Loney on Wieringa and Melvin and Pohlman, 'The International People's Tribunal for 1965 and the Indonesian Genocide'

Saskia Wieringa, Jess Melvin, Annie Pohlman, eds.
Hannah Loney

Saskia Wieringa, Jess Melvin, Annie Pohlman, eds. The International People's Tribunal for 1965 and the Indonesian Genocide. London: Routledge, 2019. xxvii + 250 pp. $155.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-138-37107-1.

Reviewed by Hannah Loney (The University of Melbourne) Published on H-Diplo (February, 2020) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54430

From November 10 to 13, 2015, the International People’s Tribunal for 1965 (IPT 1965)-- established at the initiative of an international organizing committee comprised of human rights activists, exiles, and researchers--was held in The Hague, the Netherlands. The tribunal sought to address “crimes against humanity” committed by the Indonesian state following the events of 1965–66, as well as the complicity of Western governments in the state-directed campaign of violence and propaganda. On the eve of September 30, 1965, a small group of army officers calling themselves the 30 September Movement (Gerakan 30 September, G30S) abducted and killed six high-ranking generals. The surviving military leadership, led by General Suharto, blamed these actions on the Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, PKI) and used the coup as pretext to launch a widespread attack against the PKI and other leftists.[1] It is estimated that in the subsequent period, between five hundred thousand and one million people were killed and many others imprisoned without trial.[2] The mass killings were accompanied by the overthrow of President Sukarno and the establishment of Suharto’s New Order regime (1966–98). To date, there has been no official acknowledgement nor acceptance of state responsibility for these atrocities. 

The IPT 1965 formed part of a growing national and international momentum to address this violence since the fall of President Suharto in 1998, and particularly in anticipation of the fiftieth anniversary of the mass killings. In 2012, a number of events provoked increasing public interest in the case: the Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights (Komisi Nasional Hak Asasi Manusia, Komnas HAM) released a report on human rights violations that included the 1965 case; American director Joshua Oppenheimer released his award-winning documentary film, The Act of Killing (2012), based on recorded interviews with perpetrators of the violence in North Sumatra; and the Indonesian weekly magazine Tempo released a report on the killings titled “Requiem for a Massacre” (2012). Notwithstanding these developments, the Indonesian state remained resolute in its refusal to address the killings, prompting activists to turn to international pressure in an attempt to “break through the silence and stigma” surrounding this dark period in Indonesian history.[3]

Similar to other international people’s tribunals (including, for example, the 1967 Russell Tribunal, which prosecuted the Government of the United States for crimes committed in Vietnam), the IPT 1965 held no official jurisdiction. Instead, it was intended to achieve “symbolic justice” for the violence by several means (p. i). First, the tribunal sought to acknowledge the violations that survivors and their families endured during the events of 1965 and beyond. Second, the tribunal sought to build upon the valuable work undertaken by prominent Indonesian human rights organizations, Komnas HAM and the National Commission on Violence against Women (Komisi Nasional Anti Kekerasan terhadap Perempuan, Komnas Perempuan), to produce a new account of the violence. And third, the tribunal sought to determine what kinds of crimes against humanity were perpetrated during the period and which parties were responsible. By these means, the IPT 1965 aimed to fulfill many of the functions that successive Indonesian governments and institutions have thus far been unable or unwilling to serve.  

In advance of the tribunal, the panel of judges--which comprised seven international experts--received an indictment and prosecution brief, as well as extensive background material in the form of a research report. During the hearings, the judges heard oral submissions from the prosecutors and testimony from over twenty witnesses, as well as read hundreds of pages of documents tendered as evidence. In their final report, the judges came to an historic conclusion: that the State of Indonesia was responsible for committing crimes against humanity, including killings, imprisonment, enslavement, torture, enforced disappearance, sexual violence, exile, and hate propaganda. Foreign governments--specifically the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia--were deemed complicit in the violence. Significantly, the IPT 1965 also found that based on the attack of a specific national group--including members and sympathizers of the PKI, members of the Indonesian National Party (Partai Nasional Indonesia, PNI), and supporters of President Sukarno--these acts fell within the scope of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Saskia E. Wieringa, Jess Melvin, and Annie Pohlman’s recent edited collection, The International People’s Tribunal for 1965 and the Indonesian Genocide, provides the first sustained study of the IPT 1965, a landmark and potentially transformative event in modern Indonesian history. The twelve chapters that comprise the volume draw upon a variety of sources to offer new insights into the types of violations committed during the 1965–66 mass violence and analyze how these crimes were prosecuted at the IPT 1965. The volume also considers the prospective for transitional justice in contemporary Indonesia and reflects more broadly upon the place of people’s tribunals in truth-seeking and justice claims. In so doing, the volume provides an original, timely, and valuable contribution to knowledge of the dynamics of the Indonesian killings and their aftereffects.

The volume’s editors are uniquely placed to offer valuable insights into the aims, organization, and findings of the IPT 1965. In the first instance, they are internationally renowned and respected authorities on the 1965–66 mass violence. In addition, all three scholars were closely involved in the workings of the IPT 1965: Wieringa was chair of the Foundation IPT 1965--the tribunal’s international organizing committee--and also served as an expert witness at the hearings; Melvin and Pohlman were members of the International Steering Committee and were involved in research and data collection. The editors’ intellectual and political commitment to highlighting the 1965 case--and to achieving some measure of justice for the victims of this violence--informs the thoroughness of their research methods, the precision of their analyses, and the conviction of their arguments. The volume notably draws upon critical work being undertaken within Indonesia by human rights and nongovernmental organizations, as well as victim and survivor groups, and the editors recognize and acknowledge this important foundational work. The collection is also positioned within a lively and growing historiographical literature on the 1965–66 mass violence. It builds upon and complements recent work in the field, such as Katharine McGregor, Jess Melvin, and Annie Pohlman’s edited collection, The Indonesian Genocide of 1965: Causes, Dynamics and Legacies (2018), and Douglas Kammen and Katharine McGregor’s edited collection, The Contours of Mass Violence in Indonesia, 1965–66 (2012). The volume provides a key contribution to this literature, and to studies of truth-seeking and transitional justice more broadly, by considering how this violence was addressed within the IPT 1965.

One of the distinct features of the volume is that it includes an impressive number of chapters by Indonesian contributors, in addition to contributors from the Netherlands, Australia, and the United States. In addition, the background of the contributors is not purely academic: there are activists, lawyers, journalists, and transitional justice experts. Bringing together this notable collection of contributors for an English-language volume on the 1965 case is a testament to the initiative of the editors; it also demonstrates their commitment to transforming the power structures of the field by foregrounding the knowledge and expertise of a new generation of Indonesian scholar-activists. The chapters are based heavily on research conducted within the scope of the IPT 1965: most chapters summarize evidence and arguments that were presented at the tribunal, and in some cases, analyze the findings of the judges in relation to specific charges. As is often the case with edited collections, the contributions vary somewhat in analytical and conceptual depth, but each chapter is well researched and offers a distinct contribution to the broader aims of the collection. There is also a strong sense of collegiality that emerges within the pages of the volume, which is a marked feature of scholarship that contains an activist dimension. Indeed, the volume is intended not just to inform readers about the nature and dynamics of the 1965–66 mass violence, but it also serves as a call to end impunity in Indonesia. In this regard, as retired justice Zak Yacoob, chair of the IPT 1965 hearings, writes in the forward, the volume can be seen as “an important step forward in our struggle for a better and more humane world” (p. xi).  

The opening chapters of the collection provide important historical background and contextual information on the rise of the Indonesian military, the 1965 coup and its aftermath, and the establishment of the IPT 1965. In part, this is a story with which scholars of Indonesia will be familiar, but it is worth observing the original way in which this discussion has been framed: in terms of truth-seeking and transitional justice. In the introduction, editors Wieringa, Melvin, and Pohlman outline the establishment of the IPT 1965 within the context of ongoing impunity for gross human rights violations in Indonesia and sketch a brief background to the 1965–66 mass violence. In the subsequent chapters, human rights lawyer Nursyahbani Katjasungkana and Wieringa provide a detailed account of the organization and impact of the IPT 1965, and Melvin reflects upon how the military came to power in Indonesia.   

These chapters also introduce one of the main arguments put forward in the volume: that the concept of genocide is applicable to the 1965–66 mass violence in Indonesia. In this regard, Melvin’s discovery of the “Indonesian genocide files” (p. 44) in the Aceh Government Library and Archives in 2010 was groundbreaking. As Melvin outlines in this volume and discusses in more detail in her recent book, these internal military documents provide convincing evidence that the killings were coordinated by the Indonesian military leadership, with the intention of physically destroying the PKI as a political force and facilitating the military’s rise to power.[4] Helen Jarvis, an academic and member of the panel of judges at the IPT 1965, and Wieringa return to this question in the final chapter of the volume, examining the concept of genocide and the conclusion of the IPT 1965 judges on this subject. This discussion speaks to an ongoing debate within the historiography on whether the 1965–66 mass killings meet the legal threshold for genocide. Indeed, the term is not used unproblematically by the contributors to this volume: for example, gender and human rights activist Galuh Wandita, human rights lawyer Indria Fernida, and transitional justice scholar Karen Campbell-Nelson warn against what they describe as a “preoccupation with ‘proving genocide’ potentially eclipsing other serious crimes and their legacy” (p. 60). The findings of the IPT 1965 may go some way to resolving this deeply vexed issue.

This volume is also significant in that it showcases a wide range of sources on the 1965–66 mass violence, many of which formed the basis of evidence that was presented to the IPT 1965. In addition to military documents, these sources also include oral history interviews, personal testimonies, memoirs, personal communications, and Western government documents. The contributors acknowledge the critical work of local organizations in compiling much of this data, including Komnas HAM, Komnas Perempuan, and Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR), and also recognize the courage of the survivors who bravely testified before the tribunal. Several contributors also reflect upon their own experiences with the physical landscape as archive: Wieringa, for example, recounts her visit to three mass grave sites that, she argues, provide evidence of crimes against humanity and constitute “sites of genocide” (p. 136). These diverse sources, many of which have only become available in a substantive way since the fall of Suharto, have enabled scholars to reconstruct the various regional and local dynamics of the mass violence.

The body chapters of the volume explore thematically a range of topics related to the events of 1965–66, including specific locations of violence, types of crimes, the role of propaganda, and memorialization of the killings. They also consider how various crimes were prosecuted at the IPT 1965. Wandita, Fernida, and Campbell-Nelson examine personal testimonies that support the charge of torture as a crime against humanity. Researcher and historian Asvi Warman Adam discusses the mass incarceration of thousands of political detainees between 1969 and 1979 on Buru Island. Adam argues that the forced transportation of political prisoners from Java to Buru, and the inhumane conditions under which they had to work, also constituted crimes against humanity. Pohlman takes the discussion of crimes one step further by examining the tensions between conceptualizations of crimes against humanity in contemporary international criminal law, and the prosecution of historical cases of this violence. Pohlman raises some criticisms of the IPT 1965’s approach, arguing that “more could have been done” to address the range of sexual and gender-based crimes presented as evidence (p. 108). Collectively, these chapters provide thoughtful reflections upon the nature of evidence, the crimes that were perpetrated, and how the IPT 1965 interpreted this material.

Beyond these domestic considerations, several contributors also speak to the international dimensions of the 1965­–66 mass violence. Indeed, Western complicity in the violence constituted an important focal point of the IPT 1965. As scholar of US foreign relations and international politics Brad Simpson notes in the epilogue, one of the important functions of holding the tribunal in The Hague was to provide an opportunity for witnesses and survivors to tell their stories “in a setting that elevated and validated their experiences as events of international, rather than merely personal, significance” (p. 238). Anthropologist and member of the IPT 1965 research team, Ratna Saptari considers the plight of those exiled from Indonesia following the coup: the experiences of exiles and the strategies that they deployed to deal with the political and social barriers faced. More broadly, Adam Hughes Henry, a scholar of diplomatic history and human rights, considers the question of outside complicity in the violence. Henry examines anti-Sukarno and anticommunist propaganda conducted by the Americans, British, and Australians that, he argues, contributed to political instability in Indonesia and provided justifications for the military-led violence. Sri Lestari Wahyuningroem, a political scientist and one of the researchers for the IPT 1965, also analyzes discourses of naming and shaming the perpetrators of the violence at the tribunal and contemplates the effect of this practice upon efforts to address the 1965 case domestically and internationally.

In addition to the activities of the IPT 1965, several contributors also engage with questions of memory and commemoration. Wieringa examines mass graves in Indonesia, emphasizing some of the tensions between local knowledge and state attempts to (mis)remember sites of violence. Prodita Sabarini, Ellena Ekarahendy, Ika Krismantari, Febriana Firdaus, and Rika Theo provide a fascinating discussion of their new digital initiative, Ingat65 (Remember 1965)[5]: “a participatory digital storytelling project in which members of the post-1965 generations share their stories about experiences in their families or communities that were silenced” (p. 198). This original chapter includes a number of compelling vignettes from testimonies provided by young Indonesians. In these extracts, the authors reflect upon developments since the fall of the New Order regime, in which the silence around 1965–66 “has begun to be broken” (p. 198). This important project demonstrates the role that digital technology and collective storytelling can play in truth-seeking processes, which may serve to disrupt hegemonic narratives of the past.   

Despite these developments, the journey toward ending impunity in Indonesia has been--and continues to be--both long and difficult. As Simpson observes in the epilogue, Indonesian activists continue to face prominent resistance to their demands for official acknowledgement of state responsibility and accountability for the 1965–66 mass violence. The IPT 1965 process and report, as well as this valuable edited collection, form part of an ongoing attempt to rewrite the historical record, which will hopefully enhance claims for a genuine truth-seeking and accountability process. Katjasungkana and Wieringa importantly note that the work of the IPT is not yet over. Indeed, one of the outstanding tasks of the tribunal is to make the findings more widely known within Indonesia and internationally: here, this important volume has the potential to play a significant role. In all, the contributors provide well-researched and clearly written accounts of various aspects of the 1965–66 mass violence and how this was addressed at the IPT 1965. The collection is essential reading for those interested in the dynamics of mass violence in Indonesia, including scholars, activists, politicians, and survivors. For its broader reflections, the contribution will also be of interest to scholars of transitional justice, criminal justice, and genocide.  

Dr. Hannah Loney is a Gilbert Postdoctoral Career Development Fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. Her first book, In Women’s Words: Violence and Everyday Life during the Indonesian Occupation of East Timor, 1975–1999, was published in 2018 with Sussex Academic Press. Hannah’s research interests include gender and sexuality, Southeast Asia and the Pacific, human rights, oral history, and transnational political activism.


[1]. John Roosa, Pretext for Mass Murder: The September 30th Movement and Suharto’s Coup d’état in Indonesia (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006).

[2]. Robert Cribb, “Genocide in Indonesia, 1965–1966,” Journal of Genocide Research 3, no. 2 (2001): 219-239, 219; Douglas Kammen and Katharine McGregor, “Introduction,” The Contours of Mass Violence in Indonesia, 1965–68 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2012), 10.

[3]. Foundation for the International People’s Tribunal for Crimes against Humanity of 1965 (Foundation IPT 1965), Final Report of the IPT 1965: Findings and Documents of the IPT 1965 (The Hague and Jakarta: IPT 1965 Foundation), https://www.tribunal1965.org/en/final-report-of-the-ipt-1965/, A1, para. 1.

[4]. Jess Melvin, The Army and the Indonesian Genocide: Mechanisms of Mass Murder (London: Routledge, 2018).

[5]. Ingat 65, https://medium.com/ingat-65.





Citation: Hannah Loney. Review of Wieringa, Saskia; Melvin, Jess; Pohlman, Annie, eds., The International People's Tribunal for 1965 and the Indonesian Genocide. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. February, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54430

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