Is Gestapu Impossible?

Benedict Anderson has written a powerful essay that appears in the current edition of Asia-Pacific Journal entitled “Impunity and Reenactment: Reflections on the 1965 Massacre in Indonesia and its Legacy.” (I learned of it from Jeff Hadler, who just co-organized a wonderful conference that I really wanted to attend on Indonesia’s New Order and its Legacies.)

Anderson’s essay makes a small but provocative point

Army leaders, helped by advice and half-concealed support from both the Pentagon and the CIA – then reeling under heavy reverses in Vietnam – had long been looking for a justification for a mass destruction of the Party. Now the September 30th Movement and the murder of the six generals provided the opening they awaited. Almost immediately the army-controlled media started a lurid and successful campaign to convince the citizens that the Movement was simply a tool, manipulated behind the scenes by the Party. By no means was it an internal military mutiny. The communists were said to have been planning a vast extension of the murders to the civilian population all over the country. The army’s campaign began on October 3, when the bodies of three of the generals were exhumed from a dry well in a remote part of the Air Force’s Jakarta base. (They had not been killed at home, but kidnapped to this area and then shot dead). The media, using blurred and retouched photos of the bodies, claimed that the victims had had their eyes gouged out and their genitals sliced off by sex-crazed communist women. (Many years later, thanks to military carelessness, the post-mortems written up on October 3 by experienced forensic doctors, and directed personally to Suharto that same day, came to light. No missing eyeballs or genitals, just the lethal wounds caused by military guns.). In a move that would have pleased Goebbels, the Movement’s full name was deleted in favour of Gestapu (GErakan September TigA PUluh). No one noticed that the word order here is impossible in the Indonesian language, but is syntactically perfect in English. Very few Indonesian generals then had perfect English). On top of the hyperinflation, this cunning Big Lie propaganda had the desired effect: massive anti-communist hysteria.

Here is the idea. To translate “September 30 Movement” into proper Indonesian, one would say Gerakan Tiga Puluh September rather than Gerakan September Tiga Puluh. The latter is very obviously ungrammatical to speakers of Indonesian. So much so that when I teach about the events of late 1965 I almost always say the words Gerakan Tiga Puluh September by accident. (I never even realized it until just now, and it’s always bothered me.)

It takes a careful and critical student of language and Indonesian politics to notice something like this; that is Anderson for sure. The implications of his observation are clear to the reader: no Indonesian speaker would have thought to come up with the term “Gestapu,” and it takes a speaker of English—probably American English—to translate “The Movement of September 30” word by word into Indonesian to produce Gerakan September Tiga Puluh. (The other common abbreviation for the movement, G30S, is perfectly grammatical.) For Anderson, this is just one more piece of evidence that the US was implicated, somehow, in the massacres of 1965-66.

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