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Indonesia's 'killing season' remains a mystery 50 years on

Circa 1946 President Sukarno makes a speech. (Photo by John Florea)   © Getty Images

It was a night depicted in the 1982 film "The Year of Living Dangerously" -- as proclaimed by a reckless president of a country in economic free fall. Truckloads of soldiers rumbled through the dimly lit streets of Jakarta. They hauled six army generals out of their homes, killing the three who put up a fight and, executing the others back at a camp in a rubber plantation.

     What happened afterward is well known to anyone familiar with Southeast Asia. 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 lived out his life and died five years later in misery under house arrest.

     Even now, 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 "false-flag" operation mounted by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency or Britain's MI6? A setup by operatives close to Suharto?

Documentary evidence

Recent research conducted in Beijing has yielded fresh insights. In 2008, the Chinese foreign ministry opened its diplomatic archive covering the years 1961 to 1965. Taomo Zhou, a young scholar now at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, examined them before the archive was suddenly closed in mid-2013.

     Zhou discovered one document that narrows down this historical detective story. On Aug. 5,1965, the PKI General Secretary Dipa Nusantara Aidit was in Beijing and led a small party delegation to meet Chairman Mao Zedong and other top Chinese figures, including Premier Zhou Enlai.

President Sukarno speaks at a press conference in June 1956 in Rome. (Photo by Popperfoto)   © Getty Images

     The previous day, Sukarno had collapsed from the kidney disease that would eventually kill him in 1970 and was being treated by a team of Chinese doctors sent from Beijing. They got him back on his feet and pronounced him in no imminent danger. Indeed, two weeks later, Sukarno went on to give his usual, long-winded Aug. 17 independence day speech, though this time he signaled that Jakarta was aligning itself with China in the Sino-Soviet split by joining the "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 peasants that could potentially oppose the military and police.

     At the same time, Sukarno's mortality had been put in the front of everyone's minds. The PKI had dropped the idea of Chinese-style revolution in the countryside in favor of participation in Jakarta politics and was gaining ground  -- to the point where it looked like the emerging power center to succeed Sukarno once he departed the scene.  

     But the hostility of the Indonesian Army to the notion was palpable: The generals clearly remembered the PKI revolutionary uprising at Madiun in 1948, when the newly declared Indonesian republic was fighting to break free of Dutch rule. For years, army officers had been going to U.S. 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, before discussing two scenarios: a direct attack on the PKI, or an army effort to continue Sukarno's political balancing act among  nationalist, communist and religious parties that could prove "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 on Sept. 30 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 upcoming Armed Forces Day on Oct. 5, which was already bringing large numbers of troops and armor into the capital for a big parade.

     As the American scholar John Roosa explored in his 2006 book, "Pretext for Mass Murder," Untung was  closely collaborating with a PKI operative named Kamaruzaman, or "Sjam," who had been working in army circles for years as a spy reporting directly to Aidit.

     The Mao-Aidit transcript supports Roosa's scenario that Aidit and Sjam almost single-handedly 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, along with millions of the party's rank-and-file members. The Chinese weapons promised for the "fifth force" had not yet arrived. Before it was shut down, the PKI newspaper gave the putsch only a tepid endorsement.

     Possibly the intention was not to murder the generals but to present them as abject traitors before Sukarno. But three were killed during their arrest, while the defense minister, Gen. A.H. Nasution, managed to escape. The decision to kill the others was a panicky improvisation.

     However, the killings were all the army needed to portray G30S as another example of PKI treachery, following the events in Madiun. Indonesian Army propagandists and a team of MI6 operatives based in Singapore later that year embellished the tale with lurid details. The U.S. Embassy supplied the army with a list of thousands of PKI cadres for targeting.  

     Suharto, firmly in control, sent a column of special forces under Col. Sarwo Edhie Wibowo into the heartlands of PKI support, a move that included the capture and execution of Aidit. The killings followed the column's path: Central Java in the third week of October, East Java in November and Bali in December as Muslim groups and other traditionalists turned on PKI members, hauling them out for mass executions night after night -- until rivers were choked with their bodies.

History then and now

The contention that the entire PKI was implicated in the murderous campaign 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 apologize in the late 1990s for the slaughter, but was disowned by the Muslim organization he once headed. The killing ground of Lubang Buaya (Crocodile Hole), in Jakarta, where the bodies of the six murdered generals and an adjutant were hidden in a well, is a national pilgrimage site, complete with a "Museum of PKI Treachery." 

     "People are heavily invested in this theory," noted historian Robert Cribb at a September conference on the 1965 coup convened by the Australian Institute of International Affairs at the Australian National University in Canberra.

     But counter-theories continue to swirl. Cribb likens G30S to "Rashomon," the Kurosawa movie whose characters recount contradictory versions of the same incident. The central question is: Why did Aidit and Sjam act? Did they discover a genuine army takeover plan about to be put into action? Or were they led to believe, falsely, that there was one, with Sjam either swallowing the disinformation bait or acting as a double agent for the army?

     In either scenario, it remains a puzzle why so many top generals were caught off guard. Why was Suharto, who was in command of the army's rapid reaction forces and leading the Konfrontasi campaign against newly formed Malaysia, left off the hit list? And why did he react so calmly when another officer, Col. Abdul Latief, warned him the night before that something was afoot?  The fact that the G30S leaders were drawn from Suharto's former command in Central Java suggests to some historians that it could 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 U.S. military schools and was seen as an outsider by Jakarta's cosmopolitan elite. The Opsus (special operations) unit attached to Suharto's command had already opened clandestine links to the British to quietly assure them the army was making only token efforts in Konfrontasi.

Echoes of 1965

The Opsus role 10 years later in sparking a civil war in then-Portuguese Timor is uncannily similar to this scenario. The then-Opsus chief, Col. 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 ascendancy in the conflict that followed, but Suharto gained his excuse for intervention that the Western powers accepted.

     This remains conjecture. Suharto's former confidantes 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 an Opsus or army operation.

     The Western powers were happy to accept the story that a "communist coup attempt" automatically triggered a killing frenzy because the PKI had earlier created social tensions by promoting atheism and land redistribution. Time magazine hailed the PKI's obliteration as the "best news" in Southeast Asia for a long time. Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt declared: "With 500,000 to one million communist sympathizers knocked off, I think it's safe to say a reorientation has taken place."

     Indonesia's "reorientation" was certainly pivotal in Southeast Asia, more than was the Vietnam War. Had Sukarno survived in power instead of being gradually pushed out by the army and leaving office in 1967 in the wake of the destruction of the PKI, Indonesia could have taken a vastly different direction. As the young scholar Zhou also discovered in the Beijing archives, the Chinese were talking about not just 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.

     Recent documentaries by filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, "The Act of Killing" and "The Look of Silence," have reawakened an emotional debate inside and outside Indonesia about the human cost of this change, even while PKI survivor groups still face intimidation and denial.

     As ANU Chancellor and former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans told the September conference, the Indonesian killings are the only ones on this scale that have not been put under international scrutiny or been subject to truth-finding and reconciliation processes. "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 its conclusions remain as unclear as those of other analysts over the puzzle of G30S.

     Successive post-Suharto governments 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 journalist-in-residence at the Australian National University's College of Asia & the Pacific.

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