At 72, Sri Sulistyawati still remembers the day when two Indonesian
soldiers placed a wooden plank across her belly and used her body as a
see-saw, before she fainted from the pain.
Her tale is a lost
footnote in one of the last century’s bloodiest atrocities, when between
500,000 and two million suspected communists were killed in purges in
1965 and 1966 under general Suharto, who was toppled in 1998.
being swept under the carpet for nearly fifty years, those atrocities
were this year acknowledged for the first time by the government’s own
human rights body, providing some solace to victims such as
Sulistyawati, whose pain and disgrace have gone ignored for decades.
an unprecedented move, Indonesia’s official human rights body Komnas
HAM announced in July that it has found evidence of widespread gross
human rights violations nationwide during the purges.
based on a three-year investigation and the testimony of 349 witnesses,
urged that military officers be brought to trial for crimes including
murder, extermination, slavery, forced eviction, torture and mass rape.
report demanded that the government issue an apology and compensate
victims and their families — a move it said it intends to make despite
resistance from retired military commanders and the nation’s largest
Sulistyawati lives in a two-storey nursing home in
the Indonesian capital Jakarta with a dozen other survivors, mostly
women aged between 70 to 90.
“They tied my arms and legs with a
rope and dragged me on the ground with my face down for a kilometer to a
military post,” recalled Sulistyawati, whose crime was being a
journalist for a nationalist newspaper that backed the country’s first
“Two soldiers put a wooden plank on my belly,
then got on each end and used my body as a see-saw,” she remembered. “I
fainted from the unbearable pain and had internal bleeding.”
purge had its roots in the tense Cold War politics that marked the final
years of the reign of Suharto’s charismatic predecessor Sukarno. He
had fostered the outlawed Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) as a
political force to balance the power of mass religious organizations and
This delicate balance collapsed in
September 1965, with an abortive coup — which was swiftly blamed on the
PKI. But some historians say the military orchestrated the putsch to
tighten its grip on power and wipe out communism thriving in the nation.
‘In my dreams, I am reunited with my children’
enduring four years of torture in detention that included electric
shocks and nail-pulling for an alleged communist connection, in 1969
Lukas Tumiso landed in a prison labor camp on remote Buru island in
He would stay there for the next 10 years, together with 10,000 other prisoners.
the island, we built our own prison, a bamboo hut where we slept at
night. We also built our own civilization there,” Tumiso, now 73, told
AFP, adding that the island was at the time swampland and jungle.
clearing forests with their bare hands to plant rice and cassavas,
prisoners also built roads, dams and sewerage under strict military
supervision, he added.
In one of the interviews with Komnas HAM,
an unnamed survivor said he was jailed with hundreds of other prisoners
in a cramped five by 25-meter room.
“It was a place where
prisoners were slowly killed. Many only survived for a few months. About
a dozen people died every night,” said the witness, who was jailed for
12 years on Kemarau island on Sumatra island with his wife.
the Komnas HAM report was released, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono
ordered the country’s Attorney General Office to follow-up on the
For victims such as Sulistyawati, a formal apology would provide some solace, even if it comes decades late.
“People must know that we were innocent, we did nothing wrong. Restore our good reputation, we are not human garbage,” she said.
For others such as 81 year-old Lestari, now toothless and hunched over
with age, there is the hope that a public apology would help fulfill her
dream of reuniting with her children.
In 1979, when she was
released from 11 years in prison for being a women’s rights activist
under the PKI’s umbrella, her five children refused to accept her.
I was released from prison I went straight to see my kids. But they
refused to be with me. They were afraid of being labelled communists,”
“In my dreams, I always see myself reunited with my
children,” said Lestari, whose husband, one of the communist party’s
leaders, died in his cell while awaiting an execution order, and whose
four-year old daughter was killed when soldiers raided her home to
Decades of discrimination
Suharto’s rule people suspected of having had links with the PKI
suffered decades of stigmatization and discrimination. They were not
allowed to become civil servants, teachers, or lawmakers.
Suharto was toppled in 1998, a new government removed some
anti-communist regulations. But spreading the ideology is still
considered a crime.
Presidential advisor Albert Hasibuan said in
April that Yudhoyono intended to make an apology to families and victims
of past human rights abuses, including the anti-communist purges,
before his second term ends in 2014.
But retired military
commanders and organizations including the country’s largest Muslim body
Nahdlatul Ulama, which has been allegedly implicated in the
purges, have rejected any apology.
The NU’s deputy chairman As’ad
Said Ali said in August that the identity cards of former PKI suspects
had been cleansed of their previous history.
“They must not ask
more than they deserve. The mark has been removed from their ID cards,
and some of their grandchildren have become lawmakers now.
“We can forgive them but we cannot forget. For us, this is a non-negotiable price: No apology or compensation.”