50 years on: remembering the Indonesian massacres

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It is now 50 years since the massacre of around one million communists, trade unionists and sympathisers in Indonesia in 1965. The killings were carried out by the Indonesian army, and other forces of reaction, with the direct support of British and US imperialism. The powerful Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) was entirely destroyed, paving the way for the savage military regime of General Suharto to facilitate the subjugation of the country to imperialist capital. The story of these events has been largely buried by those who have profited from them. Exposing the Indonesian massacres, and the extent of British and US involvement, is essential for new movements to understand the lengths that the imperialists are willing to go to destroy any opposition. Toby Harbertson reports.

1965 – Imperialism vs socialism

In 1965 the imperialist powers faced huge challenges to their continued international dominance. The Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China provided a bulwark against imperialist capital, as well as support to anti-imperialist and socialist national liberation movements across Africa, Asia and Latin America. The Cuban Revolution had triumphed in 1959. Movements were building within imperialist countries in solidarity with national liberation movements and against oppression at home. Southeast Asia was a crucial region for the imperialists. The US was engaged in the Vietnam War and it was not going to plan. British imperialism relied on the exploitation of Malaysia. Of Indonesia, Richard Nixon later wrote: ‘With its 100 million people and its 300-mile arc of islands containing the region’s richest hoard of natural resources, Indonesia is the greatest prize in Southeast Asia’ (1967). However, this ‘prize’ was out of the reach of imperialist capital, with anti-imperialist nationalist Sukarno – who had led the country’s liberation struggle against Dutch colonialism – as President. Sukarno was a founder of the Non-Aligned Movement. He withdrew Indonesia from the UN in 1965, and refused IMF and World Bank ‘support’, stating ‘go to hell with your aid!’ Sukarno’s rule was supported by an uneasy alliance of three pillars of Indonesian society – the army, political Islam, and the communists. At the time, the PKI was the third largest communist party in the world. In 1965, it had more than three million members, and around eighteen million supporters in its range of powerful mass organisations. The PKI was the strongest and best organised political party in the country. The relationship between Sukarno and the PKI was strengthening.

The massacres

By 1967 the PKI had been destroyed. The IMF and World Bank were operating in Indonesia and the country was recreated in the interests of imperialist corporations. Indonesia quickly became one of the world’s largest providers of sweatshop labour. Such a dramatic turnaround in imperialist prospects in Indonesia was the result of a premeditated strategy of US and British imperialism. On 30 September 1965, six army generals were killed and a short-lived ‘September 30 Movement’ was declared. It is contested who was behind this, but the army accused the PKI. The movement was quickly crushed and right-wing army General Suharto effectively seized power. Within months, the elimination of PKI members, and other obstacles to imperialist capital had begun. Contrary to the version of history perpetuated by Suharto and the imperialists, this was no spontaneous outpouring of hatred towards the communists by the people. This was a systematic massacre led by the Indonesian army with the support of the main political parties, paramilitary forces and gangs. Reactionary Islamic organisation Nahdlatul Ulama, other religious groups, and the right wing of the Indonesian National Party, were heavily involved. Over the course of a year, countless people were slaughtered. Shallow graves were dug across the country, and rivers and caves were filled with the bodies of leftists. Estimates of the number killed range between 500,000 and 3 million. Many others fled the country or were imprisoned in political prisons and labour camps.

Behind the scenes

The murderers had the full material and political support of the imperialists. The British and US governments had decided to get rid of Sukarno several years before. According to a CIA memo, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and US President JF Kennedy had agreed to ‘liquidate President Sukarno, depending on the situation and available opportunities’ in 1962 (The Independent, 1 December 1998). Sukarno faced several failed imperialist-backed rebellions in the early sixties. The Confrontation (1963-6) between Indonesia and Malaysia saw Britain send tens of thousands of troops to the region, and increased Britain’s interest in destroying Sukarno. By 1964, Britain had a Labour government under Harold Wilson which was to pursue the same imperialist policies as its Conservative predecessors and would preside over the massacres. In 1965, Britain appointed Norman Reddaway as ‘Political War Officer’ against Indonesia, who described his job as ‘to do anything I could to get rid of Sukarno’. A US Special National Intelligence Estimate from 1965 stated that if Sukarno and the PKI were to succeed: ‘Indonesia would provide a powerful example for the underdeveloped world and hence a credit for communism and a setback for western prestige.’

The US ambassador to Indonesia reassured Suharto: ‘the US is generally sympathetic with and admiring of what the army is doing’. The British Foreign Office advised its ambassador in Indonesia, Sir Andrew Gilchrist: ‘we can hardly go wrong by tacitly backing the generals’. Military equipment was provided to the army: the US delivered a field communications network; West Germany delivered military equipment worth 300,000 Deutsche Marks; and Sweden sold an urgent shipment of $10,000,000 worth of small arms and ammunition. To ensure that the death squads killed all the communists and trade unionists considered a problem, the CIA handed over lists of up to 5,000 names to the army and kept a track of those killed from its station in Jakarta. The operation against Indonesia was a model for future imperialist coups. John Pilger explains that Ralph McGehee, a senior CIA operations officer described 1965: ‘as a “model operation” for the American-run coup that got rid of Salvador Allende in Chile seven years later. “The CIA forged a document purporting to reveal a leftist plot to murder Chilean military leaders… [just like] what happened in Indonesia in 1965.”’

The spoils

For the imperialists, the pay-off was worth it. In November 1967, the US Time-Life Corporation sponsored an ‘Indonesian Investment Conference’ in Geneva where representatives from the imperialist corporations and banks came together with Suharto’s military regime to organise the recolonisation of the country by capital. A new foreign investment law was drawn up in co-operation with the IMF, allowing foreign capital easy access. Thus began a close relationship between the murderous military regime of General Suharto, and the equally murderous regimes of the major imperialists. The Labour government of James Callaghan began sales of Hawk ground attack aircraft to Suharto in 1978 which were used to massacre the inhabitants of neighbouring East Timor. Britain became Indonesia’s main arms supplier for decades. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called Suharto: ‘one of our very best and most valuable friends’. Tony Blair’s Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, visited Indonesia on his first foreign trip, where he enthusiastically shook hands with Suharto.

The massacres in Indonesia in 1965 can be seen as a turning point in the imperialist struggle against socialism and for complete dominance of the oppressed world. According to the US State Department, the massacres resulted in a 42% drop in the numbers of communists outside the socialist bloc. How could an organisation as strong as the PKI be crushed without sparking civil war? The PKI leadership had chosen to take an exclusively parliamentary path to power in their 1954 congress. It argued that the Indonesian state had taken a decisive turn to the left under Sukarno when he had invited PKI members to join his government in 1962. But it was still a bourgeois state propped up by the army and right-wing Islamic organisations. The PKI, in its focus on building a united front to complete the national democratic revolution, failed to prepare for the danger to the working class of such a reliance on bourgeois and petty bourgeois forces. The army – in which communism was banned and reactionary ideas promoted – remained the strongest force in the country. The PKI planned to remain legal and operate openly – all its members and supporters were known locally when the army’s death squads came for them. The PKI had no armed force of its own to mobilise against the army, and had made no real preparations for operating underground. Some heroic attempts were made by the PKI to fight the wave of reaction, but they did not have the necessary resources, training or structures. This lack of preparation to fight the bourgeoisie, its state and its agents at such a heightened stage of struggle was a major miscalculation. However, the main lesson from 1965 is that the imperialists and their local proxies are bloodthirsty and murderous and must be destroyed. Remembering the one million communists killed by the imperialist’s death squads in Indonesia should be a reason for us to redouble our determination to build a powerful movement against imperialism in Britain.

Web of Deceit, Mark Curtis, Vintage 2003.

‘The Forgotten Massacres’, Alex De Jong, Jacobin, 6 February 2015.

The New Rulers of the World, John Pilger, Verso 2002.


Film review: The Look of Silence

The Look of Silence is a film by US director Joshua Oppenheimer which focuses on the massive social impact of the Indonesian massacres.

This is Oppenheimer’s second film on the massacres, following The Act of Killing (2013). In this film Oppenheimer made a decision not to analyse the political context of the killings and the role of the imperialists. He developed relationships with various perpetrators of the massacres in North Sumatra – one of thousands of islands which make up Indonesia. These now elderly men are happy to boast on camera about their role in the killings, including re-enacting the murders in bizarre fashions. The Look of Silence continues in this same vein, but this time focuses on one family in a village near Medan, North Sumatra. Adi Rukun, whose brother Ramli was killed by anti-communist death squads before Adi was born, becomes the main interviewer. Adi speaks to a variety of killers and their families, none of whom offers any regret for what they have done, instead revelling in an opportunity to talk about their actions. Their children however are often ashamed or reviled when the scale of the depravity is revealed.

In The Look of Silence we do get glimpses of the political context and imperialist support for the massacre. One interviewee expresses disappointment that the US did not reward him for his actions, explaining ‘we did this because America taught us to hate communists’. Contemporary US news reports are included in the film, with NBC TV news heralding the ‘single biggest defeat handed to communists anywhere in the world’, and showing footage of people held in a prison camp at gunpoint working for US rubber corporation Goodyear. Oppenheimer told The Guardian: ‘The fear I felt in Indonesia is present elsewhere and is, in fact, an essential ingredient of our global economy ... We know, for instance, that the people who made our smartphones may have been suicidal … but we don’t want to think about it or even look at it. I believe that by looking or speaking out, we are compelled to maybe act. Otherwise we retreat into fantasies that divide us from each other and from ourselves and allow people to retreat into the kind of fantasies in which they can describe the migrants who are coming to Britain as cockroaches.’ (7 June 2015). Britain’s role as the main supplier of weapons to Indonesia whilst it was massacring the people of East Timor was stressed by Oppenheimer in his BAFTA acceptance speech for The Act of Killing. This was subsequently cut from the BBC’s broadcast of the awards. Oppenheimer’s films are recommended for anyone interested in getting a glimpse of the continuing social, psychological and political legacy of the massacres in contemporary Indonesia.

FRFI 246 August/September2015