The West’s role in Indonesia’s slaughter

October 14, 2015

Fifty years ago, the Indonesian military began a savage counterrevolutionary campaign against the country's Communist Party, leading to the murder of hundreds of thousands in a country that had, until that point, had the largest non-ruling Communist Party in the world, with more than 1 million members. The genocidal war on the communists was carried out with support of the U.S. government and its allies, amid the Cold War conflict with the former USSR. The slaughter of the communists also led to the downfall of Indonesian President Sukarno and the beginning of the rule of the military dictator Suharto.

Marlene Millott, a research assistant at Monash University in Melbourne, examines the role that Australia and other Western powers played in enabling the massacres in Indonesia, in an article republished in the Australian socialist newspaper Red Flag.

FIFTY YEARS ago, beginning on September 30, one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century took place on Australia's doorstep.

An estimated half a million people affiliated with the Partai Komunis Indonesia (Indonesian Communist Party, or PKI) were massacred by the Indonesian army, with help from local religious and youth groups. These killings contributed to a reorientation in Indonesian politics, installing Gen. Suharto as president and eliminating the once-strong PKI through violent purges and systematic imprisonment. Declassified documents have shown that the U.S. and its allies played a significant role in these killings, as the U.S. provided weapons, communications equipment and lists of known communists. As an ally of the U.S., the Australian Embassy and the Department of External Affairs acted in a way that made Australia an accomplice, by helping to create the conditions that allowed the massacres to take place.

At the end of September 1965, Indonesia was on knife's edge. Under President Sukarno, Indonesian politics were dominated by three forces: the army, nationalism, and the PKI. While both the army and the PKI pledged loyalty to Sukarno, they were fierce political rivals, and Sukarno played each off against the other to strengthen his position. In the years leading up to 1965, Sukarno favored the PKI and it grew in strength, while his foreign policy became increasingly hostile towards the West. The Indonesian Army and the U.S. and its allies watched these developments with suspicion, and formed secret relationships. From 1958 to 1965, the U.S. secretly trained, funded and advised the army to turn it into a "state within a state" that would be ready to take over government if the opportunity arose.

Detained by Indonesian troops during the massacres of communists
Detained by Indonesian troops during the massacres of communists

ON THE night of September 30, 1965, the commander of the army, Lt. General Achmad Yani and five generals were kidnapped by a group calling themselves the September 30th Movement. The officers were murdered and thrown down a well. The army and the U.S. embassy had been patiently waiting for an event like this. It declared the PKI responsible for masterminding a coup, seized almost all media outlets and spread the story of PKI treachery. General Suharto extracted a mandate from Sukarno to return order to the country, before setting out to destroy the Communist Party.

Across the archipelago, a campaign to eliminate the PKI saw the murder of an estimated 500,000 people. Victims were rounded up and detained for days or months before being executed. The army was instrumental in the massacres, often accompanied by local militias. Those who weren't killed were transferred to prison camps, with 1 million people held in detention facilities without trial, with terms varying from a few months to 14 years.

Following the events of September 30, Western nations solidified their support for the Indonesian Army, in an effort to remove the PKI from power and sideline Sukarno. The U.S. and the UK, supported by other nations in the region, including Australia, carried out clandestine operations that supported and encouraged the army-led massacres of alleged PKI members. Documents from the National Archives of Australia show that the Australian Embassy and the Department of External Affairs were closely aligned with the Indonesian Army, offered support for their activities in overthrowing Sukarno and eliminating the PKI, and used Radio Australia to broadcast army propaganda in Indonesia that contributed to the anti-communist hysteria.

Cables show that the Australian Embassy was aware that communists were being rounded up and killed from early October 1965. The Australian ambassador to Indonesia, Keith Shann, "personally witnessed" around 250 prisoners being taken away by the army, and noted that it was impossible to know the number of people killed and detained, but "it cannot be small." In February 1966, J.M. Starey, the first secretary at the Australian Embassy, visited Bali, Flores and Timor, and spoke to Australian students who had been in Lombok. He heard firsthand accounts of the killings by people who had participated in them, and in Flores, even saw victims' heads on spikes in some villages. Starey noted that the army was in control of the proceedings. The Australian Embassy and Department of External Affairs made it clear they were satisfied with these events. In early October 1965, ambassador Shann cabled the department saying that it was "now or never," and that he "devoutly hope[d]" that "the army [would] act firmly" against the PKI. In mid-1966, Prime Minister Harold Holt expressed detached satisfaction with the pro-Western shift in Indonesian foreign and economic policy. He casually told the crowd at the Australian-American Association in New York, "With 500,000 to 1 million Communist sympathizers knocked off, I think it is safe to assume a reorientation has taken place."

As the Indonesian Army murdered hundreds of thousands of alleged PKI, the Australian Embassy maintained ties with Indonesian Army generals, discussing anti-PKI activities and ways Australia could assist the army in its transition to power. A cable from November 12, 1965, shows ambassador Shann discussed the army's anti-Communist campaign and Australia's military campaign in Borneo to defend the newly created Malaysia against Indonesian aggression with the undersecretary from the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dr. A.Y. Helmi.

Helmi requested Australian and British troops restrict all patrols and activities in Borneo, so the Indonesian Army could deal with the communists. Shann reassured Helmi that the army was "completely safe in using their forces for whatever purposes they saw fit," knowing those forces would be used to attack PKI members and allies.

THE BIGGEST role Australia played in the 1965-66 massacres of the PKI was through broadcasting and supporting Indonesian Army propaganda. In the weeks that followed the attempted coup, the Indonesian Army seized control of virtually all of Indonesia's media, and began an aggressive and pervasive anti-PKI campaign which spread disinformation aimed at discrediting and dehumanizing the communists.

During the time of the killings, Radio Australia was under the influence of the Department of External Affairs, which was passed information from the Australian Embassy in Jakarta following instruction from the Indonesian Army. Cables show that through regular daily guidance, Radio Australia was instructed on the topics it should report on and the phrases it should use about key figures and events.

Ambassador Shann urged Radio Australia to focus on the PKI's involvement in the attempted coup, and to "pound the facts into Indonesians," noting that it is "excellent propaganda and of assistance to the anti-PKI forces" who were "refreshingly determined to do over the PKI." Radio Australia was also encouraged to report manipulations and misconstructions of the truth, in line with what the Indonesian Army requested. A November 9, 1965, cable showed that ambassador Shann was approached by an unnamed colonel from the army's Information Section and was told that Radio Australia should not focus on the army, but to "mention as often as possible youth groups and other organizations, both Muslim and Christian" that were involved in anti-communist actions, to dilute the culpability of the army. He also discussed the reporting of a list of other internal and external issues in favor of the army. Shann concluded the cable with the comment that he could "live with most of these [instructions], even if we must be a bit dishonest for a while."

Radio Australia was also told to avoid "giving information to the Indonesian people that would be withheld by the army-controlled internal media," and Radio Australia should not compromise the army's position. Almost all the media outlets in Indonesia were controlled by the army, and Radio Australia was one of the most popular foreign radio stations in the country. The army's anti-PKI propaganda was an incitement to violence, which contributed to the mobilization of parts of the Indonesian population to participate in the massacres. By contributing to the propaganda that swept the country, Australia played a part in encouraging militias and civilians to participate in the slaughter, while justifying the killings through the demonization of the victims.

Australia's actions as an accomplice to these killings should not be exaggerated. The massacres of the PKI took place against the backdrop of years of tension and hatred between the army and the PKI, in a complex internal political environment that would have seen the killings take place regardless of any role Australia might have played. Fifty years later, those who committed the atrocities have never been brought to justice. Denial of the killings is rife. Where it is acknowledged, the perpetrators are admired as heroes who saved the nation from a communist menace. As activist groups across Indonesia struggle to cut through the propaganda and spread the truth about the massacres of the PKI, it is important that Australia's role in these events is understood.

First published at the Australian Institute of International Affairs, and reprinted at Red Flag.

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