Suharto's War of the Sexes and the Indonesian Genocide of 1965
The campaign to destroy militant feminism is eternal
In the image above, Suharto becomes a literal father to the Indonesian nation by straightening out all the naughty transgressive women with the deft use of armed force, turning them into proper baby machines for the state. This scene is on the plinth of the monument to the dead generals of 1965 at Lubang Buaya. (Photo credit to Vannessa Hearman.) In the course of several posts over the next few weeks, I intend to argue that the individual and collective atrocities carried out on Indonesia’s leading feminists under the pretext of rooting out communism qualifies the larger episode as genocide. By expanding his counter-counter-revolutionary remit beyond all proportion to the crime committed at Lubang Buaya, Suharto set out to effect a far more fundamental regression in an emerging Indonesian society than a simple mass killing.
Indeed, he celebrated that great leap backwards as his great victory. He did not overcome some foreign foe, for the great powers were still powerful and inconveniently close. Nor would the wild hills of Irian Jaya suffice as a frontier against which Indonesian manhood could press itself forever. Where to find an enemy worth killing? Instead, this would have to be a war of Indonesia against itself, murdering somewhere around a million people, including tens of thousands of women whose only crime was that Suharto lied about them.
Circulating fabricated fairy tales of lascivious women supposedly castrating the assassinated officers of the failed 1 October “counter-coup” almost from the start, the New Order set out to destroy Indonesian feminism with prejudice. Although Gerwani officers were convicted in show trials, and some Gerwani members seem to have been doing a service project at the Lubang Buaya airbase when the murders occurred, no member of the organization was ever even charged for taking part in the crime. Trials at least require some sort of facts, and there were no facts in the blood libel of the watani. It was pure fiction. They were an invented enemy, constructed discursively ex post facto, out of a complete and utter vacuum of evidence, with malice aforethought, because destroying them was a primary military objective for Suharto.
There are many moving parts to this story and I am still going through a fairly extensive bibliography. To borrow a metaphor from physics, the necessary critical mass of historiography needed for an academic historical approach in English is only just now upon us. Indifference to the fate of communists retarded the attention of western military historians, who stopped short of calling the killings “genocide” pending proof of actual planning by the Indonesian army. Dr. Jess Melvin of the University of Sidney finally published the essential history of the military during the 1965 genocide in 2018 by accessing thousands of pages of declassified documents and locating rare newspaper archives.
Her work leaves no doubt that anti-communist army generals planned the “annihilation” (their own word) of the PKI (Indonesian communist party) in advance, recruiting civilian killers and holding planning exercises six months before the events which precipitated the actual slaughter. Though her work is focused on Aceh province, Melvin has chosen the place where the regime first tested its basic formula for genocide, right down to the bureaucratic planning, before embarking nationwide in stages.
Feminists were not just incidental or secondary victims. As will be demonstrated, their suppression and oppression were central to Suharto’s designs for the Indonesian state. Melvin argues (convincingly, I think, though I am not an international law expert by any means) that the army’s deliberate expansion of the stated anti-communist mission to ethnic Chinese qualifies the broader campaign as genocide. I argue further that patriarchal control of the female sex is characteristic of militant-democratic state formation tensions in general, and the history of the Indonesian state in particular. This has implications for military revolution hypotheses. Don’t worry, I will explain everything as I go.
To understand who went extinct in the process, look at the legacy of the 1965 genocide on women’s organizing in Indonesia. As Dutch sociologist Saskia Wieringa has documented, the Gerwani watani — that is, women of the largest national female social movement — were not part of the PKI coalition so much by choice as necessity. While their feminism was not what we might recognize as “radical” today, it was certainly militant, concerned entirely with the needs of women and children. They protested unsafe working conditions, prostitution (which was often involuntary), rape, and male violence against women. Indonesian women had taken full part in the nationalist movement during World War II and the resistance to Dutch rule afterwards. Like other women who participated in the great conflicts of the 20th Century around the world, they felt they had earned the right to be real citizens, and from 1949 until the era of “Guided Democracy” that was even true. Sukarno spoke of them as full political equals to men, and considered their contributions central to the capital-R Revolution, at least in theory. Nevertheless, an emerging Indonesian society was still beset by deeply patriarchal sentiments, and religion — Muslim, Christian, or Hindu — resisted modernity in its westernized form of the ‘liberated’ woman. The Gerwani movement could not resolve its internal debate over plural marriage, either, and then Sukarno married extra wives, and then it was too late. The PKK, a state-sanctioned “women’s movement” that later emerged under the New Order, was more or less an adjunct of the government, its officers ranked according to the position of their husbands in the complex hierarchy of Suharto’s state. Women had been successfully subordinated to the symbolic nation-father. According to the position of the above panel on the monument, we are supposed to consider this one of, if not his very greatest, achievements.
I find more than chronological overlap between the events of 1965 and the slow-motion Suharto coup. Just as World War II made the Holocaust possible, and vice-versa, Suharto’s genocide made his rule possible, and vice versa. By design, Indonesia has consequently created a semi-permanent political underclass; the grandchildren of Gerwani survivors remain barred from the full benefits of citizenship. To make way for the New Order Indonesia, the Sukarno Indonesia — with all its communist influences — had to be erased, and that meant targeting the women who had formed such an important part of his coalition. Suharto established a galvanizing national self-creation myth on their bodies.
Nor do I intend to absolve communist ideology of its patriarchal orientation. Despite its embrace of the Gerwani, the PKI still upheld a heteronormative view of women as the domestic half of humanity. Their contributions, however welcome, were seen as “women’s work.” For example, the above-mentioned service project — the one that had a handful of Gerwani watani at the fateful scene in 1965 — involved sewing patches on uniforms. Communism was simply another another colonizing influence among many in the Indonesian state that reinforced ages-old male supremacy in the public sphere. And I have enough experience in radical political spaces to understand that “the left” is hardly a safe space for militant feminism in the “enlightened” west even today.
Perhaps some of this will read as academic and dry, so here is your TL;DR: the arrest, torture, murder, rape, forced pregnancy, and continued state oppression of women is genocide. If it is genocide to keep a group of people “in line” using violence, then what are we supposed to call the abuse of women, or the theft of their sexual and reproductive labor, let alone their economic labor? Witch-burning, for whatever excuse, would then be studied as a form of genocide. Feminists who argue that modern rates of violence and oppression of women are an ongoing form of genocide have a fair point to make, for a meaningful, empirical, mathematical, sociologically-relevant model of inter-sex violence will conclude as much. Woman-hate is far older than anti-Semitism, racism, or anything else that was defined as “genocide” in international law five minutes ago, historically speaking. If anything, modernity has made the human potential for witch-burning far worse than ever before, for it can happen at the efficiency of scale now, as it did in Indonesia. If misogyny is indeed genocide, then it is the oldest and original genocide — in which case, the whole human difficulty has been naming this problem, and Indonesia is just one example of how bad it can get.
As I intend to include what I can from literary sources, I will conclude this post with the poetry of Sulami, a Gerwani survivor who spent more than 17 years in prison, as translated by Anne Pohlman.
This is only a fragment of a story
Although it is only a fragment
this story comes from
appalling horror as boundless as the ocean
The wretched tortured deaths of people
who must bear
victimisation without end
Is now what I’ve written about.
How could I not.
The children of humankind
hundreds of thousands tortured to death,
hundreds of thousands locked away,
cast ashore on the island of exile,
to wrestle with forested land
Threatened by pythons.
Mothers dead fathers dead too,
Mothers locked up fathers locked up too,
Children left to crawl alone.
Young girls raped,
Snarled at by those accursed children
Thrown out of schools!