Indonesia's 'Red scare' revived ahead of elections

Bookseller Yanto Tjahaja was tending to his shop when soldiers burst through the door and confiscated a dozen titles over claims they violated one of Indonesia's most sensitive taboos: communism. Upwards of half a million leftists were massacred across the Southeast Asian nation in the mid-1960s, a bloody spectacle that ushered in the long rule of dictator Suharto, whose fervent anti-communist stance remains decades on. The killings led to the collapse of the now-banned Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), once among the biggest in the world behind China and the Soviet Union. Jakarta's narrative was that any violence was necessary to rid the Muslim-majority country of a godless ideology. And Indonesians are still warned from an early age about the dangers of a communist revival in the nation of 260 million, now the world's third-biggest democracy. The January raid on Tjahaja's shop -- part of a government-ordered sweep -- has been slammed by some critics as a cynical ploy to win over voters ahead of April's national elections, as it resurrects one of the darkest chapters in Indonesian history. "They said the confiscated books were about the PKI. But we didn't know. We just sold them," Tjahaja told AFP at his shop in Padang city on Sumatra island. "My wife and I are still traumatised. We were treated like criminals," he added. - 'Election linked' - The images of Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara or communist symbols like the hammer and sickle may adorn books, t-shirts and posters elsewhere in the world, but such displays can see Indonesians jailed under laws banning communist ideology and political representation. Dozens of bookstores nationwide have been targeted recently with troops taking away titles such as "Chronicle 65" and "Children of the Revolution", which document the violent crackdown. Rights groups have called on President Joko Widodo, who is running for re-election, to end the raids. "These recent raids were only done to give the impression that the government is not ignoring fears that communism is coming back," said Asvi Warwan Adam, a political history professor at The Indonesian Institute of Sciences. "It's obviously linked to the elections," he explained. There is little evidence that communism -- or the defunct PKI -- is mounting a comeback. But fears about a PKI resurrection run deep in Indonesia. In the runup to elections, AFP found numerous false claims online aimed at discrediting Widodo and his challenger Prabowo Subianto -- a former general who married one of Suharto's daughters -- by suggesting that they themselves are communist sympathisers. Ronny Augustinus, head of online bookstore Marjin Kiri, said Widodo's adminstration is tapping a well-worn, election-time bogeyman because it's "only concerned about maintaining power". The Attorney General's office did not respond to requests for comment on the raids. - 'Communist Treachery' - The PKI, which once had millions of members, was prominent in Indonesia after it won independence from Dutch colonists in the 1940s. Its power grew as a faltering economy left millions impoverished, but the party was blamed for a failed 1965 coup attempt that left top military personnel dead. In response, the Suharto-led military and army-backed paramilitaries massacred PKI members, sympathisers and their families. The bloodshed opened the door for then-general Suharto to seize power from left-leaning president and independence hero Sukarno. In 2017, declassified US diplomatic documents revealed that a communist-fearing White House was well aware of the bloody purges, which one diplomat described as a "widespread slaughter". The Act of Killing, an Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary, highlighted the brutality through the eyes of unpunished perpetrators as they brazenly re-enacted decades-old murders of leftists. "My friends and I were labelled daughters of the PKI and it went on for years," Uchikowati Fauzia, the daughter of a once-imprisoned communist, told AFP. "Even now the stigma has not gone away," she added. But there is little sympathy at the Suharto-built Museum of the Treachery of the Communist Party, a staple for class trips and domestic tourists. The site in a Jakarta suburb features dozens of graphic dioramas that chronicle gruesome torture and violence carried out by communists, while deifying the dead generals. "Communism has no place in our country. They were ruthless and brutally killed our heroes so we've got to be alert," said 26-year-old visitor Muhammad Hafiz. - 'Confusion and mistrust' - There is still widespread disagreement about the killings and even the number of victims -- some estimates reach as high as three million dead. While Widodo did back public discussions into the bloodshed, he faced a strong backlash from a military reluctant to shine a light on its involvement. More recently, a group of young journalists started an online project called Ingat 65 -- Remember 65 -- to document the tumultuous period through personal narratives. "Many Indonesians know the (official) narrative contains lies and half-truths, but there is too much confusion," said Michael Van, an academic at California's Sacramento State University. "Confusion and mistrust can breed apathy." Back in Padang, Tjahaja is considering closing his bookstore as scared customers stopped coming and the business has been vilified on social media. "They were history books," he said of the confiscated titles. He added: "If we can’t sell them, then we might as well just not study history at all."

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