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What Happened in Indonesia? An Exchange

To the Editors:

It does not seem to me that Huang Wenhsien and David Hinkley are adding to the image and lustre of Amnesty International with the kind of inaccuracies contained in their article “In Indonesian Prisons” (NYR November 24).

Every informed person or serious scholar I know of who is uninterested in pleading not guilty for the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), has rejected the thesis that the PKI-led attempted coup d’etat on September 30, 1965 was in reality an internal Indonesian Army affair. It is true that two Cornell University scholars advanced this as a tentative explanation in the months immediately after the event. It was apparently based on Indonesian periodical sources available to them at the time, and heavily influenced by a PKI attempt to divert the blame. But there was never any real follow-up on this study and its tentative conclusions. On the contrary, every study of any importance I know of found clear and conclusive evidence that the PKI and its supporters planned and bungled the coup attempt. One of these studies, by the CIA, based on official and classified as well as public sources, was declassified and made available to the Committee on International Relations of the House of Representatives on April 6, 1976. It gives an excellent account of what happened and why*

One wonders why in the name of Amnesty International Huang and Hinkley would be so interested in giving currency to this old canard and so persistent and vehement in trying to blacken the name of the present Indonesian Government. Contrary to this article, journalists, both foreign and domestic, have visited Indonesian political detainee camps and found them—in terms of land space available for cultivation, food, and medical care—above the standard for many Indonesians outside them. David Jenkins, a reporter for the Far Eastern Economic Review of Hong Kong, wrote about his recent visit to six of these camps in the October 28 issue, belying the claim in this article that reporters have been barred.

To my mind it is not possible to judge the Indonesian Government or their political detainee dilemma fairly without looking at the problem in context. Some of the pertinent points are these:

1) PKI-led attempts to overthrow governments in Indonesia have been repeated and bloody—in 1926/1927 in 1948, and in 1965. This history helps explain the fear and suspicion non-Communist Indonesians have of PKI members and supporters now in jail or plotting a return to power abroad.

2) The PKI claimed and probably had prior to the 1965 coup attempt more than three million members in the party itself plus many additional millions in various front organizations such as the peasant organization Barisan Tani, the labor union federation SOBSI and other organizations influenced and controlled by them.

3) Prior to the coup attempt, the PKI had stimulated conflict in the villages of East and Central Java by a program of land expropriation carried out by force by PKI followers. After the coup attempt in October 1965, the PKI led a second-stage attempt to dominate in Indonesia. They were killing those who opposed them; non-Communists struck back. It was a period of near-anarchy fostered by PKI supporters. It was not until the following March that the Suharto Government took over. No one, including Admiral Sudomo, in my opinion, knows how many were killed. An educated guess would be much lower than 500,000.

4) Indonesia and most of Indonesia’s neighbors—Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines—are fighting Communist insurgencies and have been doing so for years. Desperately trying to develop the country economically, the Suharto Government has understandably hesitated to turn loose the slightly more than 30,000 Communist cadres still detained (not 100,000 as alleged by Amnesty International) to fuel such an insurgency. The government has, however, released tens of thousands over the past few years and has announced its intention of releasing 10,000 more by the end of this year and 10,000 more in each of the following two years.

5) Under the previous, Sukarno regime in Indonesia, which was heavily influenced and infiltrated by the PKI, suppression of dissident and anti-Communist forces took place, non-Communist political parties were banned and numerous political leaders jailed without trial. No such outcry as now from Amnesty International took place then.

It is about time that someone less biased looks at and reports on the background and reality of political prisoners in Indonesia. And while we’re at it, let us put that investigation in the context of an inquiry into political prisoners in the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, Vietnam, Uganda (if any are alive), and in that country where the whole nation is a political prison, Cambodia, among others.

It is dishonest as well as inaccurate to label Indonesia the worst case and attacking the Suharto Government in this way will set back rather than benefit the cause of human rights in Indonesia, in my opinion.

Francis J. Galbraith

(former US Ambassador to Indonesia, retired)

Washington, DC

Martin Ennals, Secretary General of Amnesty International replies:

Mr. Galbraith accepts uncritically the Indonesian Government’s claim that there are now “slightly more than 30,000 Communist cadres” imprisoned without trial. Even on the basis of the Government’s declared figures, could Mr. Galbraith question that there has been violation of human rights on a vast scale?

In fact, the numbers are much higher. There are certainly more than 55,000 political prisoners held without trial in Indonesia for alleged involvement in the 1965 events, and the correct figure is probably as high as 100,000. Your readers can refer to the recently published Amnesty International Report on Indonesia which describes how the Indonesian Government has produced false statistics over the years.

Let us examine briefly some of the Government’s claims regarding numbers. Take, for example, Category B prisoners, described by the Government as people against whom there is “insufficient evidence to put to trial.” Of these, the number admitted by the Government in 1970 was 15,000, in 1972 it was 16,000, in 1974 it was 37,000, in 1976 it was 29,480. It should be noted however that the vast majority of Category B prisoners were arrested shortly after 1965. The Government admitted to greater numbers of these prisoners from 1970 to 1974 because it faced continued international disbelief and had to concede increasing numbers of Category B prisoners held.

This shows how readily the Government has been willing to manipulate its figures. And note, for example, the decline in numbers from 1974 to 1976, when the Government’s figures indicate that some 7,500 Category B prisoners were released in that period, whereas every Government statement made recently claims that altogether only 3,809 Category B prisoners have been released up until 1977. The Indonesian Government does not even seem to care to maintain some kind of consistency between one false claim and another, so long as the numbers admitted seem to suit the needs of the moment.

To take another example, President Suharto himself declared in January and in August 1972, and again in March 1973, that all Category C prisoners had been released. (Category C includes those considered to have been involved in the coup to a lesser degree than those in Category B and those who were members of mass organizations affiliated with the PKI or “based on the same principles” as the PKI.) These statements of President Suharto were later challenged by the Indonesian Prosecutor General, General Ali Said, who told a Dutch Parliamentary Mission in September 1974 that there were an undisclosed number of Category C prisoners in detention. Whom are we to believe, President Suharto or his Prosecutor General? Instead we should believe facts, for example, the news report of October 5, 1976 of a speech by a military commander in Manado declaring that he was releasing a number of Category C prisoners. Thus, long after the statements and assurances given by the President and his Prosecutor General (the latter had assured the Dutch parliamentarians that the problem was to be solved soon) there are still Category C prisoners held. And note that Category C prisoners do not figure in the Government’s current estimates which explicitly state that all Category C prisoners have been released and therefore have been discounted from current government overall statistics.

The Indonesian Government’s figures have been challenged by the distinguished Indonesian lawyer, Mr. Adnan Buyung Nasution, Chairman of the Legal Aid Bureau in Jakarta, who was reported in an interview with the Melbourne Herald (November 2, 1977) to have said that “the number of political prisoners is probably not as many as the 100,000 feared by Amnesty International, nor the 31,555 acknowledged by Jakarta, but about 50,000.”

Despite approaches from Amnesty International and others, the Indonesian Government has never revealed the names of its prisoners or the numbers of prisoners held in each prison. Instead, it has declared numbers according to administrative regions only and these, as we explain in our Report, are false and intended to mislead.

The Indonesian Government announced on December 20 that 10,000 untried political prisoners were released on that day. In the light of previous promises made by the Government, it is not possible to accept at face value this announcement as to numbers actually released, and we must await the Indonesian Government making publicly available the names and details of the 10,000 before we can tell whether that number has been released.

Moreover, Mr. Galbraith is wrong to describe the 30,000 political prisoners as “Communist cadres.” Only a minority were members of the Indonesian Communist Party. Some were members of other parties or grouping such as the Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI) or the Indonesia Party (Partindo). The vast majority of the prisoners were members of labor, peasant, women’s, and other mass organizations, some of which were closely affiliated to the Indonesian Communist Party.

Would Mr. Galbraith claim that Dr. Subandrio, Mr. Oei Tju Tat, and Mr. Pramoedya Ananta Toer—to name only several well-known prisoners—were “Communist cadres”? Dr. Subandrio and Mr. Oei were both cabinet ministers in President Sukarno’s Administration and have been put to political show trials. Dr. Subandrio is still under sentence of death and Mr. Oei was sentenced to a further period of imprisonment, after ten years of detention without trial. Pramoedya Ananta Toer—Indonesia’s most famous writer—has now spent the last twelve years as an untried prisoner, seven of them in the penal settlement on Buru Island where he is forced daily to perform agricultural labor. The Indonesian Government has never tried to establish that the vast majority of the prisoners were members of the Indonesian Communist Party.

And of those prisoners who had been members of the Indonesian Communist Party, it surely is not justifiable to detain them without trial on that ground alone. The Indonesian Communist Party in the period up to September 1965 had a mass membership and was active in national politics. There was not, at the time, a violent insurgency against the government of the day.

Mr. Galbraith believes that it was the Indonesian Communist Party which “planned and bungled the coup attempt.” On the basis of that belief, would he maintain that vast numbers of people suspected of left-wing political views should have been arrested and detained without trial? (The Indonesian state security chief has admitted to the arrest of more than 750,000 people since 1965.) Hundreds of thousands were arrested and detained arbitrarily, merely on suspicion, without legal process to determine their supposed guilt. Are such prisoners to be held guilty because of past association rather than on the basis of personal actions on their part which would demonstrate individual involvement in the 1965 attempted coup?

And, equally important, Mr. Galbraith is mistaken in his judgment that the 1965 events were engineered by the Indonesian Communist Party. The Cornell University scholars, as far as we know, have not found the need for dramatic revision of their assessment of the 1965 events, and many leading Indonesian specialists who have examined that topic with care would not accept the interpretation that the Indonesian Communist Party planned the coup attempt. Such specialist views are for scholars themselves to take up. An example to show that Mr. Galbraith’s view is generally not accepted is the editorial of The Times of London (December 21, 1977) which said: “Whatever the Indonesian Government may choose to believe, many outside observers think that the 1965 coup was initiated by a left-wing group of army officers and not by the Indonesian Communist Party as such. This makes the guilt attributed to any member of that party and many thousands more alleged to have communist sympathies a post-coup assumption and no more.”

As for Amnesty International, it is not the organization’s task to establish a definitive explanation of events like that of the Indonesian 1965 events. We are faced with individuals who are held year after year in prison without trial, and we have to ask of each individual of whom we have information whether the Government’s allegations against that person are justified and, if not, whether he is in fact held for political reasons without justification. Most of the untried prisoners have never been charged by the Indonesian authorities, and relatively few (less than a thousand) have been put to trial.

The Indonesian Government itself has consistently maintained that it does not have the evidence to put these tens of thousands to trial. Therefore, there is no escaping the fact that these people have been held because the Government considers them guilty merely because of past association, and without regard to personal actions which amounted to legal culpability. If this does not amount to a pattern of gross violations of human rights, when tens of thousands have been held, many of them for twelve years in appalling conditions, what then remains of the concept of human rights?

Mr. Galbraith is uncommonly confident of his views, and this comes out most clearly in his assessment of the numbers killed in the aftermath of the 1965 events. Admiral Sudomo, the chief of Indonesian state security, has openly admitted that “during the bloody ‘people’s revenge’ after the unsuccessful coup, an estimated half a million actual or suspected communists were killed.” Contrary to this, Mr. Galbraith maintains: “An educated guess would be much lower than 500,000.” If Admiral Sudomo cannot convince Mr. Galbraith, I do not suppose we can.

In conclusion, it is only fair to point out that there is a deep and terrifying logic underlying Mr. Galbraith’s argument. He says “the Suharto Government has understandably hesitated to turn loose” those untried political prisoners because they posed the threat and reality of communist insurgency in Indonesia. It is the logic of arbitrary power to maintain that large numbers of people should be detained without trial and without evidence for many years. It is precisely in certain periods of a nation’s history, when there is political polarization, that the safeguard for each and every person can only be found in the rule of law. Otherwise, if Mr. Galbraith will reflect a moment, he must realize that people can be treated in appalling and arbitrary ways out of mere suspicion or from guilt by association.

It should be pointed out further that even the Indonesian Government does not claim that it has a troublesome communist insurgency on its hands, and it would seem that for years now they have actually manipulated mass political imprisonment to signify a potential subversive menace. The fact that the Indonesian Government can claim that it has released more than 600,000 people since 1965, and furthermore that it can claim now that it intends to release by 1979 “all” untried prisoners, only goes to show how arbitrary and tragic has been the waste of so many individual lives over so many years. Neither the Indonesian Government nor Mr. Galbraith can justify why these people should not have been released long ago.

Amnesty International shall continue to press for the immediate and unconditional release of all those untried political prisoners. As for Mr. Galbraith’s charge of bias, it should be pointed out that the Report on Indonesia was the third major country report published by Amnesty International, the preceding two being on Chile and the Soviet Union.

  1. *

    Available in summary form in “Hearings before the Subcommittee on Future Foreign Policy Research and Development of the Committee on International Relations, House of Representatives, Ninety-Fourth Congress, November 18, December 10, 1975; January 28, March 8, April 7, and May 18, 1976,” USGPO, 1976.

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