Sites and memories of the post-coup killings in Bali

by Denis Byrne (Australian Humanities Review 1998)

Gunung Agung is Bali's highest mountain. The fertile slopes which fan out around the perfect volcanic cone are home to tens of thousands of people who have turned the land into an intricate complex of terraced paddy fields, tree shaded temple compounds, villages, spirit shrines, pathways and irrigation canals. On May 17, 1963 large parts of what must have been a similarly intricate cultural landscape were obliterated when Agung erupted. Aerial photographs from the time show lava flows and deposits of volcanic mud and ash lying across whole tracts of green, terraced countryside, wiping away the human infrastructure like a duster drawn across a blackboard full of closely written text. More than a thousand lives were lost in the eruption.

In the years after 1963 Western observers commented on how marvelously fast the countryside of eastern Bali was recovering. Obliterated woodlands re-established themselves, plants found a footing in the lava, the boundaries of fields buried beneath layers of ash were redrawn on new land surfaces above. New carved stone pedestals of spirit shrines had been erected approximately where the old ones had stood and soon were moss-covered. And so the imprint of the eruption faded away in what one might call a healing or renewal of the landscape, not words one would necessarily use to describe the fading of the physical traces of the catastrophe which visited the island just two years after the eruption.

I mean by this the massacre in Bali of Communists, supposed Communists, ethnic Chinese and others which followed the attempted coup of September 30, 1965 in Jakarta and left some 100,000 people dead on Bali out of a death toll of somewhere in the vicinity of half a million for the country as a whole.1 In the days immediately following the coup an ominous calm is said to have fallen over Indonesia during which time General Soeharto and the army consolidated their power, effectively sidelining President Sukarno. The killings in Bali did not begin on a significant scale until early December 1965 with the arrival at that time of the same paracomandos who had been orchestrating the massacre of ‘communists’ in East Java.2 Mostly the Balinese victims were trucked to army depots or PNI-controlled (Partai Nationalis Indonesia) villages where they were shot, stabbed or beaten to death. Many civilians participated in the killings, either convinced by propaganda that the PKI were the enemies of Balinese religion or caught up in an army-imposed logic which held that there could be no neutrality in this matter: you were either for the government (represented by the army) or you were PKI.

One of the points of similarity between the Agung eruption and the events of 1965-66 was that in both cases whole villages were destroyed. In his 1968 book, The End of Sukarno, the only account by a Westerner who was actually present in Bali at around the time of the killings, John Hughes recreates the landscape in the vicinity of the Bali Beach Hotel, Sanur, as it was in late 1965.

Almost in view of the big new luxury hotel the government had built to woo tourists to Bali stand the charred and blackened ruins of one such village. For their Communist affiliations the menfolk were killed. The women and children fared better; they were driven screaming away. The village itself was put to the torch.
Night after night the sky flared red over Bali as villages went up in flames and thousands of Communists, or people said to be Communists, were hunted down and killed.3

It was upon reading Hughes’s account that I first began to ponder the issue of the destroyed villages. The fate of the village described by Hughes was not unique. According to one commentator the countryside of Bali following the killings had been ‘pock-marked with the blackened shells of former settlements’; according to another, it had been ‘a landscape of blackened areas where entire villages had been burnt to the ground.’4 But in my travels around Bali I had never seen anything resembling such a site.

Had the remains of the villages been demolished and recycled? Had the sites been resettled by people who, living with a sense of guilt at having benefited from the misfortune of others, had added their silence to the general silence (Catherine Merridale records this having occurred during the famine of 1933 in Russia).5 In cases where they had not been burned, were wooden houses simply dismantled and removed? There is mention of this happening in 1965 near Jakarta where the houses of victims were taken apart and transported elsewhere with nothing remaining of certain villages ‘except stripped trees and gardens.’6 Built without nails or screws and with pegs locking the joinery together the portability of many old style wooden houses in Southeast Asian houses is well known.7

And what of the mass graves? Robert Cribb in The Indonesian Killings 1965-1966 had found it ‘a little puzzling’ that in the years after 1965-66 there had been no reports of mass graves being discovered in Indonesia.8 He speculated that the sites were known but were avoided by construction projects and he mentioned ‘sporadic accounts’ from Central Java of rice fields no longer tilled because they concealed mass graves. Anyone who happened to come upon such a place, he observed, would ‘think carefully’ before reporting it.9Similarly in Bali the sites of mass graves were not publicly acknowledged.

I lived in Bali for most of the period 1992-96 and it was during one of the monsoons that I first became absorbed by the killings, the grey, damp, closed-in atmosphere of that season seeming appropriate to the climate of paranoia I grew into as I read about the events of 1965. It was not simply a matter of harbouring banned books, though I remember becoming acutely conscious of the presence of Robert Cribb’s volume on my bamboo bookshelf one afternoon when some policemen called at the bungalow collecting ‘donations’ for their football team. It seemed to shimmer there like an obvious piece of contraband. No, it was more the paranoia which comes from giving over one’s mind to a topic so hedged about with censorship. Not that the government seemed to put much direct effort into banning discussion of the events of 1965. They did not have to. The events themselves left behind them such a legacy of fear that people censored themselves. And that has been Soeharto’s Indonesia for the last 32 years: ‘an archipelago of fear,’ in the words of a student on the streets of Jakarta in May 1998.

Personally, though, I became sensitive to this atmosphere only gradually. When I first began living in Bali I was taken in by the palm trees, the flowers, and the warmth of the sea. I wrote my PhD thesis on the balcony of our modest bungalow, often to the accompaniment of raindrops which dripped from the fringe of the thatched roof and hit the fronds of the umbrella palms below; or to the sound of cow bells coming from beyond the garden gate and the occasional shrill shouts which drifted over from the fields where small boys were chasing birds from the rice crop. I cleaned my teeth at night over a bathroom sink made from a giant clam shell. I thought I was in paradise.

One night in a bar I was startled to hear a tall blond woman, a friend of a friend, mention that two thousand communists lay buried beneath the Oberoi, a five star beach-side hotel which had been built by the government in early 1970s and then subsequently privatized. I’d never previously heard the subject of mass graves raised in public and I half expected ripples of stunned silence to spread through the place. The woman was a Greek Australian and had been in Bali on and off for the best part of 20 years. She had been married to a Balinese and now lived alone with their teenage son. She spoke about ghosts and how the grounds of the Oberoi used to be renowned for them when she lived there in the mid-1970s with her ex-husband who’d been the manager. Some local women had told her that thousands of communists killed in 1965 had been buried in that space between the sea and the fields which had become the site of the hotel. I could think of no good reason why she would have made this up.

I wondered if it was possible that in Bali, unlike in Java, some of the mass grave sites had actually been targeted by government construction projects as a way of permanently sealing them off. Later I mentioned what I’d heard about the Oberoi to a young Balinese whose circle of friends I knew to be privately critical of the New Order government. He told me that quantities of human bone were discovered only a few years ago when the foundations for a large hotel were being excavated on another part of the island; he said it had been common knowledge among Balinese that bones were being found on the hotel site and everyone knew what those bones meant. The fact that there was no mention of it in the newspapers tended to serve as confirmation.

I knew the Oberoi from the many afternoons I had passed it on my way along the beach. On the terrace you saw the waiters in their white jackets and blue sarongs stooping to gather frangipani blossoms to place on white linen-covered tables set for dinner. The hotel sat beautifully upon its several hectare site. The individual guest cottages with their courtyard gardens, the reception area and lobby with its sweeping thatched roofs, the beautiful trees and tranquil gardens, all had that sense of ‘fit’ that often strikes you in the rural villages of Southeast Asia, the appearance of having grown slowly out of the ground. Numerous monsoon seasons had softened the hotel’s architecture; mosses had been allowed to colonise a thousand crannies in the limestone masonry. The extensive gardens had been artfully brought to a certain level of ‘naturalness’ and then held there suspended on the brink of a reversion to jungle.

As I walked past the hotel in the weeks after that night in the bar I would look for some sign, some sinister aspect previously missed which might hint at what lay beneath. There wasn’t any. Yet, if the woman had been correct, the Balinese themselves must always have been aware of what was under the hotel, stratified below the gardens and the low thatched buildings. They must have lived, like the survivors of the Agung eruption, with the intimate knowledge of a ‘down there.’10 Instead of the stratigraphy of millennia that is familiar to archaeologists who excavate down through the cultural horizons of antiquity, here the time frame was one of mere decades. There would have to be those among the older generation of Balinese who would remember the relatives and childhood friends who had lived down there, back then. I wondered whether the survivors of both the eruption and the 1965-66 killings felt betrayed by a remade landscape which carried so few physical traces of events which had so marked their lives. On one occasion I strolled along a stream which ran adjacent to the hotel grounds, furtively scanning the sand embankment for any sign of exposed bones. None were visible.

Perhaps my background as an archaeologist led me to crave objectively legible physical traces when for most people it was their memory which allowed them to find their past in the landscape around them. Most Balinese now above the age or 35 or 40 must have witnessed at least some of the events of 1965-66, if not the actual killings themselves; thousands still alive today must have lost children, husbands, lovers, friends and relatives; thousands of others must have participated in the executions. Surely the land must still be replete with traces visible in the same way that many of the traces of the Agung eruption, which had eluded me during my travels in East Bali, would have been quite legible to survivors of that catastrophe.11

The most eloquent relics need not be the products or debris, in a direct sense, of that which they signify. Would the gateway through which a lover or child was glimpsed for the last time as he or she was being taken away not be imprinted thereafter, for those left behind, with intimations of loss? We all know how the details of our personal loss may be written over the most mundane of objects in a heart wrenching detail magnified by the lenses of intimacy and grief, and this may be true even when one would rather forget or would simply rather not be reminded. The gateway, yes, but also every laneway and river bank, a detail here, a detail there, until the familiar local landscape has become for the survivor a minefield of memory sites.

The way people signify things and landscapes, privately, locally, intimately, animates them in ways that are likely to be invisible to outsiders. This invisibility, this localised activity taking place ‘below the thresholds at which visibility begins,’ to use Michel De Certeau’s words, can be a form of resistance in the face of larger, national, narratives which aim to impose their own ultra-visible truth claims.12 While not suggesting that memory is static or immune to decay, or not changed with every recall, it is nevertheless possible to see how the memory of individuals can preserve an account of events subversive to the official version. Not available to surveillance, these private memories constitute a type of ‘noise’ in the officially imposed silence. In post-1965 Bali this ‘noise’ must have been almost deafening and yet quite inaudible to generations of tourists who have wandered the beaches and hills of this paradise island.

It is, of course, possible for an outsider to approach almost unbearably close to this world of local knowledge even if unable to penetrate it. The invisible border zone between the outside and inside view hums with a tension of the kind found in an article by an Indonesian journalist, Maskun Iskander, who had gone to the Purwodadi area of Central Java in 1969 to investigate persistent rumours of a renewed bout of killings there.13 His article, written in the form of a narrative, is cautious in giving credence to rumours of death and torture, to rumours of trucks taking people away in the night, to whispers that there were people missing from each of the villages he visited. Iskander needs something definite, something objectively tangible, and he comes extremely close; he knows what is going on but can’t quite see it.

For obvious reasons village people wouldn’t respond to direct questions about what had happened. What he encountered and reported, then, was more than anything else a scattering of absences and silences. When he came into one particular village his jeep was surrounded by small children:

I approached one of them and asked in low Javanese, ‘Do you have a sister?’ He was silent. ‘Where is your mother?’, I asked again. He remained silent, making circles in the sand with his big toe. ‘Is your father here?’, I asked at random. The child raised his eyes. They were brimming over. Then he ran away into the narrow streets of the kampung.14

For an example of the exercise of discretion in relation to such absences it is difficult to go past Norman Lewis’s account of an experience he had in East Timor in the 1970s. He had been stayed with some nuns at a small mission in the hills and had been accompanied on his walks in the surrounding countryside by a young man, a local, who always carried a guitar:

He was an unobtrusive and diffident presence, tailing along behind at a distance of three or four yards and occasionally twanging urgently on his guitar to draw our attention to some feature of the sinister wilderness through which we were trudging that had sparked off strong emotion … A twang of the guitar might be a signal for the eyebrows to shoot up over widened eyes and the corners of the mouth to droop in a sort of depressed smirk. We followed his eye, wondering what could have happened to provide fury or grief among a largely featureless spread of thickets, cunningly pruned trees, and sallow rocks at this particular spot… Once only were we able to identify the cause of Thomas’s excitement, when a spar of charred wood poked through the undergrowth on a ridge over a shallow valley. This had been a village, but no more of it remained than the Roman’s had left of Carthage.15

The ‘structures of forgetting’ which the Indonesian state has put in place to cover the events of 1965-66, to cover the absences, had a counterpart at the international level in the distancing mechanism of the Cold War. 16 In 1965 the West perceived Sukarno’s Indonesia to be a domino waiting to fall and the fact or belief that those who were being killed in Indonesia in 1965-66 were Communists quarantined them from the West’s compassion, the sort of compassion eloquently expressed three years earlier for the Balinese victims of the Gunung Agung eruption, who were described as some of the ‘world’s handsomest and most intelligent people.’17 The ‘geopolitical abstraction’ of the Cold War which neatly divided the planet into the Soviet Bloc and the Free World enabled this distancing, a distancing which in itself is a form of violence.18

If Iskander struggled to see what had happened in Purwodadi through the eyes of local survivors rendered mute with fear and Lewis, more passively, allowed his eyes to be opened by his silent companion’s guitar, most of the rest of us are content to go to places like Bali and maintain our strange distance from the things that have happened there, the things that people know. In the warm evening air we linger over dinner on the Oberoi terrace, perhaps conversing with the charming young Balinese waiters. We stroll through the gardens of the hotel, this hotel which looks as if it has always been there, and then retire to our rooms where we lie down to sleep just a few metres above the victims of 1965-66.


Denis Byrne is a Sydney based archaeologist, who works in the field of heritage management and who lived in Bali in the period 1991-95. He has an essay, “Intramuros’s Return”, in Seams of Light: Best Antipodean Essays edited by Morag Fraser, Allen & Unwin, 1998.


1. For a discussion of the difficulty of arriving at a reliable estimate of the death toll see Robert Cribb, ‘Introduction: the problems in the historiography of the killings in Indonesia,’ in R. Cribb (ed), The Indonesian Killings 1965-1966: Studies from Java and Bali (Melbourne: Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University. 1991).
2. Robinson, The Dark Side Of Paradise: Political Violence in Bali (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. 1995) pp. 281-85. My other main sources of information on the killings in Bali are Robert Cribb, ‘Bali’, in R. Cribb (ed), The Indonesian Killings… pp. 241-48; Willard A. Hanna, Bali Profile: People, Events, Circumstances 1001-1976, originally published 1976 (Rumah Budaya: Banda Naira, Moluccas. 1990), p. 125-26; John Hughes, The End of Sukarno (Sydney: Angus & Robertson. 1968); Soe Hok Gie, ‘The mass killings in Bali’, in R. Cribb (ed), The Indonesian Killings… pp. 252-58; Adrian Vickers, Bali: A Paradise Created (Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin Books. 1989), pp. 168-73. Robinson’s book represents the most detailed study, relying on contemporary Balinese newspaper reporting, documents, and interviews conducted in Bali in the 1980s.
3. Hughes, The End of Sukarno, p. 175.
4. Respectively: Robert Cribb, ‘Bali: editor’s introduction’ in R. Cribb, The Indonesian Killings…, pp. 241-48. P. 241; Vickers, ibid., p. 170.
5. Catharine Merridale, ‘Death and Memory in modern Russia,’ History Workshop Journal 42, 1996, pp. 1-18.
6. Ronald McKie, Bali (Sydney: Angus and Robertson. 1969), p. 94. This may be based on hearsay – McKie does not cite his sources.
7. See Roxana Waterson, The Living House (Singapore: Oxford University Press. 1990), p. 78.
8. Cribb ibid., p.9.
9. Ibid., p. 10.
10. For an account of a community in Australia who kept alive the memory of their original homes after these had been submerged by a hydro lake see Read, Returning to Nothing, pp. 75-87.
11. See Vickers, ibid., p. 172: ‘Understandably, few Balinese want to relive this time in conversation and most, like survivors of other conflicts, prefer to block it out of their memories’. Living as I was in expatriate enclave I was not in a position to know whether Balinese spoke about the killings or not.
12. See Michel De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, translated from the French by Steven F. Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1984), p. 93.
13. Maskun Iskander, ‘Purwodadi: area of death.’ Originally published in Indonesia Rayain March 1969, translated by Robert Cribb in Cribb ibid., pp. 203-13.
14. Ibid., p. 207.
15. Norman Lewis, An Empire of the East (London: Picador. 1995), pp. 160-61.
16. For a discussion of ‘the structures of forgetting’ see Paula Hamilton, ‘The knife edge: debates about memory and history,’ in K. Darian-Smith and P. Hamilton (eds), Memory and History (Melbourne: Oxford University Press. 1994), p. 13.
17. Booth, ‘Disaster in paradise’, National Geographic 124 (1963), pp. 436-47. p. 436.
18. Christopher L. Connery, ‘Pacific rim discourse: the U.S. global imaginary in the late Cold War years. In Rob Wilson and Arif Dirlik (eds), Asia/Pacific as Space of Cultural Production (Durham & London: Duke University Press. 1995), p. 37.

Using Atrocities: the Slaughters in Indonesia and East Timor, Peter Dale Scott, 1998.

zurück zu Reisen durch die Vergangenheit