Saturday, 22 June 2013

Indonesia's dark history

Indonesia's dark history
On the night of October 1st, 1965, a failed coup involving the abduction and murder of six Indonesian army generals, precipitated the killing of hundreds of thousands of Indonesian Communist Party (PKI - Partai Komunist Indonesia) members.
The precise number of those killed remains unknown. Estimates range from 100,000 up to 1,000,000, however, no one can be certain as to the numbers killed, or even if the communist party supported the coup (Cribb 1990, p.12).
Subsequently, the press coverage on the event was limited and distorted. But why?

By 1965, the Indonesian Communist party was the largest Communist party outside of China and the Soviet Union (Anderson et-al. 1971, p.60)
In a predominately Muslim society, the PKI had grown in power and had emerged as the largest political party in Indonesia in 1965 (Tapsell 2008, p.1)
With over three and a half million members in 1965, the party attracted potential members with socialist type policies that benefited the various labour groups in Indonesia at the time Cavanagh 1990, p2).
(The link below can help give you an idea how big the communist party was in 1965, however, it is rather long )
Communist Gathering 1965 Jakarta
Conflict Brewing
The Army, Religious Groups and the Communists
The rise of the communist party, however, caused tensions with existing powers in Indonesia, and despite its large membership and number of affiliations, the PKI was subject to pressure from factions in the army and some religious groups.
Religious groups, such as Nahdlatul Ulama, were said to distrust the infidel communists because they were thought to be atheists, and perhaps felt their religious hegemony was threatened. Similarly, the army viewed the growth of the PKI in Indonesia as a threat to the army’s political authority (Young, 1990, p.69).
Three power blocks, based on Communist, Nationalist (Army) and religious ideologies, evolved in a precarious relationship in Indonesia. Sukarno, a highly revered independence and political leader, whom had held power since independence, attempted to play a mediator role between these Indonesian entities by carefully appeasing the army, religious groups and communists. In his efforts to placate all three sides, Sukarno even went so far as to create a unique Indonesian political concept called ‘Nasakom’ (Nationalism, Religion and Communism) (Sukarno, 1956). This concept promoted a combination of values from the aforementioned ideologies and focused on the continuity Indonesia. 
The United States, the Cold War, and Interference in Indonesia
However, the rise of the communist party in Indonesia did not go unnoticed by outside powers such as the US.
Leading up to the purging of the communist party from Indonesia, the United States had a history of interference in South East Asia following the Second World War. Military and covert operations were carried out in the name of the free world in places such as Vietnam, Korea, and the Taiwanese straight. Indonesia was no exception.
The US was convinced of the Domino theory - a theory where America's supremacy in SE Asia was thought to be threatened by communist ideologies – so much so that it felt threatened enough to adopt policies of interference in Indonesia (Griswold 1998, Chapter 2).
These policies and covert operations, adopted by the US, were directed at destabilising the Sukarno regime because it was inclusive in the political process towards the communists. Some of the known examples of interference include inciting rebellion in 1958; spreading anti-communist propaganda; and smear campaigns against communists and their apologists. One example of an unsuccessful smear campaign, involved a propaganda porno film, depicting the founding father of Indonesian politics, Sokarno, in a bid to embarrass him (Griswold, 1998 Chapter 2). The reason behind shaming Sokarno, was that the CIA thought he was leaning too far left in the political spectrum, despite his claim of non-alignment during the cold war.
CIA involvement in Indonesia -

The Event
The elements that drove the September 30th movement in 1965 are very much unclear, however certain events are more concrete. To be sure, a middle/low ranking army officer, kidnapped and murdered six army generals, while claiming that he had carried out this attack to prevent the generals taking over the country in a CIA sponsored coup (Anderson, 1971 p.121).
By October the 2nd, however, with all the rebel troops either captured or fleeing, and offering little resistance, the coup collapsed just as suddenly as it erupted, largely before many Indonesians even knew it existed (Anderson 1971, p.52).
In the confusion that followed, one of two surviving army generals, General Suharto, blamed the Indonesian Communist party and started a process which began with the quick disposal of the coup and ended with the systematic slaughter of the Indonesian Communist party (Anderson,1971 p.32-38).
(General Suharto praised on the cover of Time Magazine 1966)

The rationale of the slaughter following the 30th September movement was that the communists were thought to be deeply involved in the abduction and murder of the Generals, and therefore they were traitors. Many of the communist party members, unaware of their implied collusion in the coup, cooperated with calls from the government, and denounced the coup. A day or so later following the coup, the Communist party told its members to co-operate with government forces and in many cases were unknowingly led to their deaths in the confusion (Roosa, 2006, p.21-25).
Lynch mob Jakarta

The slaughter that followed, engulfed many party members throughout Indonesia over the following months, however, the pandemonium was also used as an excuse to settle old scores with people not related to the communist party. Racial tensions surfaced, and the persecutions of ethnic minorities took place. Sumatra, Java and Bali are areas that have documented many cases of murder and imprisonment following 1965 (Cribb, 1990 pp.23-28). In many cases, the genocide was committed by religious and civilian groups, and supported by the Army.
Soldier bayonetting a communist while others wait for death

In the years following the event, Suharto used the movement as a pretext for delegitimising Sukarno and helping himself into power. As discussed by Roosa (2006, p.4), Suharto incrementally took over power following the September 30th movement in what was called a ‘creeping coup-d’├ętat’ disguised as an effort to prevent a coup. Suharto's takeover of power was solidified, officially beginning in 1967, he was sworn in as Indonesia's president and persisted in that role for many year up until the Asian Financial Crisis of 1998. Within this tenor, President Suharto routinely reminded Indonesians of the communist threat and presented himself as the saviour of the nation, which resulted in the further legitimisation of his dictatorship (Roosa 2006, p.5).
Crib describes how Suharto cultivated a ‘kill or be killed’ atmosphere that incited people onto the communists (Cribb 2002, p.552). For example, in 1984, a government sponsored movie depicting the September 30th events, ‘Pengkhianatan’ (1984 - Betrayal) framed the PKI as traitors and attempted to justify and encourage the perpetual abuse of communists due to their perceived involvement in the murders of the generals. This movie was systematically played every year on September 30th until the fall of Suharto in 1998.
Pengkhianatan (betrayal - full movie)

The propagation of such hate towards the communists in Indonesian society caused much distortion in the reporting of actual events on September 30th 1965. For decades, a government instituted ‘veil of silence’ banned alternative non-government publications on the September 30th movement in the name of preserving public order (Roosa 2006, p. 34). The ‘official’ version of events, however, was played up as an important patriotic campaign that defended the integrity of Indonesia, and commemorated the event in students’ text books and a historical museum (Museum Pengkhianatan - Museum of Betrayal) built in Jakarta.
Founding stone for the museum fo the Communist betrayal opened in 1992

Suharto and the murdered generals

Other accounts of the 30th September movement cast doubt on Suharto’s Government’s version. Documentaries such as, ’40 years of silence’ and ‘The act of killing’, discuss issues of normalised violence and offer alternative qualitative accounts of violence committed against the masses for the sake of power grabs. These movies offer a great starting point for people that would want to know more about the events, however, these have been banned in Indonesia.

Why Haven’t I heard about this before?
You may have heard about the Indonesian genocide, however, it was largely played down in western society. There was a film, ‘The year of Living Dangerously’, starring Mel Gibson and based on the book of the same title, which gained some notoriety in the early 80’s, but not nearly enough.
In Australia, despite the number of civilian victims and Australia’s proximity to Indonesia, the systematic slaughter in 1965-66 received little news coverage in Australia’s news Media. Cribb, for example (1990, p. 3-5), analyses foreign and Australian journalists reporting on the event at the time, and suggests that correspondents in Indonesia and editors at home framed the killings as a background story to a change of leadership, ‘with all its implications for the cold war and the defeat of communism’.
According to Tapsell (2008, p.212), the absence of the September 30th is a strange omission from many history books circulating today. For example, classic historical texts, such as the ‘Oxford History of the Twentieth Century’ overlooks the massacres and instead states that power was simply ‘assumed’. This oversight occurs, despite the fact that the Indonesian killings were described as ‘the second greatest crime of the century’, and that the CIA described the coup and the subsequent mayhem as ‘certainly one of the most significant events of the twentieth century’.
One reason for the silence and obfuscation in the media surrounding the September 30th event was because of the precarious, yet important relationship between the West and Indonesia. Leading up to the events of 1965, Indonesia’s relationship with the US was volatile due to US suspicions under a cold war framework. Following the coup, however, Indonesia warmed to US interests under Suharto and became an ally and a client state that was open to western investment and trade (Roosa 2006, p. 13). This represented a profound change in Indonesia’s foreign policy, furthermore, a change in the US’s attitude towards Indonesia. In a world that was perceived to be under threat by communism, this was a welcome change for the US, so much so, that Chomsky suggests that western governments were ‘complicit’ in the communist massacres, during a time when communism was considered the ultimate enemy of the west . Furthermore, in Chomsky’s view, the western media followed their governments in deliberately supporting the Indonesian Army in its struggle to defeat communism in Indonesia because of the ideological climate of the time (Chomsky & Herman 1998, pp.29-31).
Questions over the US’s involvement in the massacre, however, remain a murky issue. While it is known that the US supplied the Indonesian Army with a list of communist names for ‘interrogation’, the involvement of the CIA in the coup’s beginning remains unclear. To be sure, the CIA had a history of interference in the region and Indonesia, to such an extent, that it was described as the principle arm of policy for the US in Indonesia by a group of Time journalists (Griswold 1998, Chapter 2). In the same article, depicting the CIA’s involvement in Indonesia, the CIA was suggested to be successful in infiltrating the top levels of Government (Griswold, Chapter 2). This has led Griswold  to suggest that if the intelligence agency of another country had infiltrated the U.S. government and armed forces to their highest level, and if such infiltration were followed by a coup and a bloodbath favourable to that foreign power, there should be ‘little doubt in peoples' minds about what had happened’.


Anderson, 1971’A preliminary Analysis of the October 1, 1965 Coup in Indonesian, Interim Report Series, Modern Indonesian Project, University of Cornell, Ithaca.

Cribb, R 1990,’Introduction’, in 'The Indonesian killings 1965-1966: Studies from Java and Bali', Center For South East Asian Studies, university of Monash, Melbourne

Cribb, R ‘Unresolved Problems in the Indonesian Killings of 1965-66’, Asian Survey, Volume 42 (4)

Chomsky, 1994, ‘An Island Lies Bleeding, the Guardian, accessed 21/06/2013,

Chomsky, N & Herman, E 1988, ‘Manufacturing Consent: Political Economy of the Mass Media, Random House, London

Cavanagh, T 1990, ‘Lessons of the 1965 Indonesian Coup: A socialist Labour League Pamphlet, Socialist Labour League, Marrickville

Griswold, D 1998, ‘The Second Greatest Crime of the Century,, accessed 21/06/2013

Roosa, J 2006, ‘Pretext for Mass Murder: The September 30th Movement and Suhato’sw Coup d’├ętat in Indonesian’, University of Wisconsin, Wisconsin

Sukarno , A 1956,’Nationalism, Islam and Marxism’, Warouw et-al. (translators), Cornwell University, Ithaca

Tapsell, R 2008, ‘Australian Reporting of the Indonesian Killings of 1965-1966: The media as the “First Rough Draft of History”’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, Volume 54 (2).

Young, K, ‘Local and National Influences in the Violence of 1965’, in in 'The Indonesian killings 1965-1966: Studies from Java and Bali', Centre for South East Asian Studies, university of Monash, Melbourne

1 comment:

  1. Hello! I'm wondering where you were able to find your photos! I'm doing research for the University of Georgia, and we're trying to put a publication together about the 1965 genocide, and we'd like to be able to copyright the photos that we use. I'm particularly needing information on the photo of the communist being bayonetted.