Anti-Communists Threaten Historian Trying to Re-Write '65 Coup Events,
Apr 30, 2009 01:52 PDT
The Jakarta Globe
April 30, 2008
Setting History Straight
by Armando Siahaan
On March 28, 2007, hundreds of protesters under the umbrella of
Gerakan Anti-Komunis, or the Anti-Communist Movement, arrived at
the Indonesian Institute of Sciences in South Jakarta aboard
They had come to publicly denounce the institute for allegedly
seeking to revive communism in Indonesia, an ideology that
President Suharto sought to wipe out in the late-1960s when he
introduced to the country what was later to become known as the
New Order. There was one particular person the demonstrators
were looking for: Asvi Warman Adam.
Recalling the day in his cozy home in Pondok Gede, East Jakarta,
Asvi did not see the incident as discouraging.
“A lot of groups oppose what I have been doing,” said the
54-year-old historian, who still sometimes receives late-night
phone calls threatening his wife and children. “That means my
work has made an impact.”
The protesters demanded that Asvi discontinue his efforts to
correct mistakes in the version of Indonesian history that is
widely accepted and taught in state schools.
Following the fall of Suharto in 1998, Asvi dedicated himself to
the intellectual movement he calls pelurusan sejarah, or the
straightening of history.
He believes the ruling powers have attempted to absolve
themselves of responsibility for the past by presenting
untruthful accounts as historical fact. “Indonesian history was
written uniformly by men in uniform,” Asvi said.
In what he terms the militarization of history, Asvi said the
New Order regime wrote and controlled the version of Indonesian
history that is conveyed through school textbooks, national
monuments and museums.
Asvi saw the breakdown of the authoritarian regime in May 1998
as an opportunity to create a more accurate, scholarly and
impartial picture of Indonesian history, a process that he
considers to be an essential part of the democratization of the
“By having more than one understanding of history, people can
debate and discuss which version makes more sense. This helps in
forming a critical and democratic society,” he said.
Asvi has written numerous books, articles and essays debunking
the New Order regime’s accounts of historic events, particularly
the circumstances surrounding the unsuccessful coup of Sept. 30,
1965, which led to the political demise of the founding
The New Order said the coup was orchestrated by the Indonesian
Communist Party, using that to justify an anti-Communist purge
in which more than half a million people may have been killed.
“The 1965 incident was a watershed in Indonesia’s history,” Asvi
said. “Looking at it politically, economically, and culturally,
it brought about drastic and fundamental changes.”
The official account of the 1965 coup is a salient example of
the way in which Suharto used history to condone his iron-
fisted rule, Asvi said.
For years, he said, the coup was used to awaken a fear of “the
enemy,” meaning anyone who opposed the government.
“History was merely used to legitimize his [Suharto’s] accession
to power and consolidate his rule,” Asvi said.
His books include “Suharto Sisi Gelap Sejarah Indonesia”
(Suharto, the Dark Side of Indonesian History), “Seabad
Kontroversial Sejarah” (A Decade of Controversial History) and
“Membongkar Manipulasi Sejarah” (Unraveling History’s
Earlier this year, Kompas published an anthology of articles
Asvi has written for the newspaper. It has so far sold more than
Events in Indonesian history that Asvi is currently re-examining
include the attack on Dutch troops in Yogyakarta on March 1,
1949, and the Jan. 15, 1974, Malari incident — abbreviated from
Malapetaka Lima Belas January, or the Tragedy of January 15th —
in which Suharto’s men quashed a mass student protest, turning
it into a bloody riot.
In June, Asvi will be a speaker at a conference, titled “The
Indonesian Killings Revisited, 1965-66,” at the National
University of Singapore, joining renowned Indonesianists such as
Robert Cribb, Anthony Reid and Kate McGregor in the largest
meeting of scholars on the subject.
In much of his work, Asvi not only refutes the New Order’s
version of events, but also looks at history from the point of
view of victims.
“History cannot be written just by the winners, we should also
give the other side a chance,” said Asvi, referring to the
victims of the 1965-66 anti-Communist violence.
In terms of the people’s reaction to his sort of struggle, Asvi
believes that he has seen significant progress since the advent
of the reform era.
“For 32 years, there was a taboo against questioning the
government’s version of history,” Asvi said. “Now they’re being
offered something unheard of. Society wants to know what has
been kept hidden from them.”
Asvi did not begin his academic career as a historian. He
graduated from the University of Indonesia in 1980 with a degree
in French literature and, after a short stint working as a
sports journalist for Sportif magazine, became a researcher at
the Indonesian Institute of Sciences in 1983. A year later, he
was invited to teach Indonesian language at a university in
It was in France that he became interested in history. Aside
from teaching, he decided to pursue a doctorate at Ecole des
Hautes Etudes en Sciences Socialies. Under the tutelage of the
renowned Asianist Denys Lombard, Asvi spent six years writing a
dissertation on the relationship between the Dutch East Indies
and Indochina during the colonial era.
In 1990, he came home to reassume his position at the institute
Six years later, Masyarakat Sejarawan Indonesia, or the
Indonesian Historians Community, designated him as the head of
When Suharto abdicated in 1998, Asvi was contacted by
newspapers, academics and members of the public, who challenged
him to re-examine the New Order version of Indonesian history.
That same year he was invited by a Christian group — a group of
men and women in their 60s and 70s —to speak to victims and
survivors of the anti-Communist purge of 1965-66.
“They asked me to tell them about the September 30 Movement,” he
recalled. “At the end of the lecture, you could see that sorrow
was not the only thing emanating from them. They were very eager
to know what actually happened.”
After he delivered his speech, some of the victims came up to
him and gave him about Rp 30,000 in rumpled notes, collected by
the victims, thanking him for his willingness to share his
thoughts with them.
“It was a moment when I felt like I had to help them,” he said.
“For victims like them, the straightening of history is a
healing process. Not a single day passes when I don’t think
Asvi said that determining the identities of the masterminds of
the 1965 coup was secondary to doing something about the impact
of the suppression that followed, which has had an
“I have a friend, a political analyst,” he said. “After decades
of knowing him, only recently did he reveal to me that both of
his parents were [exiled during the 1960s].
"Millions of people had to hide their true identities due to
their association with a communist past.”
Before he met the victims, Asvi said, his journey into the world
of history was merely for academic purposes. But for the past 10
years, he has written his articles with empathy for the victims
of a dark chapter in Indonesian history.
“History should no longer be exploited as an instrument of
oppression. It should be utilized as a means of liberation,”