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December 30, 2019

Anwar Congo and the act of killing


December 30, 2019

Imagine a killer – rather a mass killer – being enthusiastic about re-enacting his crimes: kidnappings, tortures, strangulations, and dumping of the dead bodies, and all that with a sense of pride.

That was Anwar Congo of Indonesia, the mass murderer who danced the cha-cha-cha after accomplishing his tasks of targeting mostly innocent people accused of being communists in the mid-1960s.

Congo died in November 2019 at the age of 78 after experiencing both fame and notoriety with his acting, and boastful confessions of his crimes in a marvellous film, ‘The Act of Killing’ – an Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary. For the film, he climbed stairs to roof terraces where he demonstrated his preferred method of killing people. “A length of wire is best for strangulation”, he said while the camera was filming. He loved the wire because beating people to death proved too messy. And after the shot he would insist on watching it. He just wanted to make sure the shot was as perfect as his crimes were.

But he didn’t consider himself a criminal; he was doing all this to help his army save the country from communists, who were infidels and wanted to take over Indonesia. If you watch the film, ‘The Act of Killing’, you find Anwar Congo a thin man with white hair who confesses to have killed at least a thousand people. Just a thousand! Out of around a million killed in 1965-66 by the army of Indonesia led by General Suharto, the gangs of petty criminals turned into hardened murders, and religious fanatics who wanted to defend their faith against a purported enemy.

Anwar Congo tells the camera, “I have tried to forget all that”, but while saying that he dances cheerfully and adds, “Feeling happy, a little alcohol, a little marijuana”, and he begins to sing. ‘The Act of Killing’ is full of striking scenes that shed ample light on one of the worst massacres that took place in the 20th century, but since the US itself was the major collaborator and supporter of the Indonesian army, the atrocities are mostly forgotten. You need to remember what Stalin did in the 1930s more than what Suharto did with American help in the 1960s.

That is the reason the Indonesian massacre remains largely lesser known. A political purge beginning in 1965 eliminated around a million people accused of being communists, leftists, and anti-religion. Most of the killers didn’t know their victims; they received lists of the accused from the intelligence agencies that claimed to be protecting their country against anti-state elements. A failed coup was used as an excuse so that the military could go on a rampage and target suspects across Indonesia. How could millions of people be suspect? Well, if state officials decide even a whole country can be seen as suspect.

‘The Act of Killing’ shows precisely that – by following Anwar Congo who was a petty criminal in his youth, reselling movie tickets for profit and extorting money from the Chinese minority in his area. When the army decided to purge anyone it considered a threat to its power, they drafted hundreds or even thousands like Anwar Congo, who could be intoxicated with a dose of patriotism and a slug of religious fervour. That tipsy feeling of being a defender of the country was good enough for them to go off on a killing spree.

When you are a criminal, you just need an excuse to kill in the name of your country or your faith. That’s what Anwar Congo did, leading a notorious death squad that executed thousands of suspected leftists, and after 50 years he was willing to re-enact the killings for the camera. He was proud that he was hired as leader of the assassins by his army. The director of ‘The Act of Killing’, Joshua Oppenheimer, did not find it difficult to persuade Congo to recall his first attempt at murder. “It was a failure”, Congo recalls.

More disturbing than Anwar Congo and the film he acted in, is the narrative that has portrayed the victims as depraved and vicious. The failed coup was blamed for inflicting dreadful suffering on the six generals who were killed before the massacres started. General Suharto usurped power by sidelining the popular leader, Sukarno, who had used the slogans of nationalism, religion, and communism. Just like Z A Bhutto later did with his Islamic socialism. Be it communism or socialism, they were not acceptable, even if they were just slogans. They had to be purged, and an American-backed army was the best tool to do that.

The Suharto doctrine painted all leftists as evil, atheistic forces that could sweep over the country if people were not vigilant. Doesn’t that remind you of the Jews being victimized by Hitler, or the Muslims being targeted by the BJP in present-day India, or even some minorities in Muslim countries including Pakistan? The degrees of violence are of course different; in some countries it is state driven, in some others it is inflicted by jingoist, nationalist, religious, and sectarian groups supported by some state institutions just as it was done over 50 years ago in Indonesia.

Such measures justify authoritarian regimes, irrespective of their credentials that can be monarchic as in some Arab potentates, pseudo-democratic as in India and Pakistan, or even outright military dictatorships led by generals such as Suharto or Zia, or in today’s Egypt or Thailand. Sometimes they promise to introduce a New Order, as General Suharto did; but that new order was there just to reinforce his own power that he couldn’t have wielded under a truly democratic dispensation. He was supported by his army in his so-called New Order because the army itself benefitted from it.

Under General Suharto it was impossible to talk freely about any human rights violations. Even after Suharto, younger Indonesians would ask their parents but would get only silence in response, because the army is still dominating and does not want its former dictator to be exposed, as it would open a Pandora’s Box and people would start challenging the army’s narrative. That’s why those atrocities are projected as patriotic deeds that should be honoured and respected.

The Indonesian army in addition to mass killing, also detained and imprisoned hundreds of thousands without trial. Why without trial? Because if you have a trial you need to present some evidence, which is hardly available, so you just keep them under detention for years, or kill them and dump their bodies. The bodies may be found, but then you pretend that you know nothing about them. They may have been killed in a family feud or they may have just committed suicide as Hassan Nasir was reported to have done during General Ayub Khan’s regime or Nazeer Abbasi during General Zia’s dictatorship.

In 1966, General Suharto forced Sukarno to hand emergency powers to him and appointed himself as President Suharto. Just like General Musharraf did, not long ago in Pakistan – but hush, we must not talk about that.

So how do you protect Anwar Congos? You create a narrative that lionizes criminals who violate laws and even mutilate and suspend the most supreme law of the land – the constitution. If your Anwar Congos are safe, you are safe too. You call a spade a spade at your own peril. The Congo is dead, long live the Congo.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]