Ever since the release of The Act of Killing (or Jagal, in Indonesian, meaning Butcher) in 2012, the movie has been widely applauded by many foreign film lovers and critics, leading to a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. But in Indonesia, the film has provoked controversy. The government regarded the film a hyperbole and an inaccurate portrayal of Indonesia’s past anti-communist campaigns. Muslim leaders also condemned the movie for discrediting Islam and Indonesia. While some Indonesians welcome the film, many have responded negatively.

The Act of Killing is basically an old story — the 1965-66 anti-communist pogroms — in a new format. The filmmakers narrate an account of death squads involved in mass murders in North Sumatra. They have long been celebrated as heroes.

The content of the film is, of course, not new for Indonesians. During the 32 years of Suharto’s rule, each year in late September, Indonesians watched the government’s version of the story on state-owned television network TVRI. Since there were no other TV channels, I watched that state-sanctioned film, too.

In my village at that time, only one person had a television set, and even though it was black and white, the screening attracted a big crowd. When the army and the death squads succeeded in slaughtering what they called “communists,” villagers cheerfully clapped their hands.

The New Order no doubt succeeded in brainwashing Indonesians, including myself, by declaring that Communism was a common enemy and a continuous threat for the nation. It argued that deadly violence against communists and their sympathizers was legitimate, and that the perpetrators had to be considered heroes.

A popular song

Like other villagers (indeed most citizens) at the time, I thought Suharto and the death squads were heroes. But this changed when I found out that my grandparents on my mother’s side were among the victims. For a long time, my parents, especially my mom, refused to tell me what really happened. Indeed all my grandparents (from both dad’s and mom’s side) died before I was born. My father, who passed away three years ago, often took me to visit his parents’ graves. But what about my mom’s parents?

Later on I understood that my mom stayed silent because she did not want her children to know the tragic truth. One day, when I insisted, she answered my questions about what happened to her parents with tears instead of words.

When she was finally able to handle her emotions, she explained how her parents were brutally killed by an angry mob. She also told me that many of those murdered, including her parents, actually were not communists. They were killed, she said, simply because they sang “Genjer-Genjer,” a popular song that was also commonly sung by members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).

Traumatized, my mom and her older brother fled to a faraway district and hid in the middle of wild jungle with nothing but the clothes they wore.

My mom’s story does not stand alone. Many people killed during this period actually had nothing to do with Communism or the PKI, much less with atheism, as the New Order regime propagated. Ordinary people, including my grandparents (who were mostly, if not all, illiterate), did not understand what Communism meant, much less Marxism-Leninism. Membership of the PKI in the 1960s reached more than three million people, making it the largest Communist Party outside the Soviet Union and China, but most people sympathized with the party simply because they admired its pro-people agenda.

It is true that since the rise of the PKI in the early 20th century, people and some members of the Javanese elite, including Muslim preacher and revolutionary Haji Mohamad Misbach (d. 1926), were attracted to the party due to its populist agenda, promise of change and fierce anti-colonial agenda. This is why the Dutch cracked down hard on the communist revolt that broke out in 1926-27.

Roots of conflict

Much has been written about the PKI and anti-communist killings of 1965-66, and the role of Suharto, the army, Islamic organizations, and the US Central Intelligence Agency in orchestrating the campaigns as part of America’s global war against (Soviet) Communism. The work of Harry Benda, Ruth McVey, Robert Cribb, Ann Swift, among others, is noteworthy. What is clear from the literature is that the massacres were not without historical precedent. Rather, they were deeply rooted in wider societal rivalry, conflict and violence.

As historian Merle Ricklefs has rightly noted, the harsh rivalry between “kaum putihan” (devout Muslims who later became members of various Islamic organizations and political parties) versus “kaum abangan” (nominal religious or non-religious folk that later became members and supporters of nationalist and communist organizations and parties) had been going on since the 19th century. Old Javanese stories have documented tensions and antagonism between these groups.

The formation of Islamic organizations since the early 20th century was, among other things, a response to the rude attacks of the “kaum abangan” against Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, and the Koran. Muslim-Communist tensions peaked in 1948 at Madiun, where the communist militias took power and brutally murdered Islamic followers, clerics and leaders, and politicians who refused to make Indonesia a communist country. The rebellion was later defeated but had angered Muslim leaders.

Indonesian society has been bombarded with ideology ever since the colonial era. And it was during Sukarno’s Old Order when “aliranization” (the division of society in a limited number of ideological streams) became deeply politicized. During the course of Sukarno’s reign, nationalists, communists, traditionalists, and reformists were all trapped into unhealthy competition and even violent conflicts on behalf of primordial sectarian groups. Political and religious leaders provoked their opponents by invoking religion, Islamic schools of thought, organizations, ideologies and political parties. This wider societal conflict has to be taken into account when we try to understand what happened in 1965-66.

Although the violence is behind us, Indonesia still has to deal with the dark episodes from its past. For me, responding to the The Act of Killing is dilemmatic. On one hand, my own family has been directly affected by the bloodbaths. But I am also a functionary of Nahdlatul Ulama, an Islamic organization many of whose young activists were involved in the anti-Communist campaigns.

For the sake of the nation’s future, there is nothing we — including the government — can do but promote forgiveness and reconciliation. This is what Syarikat Indonesia, a group of NU activists, has been doing since 2000. At the same time, the vulgar comments about Islam and hostility against Muslims from the communist camp should not be overlooked. Only if there is a sincere willingness to forgive can there be reconciliation and will anti-communist sentiment in Indonesia decrease.

Sumanto Al Qurtuby is a research fellow at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, US, and a co-founder of the North American branch of Nahdlatul Ulama.