The Indonesian Massacres of 1965-1966

Of all the tragic events of the 20th Century, the 1965-1966 campaign of mass killing in Indonesia is among the least known in the U.S. Researchers estimate that the Washington-backed Indonesian military and its civilian militias killed up to one million people. Around a million others were arbitrarily imprisoned with little to no legal process, many of them dying of extreme malnutrition and disease.

Two new books look at different aspects of that grim history, both of them building on connections their authors developed with Indonesians who made it through that grueling period. Historian John Roosa’s meticulously researched Buried Histories: The Anticommunist Massacres of 1965-1966 in Indonesia focuses on events leading up to and during the months of slaughter, with extensive testimony from survivor interviews which Roosa and a team of Indonesian researchers conducted over several decades. In The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade & The Mass Murder Program That Shaped Our World, journalist Vincent Bevins shows connections between the Indonesian killings and brutal crackdowns the U.S. government has supported elsewhere in the world.

Roosa’s first book, Pretext For Mass Murder, built on his research into the September 30 Movement, a short-lived group that killed six generals, an ill-fated maneuver which gave the military (known as the TNI) an excuse to systematically attack the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) throughout the archipelago. Buried Histories presents survivor accounts and information from Indonesian language primary sources and previous studies, most of them skimpy, about the scorched-earth campaign against the PKI. The book looks at orchestration of violence at the national and local levels, focusing extensively on case studies from four regions: Bali, Central Java, and two provinces on Sumatra.

The PKI had especially deep roots in the sugar-producing city Surakarta, in Central Java. Roosa writes, “The ideas of communism entered Surakarta on the same rail lines by which the sugar was carried out. The workers at every link in the commodity chain became unionized in the 1910-20s, from the factory workers who made the sugar to the railway workers who transported it to Semarang [in the North], the stevedores who loaded it onto the steamships, and the sailors who carried it to foreign markets.” When the Indies Social Democratic Association transformed into the PKI in 1920, it became the first communist party in Asia. It was, however, a movement specific to its time and place, rooted in Islam and anti-colonialism. Driven underground for years, the PKI re-emerged after the Japanese occupation of the archipelago ended in 1945. It had strong backing from several generations of workers and peasants who shared the party’s egalitarian goals.

Lulled by the strength of its support, the PKI was taken by surprise when the TNI’s violent anti-communist crackdown began in October 1965. A survivor in the Surakarta area whom Roosa’s colleagues spoke to recalled that she advised her husband to turn himself in to the local police rather than be attacked by a mob. When the police transferred her husband to a prison, the woman brought him food and clothes for two months, until one day the prison guards told her that he was no longer there. Other women interviewed in the same area told similar stories of being left widowed when the military disappeared their husbands.

Buried Histories also includes the voices of perpetrators of violence against detainees. Once such individual, a man named Bhaskoro, was both complicit in that violence and a target of it. While working for the military police in Palembang, South Sumatra in 1965, Bhaskoro had no qualms about following orders and arresting members of PKI-affiliated unions and others deemed too left wing. He then participated in the removal of bodies of prisoners beaten to death: “The quota for each night was about forty people, because with forty, you had time to execute them, get them into the truck, and take them to the mass grave.” In 1970 Bhaskoro’s fortunes turned after a conflict with a superior officer who accused him of being a PKI agent. Bhaskoro was subsequently held for nine years without trial. His accounts of the mass killings in Palenbang are confirmed by other sources Roosa cites, including one man imprisoned in South Sumatra who later recalled, “Anyone alleged to be associated with the PKI was tortured and finished off just like that, without documentation or court trial.”

The many survivor’s voices in Buried Histories attest to torture being a standard part of the TNI’s interrogation process throughout the archipelago. Krisnayana, a former railway station worker in Jakarta, was beaten so badly that after seven years of detention without charge his lungs and spine were permanently damaged. Jatiman, a prison guard who was taken prisoner himself for being too active in his union, was still suffering from the after-effects of torture—dizzy spells, pinched nerves, numbness—when interviewed in 2000 and 2001. Roosa concludes that the torture which countless men and women were subjected to served a purpose beyond terrorizing its victims: in his words, “It works to reaffirm the pre-existing narrative that the torturers have before they enter the interrogation rooms.” In Indonesia in the second half of the 1960s, torture “worked to confirm the regime’s fantasy that there was an insurgency to counter.”

The relationship between the PKI and the central government was much different before the October 1965 coup. When Indonesia emerged as an independent nation in the aftermath of WWII, its charismatic and popular president Sukarno worked openly with the PKI, though he was not a communist himself. Sukarno’s government took much-needed aid money from Washington but maintained a “non-aligned” stance in which it refused to be a satellite of either the U.S. or the Soviet Union.

Proving his independence from Washington’s foreign policy dictates, Sukarno joined with the heads of other emerging Asian countries to sponsor an alternative to SEATO, the U.S.-backed Southeast Asian replica of NATO. The world leaders who traveled to the Bandung Afro-Asian Conference in 1955 represented about half of the countries in the United Nations. Many were both secular and left-leaning, insisting on their right to make alliances with any country, including the Soviet Union. The ten basic principles the delegates to the conference came up with to govern relations between Third World states included “Respect for the right of each nation to defend itself” and “Abstention from the use of collective defense to serve the particular interests of any of the big powers, and abstention from exerting pressure on other countries.” Not surprisingly, U.S. government officials were less than thrilled.

In 1957, the CIA began funding rebellions against the Indonesian government, as detailed in the book Subversion As Foreign Policy: The Eisenhower and Dulles Debacle in Indonesia. Soldiers loyal to Sukarno ultimately put down the insurrections. Partly in response to the CIA-financed uprisings, Sukarno dissolved Parliament in 1959 and announced a new governing apparatus called “Guided Democracy,” a triumvirate power structure consisting of himself, the PKI, and the TNI. The PKI, at the time the world’s third largest communist party after the Soviet Union and China, would have preferred a continuation of democratic elections, given their steadily increasing popularity. Though they were theoretically united by anti-imperialism, a popular sentiment given still-vivid memories of Dutch colonial rule, Roosa explains that “In reality, both the army and the PKI supported Sukarno as a shield against the other (…) the enmity between the army high command and the PKI leadership, while well known among those most familiar with national-level politics, was left to insinuation, implication, and indirection in public discourse.”

Historians still contest whether the killings of the six army generals in the early hours of October 1, 1965 were part of a TNI operation designed to smear the PKI or an actual PKI attack. What is known is that the event involved a group of about ten men, and in its immediate aftermath long-simmering anti-communist malevolence in the TNI upper ranks was unleashed to devastating effect. For the rest of 1965 and into 1966 hundreds of thousands were targeted as culpable for the actions of one small group of men. The army took control of all media outlets and shut down left-wing newspapers. As it seized power, the military launched a propaganda offensive which created from whole cloth a ridiculous narrative of sex-crazed women mutilating the genitals of the six generals with razors and then slicing them to death (an autopsy later showed no evidence of such atrocities).

This story was repeated ad nauseam along with false accusations of communists attacking the military and its militias. In Bali, one village did fight back when attacked, but that incident was grossly misrepresented to provide justification for wholesale murder of civilians. Roosa writes, “The propaganda campaign was the product of thoughtful strategizing and hard work; it took much imagination to invent the false stories and much labor to spread them. The army generals carried out the campaign as they did any military operation—with definite predetermined protocols […] They were careful to present all of the army’s actions as being in accordance with President Sukarno’s instructions and to exclude any mention of the massacres the army was organizing.”

The army’s disinformation included fabricated claims that leftists were planning more murders like the ones on October 1, and encouraged violence against anyone deemed left-leaning. Roosa notes, “The media built an alternative universe unmoored from the reality on the ground where PKI supporters were not waging war or even resisting arrest.”

Roosa uses the phrase “political genocide” to describe the military leadership’s goal of wiping out the PKI. Case in point: a “Mental Operations” officer in the TNI psychological warfare campaign on Bali wrote of the PKI, “We have to completely destroy their Physical Existence and their ideology.” Note that two military commanders who referred to destroying the PKI “down to the roots” both studied with the U.S. military at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.

Further, religious intolerance was also encouraged by tarring PKI members as morally depraved atheists. A statement by the general turned newly-ensconced, unelected president Suharto before a Christian audience exemplified this approach: “The September 30th Movement was clearly anti-God, so we have to crush it and not allow even one little bit of it to live in our country.”

Western journalists then joined the well-known anthropologist Clifford Gertz in uncritically repeating what became a common racist trope, that killings of civilians linked to the PKI were committed by crazed natives running amok. Addressing the frequent use of the term “spontaneous violence,” Roosa writes, “This gross misrepresentation largely derives from the reporting of American journalists.” He points to reporter John Hughes: “Using only the military and civilian perpetrators as his sources, [Hughes] portrayed the violence as a welling of a deep-seated hatred for the communists among otherwise peaceful Balinese.” The U.S. media’s claim of “communal consent” obscured the crucial role the Indonesian military played in training, arming, and encouraging militias and forcibly recruiting others to participate in the killings.

The U.S. Embassy in Jakarta was under no illusions as to what was really going on. An embassy memorandum of communications from a special aide to the Indonesian attorney general’s office on October 15 and 19 explained, “[the aide] said that the Army had already executed many Communists but this fact must be very closely held.” These killings weren’t a hindrance to getting more military support: in November, covert aid was sent from the U.S. directly to the army. Small arms provided by the CIA to a military contact in Central Java were described in a telegram to the State Department as being “for use against the PKI.”

U.S. responses to the coup can be found in Bradley Simpson’s book Economists With Guns: Authoritarian Development and U.S.-Indonesia Relations, 1960-1968, which makes extensive use of declassified government documents. Ambassador Marshall Green wrote the State Department of a “courteous constitutional coup” by “responsible moderates,” while CIA station chief Hugh Tovar gushed, “Things are so much brighter in almost every way that I can hardly believe it is the same country.” Of course, Tovar did not need to add for whom the killings were so glorious.

In The Jakarta Method, Vincent Bevins writes that in 1967, when General Electric, American Express, Caterpillar, Goodyear Tire, Raytheon, Lockheed, and other companies were scoping out business opportunities under the new dictatorship, “At least one million Indonesians were still in concentration camps, (…) subject to starvation, forced labor, physical and psychological torture, and attempts at anti-communist re-education.” (For powerful descriptions of life in one such camp, see the great dissident writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s memoir The Mute’s Soliloquy.)

Bevins also notes that U.S. embassy political officer Robert Martens worked with CIA analysts to prepare lists of thousands of communists and suspected communists for the army’s targeted killings. Martens later said, “It really was a big help to the army. I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that’s not all bad.” Private enterprise was also complicit; managers of U.S.-owned plantations gave the army lists of leftists and union organizers to be eliminated.

The slaughter of ill-prepared leftists and their allies caught in the TNI crosshairs sent a chilling message around the world. Bevins points out that the Indonesian example of what can happen to a Left party with no armed wing convinced at least two communist movements to embrace violence. He writes that in China, “The Cultural Revolution was built around the idea that hidden bourgeois elements could infiltrate and threaten a left-wing movement. The events in Indonesia in 1965-66 served as self-evident justification for this narrative.”

Mao argued that the PKI’s decision to not arm the masses allowed clandestine right-wing elements to kill them all, turning an anti-imperialist nation into an ally of Washington. The testimony of Chinese Indonesians forced to flee the Suharto regime’s bloodbath, writes Bevins, “became iconic during the Cultural Revolution.” In Cambodia, Pol Pot concluded from the PKI’s annihilation that his small quasi-Marxist sect should build power through armed struggle rather than seek peaceful coexistence with the government of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, as he had been directed to do by the Soviet Union and Vietnam. In both China and Cambodia, death tolls resulting from those commitments to violence were staggering.

The political effect of the 1965-1966 bloodbath also was not lost on right-wing governments in the Western Hemisphere. References to Jakarta were used throughout South America as code for murder of leftists. A Brazilian Truth Commission which investigated human rights abuses under the dictatorship of the late 1960s and 1970s collected documentation describing “The Jakarta Operation,” a hidden plan of state terror aimed at physically eliminating Brazilian Communist Party members. Bevins spoke to a Brazilian who, as a journalism student in São Paulo in 1975, joined other students in interviewing a notoriously brutal general. Enraged at a question he found impertinent, the senior officer screamed, “You’re all indoctrinated. And it’s because of this indoctrination that we’re going to put into effect Operation Jakarta and neutralize two thousand communists.” As Bevins’s source wrote down the threat, the general added, “If you publish a single line of what I just said, it will be 2,001.”

In Chile, “Jakarta is coming” began appearing on walls in the early 1970s. A left wing muralist told Bevins that such graffiti was the work of professionals who had been painting right wing slogans since the1960s. Bevins also spoke to a Chilean activist who, while employed in the government of democratic socialist Salvador Allende, was one of many leftists who received postcards with the same message. The piece of mail did not lie, as in 1973, at the climax of months of economic sabotage engineered by the Nixon Administration, the military overthrew Allende and installed Augusto Pinochet in his place. During Pinochet’s reign thousands of Allende supporters were disappeared, with thousands more thrown into prison without trial. A member of Pinochet’s junta repeated right-wing Indonesian tactics to justify the suppression of Chilean leftists, inverting the truth and claiming that Marxists had planned to murder top military brass. He told a Chilean newspaper, “This campaign was destined to totally destroy the Armed Forces … a Jakarta that would permit a final collapse. Once this last bastion had fallen, they were going to impose terror on our country.”

The U.S.-backed Brazilian dictatorship of the mid-70s assisted Pinochet’s military in its crackdowns, sending advisors to aid in the repression. Pinochet in turn helped launch the CIA-funded Operation Condor in 1975, which advanced cooperation between violent anti-communist regimes in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. An Argentine general explained his government’s Condor-era approach to waging war on civilians: “first we kill all subversives, then we kill all of their collaborators, then those who sympathize with subversives, then we kill those that remain indifferent, and finally we kill the timid.”

U.S. officials had supplied lists of communists and alleged communists to right-wing assassins at least twice before: in 1954 in Guatemala and 1963 in Iraq. Widescale assassinations as a tool of foreign policy continued after the 1965-1966 TNI crackdowns. In just one of many examples, John Gordon Mein, who had served as first secretary of the U.S. Embassy in Indonesia and then as the director of the Office of Southeast Pacific Affairs in the State Department, was appointed U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala in September 1965. When the U.S. and Guatemalan governments were having trouble putting down a left-wing insurgency there, Mein requested the assistance of an ex-Border Patrol agent named Jon Longan, who had worked with the CIA in Bangkok when that Agency station supplied weapons to the TNI to be used against Indonesian civilians. Longan helped set up death squads which kidnapped, tortured, and killed left-wing leaders in the same way that their military counterparts had done in Indonesia.

Bevins, who spent years covering Brazil for the Los Angeles Times and Southeast Asia for the Washington Post, is, to say the least, much more critical of post-WWII U.S. foreign policy than most foreign correspondents for U.S. media outlets. His impressive research into Washington’s war on communism digs into the harsh realities of what others reduce to banal platitudes about enlightened democracy overcoming authoritarian Marxism.

The intrepid author devoted more than a decade to work on this impressive overview of worldwide anti-communist repression. In twelve countries, Bevins interviewed more than one hundred people in Spanish, Portuguese, English, and Indonesian. He sifted through archives and consulted with historians, giving his work a solid grounding in historical detail.

When the CIA helped the Guatemalan military overthrow moderate reformist president Jacobo Árbenz, Harian Rakyat (The People’s Daily), a newspaper affiliated with the PKI, argued that the coup “threaten[ed] world peace, and could threaten Indonesia as well.” Addressing the threat of Árbenz’s government to the U.S., Bevins points to an internal State Department memo which explained, “The evidence indicates no present military danger to us at all.” The risk, this memorandum goes on to state, was “the example of independence of the U.S. that Guatemala might offer to nationalists throughout Latin America.”

President Sukarno and the PKI also both offered examples of independence that the U.S. government frowned on. As Roosa and Bevins make clear, the PKI provided an example of what working class people could accomplish when organized in an effective social movement that protected their rights. Labor actions and unionization improved wages for Indonesian workers, which foreign investors found intolerable. Foreign owned companies therefore worked closely with the TNI to counter union activity, which was also anathema to upper echelons of the military, who owned and operated their own companies.

The Jakarta Method uses coverage from Harian Rakyat to track Washington’s anti-communist crusade. The paper reported on Western meddling in Iran, the Philippines, and elsewhere; Bevins writes, “Even though Washington’s real activities were secret at the time, [Harian Rakyat] and the global left-wing press were often closer to getting the story of Washington’s interventions right than US newspapers, which largely saw it as their duty to peddle the official line that [the CIA] passed on to them.”

Throughout The Jakarta Method, Bevins introduces the reader to Indonesians he met in the course of his research. They include a left-wing couple whose political lives he links to the run of Harian Rakyat from the early 1950s to the fall of 1965. In 1947, when she was 21 years old, Francisca Pattipilohy left Indonesian to study in Holland. There she met another left-leaning Indonesian named Zain; the two became internationalists who embraced anti-colonialist politics. After she and Zain married, the couple returned to their newly-independent homeland, where Francisca took a job as a librarian and Zain began writing about international affairs for Harian Rakyat. Eventually Francisca began teaching English in Jakarta to embassy staff from socialist countries, then in 1963 further deepened her political life by taking a job for the Afro-Asian Journalist, an English-language “socialist cosmopolitan” magazine. Francisca told Bevins, “For the first time in my life, I became aware that I didn’t actually come from an uncultured or backwards people, and the other peoples of Africa or Asia weren’t backwards either.” Stories like these add an engaging human face to the book’s investigation of political struggles of the 1950s and ‘60s.

Francisca and Bain were taken into police custody following the military’s closure of Harian Rakyat. After being separated for days, Francisca saw Bain being taken away for the last time, his arms covered with cigarette burns. She was eventually released, totally disoriented and shunned by her neighbors. Her house had been trashed and, like other former leftists, she was blacklisted from anything other than the most menial work. Thankfully, by the book’s end she had at least partly bounced back, living a politically-engaged life in Holland in her nineties.

Today Indonesia, though having gone through a “people power” pro-democracy opening immediately after the 1998 fall of Suharto, remains in the control of the TNI and its multinational partners. Though rarely reported on in any depth by U.S. media, its government is happy to do Washington’s bidding in the seemingly endless “War on Terror” while maximizing corporate profits from resource extraction and underpaid labor. Mass organizing victories of the 1950s and early 1960s that gave the poor visions of a better life have sadly faded.

Hidden Histories and The Jakarta Method approach the West’s reaction to those visions from different angles, but both do an excellent job of delineating the dangers of Washington’s “leadership” on the global stage. U.S. military training and assistance follow a predictable anti-democratic pattern of violence and obfuscation to the benefit of multi-national corporations and the detriment of the general population. These books will be important alternatives to status quo-friendly histories for years to come.

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