It was on the largest scale mass slayings since the Second World War. The enormous slaughter was committed with the imprimatur of the US Government. Even the CIA termed its handiwork ‘’one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century.’’ But precious few in the United States or the Occident more broadly care to recall what happened to a poverty-stricken non-white people in 1965. To paraphrase Hitler: who now remembers the Indonesians?
1965. Indonesia was ruled by President Achmed Soekarno or Sukarno as it is now spelt. Sukarno had led the country to independence from the Netherlands. By the 60s he was ailing and some said was not in command of his faculties. The burgeoning populace groaned under a great weight of poverty. Officials and military officers creamed off the budget. Many malnourished children walked barefoot not to school but to full time work.
Indonesia was flexing its muscles. The country was aware it was the most puissant in the region. It had cast covetous eyes on the former British possessions of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. There was the konfrontasi with these countries. British troops were still stationed in these erstwhile colonies to have a dissuasive effect on the Indonesians from doing anything rash. It worked. Jakarta began to wonder whether East Timor could be annexed from Portugal. But the Indonesians did not fancy their chances against the Portuguese Army despite outnumbering them 100 to 1. Only a few years later Henry Kissinger was to give the go ahead to a plan to conquer East Timor.
Land grabbing would do nothing to alleviate the suffering of the deprived masses in Indonesia’s slums and villages. The impecuniosity of the majority of the people was all the harder to explicate in view of the country’s enormous economic resources. The maldistribution of the wealth was unjustifiable.
The United States had taken note of Indonesia’s growing importance. The archipelago of 18 000 islands was situated in a location of strategic importance. Islands were very defensible in a Third World War scenario since the US Navy was convinced it could thrash the Soviets. The Soviets were not thought to be so well versed in matters neptunean. Control of Indonesia would allow the US to control all the sea lanes from Singapore to Australia. That Indonesia has huge reserves of oil, coal, metals and even timber had not escaped Washington’s notice. The potential wealth of this land was staggering. No wonder the US was feeling very hawky with regard to this nation.
The Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) felt that Marxist-Leninism had the formula to solve the country’s woes. They said that a centrally planned economy was the way to abolish pauperism. They believed that the capitalist system occasioned the grossly inequable state of society. They started to attract a large following among those suffering the frankest privation. It was hard to convince people living in abject poverty that capitalism brought prosperity. The PKI promised decent wages, affordable housing, clean drinking water, guaranteed food, publicly funded healthcare, public education, secularism, gender equality and social justice. It was hard not to be attracted to such promises.
As the PKI saw it the unworker was profiting from the sweat of the worker’s brow. The reds considered this invidious.
90% of Indonesians are Muslims. My rule of thumb is that the further you go from Mecca the milder Muslims are. Indonesia being at the very edge of Dar al Islam was among the least Islamic. Among the Indonesian Muslim community there was a spectrum. Many were nominal Mohammedans. In the middle were some fairly observant people. At the opposite end were reactionaries.
There was a strong correlation between religious mania and anti-communism. The wealthy were against communism. The PKI vowed that they would confiscate all the realty and chattels of the bourgeoisie without compensation. The bourgeoisie’s unacceptance of this policy meant that they had to oppose communism with any means they could. Capitalism plainly had little appeal to the downtrodden masses. Therefore, affluent people tried to persuade the peasantry and the proletariat that the PKI would take away their religion. This had some effect in winning people around to the anti-communist cause. A few mullahs wanted to establish a hagiocracy.
The Christian minority in Indonesia was also won over to the cause of anti-communism. Observant Christians outside the communist world were often led to believe that communism was inimical to their faith.
The army officers were overwhelmingly anti-communist. They were drawn from well-off families. If a child went to school at all then he was better off than most. An army officer has to be able to write.
The CIA had been building a relationship with high ranking Indonesian Army officers. By 1965 they had a few on their payroll. If religion could not convince them to be anti-communist then greenbacks could.
Sukarno was revered for having led the insurrection against the Dutch. He was on a pedestal. The president appeared to be above the fray. There was the PKI on one side and the anti-communists on the other. The officer corps respected the president. Many of them had been his comrades in arms 1945-49 in the fight against imperialism. Sukarno was not anti-communist. But nor was he in the PKI. He appeared to be performing a delicate balancing act between the PKI and its deadly foes.
The army top brass was becoming increasingly political involved and influential. They were veterans of the anti-Dutch revolt. The country was supposed to be a heroarchy.
On 30 September 1965 six senior Indonesian army officers were invited to a clandestine meeting on the outskirts of Jakarta. All half a dozen were shot dead. But who killed them? It was the Presidential Guard. But who ultimately ordered the Presidential Guard to shoot the generals? Was it the PKI? Was it right wingers seeking to pin it on the PKI. To this day no one is certain who killed them or why. Was it a rival general wanted them eliminated?
On October 1 it was announced on the radio that the six generals had been slain because they were conspiring to overthrow the president. The six generals were said to be part of ‘’30 September Movement.’’ It was claimed that the six generals were secret PKI members. This seems improbable as they were all known to be conservative Muslims. It is also counterclaimed that they were anti PKI and were killed by the PKI.
There was a few days of unrest and confusion. Soldiers were on the streets of Jakarta holding key installations. The one who seized the initiative was a general named Suharto.
Whenever a crime has to be solved the detectives ask; cui bono? Suharto certainly benefited from what transpired. That does not prove that he instigated. Within a fortnight of the six generals being killed he was appointed army commander.
Suharto unleashed his hounds on leftists. Communists, socialists and anyone even merely suspected of leftist leanings was fair game. At least 500 000 people were killed. They were not killed in combat. The PKI had no weapons with which to fight back. Reputed left wingers were rounded up and they were summarily slain. These were not judicial executions. Three times that number were imprisoned often without trial nor charge.
Some communists had been elected to public office. They were especially likely to be assassinated. Even if a communist was the mayorlet of a hamlet he was marked for instant death.
We are told that the PKI provoked this by assassinating that handful of generals. It is dubious that they did so. It provided a pretext for the PKI to be annihilated. The so called provokee did far worse than the alleged provocateur.
The United States Government knew precisely what was going on. The CIA had longstanding relations with numerous Indonesian Army officer. The wretched regime at Langley Farm had even supplied death lists of PKI members to be killed by the Indonesian Army.
There was a racist and religionist element to the killings. Ethnic and religious minorities were targeted whether they were communists or not. The Abangan people, ethnic Chinese people and those of the Javanese and Balinese ethnicities were butchered.
At least a million people were incarcerated for allegedly belonging to the PKI. Bear in mind that the PKI was a legal party! The PKI was only prohibited after the slaughtered had commenced. Some of those thrown into prison for suspected PKI membership were not released for ten years.
The survivors of the genocide suffering injuries both mental and physical for decades. Those known to be kinsfolk or associates of murder victims were discriminated against the Suharto years.
The CIA was very satisfied with its handiwork. The United States was engaged in its war to prevent Vietnamese unity in the region. The US was having a difficult time of it in Indochina. If there was a large communist country to America’s rear then that would have made matters even more trying for Uncle Sam.
All this came under the Presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson. LBJ strove for the betterment of his people. He dreamt of building ‘a Great Society.’ President Johnson is hailed as a man committed to racial equality. Yet he is the one who was more than complicit with the industrial scale killing of civilians in Indonesia.
The US documented its provision of weapons, communications equipment and cash for the express purpose of expediting the large scall killing of leftists. You cannot fault the Americans for honesty! The US Government tends to lie at the time but release the documents proving the truth decades later. Washington DC is a meticulous recordkeeper. Supplying the weapons with assassinative intent is at least being an accessory before the fact. Someone who does this might even be charged as a principal in a murder case. It is no use for Uncle Sam to plead duncedom. The US knew precisely what was about to transpire. You cannot fuggle your way out of it. The US Government is condemned by its own documentation.
The United Kingdom and Australia also followed events closely. In those days the two countries worked concert. Both had major commercial interests in Indonesia. Both Australia and the UK viewed the rising popularity of the PKI with horror. The British Ambassador wrote at the time that crushing the PKI would necessarily involve some killing.
There is a superb and scintillating film about 1965 in Indonesia called The Year of Living Dangerously starring a youthful Mel Gibson.
There was scarcely a squeaklet out of any American politician against the huge scale slaying of reds and pinks. To give him his due Robert Kennedy was the lone dissenting voice who valiantly denounced the monstrousness.
The 1965 putsch paved the way for General Suharto to become president in 1970. He was already effectually ruling the country from 1967. His oppressive and kleptocratic regime immiserated the Indonesian people for three decades.
It is flabbergasting that the United States should say that it ‘the last, best hope of earth.’ So often the US has not been ‘a shining city on a hill’ for the rest of the world. Such mythmaking is amplified by American politicians, journalists and teachers. I am in no sense anti-American. There are plenty of Americans who are sickened by what their government has done. Some of architects of such policies are still alive and at liberty. For example, Henry Kissinger is still alive at 97. Admittedly he was only involved in Indonesian affairs from the 1970s and not the 1965 coup d’etat. It is galling that the US should preach ‘liberty and justice for all’ while so often implementing policies which are the polar opposite of these fine sentiments abroad. The sanctimonious tone in which US presidents scold the rest of the world smacks of a staggering arrogance in view of the retrograde and barbaric regimes that they have so often propped up in other lands. There is no way that it can be successfully argued that the US action in Indonesia was uncriminal.
The United States has been righteous on some occasions. That has been when this coincided with the advantage of the corpocracy. There were times when the US fought against wickedness. However, it must be recognised that the US has by no means always been against turpitude. It is true that some communist regimes in the 1960s were execrable.