BALI, Indonesia — “The men were made to sit right here with their hands tied and their legs dangling down into the grave,” recalled Nyoman Ramin, indicating a patch of grass beside the road in the picturesque Balinese village of Petulu.
Aged 65, Ramin is talking about the time, 40 years ago, when soldiers marched into his village with 42 prisoners — all men aged between about 20 and 50.
“I was watching from over there in front of the temple,” Ramin said. “A solider walked slowly around behind the prisoners shooting each of them in the back of the head. Some of them were crying and I remember one older man had a heart attack and fell into the grave even before the soldier got to him.”
Bali, a tranquil island paradise, is seldom associated with such brutal violence. But Nyoman Ramin’s story is by no means uncommon. Indeed, an estimated 80,000 people, roughly 5 percent of Bali's population, were killed during Indonesia's national blood-letting that followed a 1965 failed coup allegedly organized by communist plotters.
Between October 1965 and March 1966, suspected members or sympathizers of the PKI, Indonesia's communist party, were rounded-up and taken from one village to another by soldiers or local militias. There they were shot or butchered with machetes, their bodies buried in unmarked mass graves or tossed into the sea.
As with Petulu, the graves were often dug in the local cemetery with a member of each family in the village — commonly young men like Nyoman Ramin — ordered to dig the graves and watch the executions. Those who refused to help identify people on the lists and take part in the killings risked being branded communists themselves.
The massacres helped to sweep Suharto, a major general at the time, into power and under his authoritarian rule hundreds of thousands were imprisoned without trial. Over the following three decades all public discussion of the killings was forbidden and that period of Indonesia's history was carefully rewritten.
Twelve years after Suharto was deposed and 40 years since the killings, Indonesia is still struggling to come to terms with this period of its history. There has been no official acknowledgment of the killings. No one has been brought to account and no redress or restitution has been offered to the victims and their families.
In 2004, legislation was passed to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate, compensate and resolve the many human rights violations that occurred during Suharto's regime. But in 2006, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional and although another draft law has been prepared by the Justice and Human Rights Ministry, there seems little political will to enact it.
Andreas Harsono, a consultant for Human Rights Watch in Indonesia, said the reluctance to start the reconciliation process stems from the fact that many members of the ruling elite are related to those responsible for these killings.
“Massacres and mass killings are the language of power in Indonesia,” he said, listing the numerous massacres that have occurred since 1950 in Aceh, East Timor, Papua, Borneo, Madura, Sulawesi, Java and Bali. “Indonesia today is ruled by politicians and generals whose fathers or grandfathers were involved in one of those massacres.”
Even if the reconciliation commission were to be set up, I Ngurah Suryawan, a doctoral student who has researched the 1965 killings, is concerned that these very members of the ruling elite will be the ones running it.
“Any Truth and Reconciliation Commission must accommodate local grassroots organizations, village groups and religious organizations,” Suryawan said. “There are so many layers to this story. A top-down approach will not succeed in peeling them all back.”
In the absence of any formal commission, Suryawan and others have set out independently to document testimonies themselves.
Part of the problem in uncovering the truth is that there is little reliable documentary evidence of what happened since the killings were spread across the entire island. And unlike the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Indonesian officials kept few records.
“I think virtually every village in Bali has a mass grave,” Suryawan said. “And all elements of society were involved in some way with the killing.”
Another problem is that mass graves and mass tourism are not happy bedfellows. With Bali's heavy reliance on the tourist industry, it is understandable that many Balinese are reluctant to discuss the events of 1965.
“I have spoken to developers who frequently come across bodies when digging foundations for tourist hotels in Kuta and Sanur,” said a history student at Denpasar University in Bali who asked that her name not be used. She has interviewed more than 50 people in her efforts to uncover the truth on her own about Bali's mass graves. “They instruct the builders to ignore the skeletons and to keep on building.”
While Indonesia has made significant progress in its transition to democracy since the downfall of Suharto in 1998, boasting a free press as well as a body of new human rights legislation, Harsono believes its failure to address the bloodiest aspects of its recent past is problematic.
For a country emerging from three decades of authoritarianism, establishing transitional justice mechanisms is seen by many as an important part of the nation-building and post-conflict recovery process. The killings have been largely omitted from Indonesian history textbooks and the country's increasingly active censors are particularly sensitive about films that attempt to tackle this time period. Many young Indonesians are ignorant about what happened in 1965 and those generations that bore witness to it are rapidly disappearing.
Suryawan said there is still a lot of bitterness that lies beneath the surface.
“People know for example that ‘your father killed my father.’ Anger is not expressed directly but it is played out in other ways,” he said, pointing to violent clashes that flared up during Bali’s 2004 local elections.
Nesting in the trees that fringe Petulu's lush paddy fields are tens of thousand of white egrets. According to local folklore, these hauntingly elegant birds arrived en mass in 1966 and are the restless souls of those massacred and buried without proper rites.
“It was a bad time” Ramin said, gazing at Petulu’s unmarked mass grave. "A very bad time."