About the Film

On the night of September 30, 1965, six of Indonesia's most senior generals were dragged from their beds and brutally murdered. The shocking murders set in motion a national power struggle that would, in a short time, lead to the overthrow of President Sukarno by General Suharto, initiating a bloody reign of terror in which up to a million Indonesians would be killed.

For more than three decades, the events of that fatal night have been shrouded in mystery, the facts obscured by sensation and propaganda. Now, new evidence suggests that the murders were not what they seemed. Through recently declassified documents, interviews with newly liberated Indonesians, and discussions with officials, journalists, and survivors of prison and torture, SHADOW PLAY offers a startling new interpretation of the events that shaped modern Indonesian history and changed the destiny of Southeast Asia.

SHADOW PLAY, a documentary presented by Thirteen/WNET New York, premieres Sunday, June 2 at 10 p.m. (ET) on PBS (check local listings).

In the mountains of Java, mass graves are being opened and bodies exhumed for the first time. One of them belongs to Ibnoe Santoro, a promising student who was executed and dumped in a hole along with 22 others branded as communist sympathizers. Today, Ibnoe Santoro's brother, Joyo Santoso, finally feels free enough to talk about what happened.

Dr. Sumiyarsi, a pediatrician, was arrested without warrant, detained without trial, and imprisoned for 11 years for allegedly being associated with the Indonesian Communist Party, the PKI. "My only crime was that I was a member of the Indonesian Scientists Organization," she says.

In an Indonesia now living under democratic rule, former prisoners and relatives of victims are coming forward to tell their stories of the terror campaign of 1965-66 that led to the massacre of up to a million people. Their testimony, along with the newly released documents, provides evidence that this "year of living dangerously" was conducted with the full knowledge and complicity of the United States, Great Britain, and Australia.

Taking its title from the ancient form of Javanese storytelling, SHADOW PLAY looks at how Western powers may have manipulated key figures in Indonesia like shadow puppets as they sought to keep Southeast Asia from falling into communist hands.

At the heart of the story is Achmad Sukarno, the dynamic figure who led the Dutch East Indies to independence from colonial rule and became the first president of the Republic of Indonesia in 1949. In a nation of nationalists, Muslims, leftists, and conservatives, President Sukarno sought to preserve his rule by balancing many competing ideologies.

But President Sukarno's courting of the Indonesian PKI, which, with over three million members, was the largest communist party outside of China and the Soviet Union, increasingly rankled Western powers. With the establishment of the British state of Malaysia on Indonesia's border and the escalation of the U.S. military campaign in Vietnam, Indonesia and the West became increasingly polarized. When President Sukarno became ill, rumors circulated that the army, backed by the CIA, was plotting to overthrow him in order to keep the government out of the hands of the Communists.

Then, on the 30th of September, 1965, junior army officers, supposedly under control of the PKI, kidnapped and killed the head of the army and five senior generals. Twenty-four hours later, the apparent coup was put down by General Mohamed Suharto. In the days and weeks that followed, General Suharto assumed greater and greater powers, controlling the press and spreading stories of how communist women had tortured and mutilated the generals, gouging out their eyes, cutting off their sexual organs and dancing over their bodies.

Soon a nationwide purge was on, leading to mass arrests in Jakarta of anyone with even tenuous ties to the PKI. People like Dr. Sumiyarsi were caught and tortured. After the military pressured President Sukarno into making General Suharto head of the army, the general took his ideological cleansing campaign to the countryside -- where students like Ibnoe Santoro were tortured, shot, and buried in mass graves.

Six months after the murder of the generals, with hundreds of thousands of Communists and their alleged supporters dead, General Suharto deposed President Sukarno and began a dictatorship that would last until 1998.

Looking back on that pivotal year, SHADOW PLAY examines how British propaganda specialists worked with General Suharto to whip up anti-Communist sentiment and solidify the army's position as heroes. It also reviews newly released communiqués from US and Australian ambassadors revealing that Western powers allowed General Suharto to carry out mass murders so that the Indonesian domino would fall on the Western side of the Cold War divide.

Perhaps most shockingly, SHADOW PLAY hears from the only surviving leader of the September 30th movement, Colonel Latief, who endured 33 years in prison. Latief claims he informed General Suharto of their plans. He contends that the rebels had never intended to kill the generals, but only to bring them before President Sukarno to face charges of planning a coup against him. Some now believe it was General Suharto's agents who infiltrated the movement to make sure the generals were killed, giving General Suharto the pretext to launch his purge and eventually take over Indonesia. Immediately after the murder of the generals, extensive foreign aid was provided by Western countries to the Indonesian military. Recently declassified documents contradict years of US government denials that American intelligence was working with the Indonesian army. The full extent of Western involvement awaits complete declassification of documents, which could take decades.

The documentary goes on to show that today, even under the rule of Megawati Sukarnoputri, Sukarno's daughter, Indonesia is still fractured by the events of September 30, 1965. As the families of Ibnoe Santoro and others seek to re-bury the bones of their murdered relatives, many Indonesians violently refuse to allow it, for they are still wary of Communism and those with alleged ties to the PKI. For them, the Communists were the enemy, and their anti-Communist sentiment remains strong. But, as this film shows, Indonesians like Ibnoe Santoro were most likely victims of a Cold War massacre tacitly supported and perhaps even abetted by the West as part of the global ideological struggle.

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The challenges faced by Western journalists in Indonesia during the mid 1960s.

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