When the Army of Indonesia Declared War on the Army of Durable Girls
Destroying a people 'down to the roots'
Of the stories I’ve read so far in my ongoing research of Suharto’s genocide, the most awful all involve women and children. Special horrors meted out to these victims share an appalling theme of hatred. Pregnant women identified as communists were murdered, often butchered, fetuses dismembered; new mothers were killed along with their infants; toddlers were thrown on bamboo pikes. Women of childbearing age also died through equally horrific torture, rape, and sexualized murder focused on reproductive organs. I will spare you a full catalog of this special hate. My point in acknowledging the worst stories in the first paragraph is that the people who organized this violence especially wanted to destroy any possible future for “communism” in Indonesia by cutting off the procreation of “communists.” Sukarno himself had declared the PKI-linked coup had to be destroyed “down to the roots;” Suharto used this rhetorical remit to ensure that no regrowth would be possible for the communist party anywhere in the country, ever. Its self-sustainment would be ended at the biological level.
Under the Old Order, communism was one of three pillars holding up the nation, the other two being religion and nationalism (a unifying principle that Sukarno called Nasokom). Although modern communism was an ideological import, archipelago geography had produced its own communal forms of resource distribution long before Marx or Lenin, and communist ideas still had strong resonance with Muslim radicalism. By demonizing the PKI, the New Order set out to demolish this third pillar and modify the nation in ways that would prevent it from ever being rebuilt. Today, long after the world has almost entirely abandoned communism as a form of government, communism remains a bogeyman in Indonesia — a long-term success of the propaganda campaigns that shaped public perceptions under Suharto, including his blood libel of feminists.
To achieve this “annihilation” of anything remotely communistic, Suharto gutted his nation’s flourishing arts and entertainment industries; they never recovered in his lifetime. He crushed the unions, the civil society organizations, and the bureaucracy in phases, systematically, along with every real or suspected communist in reach. Hundreds of thousands of them died in the first months, almost all in close, personal circumstances. Some Pemuda Pancasila militiamen used garroting wires. In Bali, many were dispatched with clubs and machetes. Like the Rwandan genocide, and unlike the Nazi death camps, the Indonesian genocide was never scaled up, never quite industrialized. Death had to be intimate by necessity. As Robert Cribb observed in 1990, some of the most vicious murders took place within families as they expunged their communist members to protect the entire clan from becoming a target.
Family dynamics are one reason why females face a different threat matrix from males. In the series of novels he wrote while imprisoned at Buru Island, Pramoedya Ananta Toer writes about a woman who is forced to marry and leave public life under threat of her father losing his government post. His fiction is an echo of the real family stories that remain hidden even today, as countless Indonesian women were forced to retreat into the protective cloister of patriarchal family structures. In The End of Silence, an anthology of oral histories from survivors of the Indonesian genocide, Dr. Soe Tjen Marching writes that “the most persistent resistance that many of my correspondents had to face in revealing the truth about their family histories came from members of their own families who had themselves been victims of the 1965 atrocities.” Memories, like the dead, were supposed to stay buried forever.
As I noted in a previous post, Indonesian women’s civic, public, and political space contracted to nonexistence under the New Order. Women belonging to Gerwani, the largest mass organization for women in Indonesia, were either murdered outright or disappeared into the black hole of imprisonment. In his revelatory analysis of the “mass murders” of 1965-66, Geoffrey Robinson writes of one former case:
[Special forces] in armored vehicles entering the city of Surakarta were blocked in village at outskirts by nine “witches” from PKI women’s affiliate Gerwani, who insulted them and refused to let them pass. After asking them quietly to give way, and firing into the air, [RPKAD] para-commandos were “forced by their intransigence to terminate breathing of these nine Gerwani witches.”
Not content with dehumanization of a political group, Suharto’s army was conducting a propaganda campaign against “Gerwani witches” and “whores,” accusing the organization of grotesque participation in the October 1 murders of six generals and an adjutant throughout the month of November. I will detail this timeline in a later post, but the incident serves to illustrate the army’s rationalizations for murdering unarmed women were already having an effect. These were amplified in the army’s newspapers, which were the only ones allowed to continue publishing during the immediate state of emergency; only anti-communist papers were then allowed to resume, and only if they carried the army’s water. Radio broadcasts were tightly controlled within the nation, while the primary external sources of radio information (BBC, ARBI) held editorial lines consistent with their governments’ policies of giving “communists” no sympathy.
Women who entered captivity faced malnutrition, disease, and deliberate neglect, to say nothing of exploitation. Guards picked out girlfriends, commanders picked out mistresses, and the network of men turned them into informants. Nevertheless, there was resistance. Held prisoner for more than a decade, Gerwani survivor Christina Sumarmiyati would conceal her writing inside of her menstrual bundle, a cloth strip that superstitious men would never touch. She secretly organized “The Army of Durable Girls,” women who refused to date the guards or earn favors with sex in solidarity against their mistreatment. By tracking which girl was with each man, they knew who the fathers of the inevitable bastard children were. “After we were freed,” she tells Marching, “when we met with former prisoners, we still often asked each other: ‘Still in the army?’”
During the 1970s, Amnesty International and other international human rights organizations began calling attention to the plight of Indonesian political prisoners, whereupon Sumarmiyati was moved to a place that had better conditions. “We were more at ease in Semarang because all the officers were female. So we had no worries about being raped,” she says. Finally released in 1978, she married a fellow survivor, had two children, and took her revenge on the regime by telling them the truth. Despite government policies meant to prevent them from thriving, and all the social pressure on her to be silent, her children are succeeding in the Indonesian diaspora today.
So much was uprooted under Suharto, but it was impossible for him to annihilate everything entirely, even with an entire nation-state at his command.
Photo and caption via “The Years of Dressing Dangerously” by Charles Sullivan (link)