Shadow play

A trope we’ve cantillated more than once in this space is the notion that a piece of music takes on a life of its own and makes its own way in the world as soon as the composer puts the finishing touches on it. Here’s a rather extreme instance of that.

The song in question is called “Genjer-Genjer,” and it was widely popular in Indonesia in the 1950s and 60s. It was written in 1943 by Muhammad Arif, supposedly inspired by, and describing, his wife’s soup-making; genjer is a leafy green vegetable, regarded by many cultures as a weed, but cultivated for animal and human consumption in Java. The song became something of a standard in Indonesia—go here to listen to one of the best-known versions, by the Indonesian pop star Bing Slamet (1927-1974).

To understand what happened to this song requires descending into one of the murkiest swamps of 20th-century history, the failed Indonesian coup of 1965. In Indonesia, “1965” and, more specifically, “30 September” carry much the same kind of resonance and overtones that “9/11” does in the United States, but even after forty years, historians are still trying to untangle the various stories, accusations, and justifications surrounding the event. On September 30, 1965, a number of Indonesian army officers kidnapped and assassinated six army generals. Calling themselves the “Group of September 30” (usually abbreviated to G-30-S, or Gestapu, in its Indonesian acronym), the officers claimed that they had taken their action pre-emptively, against a right-wing “Council of Generals” that were themselves plotting to overthrow Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president.

Sukarno had been in power since the country won its independence from the Netherlands in 1945. In the late 50s and early 60s, he had effectively used his widespread popularity and his fiery, frequently anti-American rhetoric to position himself as a triangulation between the formidable, deeply right-wing army leadership and the increasingly powerful PKI, the Indonesian Communist Party.

One of the enduring arguments about the G-30-S coup is whether the PKI had any hand in it, and if so, how much. By 1965, the PKI claimed some 27 million members—the largest such party in any non-communist nation—but had been effectively stifled from increasing their legislative power by parliamentary maneuvers, including Sukarno’s appointment as president-for-life. On the other hand, Sukarno, attentive to the political winds, had been increasingly adopting a populist, anti-imperialist stance in tune with the PKI. While evidence does point to knowledge and abetment of the coup by certain high-ranking PKI leaders, there’s little to support the idea of a conscious party instigation.

The coup collapsed within a day or so, partially due to poor planning on the part of the plotters, and partially because another general, Suharto, moved swiftly to crush the rebellion. Suharto’s role in the coup has been the subject of much debate. Almost certainly he knew of it beforehand, and he was not on the list of of generals to be captured, leading many to suggest that he feigned sympathy with the G-30-S, only to ruthlessly turn on them, and the PKI, as an opportunity to seize power himself. It worked—Suharto had pushed aside Sukarno completely by 1967, and remained in authoritarian power until he was forced to step down in 1998.

The theories behind the 1965 coup fall roughly into four groups:

1. The G-30-S were the driving force. These theories take the plotters at their word: the coup was an attempt to prevent a right-wing overthrow of Sukarno. The PKI’s involvement was either non-existent or, at best, limited to the tacit support of a few PKI officials, without explicit party approval—given the growth of the PKI, the argument goes, the party would have had little reason to disturb the status quo. This analysis was earliest and most famously proposed by scholars Benedict Anderson and Ruth McVey in their informal 1966 paper.

2. Suharto was the driving force, as part of a conspiracy to discredit the PKI. In this scenario, Suharto is an Iago-like figure, slyly goading the plotters into carrying out a coup that he knows will fail, leaving him well-placed to take power himself and blame the coup on the PKI. Proponents of this theory point to how comparatively well-organized Suharto’s supposedly spontaneous response was, and how conveniently the events fomented later anti-PKI propaganda (see below). More conspiratorial-minded variants include CIA support and involvement. A good summary of this version of the theory can be found in Peter Dale Scott’s 1985 paper.

3. Certain elements of the PKI recruited and supported the G-30-S, only to be caught off-guard by Suharto’s ruthless response. This theory has arisen from attempts to sort through much of the testimony of alleged G-30-S and PKI plotters, with their varying states of reliability. It argues that the “Council of Generals” was, at the very least, actively positioning themselves to crush the PKI upon the death of Sukarno, who had in 1965 been in ill-health for some time. Rather than take their chances on the defensive in such a situation, a few PKI higher-ups formulated the plan to kidnap the generals, and actively recruited army officers to carry out the operation. John Roosa explains this theory best in his book Pretext for Mass Murder.

4. The PKI, as a party, was behind the coup, in an effort to seize power against the democratic will of the Indonesian people. This has been more or less the official government line since Suharto took power.

It’s important to have a sense of the complex uncertainty surrounding the actual events of 1965 in order to appreciate the brazen nature of Suharto’s subsequent exploitation of them. It would appear that the intent was to kidnap the generals and then present them to Sukarno for prosecution, but the plotters botched the job—three of them were killed in their homes, and when the rest were brought to Jakarta’s Halim Air Force base, it was decided to abandon the kidnap plan, and the other three generals were executed. (A seventh general escaped when his aide was mistakenly captured and killed in his place.) All seven corpses were thrown down a well.

The retrieval of the bodies and their subsequent reburial was a public relations triumph for Suharto, who personally supervised the recovery at the well under the eyes of photographers and television cameras. But government-fomented rumors sprung up almost immediately that put a far more grisly spin on the generals’ fate—and, in the process, “Genjer-Genjer.”

The rumors concerned the Gerakan Wanita Indonesia (Indonesian Women’s Movement), better-known by its acronym Gerwani. The organization, under the umbrella of the PKI, advocated for female rights and empowerment, aiming for women to have a full share in Indonesia’s revolution. According to reports that began to surface soon after the coup was put down, the generals, prior to their execution, had been tortured by Gerwani members who had been specifically trained and brought to the base for that very purpose. The women allegedly slashed the generals’ genitals with razor blades, gouged out their eyes, and then watched them bleed to death as they danced naked around them (the reports specified a traditional Indonesian dance, the “Dance of the Fragrant Flowers”) in a sexual, sadistic orgy.

The stories were complete fiction, as Benedict Anderson demonstrated from unpublished autopsy reports. And it seems almost unfathomable that such a ludicrously lurid tale could actually be taken seriously. But the Dutch scholar Saskia Wieringa has pointed out how threatening female empowerment would have seemed to highly patriarchal Indonesian society—a lethal, unleashed feminine sexuality would have been regarded as an all-too-potent threat. The perceived size of that threat can be seen in the astonishingly bloody reprisals that followed.

In the months following the coup, it’s estimated that between 500,000 and one million Indonesians were killed in a cataclysm of violence. The merest hint of PKI sympathy was enough to warrant summary execution by roving bands of vigilantes. The country’s anti-Communist Muslims proclained a jihad; Suharto, for all practical purposes running the government, did nothing to restrain the bloodshed. (Nor did the United States; the CIA even supplied death lists to the army, as journalist Kathy Kadane has reported.)

One of those hints of PKI involvement, as it turns out, was “Genjer-Genjer.” The song had become associated with Gerwani members in less violent times; the composer, Arif, had hailed from the PKI-friendly Banyuwangi region, and had been a member of LEKRA, the PKI’s cultural committee. That hadn’t prevented the song from becoming an apolitical hit—now, though, it became a stigma. A typical story:

Sumilah, then aged fourteen, was arrested on 19 November 1965, and was to spend fourteen years in detention, much of the time at the Plantungan prison camp in Kendal, Central Java. She had no idea why she has been picked up along with 47 others but thinks it was because she was fond of singing “Genjer-Genjer.” Later it turned out that it was a case of mistaken identity; she had been mistaken for her mother who was active in a teachers’ organisation. When her mother was captured, this didn’t lead to Sumilah’s release. As fate would have it, she spent fourteen years in detention while her mother spent “only” four years. Sumilah describes how during her incarceration in a women’s prison, she was lacerated with a knife, whipped and burnt with cigarettes on her naked body.

Not long after the bogus Gerwani stories appeared, a parody of “Genjer-Genjer” began to circulate, with the lyrics altered (Jendral-Jendral, “general-general”) to incorporate details of the supposed torture. The source of the parody is unclear, but the government used it as a pretext to ban the song outright. Nevertheless, it would make one more notorious appearance.

In 1984, the government-produced propaganda film Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI (“The Treason of the G-30-S/PKI”) was released. Directed by Arifin C. Noor, the four-and-a-half-hour epic recreation of the government’s mythical version of the coup became required viewing for Indonesians. Schoolchildren were bused to periodic screenings; the film was shown on television every September 30th. The tale of the generals’ torture was re-enacted in prolonged, graphic detail, while the celluloid Gerwani, of course, did the “Dance of the Fragrant Flowers.” The music chosen to accompany their frenzy? “Genjer-Genjer.” A song about soup had thus come to symbolize the country’s greatest and most enduring trauma.

Suharto has been gone for nearly a decade, but the old myths die hard. Attempts to set up South-Africa-style Truth and Reconciliation commissions surrounding the 1965 genocide have so far come to naught, and long after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the majority of its satellites, “PKI” still remains a powerful slander in Indonesian politics. This past week, the Jakarta Post, on the anniversary of the coup, tracked down Muhammad Arif’s son.

“People attacked our home in Tumenggungan area in Banyuwangi city. They set fire to the house and everything there,” said Sinar, who was 11-years-old when the incident took place.

Muhammad fled with other PKI and Lekra members but was captured.
“From that point on, my father’s fate is unknown,” Sinar said.

But Sinar reveres his father as the family’s hero. He said the original song lyrics, which are considered taboo even today, have been safeguarded.

“For me, these books are [a part of] my family’s history, which should be safeguarded so my grandchildren will know what really happened,” he said.

One hopes with him: “what really happened” has been far too elusive a target in this story.

It’s a coincidence, but on reflection, this makes an appropriate post for Blogging for Burma Day.


  1. Something I didn’t know until researching this post: “The year of living dangerously” is actually a quote from a Sukarno speech.

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