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A Lost World: The Indonesian Left before the 1965-66 Politicide

Fri, April 1, 10:30am to 12:30pm, Washington State Convention Center, 3rd Floor, Room 304

Session Submission Type: Organized Panel


By mid-1965, the left movement in Indonesia had become very vibrant, with many different organizations attracting millions of members. The movement consisted not just of the communist party and its front organizations (some of which were partly autonomous of the party) but also other political parties and ethnic organizations. President Sukarno’s Guided Democracy, with its principles of anti-imperialism and “Indonesian socialism,” had legitimated the discourse of revolution and encouraged mass mobilizations. But after October 1, the people who had been part of this movement were hunted down as traitors. The Indonesian army orchestrated a politicide – the intentional mass killing of members of a political group.

After the terror, the history of the left movement before October 1965 became difficult to understand. Many of the survivors felt too scared to speak in public. Meanwhile, the perpetrators wrote the official histories. Many documents were lost or intentionally destroyed. The result is that we know the history of the left movement only in broad outline. Less understood topics include the subjectivity of the rank-and-file participants – such as their motivations, creative visions, ethical norms, and sense of history – and the complexity of the local politics in which they were embedded.

This panel, as an effort at historical recovery, raises the general question as to what was lost in Indonesia because of the politicide fifty years ago. The papers, based on oral interviews, rarely consulted Indonesian-language documents, and declassified US government records, allow for a more nuanced evaluation of this lost world of activism.

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