Chaos Theory

The events surrounding the PKI’s attempted coup and the subsequent Suharto-led bloodbath are re-examined.

Pretext For Mass Murder: The September 30th Movement & Suharto’s Coup D’Etat in Indonesia
Author: John T. Roosa
Pub: University of Wisconsin Press

According to The Free Dictionary (online) there are four definitions of ‘debacle’, to wit:
1. A sudden disastrous collapse, downfall or defeat, a rout
2. A total, often ludicrous failure
3. The breaking up of ice in a river
4. A violent flood

If one considers the demise of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in 1965-66 it is easy enough to apply the first and last of these definitions. From its lofty status as the third largest Communist Party in the world after the USSR and China, the PKI fell spectacularly into oblivion in a matter of months in “a violent flood” of blood let loose by the Indonesian Military (TNI) and its auxiliaries. But in reading John T. Roosa’s Pretext for Mass Murder I am now more inclined to look to definition 2, “a total, ludicrous failure.”

I have long wanted to know the answer to a fairly simple question: how could such a large and confident organization as the PKI die such a quick death? How could it possibly succumb so easily? After all, it had millions of members and supporters across the islands of Indonesia.

Much, much more to the point, perhaps, I have always found it difficult to believe that such a mass party would delegate an assault on state power to a small circle of military men and then not call those millions out onto the streets.

Reading John Roosa, I now recognize that I have ignored a factor that has played a surprisingly large role in history: plain, old-fashioned incompetence. To read this account of the events of September 30/October 1-2, 1965 is to look into a plot so staggeringly incompetent as to beggar description.

‘Fiasco’ will not cover it, ‘farce’ perhaps might. The latter was an expression used in the pre-modern English theater for making up the script as you went along, a very imperfect production. Far from coming across as a particularly evil or ruthless set of conspirators, the military and civilian men (all men, no women) involved in the so-called September 30 Movement or Gerakan September Tiga Puluh (Gestapu) appear as ham-handed clowns, all thumbs and no fingers.

The bungling and blundering in which “the movement” (Roosa’s phrase throughout the book) was mired cannot be ascribed to men with a seriously well thought-out plan that factored in all the key matters of political preparation and military logistics.

How was it possible, we must ask, for the plotters to send a detachment of troops to arrest General Abdul Haris Nasution, the best-known soldier in Indonesia, and have them led by a private, a man of the army’s lowest rank? Small wonder, isn’t it, that they did not secure the rear of Nasution’s house and that as a consequence he escaped over the garden wall!

How was it possible for the inside man in charge of the President’s security detail not to know that Sukarno for whom “the movement” wished to provide protection was spending the night at the house of his third wife Dewi? Sukarno, after all, was hardly known for his chastity!

How inconceivable that the small number of troops and PKI Youth that went to Merdeka Square on October 1 were not provided with mobile kitchens and ended up hungry and begging for food from Kostrad (Army Strategic Reserve Command) on Jalan Merdeka Timur, the only side of the square they had not secured!

Where were the plotters’ tanks? None. Where was their aerial support? None. Crucially, above all, where were the militant masses that PKI could so readily have called on? At home, as much in the dark as anyone, unaware that a major tragedy was impending!

Asked to participate in a custard fight, none of the plotters, it seems, would have found his target.

Was the PKI involved as an institution? The answer has to be ‘No’. Were certain members of the Party involved and the answer has to be ‘Yes’, critically, D.N. Aidit, PKI Chairman, and his de facto ADC Sjam (Kamaruzaman).

Professor Roosa establishes the unusual role of Aidit in this affair by linking him to a secret organization of his own formulation within the Party, to wit the Special Bureau, whose existence and function were unknown to even most members of the Politburo and Central Committee. Aidit had created the Special Bureau as a means of cultivating links inside the Indonesian Army as far back as the 1940s. Sjam was the active conduit between Aidit and sympathetic left-leaning officers in the forces.

Consider the fact that despite a regular regimen of three or four Politburo meetings a month, Aidit called none at all in September 1965, the better to protect the secrecy of his machinations with the small group of sympathetic army officers he and Sjam had contacted. But was Sjam a double agent? Anderson, who observed his trial in 1967, found his behavior untypical of a senior PKI cadre and the suspicion lingers that he was in fact a military ‘plant’.

Roosa has relied strongly on the testimony of the highest ranking army officer involved in “the movement”, Brigadier-General Supardjo, whose document the author discovered in military archives in Indonesia, where it had been overlooked by all other commentators on the dark events of 1965-66. Supardjo, who only joined the inner circle a couple of days before the events unfolded, appears as the only one with any sense of how things should have been run from a military perspective, an area in which Aidit and Sjam were complete know-nothings. The Brig. Gen. demonstrates quite coolly how badly put together the whole “movement” was.

Roosa also relies on Sudisman, the only Politburo member to survive the Suharto-led bloodbath who, at his military trial, made a defiant speech in which he reiterated his deeply held beliefs.

As a good historian should, he has looked at the contributions of other scholars to the literature on Gestapu, in particular Ben Anderson and Ruth McVey of Cornell University, W. F. Wertheim and Harold Crouch, and pointed out the deficiencies and anomalies in their positions. None, it seems, had consulted the Supardjo document.

“Pretext” means, of course, that the right-wing generals had a pre-existing plan to annihilate the PKI. It was for them only a matter of time and opportunity. When the time did come they let slip the dogs of great cruelty.

Roosa’s book will inevitably be controversial in Indonesia, especially in light of the shameful fact that the AGO has recently been burning school textbooks that offer a non-orthodox interpretation of the events of 1965-66, that is to say one which portrays the whole scenario as purely a PKI plot. Well and good, the history is there to be contested.

If “the movement” was a debacle, then that is what it should be called.

(pub. Tempo. No. 52/VII/Aug 28 – Sept 03, 2007)

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