The Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) no longer exists in the country’s political landscape. But this has not stopped some groups from using the PKI bogeyman for political gain.
Every September and October, opposition groups make it a habit to broach the issue of the ‘revival’ of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). This year, for example, there were contradictory findings from two surveys about the PKI. A Median survey, which is suspected to be close to the opposition Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (PKS), reports that 46.4 per cent of respondents believe that the PKI has re-emerged. A SMRC survey reported that only 14 per cent believe likewise. Together, the surveys show that a proportion of Indonesians polled believe that the PKI has revived in Jokowi’s Indonesia. The reality is that the sentiments expressed in the survey are merely perceptions: the PKI is dead, but the issue of communism in Indonesia has been used — albeit not very successfully — for political ends.
The PKI was linked to the 30th September Movement (G-30-S). In 1965, President Sukarno was rumoured to have suffered from kidney failure and was on the brink of death. The so-called Council of Generals was ready to take over. D.N. Aidit, Chairman of the PKI and its special bureau, initiated the G-30-S to pre-empt an opposing camp of right-wing generals. They were supported by some left-wing military officers. Six generals were abducted and killed, allegedly at the hands of the PKI. General A.H. Nasution, the chief of the Army, escaped, while Major General Suharto was not on the abducted list. They joined hands to crush the ill-prepared coup attempt.
Soon after assuming power, Suharto removed Sukarno and pro-Sukarno generals, banned the PKI, and began to systematically arrest and eliminate PKI members, suspected PKI members, and PKI sympathisers. Beijing, which supported the PKI, condemned Jakarta, which resulted in the severing of diplomatic ties. However, it was estimated that between 500,000 and 2 million people ‘affiliated’ to the PKI were killed in the 1965-1966 period. Many were imprisoned without trial. In Suharto’s 32 years as president, anyone who had some affiliations with the PKI was prohibited from receiving tertiary education or working for the government.
Put differently, the PKI was wiped out from the Indonesian political landscape. But the PKI remains a bogeyman in Indonesian politics. The history of the G-30-S movement is complex and the massacre is still controversial. Abdurrahman Wahid, the president of Indonesia from 1999 to 2001, advocated for national reconciliation but without much success. The PKI and its doctrine remained unlawful in Indonesia.
For all intents and purposes, the PKI is dead. No one mentioned anything about the ‘revival’ of the PKI during the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) presidency (2004-2014). Why so? SBY was a retired general and son-in-law of General Sarwo Edhie, who helped Suharto eliminate communists. No retired generals could use the PKI issue against him. Moreover, SBY accommodated conservative and intolerant Islamic groups in his government.
… there is no evidence that Jokowi is anti-Islam and pro-communist. It is true that Jokowi is strongly against anti-radical Islam and Islamists who want to establish an Islamic state.
This establishment also wanted to have retired general Prabowo, ex-son-in-law of Suharto, to succeed SBY. In the 2014 presidential election, Prabowo was challenged by Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, a highly popular PDI-P candidate who was formerly the mayor of Solo and governor of Jakarta. Unable to defeat his rival by using social and economic arguments, Prabowo decided to use the PKI issue, accusing Jokowi of being a PKI member. The smear campaign helped Prabowo but did not prevent Jokowi from becoming president. The PKI issue was used again in the 2019 presidential elections, but Prabowo failed again.
Prabowo’s share of the votes was 46.85 per cent in 2014 and 44.5 per cent in 2019. Many of those who voted for Prabowo were radical and conservative Muslims who were also anti-PKI. The flawed logic train went like this: it is assumed that the PKI is anti-Islam; therefore those who are anti-Islam are aligned to or support PKI. Using this logic, Jokowi opponents decided to continue to use the PKI issue to undermine the government. They formed groups such as UI Watch (UI stands for Universitas Indonesia) and KAMI (Koalasi Aksi Menyelamatkan Indonesia) in 2020 and began to brand the Jokowi Administration as ‘anti-Islam’ and ‘pro-Communist’. These groups defended the Front Pembela Islam (FPI) and other hardline Islamic groups and propagated the narrative about the rise of a neo-PKI (PKI Gaya Baru). They allege that PKI members are now hidden behind other political parties and governmental organisations. The common characteristics of this neo-PKI are said to be ‘anti-Islam’ and ‘orientation towards China’.
Still, there is no evidence that Jokowi is anti-Islam and pro-communist. It is true that Jokowi is strongly anti-radical Islam and opposes Islamists who want to establish an Islamic state. But he has collaborated with Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), a moderate Muslim organisation, and banned radical mass organisations such as Hizibul Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) and FPI which were against Pancasila (a set of five principles enshrined in the Constitution, one of which is belief in one God). Jokowi dealt firmly with terrorism and arrested clergymen who were involved in violent actions. Such actions are not against Islam, though the opposition deems it to be.
In short, the perceptions expressed by respondents in the two surveys belie the reality that the PKI threat is long gone. Arguably, there are still Indonesians who still perceive the PKI’s revival; that said, one can be sure that those who have these perceptions are fewer compared to those who do not have them. Otherwise, Jokowi would have not won the presidential elections twice. Given the complicated nature of Indonesia’s relationship with PKI and associated scapegoating of communists, however, this ‘PKI revival’ issue is unlikely to go away soon.
Leo Suryadinata is Visiting Senior Fellow, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Professor (Adj.) at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at NTU. He was formerly Director of the Chinese Heritage Centre, NTU.