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Rights Groups Urge US to Release Files on Indonesia Killings

A statue of former Indonesian president Suharto is pictured at the Suharto museum in Yogyakarta.

Rights groups are urging the U.S. to release secret files on Indonesia's anti-communist massacres of 1965-66, as the Southeast Asian country takes a tentative step toward a reckoning with one of the worst atrocities of the last century.

The push by Human Rights Watch and Indonesian group Kontras comes ahead of a conference in Indonesia next week that will be a rare public discussion of the mass murder of 50 years ago.

Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth said Wednesday the massacres, orchestrated by the military, were “one of the most horrendous crimes of our era.”

There is no official figure for the number of people killed but researchers estimate half a million. Within Indonesia, widely accepted accounts of the era gloss over the deaths. The role of the U.S. is cloaked in secrecy. At the time, the U.S. viewed Indonesia as a bulwark in its efforts to thwart the influence of communist Soviet Union and China in Southeast Asia.

“We want to know the working level involvement between the U.S. government and the killers in 1965,” said Roth. “Who knew what and what were the channels of communication? Were there names (of suspected communists) conveyed by the U.S. government to the Indonesian government and what happened to those people.”

Indonesia's human rights commission last month asked President Barack Obama to declassify files from the CIA and other agencies that could show how the killings were planned and the degree to which the United States collaborated with Indonesia's military.

The U.S. has said it is reviewing the request. It has previously released documents relating to atrocities in Chile and other countries.

The killings began in October 1965 shortly after an apparent abortive coup in which six right-wing generals were murdered. The late dictator Suharto, an unknown major general at the time, filled the power vacuum and blamed the assassinations on Indonesia's Communist Party, which was then the largest outside the Soviet Union and China, with some 3 million members.

Haris Azhar, a coordinator for advocacy group Kontras, said 1965-66 was “the mother of all violence in Indonesia” and its effects are still felt despite the taboo on open discussion.

Millions of descendants of Communist Party members are stigmatized and face legal discrimination that prevents them from holding government jobs.

Roth said next week's two day conference, which is organized by Indonesia's human rights commission with the involvement of one of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo's advisers, is a “very important first step” toward establishing a truth and reconciliation process.

But he acknowledged that getting such a process started is likely to face significant resistance from the military and others who benefited from the rise of Suharto.