‘To kill or be killed’: Fear and responses to the Indonesian anti-communist repression of 1965-66

Vannessa Hearman

    Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference paper presented at Conference (not in Proceedings)


    In interviews I conducted among members of the Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation in East Java, interviewees used of the phrase of ‘to kill or be killed’ as an explanation for their involvement in, or support for, the 1965-66 anti-communist violence. In East Java, civilian participation in the army-orchestrated killings of Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, PKI) members and sympathisers was the highest in the country. In my interviews, perpetrators and potential perpetrators discussed the strong conviction they had that they would have been killed had they not taken the initiative to strike against PKI members first. Despite the fall of Suharto’s New Order regime in 1998, this sentiment of ‘kill or be killed’ among NU leaders and members has continued to persist and can also be found in perpetrator accounts about the 1965-66 violence in the last ten years. In this paper, I explore the context in which this expression first took root and how it impacted on those upon whom the threat of violence from the communist side seemed real and why they perceived this threat as real. By comparing the NU accounts with those of other interviewees from the Left side of politics, religious clerics and members of the community about those times, I analyse if the claim of ‘to kill or be killed’ might be more than simply attempts to absolve the organisation and its members of violent crimes, and if the claim was based on a cultivated sense of fear at the grassroots level. I examine the extent to which the local security forces’ psychological warfare exercise aroused particular emotions, such as anger and fear in 1965.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusPublished - 22 Jun 2019
    EventReconceptualising the Cold War: On-the-ground Experiences in Asia - National University of Singapore, Singapore, Singapore
    Duration: 22 Jun 201923 Jun 2019


    WorkshopReconceptualising the Cold War
    Internet address


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