Why Indonesia can still not cope with the specter of communism

Indonesia is not the only country haunted by the worrying trend of illusory threats of the communist specter.

Rendy Pahrun Wadipalapa

Rendy Pahrun Wadipalapa

The Jakarta Post


The ghost of communism: Hundreds of Islam Defenders Front (FPI) members take part in a rally against communism in front of the Presidential Palace in Central Jakarta on June 3, 2016, ahead of the holy month of Ramadan. (AFP/Bay Ismoyo)

October 3, 2022

JAKARTA – In Indonesia the spectral idea of a “communist presence” used to peak in September, regardless of the fact that the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) vanished nearly six decades ago during bloody purges in 1965-1967. Yet the myth of a dangerous communist resurgence was invoked frequently, gained considerable traction and was believed by millions.

The assertions concerning the supposed revival of millions of communists after they had been physically obliterated and legally banned many years ago were utterly ludicrous and were not based on any evidence. However, these narratives are always living in our veins, particularly around the commemorations of the so-called G-30S on Sept. 30.

Indonesia is not the only country haunted by the worrying trend of illusory threats of the communist specter. The communist phantasm has recently hit numerous countries, indicating that giant waves of conservatism are under way.

Thailand is worthy of citation not only because of a similar history in having a communist party in its past but also because of the residue it has left in today’s political imagination. In 2019, elites, generals and Thai politicians fostered the fabricated news of a communist conspiracy as a dangerous threat.

Similar patterns have also prevailed in western democracies such as the United States and the United Kingdom, which exploited the fear-mongering of the communist threat during elections. Moreover, the rise of populism in Brazil promotes a massive wave of anticommunist sentiment.

Research shows that we face constant anxieties about rumors of communist threats. In a study of political actors and their perception of the communist revival, a survey of politicians in late 2017 and early 2018 concluded with a remarkable result: 43 percent of provincial legislative council (DPRD) members believed the PKI was undergoing a revival. The shadow of the PKI haunts the collective imagination, as seen in other research conducted by numerous scholars, suggesting that this figure was an indication of the rising intolerant and conservative power holders to sensitive issues such as communism.

Should we accept this repetitive feature of anticommunism as an escapable fact of life in modern Indonesia?

First, the vagueness and lack of information is one of the keys here. The less precise the data on the 1965 turbulence is, the more benefits elites can gain. Various competing interpretations of the 1965 events have emerged, not as an academic presentation but as a provocative and baseless accusation which elites and conservative power holders have nicely crafted.

This imaginary threat has not only mobilized a series of nightmares and anxieties but also resurrected the remembrance of past sadness: A dream of a leader who is strong enough to anticipate the real threat of a communist revival and the anxiety about being dragged back into the conflicts and turbulence caused by communists in the 1960s.

It also often perpetuated an apocalyptic scenario of Indonesia being ambushed once again by a seizure of power by the communists, a potential coup that is felt to be critically imminent. The reproduction of antagonism toward communism is maximized by using paramilitary muscle as well as religious sermons.

It is also actively supported by political elites who copy Soeharto’s style in exploiting the communist imagery. Although entirely manufactured, these narratives remain unchallenged.

Second, a polarized society eased the spread of the spectral idea of the PKI’s rebirth. In the post-Soeharto context, Indonesia under Jokowi is in a polarizing stage that deals with constant polarization between Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s coalition and Prabowo Subianto supporters. This amplifies strong tones of anticommunist sentiment and illuminates a growing trend to deploy the specter of communists as a significant political resource.

Third, the rising political disinformation as the effective “political technology”. As evident in the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections, as well as the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election, an entire disinformation industry has sprung up promoting the idea that the long-banned and defunct PKI continues to pose a threat to national security.

Although the visibly orchestrated disinformation was mainly designed by elites, the imagery, which is deeply rooted in the Indonesian collective memory, has provided solid ground for further fabrications in electoral settings. This provides a safe way for elites to reintroduce the conservatism of hardliners.

Amid this endless anticommunist wave, ironically, Jokowi himself was eventually obliged to pay lip-service to the same imaginary communist threat. Jokowi may have suffered from this narrative throughout the 2014 election cycle, but by 2019 Jokowi sought to turn the communist threat to his political advantage as the incumbent, quashing any falsehoods about him being the descendent of a PKI cadre.

His government effectively aligned with certain military and paramilitary factions, while Jokowi himself played up his religiosity to gain support and win the favor of conservative constituencies.

Jokowi started his promising progressive image to resolve the 1965-1967 mass killings in his campaign dating back to the 2014 election, but then smoothly shunned his progressive rhetoric and turned anticommunist. Many books, seminars and public events were accused of hosting communist ideas, and the President remained silent on this issue during his presidency.

The government and elites’ control over the anticommunist discourse and their role in amplifying the authoritarian threat has several implications for the 2024 political spectrum. The idea of engaging more deeply in anticommunist sentiment has dominated the current political mindset and most probably will influence the upcoming election.

The ironic part is that this authoritarianism has gained its strongest momentum under the civilian leader Jokowi, supported by the reformist-nationalist party the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle. It is then apparent that the anticommunist stance does not relate to any background (civilian or military) or ideological affinity (nationalist group or Islamist).

Jokowi became aware of the worrying trend around his reelection bid and changed his image to that of a more conservative leader.

The current use of anticommunist sentiment as a proxy is unlikely to change in the future. Given that both Jokowi and Prabowo are in the same boat and they (or their campaign teams) find some value or advantage in selectively and strategically invoking this threat, the imaginary communist threat will remain strong.

The strength and effectiveness of the communist threat will contribute to deferring transitional justice regarding the 1965-1967 mass killings, despite much evidence and research indicating the involvement of the military and the need for legal justice.

*** The writer is a political researcher, University of Leeds, United Kingdom.

scroll to top