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What Happened in Indonesia?

In response to:

What Happened in Indonesia? An Exchange from the February 9, 1978 issue

To the Editors:

As the “Cornell scholars” to whose study of the October 1, 1965 coup in Indonesia Francis Galbraith alludes in his attack on Amnesty International’s criticism of extensive human rights’ violations in that country (see his letter in The New York Review of Books, February 9, 1978), we feel that his remarks deserve some comment.

Mr. Galbraith’s view of things is simple: the “coup” of 1965, in which six generals were killed, was a bungled communist attempt to seize power. He asserts that the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) has made “repeated and bloody” attempts to over-throw governments in Indonesia, namely, in 1926, 1948, and 1965—but neglects to mention that the first of these was a rebellion against Dutch colonial rule! The Party’s penchant for violence, he suggests, was demonstrated before the coup by the fact that it “stimulated conflict in the villages of East and Central Java by a program of land expropriations carried out by force by PKI followers.” The unwary reader should be advised that this “program,” carried out in 1964, was an attempt to obtain compliance with statutes on land-reform and share-cropping, dating back five years. Much of the actual violence of 1964 was the result of landlord efforts to extract (illegally) the usual high rents in the face of heightened peasant resistance.

After the coup, Mr. Galbraith writes, “the PKI led a second-stage attempt to dominate Indonesia. They were killing those who opposed them; non-Communists struck back.” This is not quite what happened, if we are to trust the CIA history of the coup, which Mr. Galbraith recommends as giving “an excellent account of what happened and why.”1 For despite Mr. Galbraith’s high opinion of the CIA’s historiographical effort, he seems oddly ignorant of its findings.

In fact, the CIA study is quite specific on the absence of Communist-sponsored violence. Commenting on the activities of PKI chairman Aidit in Central Java immediately after the coup, it notes that he warned subordinates:

at all costs not to allow the PKI to be provoked into violent action…he told the people who assembled to hear him that there must be no demonstration of support for the coup…. A tense and watchful stillness reigned everywhere, but there was no sign of PKI activity anywhere. [Pp.77-79]

In Sumatra, the CIA report states, the communists “never challenged the army in any resort to armed force…which was the story of the PKI surrender to the army all over Indonesia after the coup” (p. 63).

In fact, in contrast to Mr. Galbraith’s claims, the CIA study repeatedly, if inadvertently, reveals the implausibilities in the Suharto government’s official version of the coup. There is, for one thing, the problem of sources. The Indonesian military authorities have disseminated thousands of pages of “materials” on the coup, few of them reliable and none unprejudiced. The CIA study both uses and adds to this dubious collection. For example, it cites “statements” by top communist leaders Njono and Sakirman as evidence of PKI Politburo meetings which supposedly decided to launch the coup (pp. 225-227). That Njono’s “account” flatly contradicts well-established facts about Aidit’s movements, and that his “statement” derives from a “confession” so improbable that it had to be replaced within a matter of hours by an “improved” version, goes unmentioned in the report.2 The study asserts that Sakirman’s “statement” was made in court; if so, it must have been made posthumously, since the Indonesian military announced that he was shot “while attempting to escape” shortly after his arrest.

Like the Suharto regime, the CIA study fails to produce a plausible explanation of the motives of the purported coup-makers; indeed its account unconsciously undermines the anticommunist case it imagines it is making. Take the question of why the PKI should have resorted to violence at all.

In the situation of Indonesia’s headlong slide towards the left, with Sukarno and the PKI in the lead, the time seemed near at hand when the Communists would take over control of the country—either with the passing of Sukarno from the scene, or possibly before that. Most observers in the West conceded this…. Indonesians seemed resigned to it. Certainly, the PKI had good reason to believe it.

On 12 October 1964 [Aidit] answered a series of questions on the PKI and the Indonesian revolution with the unprecedented claim that “Among the world communist parties the PKI is the one that has the most authority to talk about the ‘peaceful transition’ toward socialism, because the PKI takes part in both the central and local governments and it has the actual potential to carry out its policies.” [Pp. 168-170]

Or did some unexpected factor—like the dire illness of Indonesia’s charismatic president, Sukarno, a patron of the PKI—persuade the Communist leaders that they had to plot a coup? The CIA report raises this possibility only to abandon it in view of Sukarno’s obvious vigor and the fact that “it is unlikely that the party would have moved on the assumption that Sukarno was dying anyway…” (p. 260).

A second possible reason for the PKI suddenly to turn to violence is that the Party feared a seizure of power by the army leadership, its main political opponent. The middle-ranking officers who actually killed the six generals did, after all, announce that they were “safeguarding” Sukarno from an imminent coup by a CIA-backed Council of Generals. But if an army coup was imminent, why did Aidit—politically close to Sukarno, and in constant touch with him (pp. 234-5)—fail to alert the President to the danger that threatened them both, instead of acting on his own? And if Sukarno did involve himself in the coup (the CIA study speculates that he may have), why would he have done so in a way that used none of the legitimate authority of his office or his immense popular support and was bound to unite army opinion against him?

In spite of these enigmas, the CIA study is definite that in November 1964 the PKI established a clandestine organization to penetrate and subvert the Indonesian armed forces. Named the Special Bureau, it was allegedly headed by a certain Sjam. This Special Bureau was a very deep secret indeed:

Apparently, only a very few people in the Politburo even knew of the existence of the Special Bureau; it is not at all clear whether anyone besides Aidit knew the identity of the man who headed the organization. [Pp. 265-266, and cf.p. 101]

Aidit being dead, the CIA’s authority for the existence of this Bureau is Sjam himself—whose name is pronounced, perhaps not inappropriately, Sham. Fortunately, he has proved to be “the most cooperative of witnesses.” “Once the Army got Sjam to talk, it seems that he was almost anxious to tell everything he knew about the coup—almost out of a sense of pride, it seems” (pp. 76 and 76a, note). Perhaps his talkativeness derived from ten years’ experience as a professional informer for Indonesian military intelligence, reporting on the doings of the PKI and other political parties (p. 107). The CIA takes these facts to show the shocking extent of PKI penetration of the military apparatus—but it is surely not the only way they can be read.

What was the goal of the Special Bureau’s subversive manipulations of military officers? Not, it surprisingly turns out, the seizure of state power:

For it now seems clear that the Indonesian coup was not a move to over-throw Sukarno and/or the established government of Indonesia [sic!]. Essentially, it was a purge of the Army leader-ship, which was intended to bring about certain changes in the composition of the cabinet. In this sense, it is more correct to refer to [it] as a purge, rather than a coup. [N.p.; from the Foreword by John Kerry King, Chief of the DDI Special. Research Staff; and cf.pp.29-30]

This “purge”—the murder of six top generals—was accomplished in the dead of night by the obscure Lt.-Col. Untung and one battalion of troops (p. 64). Oddly drastic means to secure a cabinet reshuffle; oddly few men to ensure immunity from retribution by fellow-officers. The CIA study’s comment is no less bewildering:

It bespeaks both the success of the Special Bureau’s program of subversion in the Armed Forces that the PKI could even bring off such a thing as the kidnapping of the Army’s whole top command, and also the general state of unpreparedness [sic] of the PKI at the time for an all-out challenge from the military. [P. 180]

To compensate for their woeful lack of military strength, one would have expected the coup-makers to exploit Sukarno’s name and authority. Yet strangely enough, they did not do so, even in their first triumphant broadcast. The CIA analyst is puzzled by this:

It is almost inconceivable that anyone staging a coup in Indonesia in 1965 would not have tried to make use of Sukarno’s authority to swing public support behind the movement…. The fact that Sukarno was mentioned only as being “under the protection” [of the coup group] created a vague impression that the coup might be anti-Sukarno. [P. 22]

A strange error for Sukarno-protected communists to make. Stranger still, as the CIA study makes clear, the coup-makers did not mobilize the mass support which the Communists could muster:

If the PKI had engineered the coup…why had it failed to mount an all-out propaganda campaign in support of it…the PKI was unique in its ability to mobilize public opinion in Indonesia…. [P. 128]

The one exception to this puzzling passivity was a 200-word editorial in the PKI newspaper on the morning of October 2 which, by endorsing the acts of the coup leaders “provided the army with the documentary justification for the PKI’s own obliteration” (p. 67). It is curious that the editorial appearing on October 2, well after the coup collapsed, was so rash, when on the previous day Communist journals were notably cautious. The CIA report assumes that the editors thought the coup was still going well when the newspaper was set on the afternoon of October 1 (p. 68), yet elsewhere it says that by early afternoon it was clear to all that the coup had gone awry. Stranger yet, the newspaper’s appearance was not stopped by General Suharto, who by early evening on October 1 had taken control of the capital and placed all media under strict military control. How did the incriminating editorial appear on the newsstands the next morning? The CIA report suggests that it must have been composed beforehand (p. 68). Perhaps it was, but not necessarily by the Party leadership.

If, as some of this evidence suggests, the coup was intended not to enhance, but rather to break the power of the Communists, it is very unlikely that such a maneuver was set in motion by the army leadership, whose bloody deaths it entailed. But the higher echelons of the Indonesian army were far from united. One of the senior generals who had not been admitted to the cliques around the two top generals—Nasution and Yani—was the man whom the coup actually brought to power, namely General Suharto.

Suharto was commander of KOSTRAD, the crack strategic army reserve, and, after Yani, the most senior general on active service. He maintained only very cool relations with Nasution and Yani.3 As the CIA study notes, he was not a target of the coup group—“certainly a major error of the coup planners” (pp. 2-3). This is particularly curious since the three top military coup-makers had special reason to know what kind of man Suharto was and why KOSTRAD was so important: Lt.-Col. Untung, Brig.-Gen. Supardjo and Col. Latief had once or were currently serving directly under Suharto. Shortly before the coup, Latief led combined-service exercises to test the capital’s defenses—so it is inconceivable that he did not know what were the installations vital for military control of the city.

Yet Suharto was not molested. Indeed, no attempt was made to seize or surround KOSTRAD HQ, where Suharto established his counter-coup command post. And although the coup troops seized civilian communications centers, they made no attempt to control nearby KOSTRAD’s highly sophisticated communications, the principal military emergency system—through which Suharto proceeded to gather the reins of power into his own hands. In fact, Suharto’s main problem on October 1 was not the coup group but President Sukarno, who rejected Suharto’s claim to army leadership and put forward instead the more trusted Pranoto—a long-time rival of Suharto. Eventually though—after encircling the airbase where Sukarno had taken refuge, and delivering a virtual ultimatum to the President—Suharto had his way.

The CIA’s interest in all this? Perhaps merely scholarly historiographical concern. Or possibly the Agency had a closer connection to what its analyst concludes “may well prove to be one of the most significant events of the post war [World War II] period. The political repercussions of the coup have not only changed the whole course of Indonesian history but they have had a profound effect on the world political scene, especially that of Southeast Asia” (p. 70). Indeed, for the CIA, it would presumably have been worth no small risk to stop the “headlong slide to the left” of the world’s fifth largest nation, particularly at a time when the United States was committing itself to all-out opposition to Communist advances in Vietnam. If so, the Agency has been very modest about its accomplishments. But perhaps that is understandable, for the move involved not only the murder of six generals but, in the anti-Communist pogroms which followed, one of the great slaughters of our time. As the CIA’s analyst concludes:

In terms of the numbers killed, the anti-PKI massacres in Indonesia rank as one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century, along with the Soviet purges of the 1930s, the Nazi mass murders during the Second World War, and the Maoist bloodbath of the early 1950s. In this regard, the Indonesian coup is certainly one of the most significant events of the twentieth century, far more significant than many other events that have received much more publicity. [P. 71, note]

Benedict Anderson

Professor of Government

Cornell University, Ithaca, New York

Ruth McVey

Reader in Politics

School of Oriental and African Studies

London, England

  1. 1

    CIA, Directorate of Intelligence, Indonesia—1965: The Coup That Backfired, (1968) oddly enough, the only CIA study of Indonesian politics ever released to the public on the Agency’s own initiative.

  2. 2

    On this point, see our A Preliminary Analysis of the October 1, 1965 Coup in Indonesia (Ithaca, Cornell Modern Indonesia Project, 1971), pp.157-162.

  3. 3

    Acting on information supplied by Pranoto, Suharto’s chief of staff, Nasution had dismissed the latter from his Central Java divisional command in 1959 for smuggling. See Harold Crouch, “The Indonesian Army in Politics: 1960-1971” (PhD thesis, Monash University, 1975), pp. 164, 207, and 228.

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