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Everything We Know About Last Night's Anti-Communist Protests

An brief explainer of what went on outside the LBH building late last night.
Riot police stand guard as tear gas fills the air. All photos by Yudistira Dilianzia

Indonesian police clashed with anti-communist protestors outside the offices of a prominent Jakarta legal aid foundation last night amid false allegations spreading on social media that the foundation was hosting a meeting in support of the banned Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).

The protest turned ugly early Monday morning when protestors started to hurl stones and water bottles at the police. The authorities then fired tear gas and water cannons at the crowd, arresting 22 anti-communist protestors—and eventually charging five with assault and battery—as they shut the demonstration down.


By the end of the night a lot of the protestors had turned their anger from the alleged communist threat to the police themselves, stopping the chants of "crush the PKI," to shout slogans at the authorities asking why they were so concerned with arresting the ulemas opposed to communism and not the communists themselves.

Today we're left to sort through the confusing fallout of a weekend of protests, counter-protests, and fake news stories about a secret cabal of pro-communists trying to set the stage for the return of the PKI.

What happened here?

OK, so this story starts on Saturday night, when police in Central Jakarta shut down a private seminar discussing the 1965 anti-communist purge—a dark period of Indonesian history when as many as 500,000 people were killed in a wave of killings that quickly spread across the nation.

The police said that the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (LBH) lacked the necessary permits to hold a seminar. The foundation said that it didn't need a permit for what it saw as a private meeting that was closed to the general public. In the end, the seminar was cancelled.

This kind of thing now happens with startling frequency. The killings are an incredibly controversial subject today despite the fact that they occurred more than 50 years ago. Human rights groups have said that the nation needs to address what happened if it wants to truly move on.

But others still see the killings as a necessary step by nationalists to protect the nation from communism. And they view any efforts to discuss the events of 1965 with a sense of suspicion that often borders outright hostility.


Regardless of the reasons why, one thing is for sure: if you're holding a discussion about the `65 killings, there's a good chance an angry mob will appear demanding the police shut it down. And that's exactly what happened on Saturday night.

So by Sunday, LBH and a coalition of human rights groups had organized a peaceful protest of the previous night's crackdown by police. The event, dubbed "Asik-asik Aksi: Indonesia Darurat Demokrasi," took the form of an impromptu concert/ art show with poets, musicians, and human rights activists set to perform.

But as the event drew to a close, a mob of anti-communist protests, many of them drawn to the scene by social media messages that claimed LBH was holding a pro-communist rally, had started to gather outside. By 1 am, the crowd had grown from 50 to nearly 1,000 and the attendees of Asik-asik Aksi were trapped inside.

The mood inside the building turned dark. Outside a mob of angry protestors were accusing them of being members of some new communist regime. The concert attendees could hear their chants. They worried that the mob would kill them if they made it through the front doors.

The police kept the mob at bay. By the end of the night, the authorities broke up the protest and set up barricades to safely evacuate the 200 or so concertgoers from the LBH building. The whole ordeal ended around 5 am when the last of the Asik-asik Aksi attendees was able to leave the building.


How did this happen?

The easy answer is fake news. LBH issued a statement on Monday that accused unknown actors of spreading lies to draw a crowd of protestors to their building. A series of WhatsApp messages and tweets made the rounds on Sunday accusing LBH of hosting a pro-PKI meeting inside their office. The messages called on people to arrive and shut the meeting down, and they appeared to contain the approval of several prominent mass organizations.

"It is clear that a hoax or fake news was published and the false propaganda went viral," the statement read. "It went viral that this was a PKI event, that we would sing 'genjer-genjer' and so on, but in fact, it was nothing like that."

Indonesia has a serious fake news problem. It's so bad that we even run a weekly column exposing the worst of the bunch. So it's really no surprise that a fake story about something so sensitive could draw a crowd of angry protestors to the streets. Last year when a hoax hit the internet that claimed there were an additional 10 million illegal Chinese workers arriving in the country, people took it upon themselves to conduct their own immigration sweeps to search for a group of people who didn't exist.

"Emotional mobs tend to conduct deviant acts," Suryanto, a psychologist at Universitas Airlangga, told VICE. "They feel wronged by the government. Such feelings were made worse by the circulating rumors, so it became a social issue."


Other experts told VICE that the reason why so many fake news stories and hoaxes get so much traction in Indonesia is a symptom of the national character.

"Basically, we're not a nation who likes to read," Andina Dwifatma, a lecturer at Universitas Atma Jaya Jakarta, told VICE. "There's little interest to check and recheck information and it makes Indonesian society prone to hoaxes and fake news."

Then there's the tendency to act first, and question later, Andina said. "The effect of this 'mob mentality' as well as the low interest to check and recheck any given information, makes a dangerous combination" Andina said. "We need to change our mindset, from 'knowing more' into 'knowing deeper', otherwise, the LBH Jakarta incident won't be the last."

Really? This happened because of fake news?

Well, it's more than that. Anti-communist sentiment is on the rise right now, and a lot of ormas feel a renewed sense of political influence in the wake of the protests that ousted former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama.

Some truly think the PKI is working behind the scenes trying to stage a comeback. Others are less taken with conspiracy theories like these, but they still see any discussion that paints the PKI as victims as a grave threat to the nation.

One of the protest's organizers told VICE that he had heard of the event days before the protest. Rahmat Himran, a coordinator with the Anti-Communist Student and Youth Alliance, said they he saw a WhatsApp message saying there would be a communist event "in the form of singing along to 'genjer-genjer,' which is associated with the communists."


"The threat of PKI revival is real," Rahmat told VICE. "We suspect there's a pro-communist group in Jakarta that would host an event in defense of the PKI, including a seminar."

On Sunday, the WhatsApp broadcast messages urged "fellow activists where ever you are, to come to LBH Jakarta building because we are outnumbered by the police and the pro-communist organizers." Anti-communist groups promised to shut down any event that sought to promote "communist ideology."

"We will ban such an event and encourage the police to arrest and prosecute the masterminds behind the spread of communist ideology in Indonesia," Rahmat told VICE.

What's it all mean?

It's a chilling effect on free speech and efforts by human rights groups to address some of the darker chapters of Indonesian history. The anti-communist purges marked the transition from Soekarno's rule to Gen. Suharto's New Order regime. The New Order was vehemently anti-communist, going as far as making a brutal propaganda film on the atrocities committed in the name of communism required viewing for all Indonesian students.

Today the PKI is long gone. The Cold War is over and communism isn't spreading anywhere. If anything the world has gotten less communist in recent decades as even holdouts like North Korea move toward capitalism and a shaky embrace of free market economics. But the fear of communism still remains very real in Indonesia.

"This is a continuation of the residual effects of the New Order's anti-communism indoctrination," said Usman Hamid, the director of Amnesty International Indonesia.

New Order-era laws remain on the books that ban the display of any communist-related icons. Police have recently used these laws to arrest and question people seen wearing hammer and sickle t-shirts and pins. These laws are also used to shut down discussions of 1965 and limit speech about an entire period of Indonesian history.

"It's decreased our freedom of expression," Usman told VICE. "Even academics are limited to what we can say."