History Behind The Book: The 1965 Indonesian Massacres

I’m happily reading Black Water by Louise Doughty when I come across cryptic references to monumental events occurring in Indonesia in 1965 and 1998.  Huh?

Well, the United States government knew what was going on in 1965.  So did the Australian and British governments.  The CIA, in fact, helped engineer the entire thing.  Don’t blame yourself if you didn’t know or have never heard anything about it.  Journalists had been confined to Jakarta, and most of what was happening occurred at night in rural areas.  So barely any mention in the news.  And until a regime change occurred some thirty years later, Indonesia was not going to be broadcasting what had transpired.  Even then not much national introspection or retribution.

In 1965, militias of youths armed with knives and swords killed between 500,000 to one million suspected communists (and students and trade unionists and personal enemies).  The militias were auxiliaries to the Indonesian army.  They roamed the countryside, committing the killings at night.  Decapitations were regular.  There were mutilations and mass graves and groups of victims ordered to dig their own graves.  All the standard props of a purge.

In 1965, Sukarno, who had led Indonesia to independence from the Dutch in

Presiden Sukarno.jpg
Sukarno

1947, still headed the Indonesian government.  The autocrat was beginning to look decidedly pink, not a becoming color in Cold War America. The massacres were triggered by a coup of junior military officers, who kidnapped and killed six generals on October 1.  The rebels called themselves the 30 September  Movement.  The Movement did not move and was halted within 24 hours.

 

Indonesian authorities among whom was General Suharto –Suharto took control of the army and in short order would supplant Sukarno–blamed the coup on the Communist PKI party.

President Suharto, 1993.jpg
Suharto

Hence the purge. Hence the 1.5 million suspected Communists imprisoned over the next decade.

 

So where does the CIA fit in with all this?  In 1965, the PKI was the third largest communist party in the world.  With its size and resources, Indonesia was a domino that made Vietnam pale in comparison.  The CIA sponsored a propaganda campaign to goad the Communist party into premature action and create a pretext for retaliation against the PKI. Once it was time for retaliation, the CIA aided the massacres with funds, equipment and arms. It also furnished lists of suspected Communists funneled through the American Embassy.  So a good amount of the blood from the 1965 bloodbath rests on American hands.  Recent research suggests that nearly all of the blood was innocent.  The 30 September Movement was plotted by a small group of junior army officers and a secret committee at the top of the PKI.

And what’s magic about 1998?  In that year, an uprising occurred against Suharto.  Demonstrations were held against Suharto. Rioting and looting swelled, and the death toll rose to over 1000.   (Much of the violence was directed against ethnic Chinese and their businesses.  The Chinese were a historical target.  They occupied a primary role in Indonesian commerce and had been aligned with the hated Dutch before independence.  Moreover, they were perceived as viewing Chinese culture as superior to Indonesian. ) By May the dictator had stepped down with barely a whimper.

 

For more see:  Accomplices in Atrocity. The Indonesian killings of 1965 (transcript)Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 7 September 2008

Margaret Scott, “The Indonesian Massacre: What Did the U.S. Know?” The New York Review of Books.  http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2015/11/02/indonesian-massacre-what-did-us-know/

Journal of Genocide Research Vol. 3 , Iss. 2,2001 

 

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2 thoughts on “History Behind The Book: The 1965 Indonesian Massacres

  1. The only time this event entered popular consciousness was through the 1982 movie, “The Year of Living Dangerously,” starring a very young Mel Gibson, as well as Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hunt. The entire story revolves around the 1965 coup, but that aspect of the movie is very confusing. Who’s leading the coup? Is it the Communists, the anti-Communists, the military? Is Sukarno a victim or a bad guy? I saw the movie 35 years ago, and don’t remember all the details, just the fact that the background should have been made more understandable for the 99% of the viewing audience who were not Indonesia experts.

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