Hamish McDonald examines the mystery of Indonesia's 'killing season', 50 years after six army generals were hauled from their homes and killed.
It was a night as depicted in the film The Year of Living Dangerously, as proclaimed by a reckless president in a country in economic freefall. Truckloads of soldiers rumble through the dimly lit streets of Jakarta. They haul six army generals out of their homes, killing the three who put up a fight, executing the others back at a camp in a rubber plantation.
What happened afterwards is well known. The Indonesian Army blamed the incident on the Indonesian Communist Party, the PKI, and set off a purge that killed up to a million PKI supporters. A surviving army general, Suharto, seized power in what political scientist Harold Crouch called a “creeping coup”. Pushed aside, independence leader Sukarno died five years later in miserable house arrest.
But 50 years later, the identity and motives of those behind the “September 30 Movement” (G30S in its Indonesian acronym) remain almost as shadowy as they were in 1965. Conspiracy theories abound. Instead of a PKI “coup attempt”, was it a simple army mutiny? A CIA or MI6 false-flag operation? A set-up by operatives close to the general who came out the winner, Suharto?
Recent research, astonishingly in Beijing, is starting to shine some light into this dark corner of history. In 2008 the Chinese Foreign Ministry opened its archives of diplomatic documents covering the years 1961 to 1965. Taomo Zhou, a young scholar now at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, looked through them before the archive was suddenly closed in mid-2013.
Zhou discovered one document that narrows down this historical detective story. On August 5, 1965, the PKI general secretary, Dipa Nusantara Aidit, was in Beijing and led a small party delegation into a meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong and other top Chinese figures including Premier Zhou Enlai.
The day before, Sukarno had collapsed and was seen by a team of Chinese doctors sent from Beijing. They got him back on his feet and pronounced him in no imminent danger. Indeed, on August 17 Sukarno went on to give his usual long-winded independence day speech, this time proclaiming Jakarta part of an “anti-imperialist” axis with Beijing, Hanoi, Phnom Penh, and Pyongyang. He also announced support for Aidit’s idea of a “fifth force” of armed workers and police, potentially a counter to the military and police.
But Sukarno’s mortality had been put to the front of everyone’s minds. The PKI had dropped the idea of Chinese-style revolution in the countryside in favour of participation in Jakarta politics, and was doing well to the point where it seemed to be Sukarno’s political heir.
But the hostility of the Indonesian Army was palpable: it remembered the PKI revolutionary uprising at Madiun in 1948 while the newly declared Indonesian republic was trying to break free of Dutch rule. For years, army officers had been going to US military schools for “civic affairs” education to prepare to take over from what they increasingly saw as incompetent civilian politicians and bureaucrats.
After hearing a report on Sukarno’s health from Zhou Enlai, Mao got straight to the point. “I think the Indonesian right wing is determined to seize power. Are you determined too?” he asked Aidit.
“If Sukarno dies, it would be a question of who gains the upper hand,” Aidit replied, nodding, before discussing two scenarios: a direct attack on the PKI, or an army effort to continue Sukarno’s political balance of nationalist, communist and religious parties which would be “difficult” for the PKI.
“In the first scenario, we plan to establish a military committee,” Aidit went on. “The majority of that committee would be left wing, but it should also include some middle elements. In this way, we would confuse our enemies... If we show our red flag right away, they will oppose us right away.”
This scenario matches the revolutionary committee declared that night by Lt-Col Untung, the naively patriotic commander of the presidential palace guard, to forestall what he said was a planned coup by a “Council of Generals” on the approaching Armed Forces Day on October 5, which was already bringing large numbers of troops and armour into the capital for a big parade.
As the American scholar John Roosa explored in his 2006 book Pretext for Mass Murder, Untung was in close collaboration with a PKI operative named Kamaruzaman or “Sjam” who had been working in army circles for years as a spy reporting direct to Aidit.
The Mao-Aidit transcript firms up Roosa’s scenario that Aidit and Sjam launched the G30S attack as a deniable pre-emptive operation to throw the army leadership off balance. The rest of the PKI central committee was in the dark, let alone the millions of rank-and-file members. The Chinese weapons promised for a “fifth force” (outside the military and police) of workers and peasants had not arrived. Before it was shut down, the PKI newspaper gave the putsch only a tepid endorsement.
Possibly it was not intended to murder the generals but to bring them as abject traitors before Sukarno. But three were killed during arrest, and the defence minister, General A.H.Nasution, managed to escape. The decision to kill the others was a panicky improvisation.
The killings were all that the army needed to portray G30S as another example of PKI treachery like Madiun. Indonesian Army propagandists and later in 1965 an MI6 disinformation team based in Singapore embellished them with lurid details. The US Embassy supplied the army with a list of thousands of PKI cadres for targeting.
Suharto, firmly in control of Jakarta, sent a column of special forces under Colonel Sarwo Edhie Wibowo into the heartlands of PKI support. In its wake - Central Java in the third week of October, East Java in November, Bali in December - Muslim groups and other traditionalists were authorised to turn on PKI members, hauling them out for mass executions night after night, choking rivers with bodies.
The version of history, that the entire PKI was implicated, was set out later by Suharto’s New Order regime and is still taught in Indonesia’s schools. One post-Suharto president, Abdurrahman Wahid, tried to apologise for the slaughter, but was disowned by the Muslim organisation he once headed. The killing ground of Lubang Buaya (Crocodile Hole), where the generals’ bodies were hidden in a well, is a national pilgrimage site, with a “Museum of PKI Treachery” to one side.
“People are heavily invested in this theory,” noted Australian National University historian Robert Cribb at a day-long conference on the 1965 events held this month at the ANU in Canberra, in conjunction with the Australian Institute of International Affairs.
Even with the Chinese document, mysteries remain. Cribb likes G30S to Rashomon, the Kurosawa movie whose characters put forward contradictory versions of the same incident. Centrally, why did Aidit and Sjam act? Did they discover a genuine army plan about to be put into action? Or were they led to believe, falsely, that there was one, with Sjam either swallowing the bait or acting as a double agent for the army?
In either scenario, why were so many top generals caught so off-guard? Why was Suharto, in command of the army’s rapid reaction forces and the Konfrontasi campaign against Malaysia, left off the hit list? Why did Suharto react so calmly when another officer, Colonel Abdul Latief, warned him the night before something was afoot? Why were the G30S leaders drawn from Suharto’s former command in Central Java?
Could it then have been an agent provocateur operation staged by Suharto’s own operatives? Suharto was anti-communist, but unlike the murdered generals had not studied at US military schools and was less at home in Jakarta’s cosmopolitan elite. The Opsus (Special Operations) unit attached to Suharto’s command had already opened clandestine links to the British, to assure them the army was making only token efforts against the new Malaysian federation.
The Opsus role 10 years later in sparking civil war in then Portuguese Timor is uncannily similar to this scenario. The then Opsus chief Colonel Aloysius Soegijanto persuaded the conservative Timorese Democratic Union to stage a pre-emptive coup against an imminent takeover by the leftist Fretilin party. As in Indonesia after G30S, events were highly fluid. Fretilin gained ascendency in the following conflict, but Suharto got an excuse for intervention that the Western powers accepted.
It remains conjecture. Suharto’s close colleagues have stuck closely to the official line, even after the end of his rule in 1998 and his death in 2008. The CIA and MI6 archives for the period remain closed, so it is still unknown if these agencies were involved in setting up the G30S plot, or were privy to any knowledge of an Opsus/Army operation.
The Western powers were happy to keep alive the story that a “communist coup attempt” triggered the societal tensions that the PKI had previously stirred by promoting atheism and land redistribution, resulting in a frenzy of killing was somehow automatic. Time magazine hailed the PKI’s obliteration as the “best news” in Southeast Asia for a long time. Then Australian prime minister Harold Holt declared: “With 500,000 to 1 million communist sympathisers knocked off, I think it’s safe to say a reorientation has taken place.”
Indonesia’s “reorientation” was certainly pivotal in Southeast Asia, more so than the Vietnam War. Had Sukarno survived in power - and he could still have outmanoeuvred Suharto - Indonesia could have taken a vastly different course. As Zhou also discovered in the Beijing archives, the Chinese were talking not just about transferring small arms for the “fifth force” but plutonium and atomic bomb know-how. Suharto brought Indonesia back to a path of economic growth and poverty reduction.
Joshua Oppenheimer’s recent documentaries The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence have reawakened consciences inside and outside Indonesia about the human cost of this change, though PKI survivor groups still face intimidation and denial.
As ANU chancellor and former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans told the ANU conference, the Indonesian killings are the only ones of this scale that have not been subject of minute international attention, or truth-finding and reconciliation. “It is the least studied and least talked-about political genocide of the last century,” Evans said. “Lifting the veil on it really is long overdue.”
In 2012, the Indonesian magazine Tempo published a book-length investigation detailing many of the massacres and including confessions by some perpetrators. Yet the conclusions remained as stymied as other analysts over the puzzle of G30S.
Successive post-Suharto governmenbts in Jakarta continue to resist the idea of an official inquiry. The archives that matter, in Washington and London, remain closed. Too much is invested in the post-1965 Indonesian story, it seems, for evidence to emerge that it might have started with a deception campaign that led to mass slaughter.
Hamish McDonald is author of two books on Indonesia and currently Journalist-in-Residence at the ANU’s College of Asia & the Pacific. A version of this article appeared first in the Nikkei Asian Review.
Watch a video discussion on the mass killings, featuring Indonesia history and media experts Professor Robert Cribb, Professor Ariel Heryanto and Dr Ross Tapsell.