New Light Through an Old Window

A new book takes a fresh look at the 1965-66 mass killings in Indonesia.

‘Constructive Bloodbath’ in Indonesia
The United States, Britain and the Mass Killings of 1965-66
Author: Nathaniel Mehr, with foreword by Carmel Budiarjo
Publisher: Spokesman Books (UK)

The noted dissident American intellectual Noam Chomsky coined the phrase ‘constructive bloodbath’ to describe the mass killings that went on in Indonesia in 1965-66. Why ‘constructive’, many people will want to know. Constructive for whom?

Chomsky’s answer is that the destruction of the Indonesian Left and the subversion of President Sukarno were primary foreign policy aims of the US and its junior partner Great Britain, both anxious to open up the treasure trove of Indonesian natural resources that another American, the writer John Gunther had called “the Big Loot of Asia” in his book Inside Asia.

But ‘bloodbath’? This sometimes seems even a little euphemistic, if I may say so, if we take into account the possible numbers killed in the army-led rampage that ostensibly was aimed at the Indonesian Communist Party but, in truth, had the wider aim of liquidating and atomizing the entire Indonesian Left, communist and non-communist, and the center too.

What were those numbers? Some have alleged the figure is as high as 2 million but we can simply never know. One of the reasons for this is very clear: many of the victims were disposed of in mass graves. As the Australian academic Dr Katherine McGregor called ‘Digging up the Past in post-Suharto Indonesia’ for a Scandinavian publication, she notes the vigorous resistance by local people in several cases to exhumation of these mass graves. Another Australian Denis Byrne has noted that in Bali, where some of the most intense killing went on, mass graves were deliberately built over; one of the projects involved was the swank Oberoi Hotel.

Suffice it to say that the numbers are large enough to justify the term ‘mass killings’ used in the subtitle of British writer Nathaniel Mehr’s well-presented book on the period.

What period are we looking at? Principally from 30 September-1 October 1965 until April 1966. Thus we begin with the peculiar events in which seven Indonesian Army generals and an army captain (Tendean) were killed by a motley group of soldiers. This has been called variously a “coup d’etat” and a “putsch” but Mehr insists it was a “mutiny”. Whatever the case it is my contention that the whole thing was a debacle, as I have previously stated in the magazine in reviewing John T. Roosa’s Pretext for Mass Murder.

Mutinies, no less than coups or putsches, require proper preparation and clear-sighted leadership as well as well-coordinated execution. There were none of these things.

Author Mehr has devoted some space to analyzing the mess that was the so-called Gestapu movement that led to the generals’deaths. I think he ought to have brought out the way in which DN Aidit, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) leader, was involved through a highly secretive inner party group called the Special Bureau which excluded the vast majority of the PKI leadership; the matter of backing an inner army group of plotters was never discussed even at Politburo level. This in a so-called revolutionary organization is really quite unusual.

Equally, when we look at how things actually unfolded on 30 September-1 October we see serious elements of farce that no self-respecting revolutionaries would have allowed to happen; there were pitifully few troops in Merdeka Square and no attempt was made to seal all four sides of the square, they were only lightly armed and no air cover was mobilized. Crucially, above all, PKI, then the third largest Communist Party in the world had a huge national base – Mehr quite rightly points to PKI’s substantial support among poor farmers in Central and East Java as well as among the plantation workers of North Sumatra.

Bafflingly, unless you understand that there was no attempt to mobilize this mass support in the Party’s defense precisely because the Party as an institution was not involved, no call to arms was ever made. Put simply, we can see that PKI was in fact not a revolutionary organization. It had long been wedded to a peaceful parliamentary approach.

We must examine the assertion by the scholars Benedict Anderson and Ruth McVey, which Mehr accurately records here, that in fact the events of 30 September-1 October 1965 are separate from the mass killings. Indeed, it is true that there was a time lapse of weeks before the army and its Muslim and nationalist auxiliaries swung into murderous action. I am skeptical, however, that this necessarily means the two phases are separate.

Would not Suharto and his supporters in the Armed Forces have needed time to identify their own civilian support and organize and arm them for the task ahead? It seems sufficient for me to explain Gestapu as the long-awaited pretext. We should not let pass without comment the fact that among the most bloodthirsty groups was the NU youth wing Ansor. It was with its role in the slaughter that the NU leader Gus Dur during his tenure as President of Indonesia attempted to raise the moral questions involved. For his pains he was shouted down and judiciously retreated.

Mehr, incidentally, provides some graphic details of the killings that I had not seen before such as the use by the killers in the West Java city of Cirebon of a guillotine that “worked around the clock”. Some of the other details are too ugly to repeat lightly although Mehr is not at fault in stating them.

As he quite rightly says, “The overwhelming majority of the victims of the 1965-66 killings were poor rural people who had aligned themselves with PKI simply because it was the only
political organization that seemed at all interested in representing them, both at grass-roots level, local level and in the arena of high politics in Jakarta.” This is doubtless true but it must be remembered that even now 10 or more years into the reform (reformasi) era it is quite dangerous to say such things.

There are fanatics that will brook no discussion of the matter. If I say “we all know who they are” that is unlikely to deter them. Equally, the Attorney General’s Office (AGO), which has
been responsible for shameful book burnings of school texts that offer alternative explanations of Gestapu (I have Lombok in mind), may not take kindly to certain truths being pointed out.

The long shadow of History continues to fall, darkening the room. The room echoes insidiously with the rustle of skeletons while somewhere both far off and near ghosts stir.

Down in Central Java, where superstition is a material force, the ghosts of 1965-66 move and unsettle. And a film maker is forced by the police to close down production on a romance set in the Time of Living Dangerously. Pressure from Muslim hardliners objecting to the perceived pro-Communism of a film called Lastri. Yet another case of 30 September-1 October 1965 coming back to haunt Indonesia.

In the same week the new Indonesia English-language daily The Jakarta Globe prints a piece about surviving members of a Muslim youth organization breezily admitting to murdering suspected Communists in Central Java at that time, beheading them, smashing their crania with hammers, disposing of bodies in rivers. These men, apparently still puffed with pride, walk free.

The film maker, meanwhile, pleads for understanding and cultural activists in the historic city of Solo demand to know whether the hardliners have actually read the script. They have not, apparently.

The Muslim youth organization concerned is Ansor, a wing of NU,which as Nathaniel Mehr points out in this new book, played a major and assiduous role in the army-led mass killings of Leftists and other ‘undesirables’.

So where do Britain and the US come into the picture? I knew something of this but by no means all and was particularly interested to read Mehr’s account of the close coordination
between Sir Adam Gilchrist the UK Ambassador in Jakarta at the time of the killings – Gilchrist was more or less a cheerleader for the army – and MI6 at its Phoenix Park base in Singapore.

MI6’s Norman Reddaway received copious telegrams from Gilchrist containing blatant pro-Suharto faction propaganda that he immediately fed to a somewhat docile British print media as well as a blatantly passive BBC which fed it back into Indonesia.

We have the word of Roland Challis, a former BBC Southeast Asia correspondent for this.

The author quite rightly takes the British media to task for continuing over several decades to minimizing the scale and the nature of the mass killings. Nor does he spare British academia.

The American role, which was fairly recently highlighted again by allegations that the CIA had funded Adam Malik, perhaps needs not too much elaboration here. It had long been an aim of the Americans to get Sukarno out of the way – the Dulles brothers,Allen and John Foster, had made that very clear in the 1950s and the destruction of the PKI they welcomed warmly.

Ambassador Marshall Green, for many years a denialist, has been exposed by declassified documents provided under the Freedom of Information Act. As the George Washington University National Security Archive says, “For example, US Embassy reporting November 13, 1965 passed on information ‘from the police that from 50 to 100 PKI members were being killed every night in East and Central Java…”, and the Embassy admitted on April 15, 1966 in an airgram to Washington that “We frankly do not know whether the real figure of PKI killed is closer to 100,000 or to 1 million but believe it is better to err on the lower side especially when questioned by the press’.”

All in all, Nathaniel Mehr has written a sound and readable book. There are a couple of things to quibble about: Salatiga is not in East Java but in Central Java; Malaysia did not gain independence in 1963 but in 1957. I nonetheless recommend it.

The ISBN is 978-0-85124-767-0. Alternatively you can go to for further information.

(pub. Tempo Magazine No.52/IX August 25-Sept 01, 2009)

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