Before You Watch "The Act of Killing"

"Finally, somebody created a movie to talk about it," was my initial reaction when I read that the "The Act of Killing" documentary was about mass killings targeted at Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) members and supporters in Indonesia during 1965-1966. I was in no way related to PKI or whatsoever, but I love history and was intrigued to know that a bloody event took place yet it was not mentioned at all in Indonesian school's History textbooks. In Indonesian government version of the story, PKI is the evil villain that wanted to dis-unify Indonesia, therefore it should be banned and destroyed. Only at latter years, after reading many history sources, that I began to question the government version of the story. I then realized that what happen in 1965 was not unique to Indonesia, but part of a larger scene involving the whole world. The background story was, of course, the Cold War, where Western Bloc (USA and its allies) versus Eastern Bloc (Communist USSR-now Russia and its allies). Having understood this bigger picture will lead you to question the involvement of both parties in the infamous G-30S killing of army generals and subsequent million-people mass killings after that, which "The Act of Killing" tries to highlight.

"The Act of Killing" was directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, an American film director and produced by Signe Byrge Sørensen, a Danish producer. It has won The Best Documentary at 2014 BAFTA awards and is nominated for Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature which will take place soon. I'm not going to talk into details about the movie itself but rather about the background story of it. You can read the reviews of the movie everywhere on the internet so I'm not making another review here. I am writing this in response to numerous online comments which after only watching one movie, attacked Indonesia as a backward society that let evil mass murderers live freely. As an Indonesian, I need to speak up to clarify things up. Therefore I'm writing this blog post in English, so that it can be read by global readerships.

The movie itself is not distributed in Indonesia because the director decided not to face the censorship committee. I managed to watch the movie since it is available to free-to-download online from this website: or watch online on YouTube. The free-to-download movie version does not have English subtitle since it targets Indonesian viewers. If you want one with subtitle, you should be able to buy the DVD at Amazon. Overall, I think the movie was greatly made and deserves an Oscar. So, I'm not against the movie in any means, but this is directed to online commentators who lack of history readings.

Cold War

We should draw back to the era before World War II in the 40s. At that time, much of Asia and Africa were under British, French, Dutch, and Portuguese colonial rule. For centuries, Indonesia was known to the world as Dutch East Indies. We could say that Asia and Africa sustained the economy of European countries, while they themselves remain in poor condition. This bred to nationalist and communist movement everywhere in Asia and Africa demanding sovereignty and independence. Then came 3 fascist powers that allied themselves as Axis Powers: NAZI Germany, Italy, and Japan. They stated that their goal was to create new world order that break the hegemony of plutocratic-capitalist Western powers and defending civilization from communism. Germany attacked most of Europe,  Italy to Africa, and Japan most of Asia. Indonesia was under Japanese rule during WWII and after Japan surrendered to Allied forces, it declared its independence on 17 August 1945.

After World War II, Cold War emerged with both USA and USSR tried to extend their sphere of influence and also created their own new world order. USA tried to spread out capitalism and USSR communism. This resulted in many wars from 1947-1991, among others: Korean War and Vietnam War. The background of those wars was USA did not want Communist forces overtake the nations and later on allied themselves with USSR. One of the dominant political party in Indonesia during that era was Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). At that time, there was also strong CIA and KGB presence in Indonesia both to overthrow then president Sukarno and to establish or to destroy communist agenda in Indonesia.


Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, was known to be a nationalist leader with left leaning. His vision of Indonesia is to unify 3 power faction within the nation: Nationalist, Islamist, and Communist. He wanted to balance himself among 3 power faction so that he could lead Indonesia to face a more major threat: Cold War. He did not see PKI as part of the Eastern bloc threat since he knew the people there well enough that they wouldn't betray their country and hardly-fought independence. He was one of the founders of Non-Aligned Movement, an organization of newly independent countries that refuse to take part on either side of the Cold War. He regarded Cold War as new form of imperialism and colonialism that wanted to take newly independent countries like Indonesia to submit either to USA or USSR forces. He waged war against the Federation of Malaysia which he saw as a puppet state of Western bloc and therefore made USA and its allies to find every possible way to overthrow him.

On early morning of 1 October 1965, almost all top military generals in the republic were secretly killed except Nasution who managed to escape and Suharto who somehow was out of target. In the confusion, Suharto and his army took over the situation and 'secure' president Sukarno. In the days and weeks that followed, Suharto and the army blamed the coup attempt on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). Soon a campaign of mass killing was underway, which resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of alleged communists. In March 1967, Sukarno was stripped of his remaining power by Indonesia's provisional Parliament, and Suharto was named Acting President. In March 1968, Suharto was formally elected president and he remained in power until 1998. During his regime, it is very obvious that Suharto was pro Western bloc.

Suharto and The Mass Killings

Suharto and his army blamed PKI for the killing of the generals and sought public support to destroy the organization. First, he banned PKI. Secondly, he encouraged the public to kill anyone suspected to be members of PKI. Nasution was actually an army general who was more senior than Suharto at the time, yet he did not have direct command to the army. Some leaked secret files stated that CIA and MI6 was working behind the scenes even providing the fund and the list of 5,000 PKI members that should be killed. By using propaganda and paramilitary thugs, Suharto managed to kill even more people to the scale of a genocide. Yet, for many more years the world was silent about this. USA and its allies never condemned what Suharto did but rather considered him to be their close ally in the midst of the uncertainty of Vietnam war. It is quite hypocritical for Western powers to condemn what NAZI did with the holocaust, yet they did not say a word to condemn the mass killings of communists, not only in Indonesia but also in Vietnam and other places. If you want to question why there is no trial to the offenders of mass killings of PKI, it is because they did what was right to do at that time according to the regime backed by Western powers. I myself condemn the killings and consider it to be serious human right violation. However, for many people in many parts of the world at that time in 1960s and 1970s, killing a communist was a right thing to do. I don't understand why it was right but maybe you can figure it out.

In 1975, East Timor declared its independence from Portuguese colonial power with a communist party at the helm of the new state. Suharto soon invaded the country and made it an Indonesian province. For many years to come, Western powers kept their mouth shut about this annexation since it was better for them to have Suharto than a communist regime in East Timor. After the fall of Suharto, East Timor is once again an independent state starting in 1999. This is another sample of the bias during Cold War era.

There is another great documentary picturing the mass killings from the survivors' side of the story. You can watch it here as a complementary: 40 Years of Silence.

The Preman

"The Act of Killing" is the confession of Anwar Kongo, a prominent 'preman' who killed hundreds, if not, thousands of people during the Mass Killings. 'Preman' comes from the word 'free man' and it refers to gangsters in Indonesia. Anwar and his colleagues are members of an para-military organization called Pemuda Pancasila which was founded by Nasution (mentioned earlier). The aim of the organization is to keep Pancasila as the national ideology and to fight communism. The organization recruits youth to back up Indonesian army's interest. In Indonesia nowadays, there are many 'preman' organizations, some with religious cover and some others with tribal cover. Militia organizations are not unique to Indonesia as many countries and organizations employ the same tactics to protect its interest.

Before you blame why Indonesia keeps preman around, you should also note that someone becomes a preman because he has no day job, no education, and no skill. Therefore, they bully people for money as a way to survive in the society. The root of the problem is poverty and there is no other cure than to get people out of poverty by giving them education and jobs. Indonesian government has done a lot to improve the welfare of the people yet it takes time. Meanwhile, these jobless youngsters, if not supervised, could run into joining criminal or terrorist organization. These youth could also create political unrest which surely would not solve economic problem, as it only worsens. Thus the reason why Indonesian army and police keep some organization under their thumbs.

Indonesia Today

After the fall of Suharto in 1998, Indonesia has grown to be a democratic country with freedom of speech and freedom of the press. So many past things buried under authoritarian Suharto regime are now come to light, including the mass killings. Communism is still banned although there has been discussion to lift the band since it is quite silly to be communist nowadays since it is a proven failure as in the case of USSR and PRC. Some groups insists that PKI should be banned forever and these are the groups who were directly involved in the mass killings, including as well religious and military leaders. They are surely afraid that the table will turn on them. I sense that most Indonesians want to move on and focus on current condition instead of the digging up the past.

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Unknown said…
I've watched this movie as well and decide to read more books about this particular history. I hope more of the Indonesian youths will start doing the same, too. :)
Warjiman said…
The facebook page of Jagal give you links where you can download some books and reading material for free. Visit this:
Anonymous said…
Pertama2 saya ucapkan terima kasih karena telah memberi kesempatan berkomentar sebagai Anonymous. Ulasan Bung adalah ulasan yg bagus hanya saja pada bagian preman saya rasa sedikit kurang tepat.Datanglah ke Medan dan rasakan sensasi nya, sampai remaja tanggung pun punya cita2 jadi anggota ormas preman.Kenapa ?? karena kebal hukum,bisa berbuat seenak nya , bisa jadi pejabat dan tokoh masyarakat.
Unknown said…
Well..nuff was incredible movie
For those who want to know a "backdoor-untracked" history of PKI in indonesia,this movie is a good choice to enrich your knowledge and references.
I really concerned about the film shows that an executioner also had heart deep within
Jed Revolutia said…
Merespon @anonymous, soal kebal hukum kan sebenarnya para preman tidak kebal hukum menurut undang-undang yang berlaku, jadi masalahnya ada pada penegakkan hukumnya. Masalah penegakkan hukum memang isu tersendiri buat bangsa Indonesia dan dibutuhkan reformasi serius pada tubuh polri dan kejaksaaan, sesuatu yang belum pernah dilakukan oleh presiden kita dari dulu hingga sekarang.