When Suharto Came Knocking, Revisiting Indonesia's Darkest Day
Sept. 30, 1965, is a night that changed Indonesia forever.
The events of that night led to Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, being ousted from office, as military General Suharto assumed control of government — Suharto went on to rule the country for 32 years, until 1998.
In Central Java, Indonesia, KBR journalist Muhamad Ridlo spoke with a man who was at the heart of the action that night, and who says a fake version of events has been remembered in Indonesia.
JAVA — The man in front of me is tall and thin. He's 77 years old, with a vivid memory, clear mind and strong spirit. Sulemi is a former soldier, who served with Cakrabirawa, the security forces of Indonesia's first president, Sukarno.
Sulemi was 25 years old in 1965, when his life was turned upside down — transformed from an honorable soldier into political prisoner.
Sulemi swears he will be honest with me about what happened on the bloody night, Sept. 30, 1965. But what he tells me is very different from the official version of events that most Indonesians have come to know.
Millions of Indonesian school children were made to watch the terrifying film, Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI (Treachery of the Communist Party), which depicts the events of that day. In the film, Cakrabirawa troops, are shown kidnapping and killing six generals. The army accused the Communist Party, or PKI, of masterminding the kidnappings. And General Suharto used the events to justify his take over as president.
Sulemi admits he was involved in the kidnappings, and he spent the following 15 years in jail for it. "I've told the truth," he says. "But they still punished me, that's the fact."
More than 50 years later, Sulemi still claims he is innocent. He says he was following the orders of his commanders, and was told that he was preventing a coup that six generals were planning. "There was an instruction from the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Untung. He said the situation was urgent, there was a coup planned for October 5," he told me.
Sulemi believes General Suharto knew and approved of what they were doing. Three of his commanders met Suharto the night before, and left the meeting glowing. "After they returned to our vehicle, they said all was settled, that Suharto was willing. That's crazy, right? Those are the facts."
On the night of Sept. 30, Sulemi and 35 other Cakrabirawa soldiers went to the home of General Nasution, intending to arrest him. But General Nasution ran, and escaped by jumping over fences. The troops searched the house, and in the chaos, Nasution's 5-year-old daughter, Ade Irma was shot. The film portrays the troops as cruel monsters.
Better to die telling the truth
"It is remarkable to say his daughter, Ade Irma was deliberately shot. That's crazy. Why would we do that?" Sulemi continued. "The child had nothing to do with it. That's unbelievable slander. She was hit by a bullet when we were inside the house, I don't know whose bullet it was."
Sulemi says he later learned the bullet was fired by a solider trying to force open a door. The troops were sent to jail. There, Sulemi was tortured and interrogated twice a week, in the attempt to force a confession. "If I was tortured until I died, that was the risk," he says. "Better to die telling the truth than to live a lie."
Sulemi never confessed to being a communist, or being part of a plot to bring down President Sukarno. "It was impossible for me to confess," he said. "At my age, at that time, why would I want to get involved in ideology and party politics? We were military men, we couldn't be in a party, at least not at the lower levels. I don't know about officers, majors and higher levels, maybe they were involved in politics."
After the events of 1965, the PKI became public enemy number one. In the space of a year, half a million to one million suspected communists and communist sympathizers were killed. After two years in prison, those involved in the events of 1965 faced a court martial. Sulemi was given a death sentence, which was eventually reduced to life imprisonment, and after 15 years in prison, he was granted a pardon.
On the outside, Sulemi lived as an outcast, with neighbors refusing to talk to him and unable to find work. His wife had long ago divorced him.
It's now over 50 years since that night. But it continues to haunt Indonesia. Communism is still feared and hated in the country. For years, people accused of communist sympathies and their children were banned from the army and public service. Public discussions about these events are often shut down, and in September, a peaceful discussion on the topic sparked a riot in Jakarta.
Sulemi has since remarried. But his wife Sri Murni tells me he carries the trauma of torture to this day. "He screams in his sleep," she told me. "We sleep separately."