Fenton, four anonymous reviewers, and Vannessa Hearman for their valuable com-
ments and the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore who hosted
me as a Senior Visiting Fellow during the writing of this article.

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