Vol 33 (2013): Special Issue: Confronting Mass Atrocities

Who Knows? Oral History Methods in the Study of the Massacres of 1965-66 in Indonesia

John Roosa
University of British Columbia
Published August 22, 2013


The massacres in Indonesia in 1965-66 must have numbered in the thousands but only a few have been studied in any detail. The scant literature about the massacres tends to focus on the historical context rather than on the massacres themselves. One reason for this lack of knowledge is that the massacres were designed to be mysterious. They were not public events; they were meant to be forgotten. To research them, one has to bore through decades of sedimented lies, legends, and silences. This essay reviews the contributions of oral historians to our understanding of the massacres. I argue many of the existing oral histories are flawed because their research methods are unsuited to a situation where the basic facts about the event being investigated are so poorly understood. Researchers have hardly known what to look for. Oral historians have focused their studies on local communities but have tended not to obtain information from a broad crosssection of “locals.” Obtaining reliable information about any single massacre requires an unusual level of cross-checking of information with a variety of people. The preference for strictly local studies has left the main perpetrator, the army high command in Jakarta, out of the picture.