The (inadvertent) release of more cables between the US embassy in
Jakarta and Washington in late 1965 has supplied more pieces of the jigsaw
puzzle mapping Washington's enthusiastic support for the Indonesian army's bloodthirsty crackdown against the Indonesian Communist Party when up to a million people were slaughtered. Also, a new book published in July shows how the British embassy helped to spread misinformation about what was happening in Jakarta.
Both Washington and London were of the opinion years before these events that President Sukarno should be removed. The communist party was growing fast in a country of strategic and economic importance to both Britain and the US. Sukarno had gone too far in his advocacy of a policy of non-alignment and his friendly links with the Soviet Union and China.
After the CIA's disastrous involvement in the regional rebellions of the late
1950s, Washington changed tack and now saw that its interests lay in building close ties with the Indonesian armed forces under its commander, General A.H. Nasution. In mid 1960, Nasution proved his worth by using special martial law powers to ban the communist party in three provinces, South Sumatra, South Sulawesi and South Kalimantan. (The bans were later rescinded on the president's orders.)
While on a visit to Washington in September 1960 for talks with the State and Defence Departments, General Nasution was given an assurance of US support in the event of a showdown between him and Sukarno over the communist issue. Assistant Secretary of State Graham Parsons was given the authority to tell Nasution that 'we are aware of and heartened by recent actions which the Army has taken to curb Communist power... If American help is wanted in the form of military and economic assistance, the United States in such circumstances
does its best to be helpful and quickly...We would like General Nasution to
feel that the United States would wish to be helpful to Indonesia too in such
circumstances.'(1) Five years later, the US had the chance to honour that
ain was also in on the act. A CIA memorandum of June 1962 stated that
President Kennedy and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had agreed at a meeting in April that year that it was desirable to 'liquidate' Sukarno, 'depending on the situation and available circumstances'.(2) Britain's hostility towards Sukarno went back many years and intensified after he launched his konfrontasi policy against the establishment of Malaysia in 1963. There were even British and Australian plans to spread the war being waged along the border between Indonesia's Kalimantan and the northern territories of Borneo to other parts of Indonesia.(3) The animosity towards Sukarno continued after Labour took over from the Tories in 1964.
Supporting the massacre
The action taken by a group of army officers in Jakarta on 1 October 1965,
when six generals were kidnapped and killed ostensibly in a move to pre-empt a coup against Sukarno, led within hours to a counter-attack and to a
counter-coup by General Suharto. A massacre of unprecedented proportions against the PKI and its millions of supporters was soon underway and Suharto slowly but surely undermined and eventually ousted Sukarno, installing himself as president.
On 5 October 1965, in what was probably his first comment on the events of 1 October, the British ambassador, Andrew Gilchrist said in a letter to the Foreign Office: 'I have never concealed from you my belief that a little
shooting in Indonesia would be an essential preliminary to effective change
in Indonesia, but it makes me sad to think that they have begun with the
wrong people.'(4) Soon his hopes for 'a littler shooting' against the 'right'
people were to be fulfilled, beyond his wildest dreams.
Within days of the murders on 1 October, both the British and US ambassadors were directing their attention to blackening the PKI and destroying the credibility of Sukarno. On 6 October, without waiting for any evidence of the PKI's involvement in the murder of the generals, the British embassy in Jakarta advised British intelligence headquarters in Singapore about the line to be taken regarding events in Jakarta: '...we certainly do not exclude any unattributable propaganda or psywar activities which would contribute to weakening the PKI permanently. Suitable propaganda themes might be: PKI brutality in murdering Generals and Nasution's daughter... PKI subverting Indonesia as agents of foreign Communists... But treatment will need to be subtle, e.g (a) all activities should be strictly unattributable, (b) British participation or co-operation should be carefully concealed... (d) material should preferably appear to originate from Pakistan or Philippines.'(5)
Although Britain and Indonesia were still in a state of war, it was in
Britain's interests to ensure that the Indonesian army should now concentrate its forces on destroying the PKI. A cable from the Political Adviser (POLAD) to the Commander-in-Chief Far East in Singapore to the Foreign Office in London on 8 October referred to a suggestion of Ambassador Gilchrist in Jakarta 'that we should get word to the generals that we will not attack them whilst they are chasing the PKI. The C-in-C thinks this has some merit and might ensure that the Army is not detracted from what we consider to be a necessary task.'
On 5 October, the US ambassador, Marshall Green, said in a cable to
Washington that events in Jakarta 'may embolden army at long last to act
effectively against Communists'. Weighing up what the US could do to 'shape developments to our advantage', Green set out a number of guidelines, Point B of which was: 'Covertly indicate clearly to key people in army such as Nasution and Suharto our desire to be of assistance where we can', while Point E was: 'Spread the story of PKI's guilt, treachery and brutality (this priority effort is perhaps the most needed immediate assistance we can give army if we can find way to do it without identifying it solely or largely as US effort.'(6)
On 20 October 1965, Ambassador Green reported to Washington that 'the
(communist) party has received... blow to its image... and some damage to its organisational strength through arrest, harassment and, in some cases,
execution of PKI cadres... Some thousands of PKI cadres have reportedly been arrested in Djakarta area alone and several hundred of them have been executed.' While admitting that the PKI organisation may still be largely intact, Green concluded by saying: 'Army has nevertheless been working hard at destroying PKI and I, for one, have increasing respect for its determination and organisation in carrying out this crucial assignment.'(7)
A memorandum on the Indonesian army circulated within the State Department early in November said the army's relations with the Pentagon ere based on associations developed during training in the US and were 'founded on trust, respect and a network of deep personal friendships'. Going on to consider how the US government might support the army, it said: 'In the life and death struggle which has finally been joined with the PKI, the Army deserves our support.(8)
The chances of providing that support were soon to present themselves. A
senior intelligence officer, Sukendro got in touch with the US embassy in
Bangkok in late October to ask Washington for assistance. This included
'small arms to arm Moslem and nationalist youths in Central Java for use
against the PKI'. According to the Bangkok embassy, 'Sukendro was obviously pleased with the favourable response to his request on behalf of the Indonesian Army leadership.' Covert arrangements would take the form of the 'Army's ostensible purchase of medicines and a review of the medical list by Sukendro's doctor'.(9) Nothing is yet known about quantity of arms supplied as 'medicines' but they had been requested to arm non-military killers and make the anti-PKI slaughter appear to be a 'popular' reaction to the events of 1 October.
A cable from Marshall Green the previous day said: 'In Central Java army
(RPKAD) is training Moslem youth and supplying them with weapons and will keep them out in front against the PKI. Army will try to avoid as much as it can safely do so direct confrontation with PKI.' He added: 'Smaller fry are being systematically arrested and jailed or executed.'
Britain's black propaganda campaign
The points made in the British embassy's note of 6 October led to the opening in Singapore two weeks later of an office of the Foreign Office's Information Research Department (IRD). It was headed by Norman Reddaway, one of the Foreign Office's most experienced propaganda specialists, and chosen by Gilchrist as the best man for the job.
Reddaway's prime target was the BBC's Southeast Asia correspondent, Roland Challis whose book, published earlier this year exposes the methods used by Reddaway and Gilchrist to spread black propaganda about what was happening in Indonesia.(10)
The brief of IRD (set up in 1948 and disbanded in 1977) was to 'collect
information about communist policy, tactics and propaganda and to promote anti-communist policy via missions and information services abroad'. But IRD in Singapore had an extra brief, explained in a note from Reddaway to Challis: '...do anything you can think of to get rid of Sukarno'. IRD's strategy was threefold, to target the PKI, to tar Sukarno with the communist brush and to provide documentary support for Suharto's interpretation of the events of 1 October 1965. Foreign journalists relied almost exclusively on information from this single source, since they were not able till mid 1966 to visit Indonesia though, as Challis writes, 'MI6 agents came and went at will'.
Reddaway's main source of information was top secret telegrams, about four a week, by diplomat pouch from Gilchrist in Jakarta. Besides this of course, information was flowing into the IRD office from other sources, through intercepts, and from US and Australian intelligence sources all of whom knew exactly what was going on but, writes Challis, 'control of information was rigorous. No word of the slaughter came my way.' Other British media on the receiving end of the IRD's doctored reports were The Times, Daily Telegraph, Observer and the Daily Mail. A quick perusal of the distortions that appeared in the British press, 'civil war,' 'armed communist gangs', and so on, as the massacres progressed show how successful this black propaganda was. No wonder there was not a murmur of protest in the UK to stay the hand of Suharto's killers.
When Reddaway was asked by Gilchrist many years later to summarise some of the stories re-cycled from the embassy through the IRD, his list included the following: 'Various sitreps from yourself which were put almost instantly back to Indonesia via the BBC. You may remember complaining that the versions put back were uncomfortably close to those put out by yourself.'(11)
What the embassy really knew
Documents released by the Public Records Office in the mid-1990s, in
accordance with the 30-year rule, include many cables from the embassy to the Foreign Office in London which show how closely British diplomats were following the slaughter. And they were liaising closely with the Americans and the Australians in a joint effort to 'try to keep a score'.
In a cable dated 13 January 1966, James Murray, British Chargé d'Affaires wrote: 'It is a matter for constant speculation here how many Indonesians have been killed ... since 30 September... The Americans, with their considerable intelligence resource, try to keep a score and I understood their latest estimate was about 150,000. A report that the Australians have from a police source puts the deaths in Bali alone at 28,000.'
On 23 February 1966, Gilchrist wrote a three-page report containing the
findings of the Swedish ambassador who had been able to make a tour of
Central and East Java in the company of a Swedish engineer who was inspecting telephone exchanges installed by Ericsson. Travelling with his Indonesian wife, the ambassador was able to speak to lower-ranking officials out of earshot of government officials. Here are extracts from his letter:
'The Ambassador and I had discussed the killings before he left and he had
found my suggested figure of 400,000 quite incredible. His enquiries have led him to consider it a very serious under-estimate.'
'A bank manager in Surabaya with 20 employees said that four had been removed one night and (to his certain knowledge) beheaded. A British expert employed in setting up a spinning factory near Surabaya said that about a third of the factory technicians, being members of a Communist union, had been killed. ...
The killings in Bali, according to what the Ambassador could pick up, had
been particularly monstrous. In certain areas, it was felt that not enough
people (emphasis in the original) had been killed.'
The man who had spoken of the need for 'a little shooting' four months
earlier now appeared to be horrified himself at what was happening. Needless to say, none of this was allowed to leak out to the public.
It was clearly with Western connivance that the true horror of the killings
unleashed as Suharto took control of Indonesia were kept secret. No wonder that even today, few commentators or journalists have any notion of Suharto being a genocidal killer and his name is never mentioned when people call for the world's worst criminals against humanity to be called to account.
1. US National Archives, RG 59 Records of DOS, Decimal File 1960-63.The
document was cited in Roland Challis, Shadow of a Revolution, 2001, Sutton
Publishing Ltd, p 48.
2. James Oliver and Paul Lashmar, Britain's Secret Propaganda War, Sutton
Publishing Ltd, 1998, p 4.
3. bid, p. 5.
4. Letter from Andrew Gilchrist to E.H. Peck, head of the Southeast Asia
Division at the FO, 5 October 1965.
5. British embassy cable to POLAD (Political Adviser) Singapore, No 1835, 6
6. Cable No 868. Ref: Embtel 852, 5 October 1965.
7. Cable No 1090, RG 59, Central Files 1964-66, POL 12 INDON.
8. Memorandum from Office of Southwest Pacific Affairs to Assistant Secretary
of State for Fear Eastern Affairs, 3 November.
9. RG 59, Central Files 1964-66, POL, 23-9 INDON, 5 November 1965.
10. Roland Challis, Shadow of a Revolution: Indonesia and the Generals,
Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2001.
11. Challis, p 102.
From Kerry B. Collison’s personal file notes Tapol, the Indonesia Human Rights Campaign
Bulletin 163 - October 2001
Bulletin 163 - October 2001