Inside the Minds of Executioners

Reimagining the Loss of Life in the 1965 Indonesian Killings

Author: Leslie K. Dwyer | George Mason University


The Act of Killing (TAOK) focuses on a small number of perpetrators, most of whom are in the Pancasila Youth, a vigilante organization that together with the military carried out the 1965 killings in Sumatra. Rather than attempting to document the 1965 violence in its totality this part-documentary, part-fictional, film-within-a-film, exposes how mass murderers live with what they have done. A central theme is the impunity the perpetrators enjoy. This is emphasized throughout the film as Pancasila Youth figures explain the term preman (free man) and their enduring belief that the violence in the mid sixties was justified. Because of the global acclaim that followed screenings of TAOK in film festivals across the world filmmakers Joshua Oppenheimer et al. have focused a new spotlight on the 1965 killings, a case that has never fully captured the attention of the world due to cold war politics. The statement of one of the main characters in the film, Adi, that "war crimes are defined by the winners," in this case rings true. Although, for example, there are multiple motivations for the mixed tribunal in Cambodia, in the last two decades this case has received sustained Western interest and governments have made enormous aid contributions to the trial, meanwhile ignoring the case of 1965 in Indonesia. Explanations for this include recognition that many people in the Indonesian government have no interest in revisiting this past because they were directly implicated in it; the economic risks of offending a government with an increasingly lucrative domestic market and control of abundant natural resources; the perception that Indonesia is now democratic; and an assumption that Indonesians are no longer impacted by this period. The fundamental reason for the discrepancy in this case, however, is that the lives lost were those of communists, losers in the global cold war.

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© Jennifer Robertson