MARGARET SCOTT. The Truth about the Killing Fields in Indonesia (NYRB 28/6/2018)

On a baking hot afternoon in 2010, Jess Melvin, a young scholar from Australia, walked out of a government archive in Banda Aceh carrying a cardboard box. It was brimming with three thousand photocopied documents from the Indonesian army, and Melvin could barely believe her luck. These documents prove what has always been officially denied: the Indonesian army deliberately planned the 1965–1966 massacre in which up to a million suspected Communists died, one of the worst but least-known mass killings of the twentieth century.  

Melvin’s astonishing discovery forms the core of her groundbreaking book The Army and the Indonesian Genocide: Mechanics of Mass Murder. She chronicles what happened after October 1, 1965, when six high-ranking army generals were yanked from their homes in the early hours of the morning and murdered by left-leaning junior officers who called themselves the 30 September Movement. They claimed they were forestalling a coup by a CIA-backed group of anti-Communist generals. Within hours, the junior officers were outmaneuvered by Major General Suharto, who staged a counter-coup and blamed the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) for the murders. By the end of the day, Suharto sent out orders to “completely annihilate” the 30 September Movement “down to the roots,” according to an army document Melvin discovered.

Melvin’s book will forever alter the telling of what happened next. Suharto, relying on an army command structure outside the control of the revolutionary leader and president-for-life Sukarno, issued orders to carry out mass killings. The documents Melvin uses to explain how the army planned and organized the killings shatter the official narrative that has prevailed for more than fifty years and continues to be taught to Indonesian schoolchildren today. This narrative holds that God-fearing, anti-Communist Indonesians, provoked for years by the PKI and outraged by the 30 September Movement’s treacherous murder of the generals, rose up in a frenzy to annihilate the PKI across the archipelago of 17,000 islands. According to the official 1966 Fact Finding Commission, the army could not contain the violence of the masses. Indonesia’s official history describes civilians seeking revenge, and there is no mention of the military’s participation in the killings. In fact, as Melvin’s book and other new scholarship show, Suharto instituted martial law, leaving the flamboyant leftist-turned-autocrat Sukarno stuck in the presidential palace as his supposedly unrivaled power dwindled away.

Melvin offers a fascinating day-by-day chronicle, based on the archival army documents and the 1965 annual report of the army commander in the northern province of Aceh, unearthed in a Dutch library. The documents reveal the army’s plan to pin the murder of the generals on the PKI and then wipe it out. The army took control of all newspapers and radio, and propaganda—including the fake and endlessly repeated story of how Communist women danced around the kidnapped generals as they castrated them and gouged out their eyes—played a huge part in whipping up support within Muslim militias, mostly organized by the army, for rounding up, detaining, and then killing suspected Communists.

The army’s own chronology, which Melvin annotates, shows how the provincial military commander would go to a town, denounce the PKI, organize a public demonstration, oversee the creation of militias and death squads, and then oversee the killings. They usually started with public executions of well-known PKI members and then escalated into mass roundups. According to Melvin, “The pogroms and public killings broke down normal social bonds and established violence as the manner in which the military’s campaign was to be pursued.”

In addition to proving the army’s involvement, the documents show that the tactics and scale of the killings evolved both for the army and for local civilians, who were often coerced into killing by the logic of “you are with us or against us.” Over the following weeks and months, annihilating the 30 September Movement morphed into annihilating the PKI. Melvin writes that it remains unclear if the army intended killings on such a vast scale. At some point, either because the army was unable to feed all the detainees or because the pogrom took on a life of its own, the army decided to kill them.

While Melvin’s cache of military records focuses on Aceh and the nearby provinces on the northern island of Sumatra, the documents prove conclusively that the Indonesian army expected a showdown with the Communists and devised a plan to exterminate them. Fortuitously, Melvin’s book appears at the same time as Geoffrey B. Robinson’s The Killing Season: A History of the Indonesian Massacres, 1965–66. Robinson, a veteran historian of Indonesia who teaches at UCLA, describes the broader cold war background to the massacre and digs into the available sources to prove that the US and British governments secretly backed the anti-Communist faction of the Indonesian army. The goal of the US and UK covert strategy, Robinson shows, was to provoke the PKI into action so that the army had a pretext to crush it.

An illuminating third perspective on this cold war epic comes from a Chinese scholar, Taomo Zhou, who adds missing information on the involvement of China in the showdown between the left and right in Indonesia. Zhou’s research started at Cornell University and is based on Chinese Foreign Ministry documents that were declassified in 2008, then reclassified in the summer of 2013. In an article in The China Quarterly, part of her forthcoming book, Migration in the Time of Revolution: China, Indonesia, and the Cold War, 1945–1967,1 Zhou, now teaching at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, documents that Mao Zedong and other Chinese leaders knew that the youthful and charismatic head of the PKI, D.N. Aidit, had developed plans to prevent an anti-Communist army takeover (relying on a handful of left-leaning officers), but the Chinese were not the architects of those plans.

For the first time, reading Melvin, Robinson, and Zhou together, the puzzle pieces of who was really behind the 30 September Movement and why its failure led to the murderous extermination of the left nearly fall into place. “Nearly” must be stressed since critical clues are still missing: most importantly from Indonesia, but also from the still-classified records of the CIA and the Defense Department in the US and of Britain’s MI6, and, crucially, from other documents from Chinese sources. But by early 1965, these studies reveal, both the army and the leaders of the PKI yearned to seize power, using President Sukarno as cover in their bid to destroy each other.

They also add to our understanding of how Indonesia, by 1965, was in the path of a cold war collision, with the US and Britain on one side and China on the other. Sukarno, who claimed to be the voice of his people and to reconcile Islam, nationalism, and socialism, marched ever leftward, decrying the “imperialist and neo-colonialist West” while embracing the PKI and the Chinese Communists. By this time, the PKIwas the third-largest Communist Party in the world, after China’s and the Soviet Union’s, claiming 3.5 million members and some 20 million sympathizers, mostly peasants and workers.

Robinson captures the high stakes: by 1965 the Vietnam War was raging; after the Sino-Soviet split China was determined to recast itself as the leader of revolution in Asia, and ensuring that Sukarno and the PKI looked to China for support and inspiration mattered to Mao. With China encouraging him, Sukarno had already launched the “Crush Malaysia” campaign, calling for an armed confrontation with the neocolonialists for creating Malaysia, which he called a puppet state meant to encircle Indonesia. Alarmed, President Johnson’s national security adviser McGeorge Bundy approved more intensive covert programs.

The extent of the programs remains unknown, but Robinson has pieced together the documents that have been declassified, which describe support for the Indonesian army and Muslim groups, and psychological operations designed to provoke the PKI into doing something—ideally attempting a coup—that would provide a pretext for the army to smash it and seize power.2 The British created a division for covert political warfare against Indonesia in Singapore. By mid-August, Bundy called for a meeting “to alert the President to the seriousness of the situation in which the Communists may take over Indonesia,” a development that Undersecretary of State George Ball said “would be the biggest thing since the fall of China.”

Meanwhile, China also was determined to win in Indonesia. Zhou describes how Mao thought that backing the PKI was essential to show the rest of Southeast Asia that China, not the Soviet Union, led the revolutionary movement. Aidit ingratiated himself with China. He soon became Mao’s—and China’s—man in Jakarta, as well as a forceful figure in Sukarno’s inner circle and in his cabinet. Mao and Zhou Enlai dangled promises of huge shipments of small arms and even nuclear technology. They supported Aidit’s plan, for which he also got Sukarno’s support, to create a Fifth Force and arm workers and farmers for the Crush Malaysia campaign.

By the summer of 1965, Aidit, who was confident one minute and anxious the next that the right-wing generals were about to launch a coup, had created a clandestine group that became the 30 September Movement, without the knowledge of the PKI politburo or the party’s millions of followers. The historian John Roosa, a professor at the University of British Columbia, was the first to delve into Aidit’s role in the poorly organized movement, which relied on a group of “revolutionary” officers without a clear plan.3

Zhou is the first scholar to find a document proving that Aidit described the movement to Mao. On August 5, Aidit was in Beijing when Sukarno collapsed from an unknown illness, and he decided to rush back to a tense Jakarta. Mao met with Aidit before he left, and asked what he would do if Sukarno died or the army moved to take over. Aidit laid out his plan for a preemptive strike. He told Mao, according to minutes of the meeting, that he planned to establish a military committee to confuse his enemies and to ensure that “military commanders who are sympathetic to the right wing will not oppose us immediately.” He then added, “After it has been established, we need to arm the workers and peasants in a timely fashion.”4

Zhou writes that the minutes do not include Mao’s exact reply, but that he told Aidit to be ready for both negotiations and armed struggle. It seems clear from Roosa’s and Zhou’s research that while Aidit was emboldened by Mao’s support and expected many guns to follow, China never sent any. Zhou, whose study is designed to add to the global history of the cold war, said in a telephone interview that opening up more of the historical record is unlikely in Xi Jinping’s China, where the 30 September Movement remains a taboo subject. As a result, Zhou said, she can only write about it in English.5

By August 1965, with Aidit back in Jakarta, the army and the PKI played out the last moves of this grand game of chicken. Over the next two months, tensions escalated, pro- and anti-Communist students clashed, and Sukarno’s self-proclaimed magic of holding the nation together was waning. Rumors flew. One day there were reports of guns from China arriving to arm the Fifth Force. Another day reports circulated that there was proof that the CIA-backed Council of Generals was going to seize power on October 5, Armed Forces Day. As the showdown was brewing, the US incited the right while China encouraged the left.

Early in the morning of October 1, Aidit launched the plan he had outlined to Mao, only to watch it fizzle. There were no promised guns from China. PKI cadres did not rise up to support the 30 September Movement. Sukarno failed to support Aidit and the leftist officers. The brash and brutal Suharto moved quickly to declare himself commander of the army, and he ignored Sukarno’s order that afternoon to step down. Aidit fled to Yogyakarta and, during his weeks in hiding, he denied that he was involved in the killing of the generals and instructed party officials to call off any demonstrations and avoid any actions that would provoke an army response. Sukarno would protect the PKI, he told his followers. But Sukarno had no protection to offer; instead the unarmed PKI members and poor farmers and workers who belonged to affiliated organizations were defenseless as the army moved to annihilate them. Hiding in a village on the outskirts of Solo in Central Java, Aidit was tracked down by the army on November 22 and summarily executed.

Melvin adds a new understanding of why the army was able to move so quickly on October 1. Under the cover of the Crush Malaysia campaign, it had devised its separate command structure and trained civilian militias, ranging from gangsters to members of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization. When Suharto gave the order, the means to carry it out were already in place. Army commanders quickly met with NU leaders, handing out guns and money.6

In Aceh, Melvin follows what she calls “the coordination tour” of the Aceh army commander Brigadier General Ishak Djuarsa to explain how the civilian population was enlisted in the annihilation campaign. Mass rallies were held to rile up hatred for the PKI. Muslim religious leaders joined in, condemning Communists as atheists, giving religious sanction to the murders. The army issued edicts ordering civilians to crush the PKI. Death squads were formed all over the province, and by the end of October, Djuarsa declared war on the PKI. The militias and death squads collected accused Communists from army-run detention centers, mostly at night, and killed them, throwing the corpses into rivers or shallow mass graves.

Robinson argues that what happened in Aceh was not unusual. What makes the massacre in Indonesia remarkable is that the victims were killed for their political and ideological connections, not their ethnicity or religion. There were many willing executioners, especially in the Muslim militias, and Islam was often invoked to justify the violence. Yet in religiously diverse Indonesia, Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists also participated in the violence. Without the army, as Melvin and Robinson painstakingly detail, there would have been no mass murder. All of the evidence, Robinson writes, “points to the army as the chief instigator and organizer of the violence.”

One notable exception was the targeting of Chinese Indonesians, long stigmatized as clannish, unfairly wealthy, and not quite Indonesian. Hostility toward Chinese in the archipelago had simmered for hundreds of years, but the antipathy took on a political dimension in 1965. As Sukarno and the PKI allied themselves with China, anti-Communists in Indonesia insisted that Chinese Indonesians were disloyal and untrustworthy. Rumors spread that local Chinese were spies or were bankrolling the PKI. When the army went after the PKI, Chinese Indonesians became targets of violence as well, especially in Medan and Aceh. Melvin writes that indiscriminate violence against Aceh’s Chinese community erupted in 1966, and Djuarsa, the commander, issued an order that all “alien” Chinese had to leave by August 17, 1966. China sent ships to Medan to rescue them. Some ten thousand were expelled.

By March 1966, the killings slowed or stopped in most places. Suharto forced Sukarno to sign over his presidential powers on March 11, and embarked on his thirty-two years of strongman rule. Communism was outlawed. Every Indonesian had to declare belief in one of the official religions (Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, and Buddhism)7 to inoculate against Marxism. Chinese characters were banned, and Chinese Indonesians were forced to adopt Indonesian names. China and Indonesia severed relations. The US and Britain, watching their covert dreams in action, rushed to help Suharto and the army and celebrated the elimination of the PKI. It was seen as a momentous victory and a turning point in the cold war. As if the massacre was a down payment for aid, money flowed into Indonesia in the form of loans, foreign aid, military funding and equipment, and private investment, especially in oil and mining.

Suharto’s New Order, as his rule was called, ushered in a period of high growth rates and harsh repression. Not only were up to one million alleged Communists massacred, another 1.5 million were imprisoned, and their families were shunned and discriminated against for generations. Suharto’s authoritarian control of society rested on the “latent danger of communism,” and an elaborate intelligence apparatus reached down to the village level to quash dissent or signs of leftism. Any talk about the killings became taboo except for the official version: the PKI had to be exterminated, and Indonesians themselves supported and joined in the mass murder.

This official version was embraced in high-ranking circles of the US and British governments. Many journalists and scholars accepted it as well. “The US government also went to extraordinary lengths to disguise its own role in the violence,” according to Robinson, including releasing Indonesia—1965: The Coup That Backfired, the CIA’s version of events, which echoed the Indonesian army’s official version. One reason the CIA took the extraordinary step of releasing this report, completed in 1968, was to counter what came to be known as the “Cornell Paper,” a dissenting study by two scholars, Benedict R. Anderson and Ruth T. McVey, who rejected the notion that the PKI was behind the September 30 Movement.8 Instead, they claimed that intra-army conflict was the cause. The Cornell Paper and the CIA’s report—both of which turned out to be wrong—gave rise to years of sharp polemics between pro–and anti–New Order officials and scholars.9

An exchange of letters in these pages from 1978 gives a taste of the bitter debate.10Francis J. Galbraith, ambassador to Indonesia from 1969 to 1974, lambasted an article by Huang Wen-hsien and David Hinckley, “In Indonesian Prisons,” based on an Amnesty International report that at least 55,000 and perhaps 100,000 political prisoners, rounded up in the annihilation campaign, languished as detainees without trial. Galbraith wrote that the Cornell Paper had been discredited, the role of the PKIhad been proven, and that Indonesia was still fighting a Communist insurgency:

The Suharto Government has understandably hesitated to turn loose the slightly more than 30,000 Communist cadres still detained (not 100,000 as alleged by Amnesty International) to fuel such an insurgency.

Anderson and McVey’s reply appeared a few months later. The CIA’s own study, they pointed out, showed that the PKI never took up arms or had plans to lead an insurgency. They also dismissed Galbraith’s claim that the PKI was to blame, instead asserting that it was the CIA that had the most to gain in stopping Indonesia’s “headlong slide to the left.” Anderson and McVey got a lot wrong in the Cornell Paper, but so did a subgenre of books in both Indonesian and English, including Marshall Green’s memoir of his time as US ambassador from 1965 to 1968, which obscures the role of the US and UK and the organizing of the killings by the Indonesian army.

According to Green, “The events of October 1, 1965, came as a complete surprise to us.” As for the killings, he describes them as the inevitable result of neighbor-against-neighbor antipathy with no mention at all of the army. In the last analysis, he writes,

The bloodbath visited on Indonesia can be largely attributed to the fact that communism, with its atheism and talk of class warfare, was abhorrent to the way of life of rural Indonesia.11

Since Suharto was toppled in 1998 and Indonesia entered its cacophonous and fragile democratic era, many have challenged the official narrative through personal memoirs, documentaries, and novels.12 Yet these efforts have led to a backlash, with a growing alliance of the right and Islamists attacking any effort to investigate the past as a neo-Communist threat to the nation. These deeply researched and authoritative new books should offer support to those who are searching for the truth. They have, at the very least, revealed the urgent need for a new account of a tragic chapter in Indonesia’s past that continues to haunt the present.

Margaret Scott teaches at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service and is a cofounder of the New York Southeast Asia Network. (June 2018)

  1. 1  To be published by Cornell University Press in 2019. 
  2. 2  There was another declassification of US State Department records in 2017, which I wrote about in “Uncovering Indonesia’s Act of Killing,” NYR Daily, October 20, 2017. 
  3. 3  John Roosa, Pretext for Mass Murder: The September 30th Movement and Suharto’s Coup D’État in Indonesia(University of Wisconsin Press, 2006). Roosa discovered an analysis of the movement’s failure written by an army participant, Brigadier General M.A. Supardjo, who faulted the leaders for having bravado instead of a plan: “After all, the slogan of the leadership was always: ‘Enough, we just have to begin and everything else will just fall into place.’”  
  4. 4  Taomo Zhou, “Ambivalent Alliance: Chinese Policy Towards Indonesia, 1960–1965,” The China Quarterly, Vol. 221 (2015), p. 223.  
  5. 5  Robinson writes that while Zhou may be right, it is also possible that Aidit was only talking about how the party would react if Sukarno died. More documents from China are needed to settle this question. 
  6. 6  See Greg Fealy and Katharine McGregor, “Nahdlatul Ulama and the Killings of 1965–66: Religion, Politics, and Remembrance,” Indonesia, Vol. 89 (April 2010), p. 44. 
  7. 7  Confucianism was added in 2001. 
  8. 8  A Preliminary Analysis of the October 1, 1965, Coup in Indonesia (Modern Indonesia Project, 1971). The authors circulated the original paper among a small number of colleagues in early 1966 and sent it to two top US officials at the State Department. Anderson wrote later that he believed these officials sent the report to Indonesian officials, leading to the banning of both authors. In 1971, Cornell Press decided to publish their tentative study since it had become the subject of such debate.  
  9. 9  In 2007 the CIA’s report was republished, with some misleading changes, by Praeger Security International as Sukarno and the Indonesian Coup: The Untold Story by Helen-Louise Hunter. The 2007 book makes no mention that Hunter was the author of the 1968 CIA report. In a telephone interview, Hunter, now retired and living in Maryland, said she regretted that the 2007 volume did not disclose its origins as the CIA report. She also said she believes the CIA did not disclose all its files to her as she compiled her supposedly definitive report  
  10. 10  See The New York Review, February 9 and June 1, 1978. 
  11. 11  Indonesia: Crisis and Transformation, 1965–1968 (Compass, 1990). 
  12. 12  See Ian Buruma, “The Violent Mysteries of Indonesia,” in which he discussed Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentaries The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, as well as Eka Kurniawan’s novel Beauty Is a WoundThe New York Review, October 22, 2015. 
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One Response to MARGARET SCOTT. The Truth about the Killing Fields in Indonesia (NYRB 28/6/2018)

  1. Jim KABLE says:

    An aunt (born on Bangka Island – Pangkal Pineang) in 1945 – raised in Jakarta – was at university there in 1965 – and was around that time sent initially (for safety I have long assumed) to The Netherlands – then a dozen years in West-Germany… of Chinese origin – some five generations back. Her family largely still in and around Jakarta. Every time there is a stirring of anti-Christian (i.e. mainly anti-ethnic Chinese) sentiment in Indonesia I ask after her family. She assures me they are fine – but I am never entirely convinced… Over 30 years ago a colleague and her husband – he from a Balinese background – gave me two novels by the respected author Pramoedya Ananta Toer – This Earth of Mankind and Child of All Nations – in August 1984 – in return for my gift of an antique Balinese “gender” – a musical instrument of no musical or sentimental value to me. I noted that in May 1986 that some books (including Steps Forward and a biography) by the same writer had been banned in Indonesia! How fortuitous that Jess Melvin came across the file incriminating those who unleashed that reign of death across Indonesia. One might almost believe in some kind of divine providence.

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