It has been more than half a century since the Indonesian military and its Muslim allies crushed the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) in a bloody pogrom that is widely believed to have killed 500,000 people, a great many of whom may have been innocent victims of personal vendettas.

Yet in in recent weeks, the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) has swung in behind the Attorney General’s Office and the police in yet another nationwide campaign of doubtful legality to confiscate books and academic papers dealing with communism and the 1965-66 purge.

The specter of the communist bogeyman still fuels fears across a country which once harbored the world’s largest non-ruling communist party and may have hovered, ever so briefly, on the brink of being transformed into a Marxist-Leninist state.

The bloodletting forestalled that, but whenever political activists seek to delve into or try to redress the excesses of that period, the military and conservative Muslim diehards are quick to stoke the underlying phobia still felt in many parts of rural Indonesia.

Right-wing elements were particularly incensed with the release in late 2012 of American film-maker Joshua Oppenheimer’s award-winning documentary The Act of Killing, which highlighted interviews with some of the perpetrators of the bloodshed that most younger people know little or nothing about.

An alleged Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) member is captured by troops during the anti-communist purge, October 1965. Photo: Wikimedia

The latest communist-purging seizures come only three years after a similar crackdown which reached bizarre heights when two people were arrested for wearing T-shirts carrying the letters PKI, which actually stood for Pecinta Kopi Indonesia (Indonesian Coffee Lovers).

Raids in West Sumatra, Central and East Java, North Kalimantan and now expanding elsewhere have confiscated books such as Red Coat, Lenin, Hunting Down Sukarno and numerous titles dealing with the abortive communist-inspired coup of September 30, 1965.

Communism is legally outlawed in Indonesia, but book raids can only be carried out by prosecutors acting under a court order. The Constitutional Court has ruled that banning or confiscating books must be subject to prior legal proceedings.

Hardline Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, a former army chief of staff, has supported the crackdown, claiming it will prevent remnants of the PKI from exacting revenge for 1965. “It’s the same for radicalism,” he said. “It’s dangerous for this country.”

The Philippines remains the only country in Asia – and one of the few places in the world – where there is still a communist insurgency, largely the result of the sort of feudalistic social structure that gave birth to Maoist ideology in the first place.

After watching the China-backed Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) implode from within in the early 1980s, the Thai Army has never revisited communism as a national security threat, instead using political and social conflicts as a pretext for political intervention.

The 50-year-old Communist Party of Burma (BCP) was another victim of Beijing’s decision, precipitated by its conflict with Vietnam in the late 1970s, to stop its support for insurgencies and take a different approach with its nearest neighbors.

An Islamist group member holds a poster during an anti-communist protest outside parliament building in Jakarta, Indonesia, September 29, 2017. Poster reads, "Hizbut Tahrir dissolved, Indonesia's Communist Party (PKI) allowed". REUTERS/Beawiharta
An Islamist group member holds a poster during an anti-communist protest outside parliament, Jakarta, September 29, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

While the overthrow of Indonesian president Sukarno and later the impeachment of the ailing president Abdurrahman Wahid were partly the result of direct military pressure, the TNI – unlike Thailand’s military – has always sought to act under a cloak of constitutionality.

But its re-positioning as an external defense force in the wake of president Suharto’s 1998 downfall has never sat well with the officer corps and army retirees, whose contempt for civilian politicians goes back to the struggle for independence.

In the middle of a re-election campaign, President Joko Widodo is unlikely to intervene in the raids as he continues to fight off unjustified claims that he is a closet communist, despite being only four when the PKI was crushed.

In April 2016, Widodo’s government, with unapologetic chief security minister Luhut Panjaitan in the vanguard, surprisingly supported a two-day national symposium on the 1965–66 killings which, for the first time, brought together the military and survivors of the atrocities.

Still, the president later felt compelled to balance that act of contrition by instructing the TNI and the police to uphold the law against efforts to spread communist teachings by seizing books and items containing hammer and sickle imagery.

Predictably, they overreacted. When Widodo ordered a halt to the heavy-handed crackdown, it continued all the same, with Ryacudu claiming that PKI elements were behind a renewed Leftist surge.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (R), sits on the back side of a decoration bicycle with a picture of himself at a newly opened terminal at Semarang city airport, in Central Java, on June 7, 2018. Photo: AFP/ Presidential Palace/Handout
Indonesian President Joko Widodo (R) sits on the back side of a decoration bicycle with a picture of himself, June 7, 2018. Photo: AFP/ Presidential Palace/Handout

It was only until the early 2000s that thousands of people who had been jailed, mostly without trial in the mid-1960s, were forced to carry identity cards stamped with “EX-TAPOL” (political prisoner) — letters that condemned them and their immediate families to a life of discrimination.

Even today, banners across Indonesian streets continue to warn about the dangers of terrorism, narcotics and often communism; judging by the attitudes of old guard generals and Muslim conservatives, it is not necessarily in that order.

In 2007, the Attorney General’s Office banned dozens of school text books that neglected to mention the PKI’s involvement in the events of September 30, 1965, in which six top generals were abducted, murdered and stuffed down a well.

That event led to the overthrow of founding president Sukarno and the emergence of Suharto, a little-known officer who with the connivance of the Indonesian elite was to amass extraordinary powers during his 32-year rule.

Banned from Indonesia until the late 1990s, the late American academic Ben Anderson always cast doubt on the official version. But long after Suharto was forced to resign, the official blame remains where it has always been – with the PKI.

Whatever the truth of 1965, retaining the ghosts of the past allowed the elite to underpin the legitimacy of Suharto’s New Order regime and, in doing so, deflect any criticism of the role of Muslim groups in rounding up communist suspects.