Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Mystery of Indonesia’s coup continues

Winner takes all. Suharto (far right) at the national monument to the generals slain on 30 September, 1965

Truth, justice and the cause of mass killings still buried by Indonesia’s post-1965 story

It was a night depicted in the film The Year of Living Dangerously; a time when a reckless president ruled a country in economic freefall.

Truckloads of soldiers rumble through Jakarta’s dimly lit streets. 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 of its 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.

Fifty years on, the identity and motives of those behind the “September 30 Movement” (G30S as it’s known in Indonesia) remain almost as unclear 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 of winning general, 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 diplomatic archives covering the years 1961 to 1965.

Before they suddenly closed in mid-2013, Taomo Zhou discovered a document that narrows down this historical detective story. On 5 August, 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.

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. But Sukarno’s mortality was at the front of everyone’s minds.

After hearing a report on Sukarno’s health, 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 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 5 October. The annual National Armed Forces Day was already bringing large numbers of troops and armour into the capital for a big parade.

As 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 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.

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 AH 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. 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 into the heartlands of PKI support. In its wake 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.

Even with the Chinese document, mysteries remain. 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.


It remains conjecture. Suharto’s close colleagues have stuck closely to the official line, even after the end of his rule in 1998 and death in 2008. It is still unknown if MI6 and the CIA 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.

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.”

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.

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 currently Journalist-in-Residence at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific.

A longer version of this article was also published at Nikkei Asian Review.


  1. Indonesia’s tragedy of 1965 comprises at least five issues.

    First is the killing of six generals on Sept. 30, 1965, including the perennial question: Who was the mastermind?

    The second element is the mass murder that claimed some 500,000 lives in various regions throughout Indonesia.

    The third factor is the forced removal of more than 10,000 people from Java to Buru Island in 1969-1979.

    The fourth element is the revoking of passports that caused thousands of Indonesians who were overseas on trips or studying to lose their citizenship.

    Fifth is the stigmatization and discrimination against victims and their families — child victims may not be civil servants or members of the Army or police.

    Settlement of 1965 cases should be sorted out with the above categorization.


  2. The case of the murder of the six generals was tried in a special court for military personnel and Communist Party members suspected of involvement in the 1965 coup attempt (Mahmilub), which tried dozens of people, most of whom were sentenced to death. In his presidential campaign, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo introduced his vision and mission statements and a supporting nine-priority agenda, the Nawa Cita. The fourth program, law enforcement, prioritized “the protection of human rights and just settlement of past cases of human rights violations”. Evidently, a minister with a lack of care about finding ways to deal with past issues has not read and understood the Nawa Cita. Of all violations of human rights in our history recorded between 1945 and 2000, the one that gets the most attention is the mass killings of 1965 where at least 500,000 people were murdered. The Dutch, during their 350-year existence in the archipelago, killed 125,000 locals, 75,000 of them in Aceh — a total less than the number of Indonesians slaughtered by their own people. The National Commission of Human Rights prepared a projustice inquiry report on the 1965 crimes against humanity, and the Attorney General’s Office should seriously follow up the findings to ensure implementation of the Nawa Cita. Cases related to the 1965 events, which occurred nearly 50 years ago, have remained unresolved with no comprehensive and just settlements initiated. In the near future, there are several initiatives the President may consider, including issuing a state apology for the mistakes made by the state and responding to the Supreme Court’s ruling.


  3. First, let cases of crimes against humanity that occurred in 1965-1966 go to trial in an ad hoc human rights court. The national rights body publicly released findings in the summary of its report on the 1965 human rights abuses, Kasus Pelanggaran HAM Berat 1965, and submitted the report to the Attorney General’s Office. There has been no significant follow-up until today.Second, the President should apologize to thousands of Indonesian patriots who were stripped of their citizenship. In the 1960s, first president Sukarno sent thousands of students to study abroad to help promote science and technology. Accused of supporting Sukarno, these students had their passports revoked, and as a result lost their citizenship. Although most of them had changed nationality, they still enthusiastically celebrated Indonesian Independence Day at Indonesian embassies. Most were born 80 years ago, some earlier, and many have passed away.Third, the President should make a formal statement saying that in the past the government made a mistake by exiling more than 10,000 people to Buru for 10 years. Without trial, they were forcibly sent to work, not knowing when they would be released. It was protests from international organizations that forced the government to end this crime against humanity.


  4. Fourth, the President should apologize to children of those who fell victim to any of the 1965 events. Under a ministerial instruction issued in 1981 by the Home Ministry, they were not allowed to apply for a position at any government organization or in the armed forces. Whether their parents were guilty of involvement in the coup, the government had absolutely no right to deny them their constitutional right to apply for jobs. Meanwhile, the President will need to respond a 2011 ruling by the Supreme Court. Following enquiries and proceedings of a judicial review dated June 25, 1975 from the President regarding treatment of persons grouped under Class C involved in the 1965 coup, the Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that the reviewed Presidential Decree and all subordinate legal instruments contradicted with higher legislation. The Supreme Court therefore “ordered the President — to revoke this Presidential Decree”.The era of reform managed to lead to the 2004 law on the establishment of the Indonesian Commission for Truth and Reconciliation (KKR), but half-hearted president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono never approved the list of KKR member candidates submitted by the selection committee.


  5. The Constitutional Court then canceled the KKR Law. Fifth, a breakthrough is needed in establishing a truth and reconciliation commission through a presidential decree rather than a law to have it operational in a shorter time. The body could take the form of a state commission set up by the President with personnel serving for a short period of time, e.g. only two years. The team should certainly not be composed of those from the attorney general’s office and other law enforcement agencies because they are among those allegedly involved in past human rights violations, such as former attorney general Soegih Arto implicated in the Buru case. The team must be independent — nine women experienced in handling cases of past human rights abuses would be one option. With a permanent and full resolution, the people of this nation would be able, after waiting for 50 years, to move forward without further burdens.
    The writer Asvi Warman Adam is a historian at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI). The above is based on the writer’s presentation as keynote speaker at the International Symposium on Indonesian Relations with the World: Japanese Studies 50 years after 1965