[News] A History of the Indonesian Massacres, 1965-1966

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Feb 27 11:02:37 EST 2019


  A History of the Indonesian Massacres, 1965-1966

by Gregory Elich <https://www.counterpunch.org/author/gregory-elich/> - 
February 27, 2019

    The Killing Season: A History of the Indonesian Massacres, 1965-66
    by Geoffrey B. Robinson.
    Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.

Half a million people killed and more than a million imprisoned and 
tortured; the tragedy that befell Indonesia in 1965 was among the more 
dramatic moments in 20^th -century history. It was also one of the most 
ignored. After more than half a century, Geoffrey B. Robinson’s new book 
is the first comprehensive history to appear in the English language.

In 1965, Indonesian President Sukarno headed a coalition government that 
included the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), the largest such party 
outside of the socialist bloc. Arrayed against Sukarno and the PKI were 
powerful domestic forces that included the Army, the Council of Islamic 
Scholars, and the rightwing Indonesian Nationalist Party. Sukarno also 
faced external opposition from the United States and the United Kingdom. 
The US in particular had long tried to undermine the Sukarno government, 
and in 1957-98 the CIA conducted a covert operation to provide funding 
and weapons to opposition groups.

When lower ranking Indonesian Army officers abducted and then killed six 
generals and a lieutenant on October 1, 1965, in what they said was an 
effort to stop a planned CIA-backed military coup, the Army swiftly 
responded with a loud propaganda campaign that falsely blamed the PKI 
for the killings. The Army then launched a campaign of mass slaughter, 
aimed at eradicating the PKI and its affiliates, including women’s, 
youth, peasant, and worker organizations. For the next several months 
the Army, under the command of Major General Suharto, systematically 
seized power, first sidelining President Sukarno and then later ousting 
him from his position.

There were elements in the Army that had long harbored plans to attack 
the Left and take control of the nation; they were only waiting for a 
propitious moment. Robinson writes: “Significantly, we also know from 
declassified documents that right up until 1965, the US government was 
encouraging elements in the Indonesian military to take strong action 
against the PKI and Sukarno.” The US had identified Suharto as among the 
anticommunist generals that it regarded as reliable friends.

Western antipathy to Sukarno and the PKI stemmed from the conviction 
“that Sukarno’s shift to the left represented a direct threat to private 
investment, especially in the areas of oil and rubber.” By early 1965, 
trade unions were demanding the expropriation of American and British 
properties, including oil facilities and plantations. Moreover, “the 
United States and its allies were anxious to ensure Indonesia’s full 
integration into a liberal international political and economic order 
over which they presided, and to prevent the success of a nationalist or 
leftist economic experiment that would erode Western hegemony.”

In the years leading up to 1965, the US began to increase the amount of 
aid it sent to the Indonesian military. As a memorandum from the US 
Joint Chiefs of Staff put it: “The Indonesian Army is the only 
non-communist force in Indonesia with the capability of obstructing the 
progress of the PKI toward domination of the country.” If the Army would 
be “given some encouragement in the form of US aid, Indonesian Army 
Chief of Staff Nasution will carry out his ‘plan’ for control of the 

By 1965, about 2,800 Indonesian officers had attended military training 
in the United States. According to a report from the White House’s 
National Security Council, the training program “bolstered the 
determination of non-communist and anticommunist elements in Indonesia 
to counter the communist influence.” The entire program was intended to 
ideologically groom the officers, with the expectation that there would 
be a future payoff for U.S. political objectives.

Much of the groundwork for this anticommunist political indoctrination 
had already been laid by Imperial Japan’s occupation of Indonesia during 
the Second World War. In the Second World War, “the bulk of the officers 
for the Indonesian Army from late 1945 through the late 1970s,” 
including General Suharto, who led the campaign to eliminate the PKI, 
had been members of Defenders of the Fatherland, an auxiliary military 
force which supported the Japanese occupation.

In Robinson’s judgment, “The violence of 1965-66 – its patterns and 
variations – cannot be properly understood without recognizing the 
pivotal role of the army leadership in provoking, facilitating, and 
organizing it.” The Army was able to exploit fissures within Sukarno’s 
uneasy alliance. There was little love between the PKI and trade unions 
on one side, and nationalist and Islamic organizations on the other, 
with the latter two more often than not holding reactionary political views.

“The idea of killing members of the PKI and the Left did not emerge 
spontaneously,” Robinson points out. “On the contrary, it was encouraged 
and facilitated by the army leadership through the use of language 
calculated to create an atmosphere of hostility and fear in which 
killing anyone associated with the PKI appeared not only morally 
justifiable but also a patriotic and religious duty. That language 
spread rapidly across the archipelago, partly through the 
army-controlled newspapers and television, but also through radio as 
well as countless mass rallies, demonstrations, ceremonies, 
declarations, sermons, and face-to-face meetings. In the resulting 
atmosphere of anticommunist hysteria, existing conflicts over politics, 
religion, culture, and land were easily ignited.”

It was not only the Left that was targeted. In some cases, rightwing 
nationalists butchered ethnic Chinese, motivated solely by intolerance.

Concern was growing in Washington and London over Indonesia’s warm 
relations with China. As the United States waged war in Vietnam, it was 
hypersensitive to any sign of waning influence in a nation so rich in 
resources as Indonesia. Washington could only regard Indonesian domestic 
affairs through an international Cold War lens, in which any Third World 
nation that enjoyed normal relations with China or the Soviet Union was 
considered a threat that needed to be crushed. “In much of the world at 
this time the Cold War was decidedly hot, and entailed a rapid expansion 
in the use of paramilitary forces, the practice of torture, and 
extrajudicial killings,” Robinson writes. “This was especially true in 
Asia, where Cold War calculations and military interventions, covert and 
overt, contributed to protracted and bloody conflicts in Burma, 
Cambodia, China, Korea, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.” 
One could also add Thailand to that list.

Matters were quickly coming to a head by 1965, and a US State Department 
memorandum advised President Lyndon Johnson to tell British Prime 
Minister Harold Wilson that “the US and Great Britain must be prepared 
to engage in full military battle” against Indonesia. “The interests of 
the US and of Sukarno now conflict in nearly every quarter,” a CIA 
memorandum darkly warned. CIA Director William Raborn advised President 
Johnson that “Indonesia was well embarked on a course that will make it 
a communist nation in the reasonably near future,unless the trend is 

In a not-so-subtle hint, American and British officials contacted 
anticommunist generals in the Indonesian Army and assured them that 
“they would be given a free hand to move against the PKI.” Those 
assurances were finding a receptive audience in the Indonesian Army’s 
high command, the US Embassy in Jakarta reported with pleasure to 
Washington. Contacts within the Indonesian Army informed US officials 
that “specific plans” for a coup were being made.

Encouraged by developments, the US sent covert financial support to key 
Indonesian generals. The Americans knew what they were buying. In a 
meeting with US advisor George Benson, Indonesian Army General Yani 
gloated, “We have the guns, and we have kept the guns out of their [the 
communists’] hands. So if there’s a clash, we’ll wipe them out.”

In March 1965, the US National Security Council approved an operational 
plan intended to generate feelings of animosity in the Indonesian 
population towards the PKI. The plan called for “covert liaison with and 
support for existing anticommunist groups,” as well as “black letter 
operations, media operations, including possibly black radio, and 
political action within existing Indonesian institutions and 
organizations.” Black letters are forged documents, falsely attributed 
to a targeted person or organization with the aim of influencing public 

One operation suggested by the US Embassy in Jakarta was to have 
Indonesian media broadcast stories associating China with the kidnapping 
and killing of generals on October 1. “We should claim Chicoms were 
trying to gain control and end Indo independence, using PKI and other 
elements under their influence,” the embassy recommended. As Robinson 
observes, the striking thing about the attempt to make that linkage “is 
that US officials themselves had doubts about the veracity of the claim 
of a Chinese role, and lacked even the most rudimentary evidence to 
support it.” Plainly put, US officials were deliberately lying to 
inflame hatred towards the PKI.

Once it had the pretext, the Army speedily organized, trained, armed, 
and gave logistical support to members of rightwing political parties 
and religious organizations, militias, and vigilante groups. This 
support included trucks and other vehicles that were used to transport 
death squads as they swept through towns and villages. Robinson writes: 
“Accounts from virtually every part of the country describe the 
transportation of suspects, bound and tied, in open-backed military-type 

“I had license to kill people who were proven involved in the PKI,” one 
vigilante member recalled. Using an Army-issued pistol, “I launched 
operations to find PKI sympathizers and leaders in Yogyakarta nearly 
every day, from 1965 to mid-1966.” According to a death squad commander 
in North Sumatra, “We exterminated communists for three months, day and 
night.” The Army routinely provided lists to the death squads of people 
they were directed to kill or arrest.

The Army established KAP-Gestapu as an umbrella organization to 
coordinate the activity of the various groups participating in the 
butchery. KAP-Gestapustood for Komando Aksi Pengganyangan Gerakan 
September Tiga Puluh, or Action Command to Crush the September 30^th 
Movement. The small group that abducted and killed the Indonesian 
generals on October 1, 1965,went by the name of the September 30^th 
Movement, but the Army claimed that the entire Left was responsible.

KAP-Gestapu brought together several fiercely anticommunist 
organizations, such as those affiliated with the Council of Islamic 
Scholars, the League of Upholders of Indonesian Freedom, and the 
Catholic Party, among others. Not surprisingly, the United States soon 
provided covert financial backing to KAP-Gestapu.

Rightwing militia groups were particularly enthusiastic about their 
assignments. “It was to these groups, and their leaders, that the Army 
turned to identify and locate local PKI leaders and members; it was they 
who surrounded the houses of alleged leftists at night, angrily demanded 
their arrest, destroyed their property, and burned their houses. And it 
was they who made up the squads that tracked down and detained alleged 
leftists, took them to sites of detention, and joined in killing them.” 
According to a US Embassy cable, in the Soho area alone, “the Army was 
training and equipping some 24 thousand Moslem youth for action against 
communists.” How many more were active across the entire nation was 
beyond counting. According to Robinson, “With rare exceptions, these 
militia groups and death squads operated under Army direction and control.”

Journalist John Hughes observed that the Army sometimes played a more 
direct role, as in Java, where “the military and police got together 
with civilian authorities and made sure the right people were being 
executed. People were…arrested and, usually, shot by the soldiers.” On 
other occasions, villagers were tasked to kill local communists. “Then 
took place communal executions as the village gathered its communists 
together and clubbed or knifed them to death.”

“Suspects were often rounded up at night,” Robinson reports, “sometimes 
on the basis of lists prepared by army interrogators, anticommunist 
organizations, or helpful foreign embassies.” The victims were “then 
bound and blindfolded before being transported in trucks to killing 
sites. There, they would frequently be made to line up in front of large 
pits, beside a riverbank, or at the edge of a ravine. Then they would be 
shot, clubbed with heavy objects, or hacked to death, and their bodies 
tumbled into the open holes or the nearby ravine or waterway.”

A police officer in West Timor recounts: “The prisoners were ordered to 
dig their own graves during the day. The shooting usually took place at 
night. Before they were taken to the execution site, they were beaten 
black and blue, then their hands were bound and they were ordered onto a 
truck. When they got to the execution site, they were blindfolded and 
ordered to stand with their backs to the grave, facing the firing squad. 
Then they were shot. If some were still alive after being shot, they 
would be bayoneted. Then they were pushed into the hole. The members of 
the firing squads were given quotas. There was one quota for army and 
one for police.”

Brutality was rife. One death squad member from North Sumatra provided a 
summary of how his group killed prisoners: “We shoved wood in their 
anuses until they died…We crushed their necks with wood. We hung them. 
We strangled them with wire. We cut off their heads. We ran them over 
with our cars. We were allowed to do it.”

Bodies were often thrown into rivers. One witness said, “Usually the 
corpses were no longer recognizable as human. Headless. Stomachs torn 
open. The smell was unbelievable. To make sure they didn’t sink, the 
carcasses were deliberately tied to, or impaled on, bamboo stakes.”

Many women detainees suffered a nightmarish end. One couple, married 
only thirty-five days, was murdered in East Java. The wife, who was an 
activist in a women’s group, “was raped many times and her body was then 
slit open from her breasts to her vulva.” According to an account quoted 
by Robinson, “In many cases, women were killed by being stabbed through 
the vagina with long knives until their stomachs were pierced. Their 
heads and breasts were cut off and hung on display in guard huts along 
the road.”

The same account continues, “Male victims had their penises cut off and 
these too were hung up on guard posts. The heads of Pemuda Rakyat 
members were cut off and placed on bamboo stakes alongside the roadside 
or hung from trees.”

Those who were spared execution faced a different form of terror. 
“Torture took a variety of forms,” Robinson writes, “including severe 
beatings with lengths of wood, electric cable, and other materials; 
crushing toes or feet under the legs of tables or chairs; breaking 
fingers and pulling out fingernails; electric shocks; and burning with 
cigarettes and molten rubber. Some detainees were forced to watch or 
listen to other prisoners, including their children or spouses, being 
tortured.” Sexual violence was in many cases inflicted on both men and 

By the time the mass slaughter came to a halt, half a million people 
were dead. Western officials and mainstream media reacted with 
undisguised glee.

U.S. Undersecretary of State George Ball noted that “the Indonesian 
business is developing in a way that looks encouraging…If that continues 
and the PKI is cleaned up…we will have a new day in Indonesia.” In US 
Ambassador Marshall Green’s opinion, “Nowhere in the world in recent 
years has there been a more dramatic reversal of communist/chicom 
fortunes than in Indonesia.” Green cabled the State Department on 
October 20, 1965, at a time when the repression was well underway, 
reporting that the Army was “working hard at destroying PKI and I, for 
one, have increasing respect for its determination and organization in 
carrying out this crucial assignment.” The US Embassy in Jakarta 
reported one week later that “the Army has done far better than 
expected,” and commented approvingly that embassy staff believed the 
Army leadership was prepared “to make real clean up of communists and 
their allies.”

By November, the US Embassy was reporting “killings on a widespread 
scale,” and the deputy chief of mission wrote that he had “made clear” 
to a high-ranking Indonesian officer “that Embassy and USG [US 
Government] generally sympathetic with and admiring of what Army is doing.”

/Time /magazine chimed in with an article entitled, “A Gleam of Light in 
Asia,” praising the elimination of the PKI as “the West’s best news for 
years in Asia.”

Robinson writes that as the murderous rampage began to accelerate, “If 
US officials had any concern at this stage, it was that their Indonesian 
friends might not act quickly or forcefully enough against the PKI and 
Sukarno.” The author quotes from US government memoranda in October 
1965, commenting on the need for the Army to act quickly. The “danger,” 
the CIA fretted, is that “the Army may settle for action against those 
indirectly involved in the murder of the Generals and permit Sukarno to 
get much of his power back.”

One element of Western support was to encourage favorable press coverage 
of the Army’s actions. As a UK government cable to its embassy in 
Canberra explained, “We are giving background guidance to Press with a 
view particularly of stimulating helpful comment as widely as possible, 
especially in non-aligned countries. And we are trying to get the right 
matter into newspapers which are read in Indonesia, e.g., /Straits 
Times/.” The cable asked the embassy to invite Australian and New 
Zealand officials to cooperate in the propaganda effort. That request 
met with a favorable response, and an Australian Embassy cable assured 
Canberra that “we are now in a position to influence the content of 
leaders in practically all major metropolitan newspapers.”

The US supplied more direct aid to the Army in the form of material 
goods, such as rice, which “was understood to be vital in helping the 
Army to consolidate its political position.” Washington’s position was 
that the Army should distribute the rice, to“score some points for them.”

The United States and its allies also “began to provide covert military 
and logistical support to the army, in the form of portable 
communications equipment, medical supplies, and possibly weapons and 

A cable sent on November 4, 1965, by the US Embassy in Jakarta to 
Washington reported: “Army is doing a first-class job here of moving 
against communists.” The embassy advocated giving a “sympathetic 
response” to a request by the Army for medical supplies. A day later, 
another cable was sent, indicating that an unnamed contact in the Army 
“said quantities of vitamins are particularly needed to keep soldiers…as 
strong as possible.” Robinson wonders whether the term “vitamins” was a 
code word for weapons, given the odd emphasis that it was given in the 
cable, and the fact that the request needed White House authorization. 
Approval was soon forthcoming from the National Security Council 
committee that oversaw covert operations. The US Embassy in Jakarta 
cabled Washington, expressing its great appreciation for Washington’s 
“authorizing supply of medicines. Believe this is a sound investment, 
defensible on all counts, which in time will yield dividends.”

Another concern in Washington was that the Army might overlook certain 
communists. For a few months, the US Embassy gave the Army lists 
totaling as many as 5,000 names of communists and marked off the names 
as each one was either killed or imprisoned.

It was not only the PKI that the US and UK wanted to be rid of; they 
loathed Indonesian President Sukarno for his independence and prominent 
role in the non-aligned movement. Western governments wanted to remove 
Sukarno from power “and reorient the Indonesian economy toward a free 
market that they dominated and would benefit foreign capital. The 
adoption of an expansive aid program remained conditional on the Army’s 
willingness to meet that expectation.”  As one State Department cable 
put it, aid “can help to reinforce present non-communist leaders and 
thus serve interests of Free World.”  A Free World, one cannot help 
thinking, which abetted the transformation of Indonesia on a foundation 
of massacre, torture, repression, and an economy run for the benefit of 
foreign corporations. But for capital,it was a free world.

Once Sukarno was ousted from power in 1966 and replaced by Suharto, US 
and British financial and material aid to Indonesia flowed freely. 
Western support helped to keep Suharto and his New Order government in 
power for more than three decades.

 From the mainstream Western perspective this was a success story, but 
one best not examined too closely. What mattered was the outcome: 
Indonesia joined the free market orbit, and the sanctity of Western 
corporate profits was respected.

It is no accident that the mass slaughter remains virtually unknown in 
the West. Political leaders and mainstream media teach us which human 
rights to care about and which are unworthy of note. Across the 
political spectrum, the tendency is for people to let mainstream media 
determine which stories they take an interest in and which they ignore. 
It is not only how media frame a story that can shape public opinion, 
but which stories the media choose to tell.

We only hear about human rights violations, whether real or exaggerated 
or contrived, when they have political utility for Western geopolitical 
interests. The Indonesian story is of no concern,for human rights were 
trampled in the service of Western objectives. And we need feel no 
interest in the victims because no mainstream media have instructed us 
to do so.

Geoffrey Robinson emphasizes that one of his main objectives in writing 
this book was to “disturb the troubling silence.” I have waited many 
years for such a book to appear, one which I hoped would help to pierce 
the West’s historical amnesia.

Robinson has written an extraordinary work that does full justice to 
this neglected topic. Deeply researched and packed with fascinating and 
revelatory information, /The Killing Season /is considered, scholarly, 
well-argued, and absolutely gripping reading. As soon as I finished 
reading this book, I wanted to dive right back into it again.

*Gregory Elich *is a Korea Policy Institute associate and on the Board 
of Directors of the Jasenovac Research Institute. He is a member of the 
Solidarity Committee for Democracy and Peace in Korea, a columnist for 
/Voice of the People/ <http://www.vop.co.kr/>, and one of the co-authors 
of /Killing Democracy: CIA and Pentagon Operations in the Post-Soviet 
published in the Russian language. He is also a member of the Task Force 
to Stop THAAD in Korea and Militarism in Asia and the Pacific. His 
website is https://gregoryelich.org <https://gregoryelich.org/>Follow 
him on Twitter at @GregoryElich


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