Unmarked Graves: Death and Survival in the Anti-Communist Violence in East Java, Indonesia, by Vannessa Hearman

In: Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde / Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia
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  • 1 Melbourne University

Vannessa Hearman, Unmarked Graves: Death and Survival in the Anti-Communist Violence in East Java, Indonesia. Singapore: NUS Press, 2018, xiii + 288 pp. ISBN: 9789814722940, prize: SGD 38.00 (paperback).

There are many episodes in Indonesian history that are in dire need of rewriting and the anti-communist violence of 1965–1966 is one of these. The violence that killed half a million people, stigmatized and discriminated against former members and sympathizers of the PKI (Partai Kommunis Indonesia, Indonesian Communist Party) was taboo during Suharto’s army-led regime. The advent of democracy since the fall of the New Order in 1998 ushered in a new era for the tackling of historical injustices and human rights violations concerning the anti-communist violence. Hopes that the mass killings of alleged Leftists in 1965–1966 would be addressed reached their climax when Joko Widodo promised to address human rights issues in his first bid for presidency in 2014. Five years later, at the start of his second presidential term, these hopes have vanished and the task of uncovering lost histories, achieving historical justice, accountability, and rehabilitation falls once again onto victims, activists, artists, and academics.

Vanessa Hearman is one such academic working to fill in the gaps of our knowledge about the anti-communist violence of 1965–1966. Unmarked Graves: Death and Survival in the Anti-Communist Violence in East Java, Indonesia is an immensely valuable contribution in writing histories about the anti-communist violence of 1965–1966, focusing on East Java. Taking advantage of the space the democratic era has given to survivors to speak about their experiences, as well as people in the communities in which these events took place, the book relies on first-hand interviews collected from people on different sides of the political divide in East Java, and other primary sources, as well as documents and newspaper reports.

To contextualize what occurred during the mass killings, the book examines the emergence of the Left, members of the PKI or people associated with it, through the various mass organizations in Indonesia in Chapter 1. The next chapter discusses major historical events in Indonesia and at the provincial level that were crucial in the lead up to the violence. It describes the Madiun Affair of 1948, the period of Guided Democracy (1958–1965), as well as the 1964–1965 land occupations in East Java which led to tension and violent clashes. Chapter 3 examines how events at the national level impacted the Left in East Java. The involvement of a small group of PKI leaders in the Thirtieth of September Movement proved to be fatal for the Left, with the discussion focusing on the devastating last three months of 1965 in East Java. In Chapter 4 the narrative starts looking at the Left’s responses to the purges. Some tried to prevent Sukarno’s ousting. Those who survived were hunted, and only survived by staying together, using personal connections and pooling resources. They went on the run into the provinces or further, helped by networks of safe houses, party activists, and sympathizers. Chapter 5 offers testament to the resilience of the PKI and describes how its remnants sought refuge in isolated South Blitar, East Java between 1967–1968. The South Blitar base was an important episode of PKI regrouping and resistance, but did not last. The final Chapter 6 shows that the transition to New Order rule in East Java did not occur easily, but that violence was used well until 1968 with the Trisula operation that crushed the PKI. Not only did the Trisula operation destroy the Left, it also permanently transformed the area and lives of the villagers. The book concludes with a discussion of the anti-communist violence of 1965–1966 in its global context of the Cold War, as well as its legacies in a global context: “Over half a century after the massacres, and with fewer and fewer survivors left, justice still needs to be done.” (p. 201).

Hearman’s conversations with survivors of the Left in East Java has led to a meticulously detailed, informative and lively reconstruction of disastrous times. Her focus on human agency makes insightful the crucial relationship between the army and its civilian allies in planning and carrying out the mass killings, particularly the involvement of the NU (Nahdlatul Ulama). It enables the reader to follow the life stories of a small group of people, into prison, into hiding, or towards the creation of new lives under new names and identities. Hearman’s approach also gives a face to several members of Gerwani (Gerakan Wanita Indonesia, Indonesian Women’s Movement). Gerwani is portrayed as a dynamic, progressive movement providing women with the opportunity to be part of public life working on issues like education and campaigning against underage marriage and polygamy. Giving people who have suffered and survived a name and a face is important, and it is significant to be able to read their names on a list in the back of the book, even though the majority still felt the necessity to speak under a pseudonym.

Well-written and well-edited, the picture that emerges from this book is the near-destruction of the Left. It evokes a powerful, acute, and painful realization of the deeply traumatic reverberations that these violent events have in contemporary Indonesia. The need for historical justice, accountability, and rehabilitation remains acute.

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