In 1965 there was a coup in Indonesia. Sukarno was overthrown, and the coup was blamed on Communists. A purge of suspected Communists then ensued, and some half a million (maybe many more?) people were killed.


A few years ago, anthropologist Robert Lemelson made a documentary about that period called “40 Years of Silence: An Indonesian Tragedy.”


More recently, Joshua Oppenheimer has made a film about the same topic called “The Act of Killing.” I still haven’t seen this film, but it’s getting a lot of positive reviews.

To get a sense of what it deals with, the above piece by Al Jazeera called “101 East – Indonesia’s Killing Fields” is a good introduction.

The blurb on YouTube about the video states that “Executioners from Indonesia’s dark past speak out for the first time to reveal a chilling and bloody truth the country now has to face. 101 East speaks exclusively to some of those who participated in the systematic murder of millions.”


Then for Cambodia there is a series of TV shows that have been subtitled in English, such as “Duch on Trial” that documents what has happened in the ongoing war trials in Cambodia.

These trials are, of course, very limited. They are just trying the top Khmer Rouge leaders, however, the rank and file Khmer Rouge remain at large among Cambodian society.

That must create a great deal of stress for many people. It must be horrible to know that people who are responsible for killing ones relatives and friends are living normal lives.


In the case of Indonesia, there is clearly a sense of fear of what would happen if such stresses were allowed to be released. “The Act of Killing” has therefore been banned in Indonesia.

In the Al Jazeera piece, a member of the Islamic group, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), is interviewed. NU members were responsible for the killings of many suspected Communists in 1965, and this is what one member of NU said in the Al Jazeera video:

“We are worried. In this country, small things easily explode. What if this whole thing explodes again? What will happen to Indonesia if the 1965 case is opened up?”


This statement reminded me of a review I read of Huy Đức’s Bên Thắng Cuộc in which the reviewer basically said that the past is a book that should be closed. There is no need to revisit the past. People should just move forward and leave the past behind.

That is much easier said that done. Over 150 years after the Civil War in the US ended, the divisions that came to the fore at that time still, to some extent, remain, even though many people have tried hard to move beyond them.

What is the best way to deal with those issues? Is it to go back and look at them, as is happening to a limited degree in Cambodia? Or should the past be left in the past, as many have tried to do in Indonesia and Vietnam? Maybe something in between?