Survivors and descendants of those killed in Indonesia’s anti-communist purge of 1965-1966 are urging Western countries to apologise for their roles in what the CIA has itself described as “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century”.
The spotlight on the West’s role in the state-backed genocide, which claimed the lives of at least hundreds of thousands of Indonesians, has intensified with the recent declassification of British documents revealing that a shadowy propaganda unit of the UK’s Foreign Office helped to incite the massacres.
While Britain’s involvement has long been suspected, the documents – first unearthed by The Guardian – offer a new insight into its methods and motivations in encouraging the purges, which led to the downfall of left-leaning President Sukarno and legitimised the subsequent installation of the dictator Suharto.
The killings left a deep scar on the Indonesian psyche that remains to this day and which is manifest in lingering widespread fears over the influence of communism and anti-Chinese sentiment, despite no evidence that China had any involvement in the turmoil of the period.
The declassified documents highlight how the Foreign Office’s Cold War propaganda arm, the Information Research Department, took advantage of the aftermath of a failed coup by a left-wing group of army officers on Sept 30, 1965.
Indonesia’s leftist officers killed six of the army’s most senior generals, believing that they had been plotting to dethrone Sukarno and weaken the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), which supported Sukarno.
But the army was quick to neutralise this attempted coup, which later came to be known as the Sept 30 Movement.
The events played into the hands of the Western powers; the United States , Australia and Britain had viewed the world’s fourth most populous nation as a key battleground in the Cold War against communism and were eager to get rid of the left-leaning Sukarno (who had also launched an undeclared war – “Konfrontasi” – against the creation of the Malaysian Federation, which he deemed as sustaining British imperialism).
Seizing its chance, the British propaganda unit fuelled rumours that the PKI was behind the failed coup, printing newsletters ostensibly written by Indonesian patriots urging their compatriots to cut out “the communist cancer”. The newsletters also claimed that China had undue influence over Sukarno and speculated that he and “Peking” were planning to let off an atomic bomb in the country.
Such claims helped fuel the ensuing nationwide, anti-communist massacre that was encouraged by the Indonesian army – led by General Suharto – and which killed at least 500,000 people and possibly as many as three million.
Among the victims were those sectors of society perceived as left-leaning; Chinese-Indonesians, labourers, students, teachers, artists and farmers. The killings also paved the way for General Suharto to seize power from Sukarno, and embark on a dictatorship that would last more than 30 years.
‘Reveal the truth’
The newly declassified documents are just the latest evidence of Western involvement in the horrors.
In 2016, the International People’s Tribunal (IPT) for 1965 in The Hague released a report alleging the US, Britain, and Australia had played a role in the killings.
The following year, the US National Security Archive declassified materials, including telegrams and letters possessed by the US Embassy in Jakarta dating to the period 1964-1968, which showed that the US was actively supporting the Indonesian Army to exterminate alleged communists.
Bedjo Untung, head of the Indonesian Institute for the Study of the 1965/66 Massacre, told This Week in Asia the latest revelations were “surreal” and demanded a full explanation.
“We, as the victims, are angry. Reconciliation is impossible without truth, so please [reveal] the truth. Western countries must also acknowledge their involvement and I urge those countries, which benefited from the fall of Sukarno and the destruction of the PKI, to apologise.”
Saskia Wieringa, a Dutch sociologist and chair of the IPT 1965, described the development as “exciting news”.
“When we were compiling our research report for the International People’s Tribunal for 1965 on crimes against humanity in Indonesia, we tried to get information like this. We had enough evidence at that time to put the complicity of the US, the UK and Australia in our indictment,” he said.
According to Wieringa, the UK’s ultimate goal was to dethrone Sukarno, the country’s founding father, due to his Konfrontasi or Confrontation policy. Sukarno had launched the policy in opposition to the creation of the Malaysian federation, which he saw as a British “puppet state”, and he had encouraged armed incursions into Malaysian Borneo.
“Sukarno was a hothead. He had started this whole Confrontation policy, but Suharto was much more pliable. And indeed, immediately [after the mass killings], the confrontation stopped. So the UK was successful, it achieved its purpose,” she said.
Usman Hamid, director at Amnesty Indonesia, said the UK’s declassified documents were “an example that there are still many facts about the 1965 tragedy that are left to be uncovered”.
“This fact cancels the Indonesian government’s argument that the tragedy cannot be investigated as it happened a long time ago and the evidence has been lost,” he said.
The revelation could play a big role in Indonesia’s truth-seeking efforts regarding the tragedy, and could lead to reconciliation between the state and the victims, he said, but “only if the government is willing to reveal its dark past”.
Operating from Singapore , the British Foreign Office’s Information Research Department (IRD) in 1965 had produced pamphlets and newsletters inciting the expulsion of Sukarno and purging of communists in Indonesia following the failed coup on September 30.
The documents, which were held beyond the usual 20-year rule, can now be accessed in Britain’s National Archives office in Kew, London.
This Week in Asia obtained one of the IRD’s newsletters, a “special issue” titled Kenyataan2 (‘Facts’). It was sent from the IRD office in Singapore to London on Oct 13, 1965, two weeks after the attempted coup.
The newsletter was made to look like it was “written by Indonesian patriots, but was in fact written by British propagandists,” The Guardian said.
“The ‘special issue’ and other inflammatory newsletters in the series were sent to about 1,500 recipients,” the paper said.
“To disguise the British origin of the newsletter it was sent into Indonesia via Asian cities including Hong Kong , Tokyo and Manila.”
The British government also used its informal links with Western media, including the BBC, to spread its propaganda, as unlike other news sources in Indonesia they were not affected by Sukarno’s censorship, The Guardian said, echoing the IPT 1965’s finding in 2016.
The newsletter called on “patriotic” Indonesians to cut out “the communist cancer”.
“Every ill to which the people become heir can be cured – for bad government can be improved … but the evil of communism which threatens our existence, once it takes over, can never be eliminated without war and terrible violence,” the newsletter’s editor wrote.
The newsletter also underlined the West’s concern about Sukarno’s growing ties with China.
“For years, the PKI has been growing in strength. Aided by Peking [China] and supported by Sukarno himself, the communists, like white ants, have been eating into the structure of the country,” it said.
“We cannot tell how long Sukarno will live, but we do know that if he lasts another three years the PKI will then be so strong that nobody could save Indonesia from becoming a vassal state of Peking.”
It also claimed that the Sukarno administration and “Red China” were in negotiation to “let off an atomic bomb” in Indonesia, an event that “would discredit us even further in the eyes of the countries from whom real friendship is so desirable.”
Thus, the Sept 30 Movement provided a “golden opportunity to check Indonesia’s leftward slide towards Peking domination”, it said.
It claimed that Indonesia could never return to its greatness “until communism and all that it stands for has been destroyed”.
The Indonesian military played its own role in stoking rumours about Chinese involvement.
A telegram from the US consul general in Hong Kong to the US Embassy in Jakarta dated April 27, 1966, said that an article published by the Indonesian Army’s newspaper Angkatan Bersendjata , which claimed that Chinese leader Mao Zedong was involved in the Sept 30 Movement, was a hoax.
Another telegram, dated March 4, 1966, said that the military pinned the failed coup on the PKI and China “to protect Sukarno” from the public’s assumption that he had masterminded the killings of the generals, although it is now believed that Sukarno did not know about it beforehand.
“We do not think the Chinese were a primary factor in the Sept 30 Movement,” then-US ambassador to Indonesia Marshall Green wrote in the telegram.
Nevertheless, anti-China sentiment resulting from such propaganda persists in Indonesia to this day. When President Joko Widodo first ran for president in 2014, he was labelled “Chinese” by his opponents, as if it were a slur, underscoring the limited opportunity in politics for Chinese-Indonesians.
“Whenever I post about the 1965 [tragedy] on Twitter, criticising [Suharto’s] New Order [regime], some people will attack me, saying ‘You’re a Chinese communist, why don’t you go home to your country.’
''I’m no longer living in Indonesia, but people still want to throw me out,” said Soe Tjen Marching, a senior lecturer in Indonesian at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and one of Indonesia’s leading 1965 activists.
Soe Tjen’s father was imprisoned – and tortured for information – for two and a half years because the military suspected him of being a member of the PKI. Indeed, he had been about to be installed as one of the stewards of the PKI’s Surabaya branch, but the events of September 30 prevented the notification of his appointment from reaching the party’s headquarters in Jakarta.
“That is why my father was not beheaded. The military did not know who he was,” Soe Tjen, 50, said.
Soe Tjen has written at least three books about the mass killings, to change the way Indonesians think about that period. She said she would never stop hoping that Indonesia would one day acknowledge her, and millions of others, as victims of the purge.
“Our greatest loss is when we give up. If I give up hope, that means I’m lost,” she said.
Another victim, Bedjo, was only 17 and still in high-school in 1965. He had joined a student organisation that shared the same “anti-imperialist, socialist-leaning” ideology as Sukarno. His father was a teacher and a respected figure in his village in Pemalang, Central Java. Neither man had ever been a PKI member, he said.
Yet his father, a teacher, was rounded up and imprisoned for 11 years.
Bedjo, meanwhile, tried to evade persecution by fleeing to Jakarta, but was detained in 1970 and thrown into prison and then a concentration camp for nine years – without charge or trial. During this time he was tortured, subjected to electric shocks and beatings, and forced to labour on plantations.
“It was really sad,” he said. “In the camp, the meal portion was very inhumane. One time, I found pieces of glass in my rice so I had to filter it before I ate it.”
He would eat snakes, mice, snails, and lizards that he found in the field, taking them back to cook at the camp “to boost my protein intake”.
Forty two years after his release, Bedjo remains unable to relax, with law enforcement officers dropping by his house every year on the anniversary of the failed coup.
Last month, three police visited his house in Tangerang, in the outskirts of Jakarta, “to check some things out”.
“They were still young, so I used the opportunity to explain to them what happened to me in 1965,” he said.
“I told them that we were all victims of Suharto’s authoritarian regime, that we were detained arbitrarily. We are all free people, we don’t oppose the government, what do they have to be afraid of?”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.