The Kaloran Incident and Indonesia’s Red Scare

Against the Current, No. 93, July/August 2001

Sylvia Tiwon

ON THE MORNING of March 24, 2001, a nervous cortege of two vehicles carrying seven boxes left the small district of Kaloran in Central Java for nearby Yogyakarta.

The boxes, each measuring 70cm x 30cm, contained human remains recently exhumed from a mass grave, where they had lain in anonymity since 1966.  Victims of the anti-Communist purges that had brought Suharto to power, the remains had been located recently by YPKP (the Foundation for the Investigation of the Massacres of 65/66), with the help of local residents.

A religious ceremony had been planned, with Muslim, Catholic, Protestant and Buddhist prayers.  Giving decent burial to the long-neglected bones, it was hoped, would help to begin a grassroots movement towards reconciliation, to heal communities that for so long had been forced to suppress their terrible memories.  But the rituals were not to take place.

In response to protests against the reburial of alleged members and sympathizers of the PKI (the Indonesian Communist Party banned in 1966), the local committee had agreed to cancel the ceremony and to refrain from reburying the remains within the district.

As the vehicles moved off, a crowd of men blocked their way to stop them. With force they boarded the vehicles and proceeded to ransack the boxes.  A driver and a passenger were beaten, and the bones dumped unceremoniously on the road. The mob grew rapidly, smashing windows and threatening to burn down the house where the boxes had been kept.

Claiming responsibility for the disruption of the ceremony was the newly formed Forum Ukhuwah Islamiah Kaloran (The Kaloran Islamic Forum).

In the following days, thousands gathered in their local mosque to hear speakers denouncing the YPKP as an illegal organization, vowing to disband it, and shouting anti-PKI slogans in rhetoric harking back to the days of the massacres.  Among those addressing the crowd were local civil servants and members of parliament.

New Opening and Backlash

The wave of social and political reforms that followed the ouster of President Suharto and the demise of the New Order in 1998, especially the emphasis on freedom of speech and human rights, brought about a veritable explosion of new publications in the Indonesian language on subjects strictly prohibited by the New Order regime’s draconian censorship laws.

Books on Marxism appeared everywhere, as did works by Indonesian writers like Tan Malaka and the world-renowned author Pramoedya Ananta Toer, despite the fact that legislation banning the circulation of such works had not been rescinded.  All remaining political prisoners were released and began to speak publicly about their experiences around the events leading up to the coup of 1965.

This inspired a number of intellectuals in the pro-democracy movement to take up investigative research into the history of 1965-66 that had brought Suharto to power.  At the forefront of this climate of change was President Abdurrahman Wahid.

Wahid issued an apology for the role his organization, NU, had played in the massacres of 1965-67, paid an official visit to Pramoedya, and recommended that the General Assembly (the highest legislative body) revoke its 1966 ban on Communism/Marxism/Leninism.

Suharto had memorialized September 30, 1965 as “Pancasila Victory Day,” when, according to his version, military forces had purged the nation of the traitorous Communists, who had planned to wipe out religious people and nationalists throughout the country.

Under the New Order, this myth became the only true history.  For thirty years it served the military well, enabling them to use anti-Communist legislation passed by a General Assembly cleansed of members of the PKI and other Communist sympathizers to launch attacks on any group or community standing in the way of the regime’s authoritarian development strategy.

Manipulating Fear

Unlike the more spectacularly gruesome conflicts in Maluku, Aceh, West Papua and Central Kalimantan, the Kaloran incident in Java’s heartland did not receive much press coverage.  Nevertheless it marks an important phase in the systematic attempts by New Order forces—particularly the military and Suharto’s Golkar political machine—to dislodge President Abdurrahman Wahid and regain control over the nation and its vast resources.

It is also a means of ensuring that fear and suspicion, and thus the potential for horizontal conflict, remain high at the grassroots level.  Gus Dur, as the president is popularly known, is generally seen as a pro-democracy figure with a large and vocal following among rural masses in East and Central Java, and among progressive intellectuals and activists. [See note 1]

As a leading figure of the largest Islamic organization in Indonesia, he has called for respect for religious and cultural diversity and frustrated New Order attempts to represent Islam as an orthodox political monolith aimed at creating a Muslim state.

At the beginning of his presidency, Wahid attempted to form a broad coalition of opposing political forces, appointing ministers from a variety of parties to his “Rainbow Cabinet.”  This attempt at political reconciliation among the elite did not work and, in a series of often controversial reshuffles, he brought in ministers closer to his own views, including well-known pro-democracy figures.

He also appointed Rizal Ramli, a young economist lacking ties to Suharto’s team of technocrats, who had been critical of World Bank/IMF-inspired development programs and fiscal policies.

Targeting the Left

Prior to the Kaloran incident, anti-communist groups already had staged public burnings of books and other leftist material in Central Java. Following that, in April 2001, Fahmi Idris, a leading Golkar figure, accused President Abdurrahman Wahid of having encouraged the rebirth of the PKI by recommending that the General Assembly revoke its 1966 Decree prohibiting Communism in Indonesia.

In the same month, “Anti-Communist Command Posts” announced plans to stage raids on bookstores that continue to sell books on Communism, Marxism and Leninism and to attack offices of Communist groups that were actively recruiting party cadres.  The PRD (Partai Rakyat Demokratik, or Democratic People’s Party), a left-wing party formed by a new generation of progressive activists and intellectuals, was targeted for attacks by Muslim youth groups.

By May, Eurico Guterres, one of the notorious East Timorese militia leaders, had joined the Anti-Communist Command, creating the impression of a broad-based nationalist-inspired movement.

More disturbingly, the Military Commander of Central Java further reinforced the idea that Communists are staging a comeback, and indicated that recent conflicts—including religious conflict—can be understood as manifestations of Communist strategies to create revolutionary conditions. [See note 2]

This commander is reported to have identified Communist tactics in workers’ strikes, in peasants’ demands for land redistribution, and among the urban poor. He is said to have stated that Communists have infiltrated the mass media, educational institutions, political parties, and even the military and the police—drawing parallels between the present and specific dates and places from the past, when Communists, according to New Order mythology, rebelled against the legitimate government. [See note 3]

This type of analysis also duplicates the prevalent Army concept of how Communists work through networks of sympathizers stretching from the grassroots to the very top levels of government. [See note 4]

Posting this material on the Internet assures wide dissemination, even when the conventional mass media fail to cover these events.  In this way, a new basis for popular political and social analysis is laid, a new enemy is created and the terrible memories are reinvoked and redeployed for further destruction.

A Deepening Political Crisis

Since March 2001, parliament has begun proceedings to impeach Abdurrahman Wahid for alleged corruption in the handling of Bulog (National Logistics Agency) funds and contributions from the Sultan of Brunei—the so-called Buloggate and Bruneigate scandals—even though the president’s links to the people involved are tenuous, and the $6 million dollars involved are paltry compared to the enormous and unresolved corruption and financial mishandling by Suharto and his cronies.

As of May 2001 a real split between Gus Dur and Megawati Sukarnoputri, the Vice President, seems imminent.  Although Megawati is still seen as a reform figure, her party, the PDI-P, has been infiltrated by a variety of New Order politicians and retired military men. Megawati has yet to demonstrate that she has the political will to continue basic social and political reforms and where she stands on crucial economic issues. [See note 5]

In the meantime, the economic crisis continues.  Average incomes, already woefully inadequate, continue to decline with the removal of government subsidies on oil, energy and basic commodities imposed by the International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment programs, ostensibly to lift Indonesia out of its debt crisis.

Given these conditions, it will not be difficult to foment new conflicts and to ascribe these conflicts to the “Communists.”  Most of the groups and individuals now branded leftist or Communists are the forces of the pro-democracy movement whose common platform includes demilitarization and trials for members of the military involved in the violent abuses of human rights.

In addition, growing numbers among these groups are advocating a withdrawal from the IMF’s brand of development so strongly deployed by Suharto and his generals.

This includes labor and peasant organizations, which have come under increasing attack by armed militias.  In March 2001, a peaceful labor strike was broken up by a mob of armed thugs, killing one young woman worker and injuring scores of workers in West Java. Similar attacks have occurred in other cities.

Reviving the “Communist Threat” of the 1960s is a way of discrediting the movement towards popular democratic reform, and of attempting to ensure that the old alliance between the military and the Golkar remains firmly in control.


  1. During the Suharto regime, Wahid was one of the leading figures of the Forum Demokrasi (Democracy Forum), a loose alliance of NGO activists and intellectuals critical of Suharto’s policies.  The PRD recently issued a statement openly supporting him.
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  2. Reported in Radar Magelang, April 13, 2001, from
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  3. Specifically, Madiun, 1948; Boyolali in the 1950s and 1960s.
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  4. This kind of analysis is duplicated in a paper presented by Indra J. Piliang and distributed through  This paper, while stating that leftist thought is acceptable, proceeds to identify leftist books (from Marx through Rosa Luxemburg and Gramsci in the West, to Indonesian socialist writers), and leftist individuals and organizations (from the PRD to members of the president’s cabinet).  Even Marzuki Darusman, the current Attorney General, is named, possibly for not strictly enforcing the laws against Marxism and Communism.
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  5. Kwik Kian Gie and Laksamana Sukardi were PDI-P economists recruited by Abdurrahman Wahid early in his presidency.  Both were critical of IMF/World Bank reforms.  They were eased out of office by pressure from an alliance of Golkar/military/conglomerates, and both appear to have lost much of their negotiating power within PDI-P.  Eurico Guterres was also recruited into the PDI-P, presumably because of his demonstrative brand of violent nationalism.
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Sylvia Tiwon is an Associate Professor, Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley.  She is also on the editorial board of Indonesia Alert! newsletter and board of the Indonesia Human Rights Network.

from ATC 93 (July/August 2001)