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30 Sept 1965

Indonesia's Anti-Communist Museum Is a Spooky, Confusing Place

Twenty six years after it opened, the Museum of Communist Betrayal insists on telling the same old story of the September 1965 coup long debunked by historians and witnesses.
All photos by author

If you grew up under Suharto's New Order regime, your first introduction to communism may have been the turtleneck wearing, godless heathens depicted on a wonderful government propaganda film Pengkhianatan G30 S-PKI (its name roughly translates to "The Betrayal of the Communists" and it's downright brutal). If you were a really lucky kid, then the four-hour long screening was followed up with a field trip to Taman Mini, where you spent another couple of hours breezing through the sad and rundown Museum of Communist Betrayal.


I was never one of those kids. The bourgeois private school I went to never bothered to take us on a field trip to this museum, which opened back in October 1, 1992. I don't know if that was a good thing or a bad thing. Did my school save me from being indoctrinated by bloody anti-communist propaganda? Or did I miss out on an important cultural touchstone of my youth?

I figured the only way I was going to find out was a trip to the museum to see what I missed out on all those years ago.

The museum complex itself is massive, and the centerpiece of the entire thing is a broken-down fountain surrounded by a roundabout wider than the main road. The complex is basically all concrete, save for the empty grass field between the Pancasila Sakti Monument and the main building. I parked next to two blue elementary school busses and walked down to the main building, eager to learn.

As I marched through the museum's courtyard, a bored middle-aged woman selling Indonesian military-themed merchandise stared at me from behind her stall. She sold, among other things, a camouflage baby onesie with a gigantic special forces dagger logo stitched on it, because it's never too early to get your baby showing off how vehemently pro-military it is.

The view of the Pancasila Sakti Monument from behind the pavilion.

The museum itself stands about a hundred meters away from the anti-communist movement's "ground zero," the infamous Lubang Buaya (literally the "crocodile pit"), a hole in the ground where the bodies of six Indonesian military generals were discarded after members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) supposedly tortured them to death in a failed coup attempt back on Sept. 30, 1965.


Lubang Buaya is one of the museum’s main attractions, and today it's framed by an elaborate Javanese pavilion and commemorated by a marble plaque. Red LEDs light the waterless abyss from within, pulsing out an eerie glow that highlights the flecks of red paint covering the walls. These decorations made the well look less like the site of a mass corpse disposal and more like, well, a tacky museum exhibit for kids.

Next to the pavilion is a hut containing a life-sized diorama of the actual torture. Inside, realistic wax communists sadistically torment the wax generals—who even have wax blood streaming down their foreheads— while wax figures of the women of Gerwani, a feminist movement tied to the PKI, dance around five kneeling prisoners like gun-toting Amazons in red bandanas.

All this violence made me wonder how dioramas like this could be considered suitable field trip material when the Ministry of Information once censored SpongeBob Squarepants for being "too violent."

The original Lubang Buaya, now with extra lights.

Opposite the torture hut, a group of visitors were attempting to take a High School Musical-style group picture in front of the Pancasila Sakti Monument. You know, the kind where everyone leaps into the air at just the right time and they all look like they're flying? I watched for a bit and then took their third failed attempt to jump on cue as a sign that it was time to move on.

I walked closer to the monument to study the gargantuan reliefs on its walls. In front of me was the heavenly tableau depicting the rage of the "commies"—portrayed either as slit-eyed proletariats or sickle-wielding savages—tortured and whipped the heroes to death.


I had to admit, it was impressive. The artist who created this propaganda masterpiece must've really thought about what a hell run by godless heathens looked like before he got to work. Historically accurate? Probably less so. But action-packed? Sure.

Eager to learn more, I made my way inside the museum in search of higher knowledge. The admission price of Rp 40,000 ($2.68 USD) wasn't exactly affordable, but I held out hope that it was going to, somehow, be worth it.

A close up of the relief on the Pancasila Sakti Monument. Note the preference for dramatic flair over historical accuracy.

Inside, my eyes struggled to adjust to how dark everything was. Half the lights were burned out, making the rundown inside of the building stand in stark contrast to its well-maintained exterior. The stench of neglect hung heavy in the air. By the end, I had counted a total of four windows and 34 dioramas that were in various stages of decay.

The dioramas, though, were the work of a serious craftsman. Indonesia loves to use dioramas to explain its history, something we've covered before at this VICE office. This museums dioramas were equally ornate. I started at scenes of mud-caked guerrillas posed perfectly in action with tiny banners frozen in the rippling wind. Everywhere the lights weren't burned out, I saw tiny wax figures, most no bigger than my palm, cast long shadows on plastic earth.

But the storytellers, it seemed, didn't have such a dedication to the craft. The Suharto Museum, in Yogyakarta, at least tries to tell a somewhat coherent, but heavily slanted, narrative of the New Order. Sure, you need to take all of its claims with a grain of salt, but a lot of it is an error of omission, not an outright distortion of historical fact.


The Museum of Communist Betrayal isn't concerned with history. Instead, it has a single simple motive, to tell people that the communists were the antithesis of all that is Godly and righteous. It doesn't bother to say why communist ideology was a threat to Indonesia. It doesn't even explain what communism even is—which may be why so many people throw around the world today without seeming to understand what it means. All it shows is that the PKI were the villains in this story, and the generals both the victims and the eventual heroes of the tale.

It felt like I was stuck in a Cold War time warp. The only break in the pro-military rhetoric were the out of place looking kiosks selling drinks and snacks.

At one point, from the corner of my eye, I spotted a sign that read "Museum Library." I thought "ah, here there may be a place I could learn something," so I followed the sign to a dim room. But instead of books and posters, I found stacked crates of bottled drinks instead. I became unsure if this was a library or a kiosk storeroom.

I noticed some shelves with dusty binders along the wall, so I walked over to check them out. But my quest for knowledge was interrupted by the old man with an choppy buzz cut who was standing behind the checkout counter.

“What do you want?” he barked.

“I want to learn more about the 30 September Coup, may I look through these?” I said.

“That’s not allowed,” he responded in annoyance. “You need a special license to be in here.”


OK, this library was obviously not a place of learning. I slowly backed away between the crates of Pocari Sweat, thanked him, and left.

The clean and windowless front half of the museum. The other half is just as clean and windowless.

After spending two hours at the museum, I can safely say that I could've learned more about the 30 September coup by reading its Wikipedia entry. The exhibits themselves were one-sided and lacked even an attempt at historical accuracy. It offered visitors no information about what happened after the torture—like the fact that the doctors who conducted their autopsies doubted they were even tortured at all, let alone surrounded by a pack of wild-eyed, dancing women while being tortured.

The ensuing massacre of an estimated 500,000 to three million suspected communists didn't make the cut either. I could see how that might not have made for a child-safe diorama, but still, it's a pretty big—and still pretty controversial—moment in Indonesian history.

I could, though, appreciate the work that went into those dioramas. They probably looked way better back in the '90s too, when the lights all still worked. Or maybe they were just going for that spooky vibe. I'll never know.

As I wandered around, a tour guide dressed in khaki uniform droned on about the coup attempt through a megaphone to a room full of bored elementary students. Those students probably had already listened to his distorted voice ramble on for more than an hour. That could've been me, I thought. I uttered a silent thanks that my school didn’t have to rely on New Order propaganda to teach kids about history.

Leaving the museum, I could still feel the specter of communism floating over my shoulder. It felt a bit like walking out of the Disneyland Haunted Mansion, just with less churros and more propaganda.