By JOE COCHRANE | April 17, 2016

JAKARTA, Indonesia — When Putu Oka Sukanta was awakened by knocking on his door late one night in October 1966, he says, he instinctively knew who was there.

Indonesian soldiers, police officers and plainclothes intelligence agents took Mr. Sukanta, then a 27-year-old high school teacher and poet, to a military barracks in the capital, Jakarta, where he was beaten and tortured during three months of interrogation about “leftist” activities.

“They asked questions that I did not understand,” he said recently. “They forced me to say ‘yes’ to things I did not know about.”

Mr. Sukanta would spend a decade imprisoned without trial, emerging only in 1976 — as thin as a matchstick, he said.

He was one of hundreds of thousands of victims of what has been called one of the worst mass atrocities of the 20th century: the state-sponsored purges of those suspected of being Communists and their sympathizers in Indonesia in 1965-66. Half a million people or more, many of whom had no connection to Communism, are estimated to have been killed, and hundreds of thousands of others were held in detention centers for years.

Survivors like Mr. Sukanta, now 76, have long demanded that the government give a full accounting of that dark period, to no avail. But some of them hope that a two-day symposium on the killings, starting Monday in Jakarta, will be a first step toward an official acknowledgment of what happened.

It will be the first time that a public discussion of the atrocities has been endorsed by the government, which for decades maintained that the bloodshed was justified to save Indonesia from a Communist takeover, while violently suppressing challenges to that official narrative.

The government is not organizing the symposium, but it has made its approval clear; Indonesia’s security minister, Luhut B. Pandjaitan, will deliver the opening remarks. Such official backing is rekindling hope among survivors and activists that a truth and reconciliation commission might be established to finally explain what happened half a century ago, and why.

“We hope this is the start to revealing everything that happened during those days,” said Atmadji Sumarkidjo, a special assistant to Mr. Luhut.

“At least it’s a good beginning,” he said.

The massacres, carried out by soldiers and by military-backed civilian, paramilitary and religious groups, came on the heels of a failed uprising within the Indonesian armed forces. An officer-led group kidnapped and executed six army generals beginning on the night of Sept. 30, 1965.

Within days, top commanders had quashed the uprising, which they called an attempted coup orchestrated by the then-powerful Indonesian Communist Party, working with rogue military personnel. In the purges that followed, the victims were branded as Communists, but they also included intellectuals like Mr. Sukanta, ethnic Chinese Indonesians and countless others. The killings were overseen by Suharto, an army general who went on to become the country’s president and who presided over an authoritarian, military-backed government for 32 years.

Suharto was forced to resign in 1998 after mass pro-democracy demonstrations, and he died in 2008.

Although the main architects of the killings are probably all dead, the purges remain an extremely delicate issue because the military, political and religious groups implicated in the violence remain at the core of Indonesia’s political elite.

Members of the Youth Wing of the Indonesian Communist Party were taken to a prison in Jakarta in October 1965. [Credit Associated Press]

The subject remains so taboo that last year, after the 50th anniversary of the start of the massacres, military and police personnel cracked down across Indonesia on events, publications and book launches related to the 1965-66 period. They included a threat to shut down Southeast Asia’s largest writers’ festival, held annually on the resort island of Bali. (The festival was held, but several events related to the massacres were shut down, including a screening of “The Look of Silence,” a 2014 documentary about the purges that was nominated for an Academy Award.)

In 2012, Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights, which is independent of the government and is organizing the symposium, released an 850-page investigative report that declared the purges a gross human rights violation and demanded a criminal investigation. But neither the government at the time nor that of President Joko Widodo, who took office in 2014, has followed up.

Mr. Joko, Indonesia’s first president from outside the country’s traditional political elite or the military, has yet to honor a campaign promise to resolve past human rights abuses, including the 1965-66 killings, and he has refused to apologize to the victims of the purges. Asked whether Mr. Joko favored forming a commission to investigate the massacres, Teten Masduki, his chief of staff, said in a text message that he would have to confer with the president.

Last year, Attorney General H. M. Prasetyo ruled out criminal investigations of suspected perpetrators of the killings, saying the government favored a reconciliation process. But he has not addressed the issue since.

Such official reluctance has some survivors and rights advocates worried that the coming symposium will be used as an excuse to quickly discuss the massacres and move on, rather than face a truth commission that could spend years revealing unpleasant facts.

“I think that the current military wants to be sure that Monday’s conference will be an opportunity to settle, once and for all, the controversy over the 1965-66 events,” said Juwono Sudarsono, a former defense minister who in the late 1990s became the first civilian to hold that position.

The Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence, a prominent Indonesian nongovernmental organization that documents rights abuses by the military and the police, will not participate in the symposium for precisely that reason, said Haris Azhar, the group’s coordinator.

“This has to be the first footstep to address the past, to discover the truth,” he said. “I have no doubt the symposium could be used as a justification to say, ‘Let’s let bygones be bygones.’ ”

Some researchers have long suspected American complicity in the massacres, accusing the United States government of providing the Indonesian military with material support and the names of those suspected of being Communist agents through its embassy in Jakarta. Last month, the human rights commission wrote to President Obama asking him to make public all classified United States government documents related to the mass killings. The White House has not yet responded, according to the commission.

“We want to learn more about the working-level involvement between the U.S. government and the killers in 1965,” Kenneth Roth, the executive director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said at a news briefing in Jakarta on Wednesday.

“Who knew what, and what were the channels of communication?” he asked. “Were names conveyed by the U.S. government and, if so, what happened to those people?”

Mr. Sukanta, one of a handful of survivors who have been invited to address the symposium, said he would use the opportunity to call for a full accounting of the massacres by the Indonesian government — and for the government to apologize to the entire nation for covering up the purges.

A draft copy of Mr. Sukanta’s speech makes no mention of his own torture or imprisonment.

“This is and remains a national problem, not my personal problem,” Mr. Sukanta said. “I am just a grain of sand on a beach.”

Source: The New York Times