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Smoldering Indonesia’: An Exchange

In response to:

Smoldering Indonesia from the January 9, 1997 issue

To the Editors:

Jeri Laber’s article [NYR, January 9] variously has Indonesia “festering” or “smoldering.” As US Ambassador there from 1992-1995 I thought the defining adjective was “changing.” A traditional society in rapid transition, Indonesia is suffering the pangs of urbanization, industrialization, and the communications revolution at an incredible pace. Indeed, most middle-class Indonesians believe—as I do—that political change has lagged badly behind the economic transition, and that President Soeharto’s successors will face a major challenge in restoring the balance. As was the case with my predecessors and my successor, I was well out in front of my diplomatic colleagues in urging political reform in my private dialogue with Indonesia’s leaders. But I also realized that change is taking place.

  • There is a remarkable range of critical comment in the Indonesian press, despite pressure from the top. And, as Ms. Laber reports, virtually everyone is talking freely about the coming elections and succession.

  • There is an encouraging trend to hold the military accountable for human rights abuses, as I believe Amnesty and Human Rights Watch acknowledge.

  • Contrary to Ms. Laber’s portrait of a dictator who controls all aspects of a civil society, there is plenty of evidence of emerging pluralism; even Soeharto’s choice of a vice president was constrained in 1993 when the military endorsed its candidate before the President had been consulted. If Soeharto is able to infiltrate all levels of society, how did Sukarno’s daughter Megawati get to be the head of the “Democratic Party” to start with? Or why did he fail to get his candidate appointed as head of the Chamber of Commerce, or to unseat Abdurahman Wahid, the head of the largest Muslim organization, Nadlhatul Ulema?

Ms. Laber gives the Soeharto regime some credit for its economic policy, though most economists would disagree with the emphasis she places on the extractive industries as contributors to 25 years of consistent 6-7 percent growth. The fact that more than a dozen ministers in the current cabinet were trained in the US and that 15,000 students attend US universities, many of them in MBA programs, has played an important role in the economic reform. This devolution of economic power to the private sector is a driver of political reform, albeit more slowly than most would wish.

A central thesis in Ms. Laber’s article was the resurrection of the thesis that the 1965 coup attempt and military response, which brought Soeharto to power, was the result of a convoluted conspiracy involving Soeharto himself, possibly abetted by the CIA, and that the subsequent anti-Communist, anti-Chinese bloodbath was orchestrated by Soeharto. Ms. Laber’s account depends heavily on a theory advanced by Cornell Professors Anderson and McVey in 1966, as summarized by Adam Schwartz in his book A Nation In Waiting. Let me simply say that thirty years later no solid evidence has emerged in support of this theory, which Schwartz himself described as flawed, and that it enjoys little credence in Indonesia or among academic specialists without an ideological ax to grind. I have certainly seen nothing to support the theory in US government archives or in discussions with colleagues who were in Indonesia at the time. The bloodletting which followed the coup was indeed terrible, but far more readily explained by the spontaneous explosion of pent-up tensions in a society which lent us the word “amok.”

Ms. Laber and I agree that Indonesia faces major challenges as a new generation of leaders takes charge. We should be working with them to ensure both democratization and continued economic growth in the context of stability, which is what I am convinced most Indonesians want.

Robert L. Barry
Ambassador (Retired)
Washington, D.C.

To the Editors:

I very much admired Ms. Laber’s piece on Indonesian politics and the origins of the Soeharto regime. In connection with her assertion that little is known about a CIA (or US) role in the 1965 coup and the army massacre that followed, I would like to make your readers aware of a compelling body of evidence about this that is publicly available, but the public access to it is little known.

It consists of a series of on-the-record, taped interviews with the men who headed the US embassy in Jakarta or were at high levels in Washington agencies in 1965. I published a news story based on the interviews in The Washington Post (“U.S. Officials’ Lists Aided Indonesian Bloodbath in ‘60s,” May 21, 1990), and have since transferred the tapes, my notes, and a small collection of documents, including a few declassified cables on which the story was based, to the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C. The Archive is a nongovernmental research institute and library, located at the George Washington University.

The former officials interviewed included Ambassador Marshall Green, Deputy Chief of Mission Jack Lydman, Political Counsellor (later Ambassador) Edward E. Masters, Robert Martens (an analyst of the Indonesian left working under Masters’ supervision), and (then) director of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Far East division, William Colby.

The tapes, along with notes of conversations, show that the United States furnished critical intelligence—the names of thousands of leftist activists, both Communist and non-Communist—to the Indonesian Army that were then used in the bloody manhunt.

There were other details that illustrate the depth of US involvement and culpability in the killings which I learned from former top-level embassy officials, but have not previously published. For example, the US provided key logistical equipment, hastily shipped in at the last minute as Soeharto weighed the risky decision to attack. Jeeps were supplied by the Pentagon to speed troops over Indonesia’s notoriously bad roads, along with “dozens and dozens” of field radios that the Army lacked. As Ms. Laber noted, the US (namely, the Pentagon) also supplied “arms.” Cables show these were small arms, used for killing at close range.

The supply of radios is perhaps the most telling detail. They served not only as field communications but also became an element of a broad, US intelligence-gathering operation constructed as the manhunt went forward. According to a former embassy official, the Central Intelligence Agency hastily provided the radios—state-of-the-art Collins KWM-2s, high-frequency single-sideband transceivers, the highest-powered mobile unit available at that time to the civilian and commercial market. The radios, stored at Clark Field in the Philippines, were secretly flown by the US Air Force into Indonesia. They were then distributed directly to Soeharto’s headquarters—called by its acronym KOSTRAD—by Pentagon representatives. The radios plugged a major hole in Army communications: at that critical moment, there were no means for troops on Java and the out-islands to talk directly with Jakarta.

While the embassy told reporters the US had no information about the operation, the opposite was true. There were at least two direct sources of information. During the weeks in which the American lists were being turned over to the Army, embassy officials met secretly with men from Soeharto’s intelligence unit at regular intervals concerning who had been arrested or killed. In addition, the US more generally had information from its systematic monitoring of Army radios. According to a former US official, the US listened in to the broadcasts on the US-supplied radios for weeks as the manhunt went forward, overhearing, among other things, commands from Soeharto’s intelligence unit to kill particular persons at given locations.

The method by which the intercepts were accomplished was also described. The mobile radios transmitted to a large, portable antenna in front of KOSTRAD (also hastily supplied by the US—I was told it was flown in in a C-130 aircraft). The CIA made sure the frequencies the Army would use were known in advance to the National Security Agency. NSA intercepted the broadcasts at a site in Southeast Asia, where its analysts subsequently translated them. The intercepts were then sent on to Washington, where analysts merged them with reports from the embassy. The combined reporting, intercepts plus “human” intelligence, was the primary basis for Washington’s assessment of the effectiveness of the manhunt as it destroyed the organizations of the left, including, inter alia, the Indonesian Communist Party, the PKI.

A word about the relative importance of the American lists. It appears the CIA had some access prior to 1965 to intelligence files on the PKI housed at the G-2 section of the Indonesian Army, then headed by Major-General S. Parman. CIA officials had been dealing with Parman about intelligence concerning the PKI, among other matters, in the years prior to the coup, according to a former US official who was involved (Parman was killed in the coup). The former official, whose account was corroborated by others whom I interviewed, said that the Indonesian lists, or files, were considered inadequate by US analysts because they identified PKI officials at the “national” level, but failed to identify thousands who ran the party at the regional and municipal levels, or who were secret operatives, or had some other standing, such as financier.

When asked about the possible reason for this apparent inadequacy, former US Ambassador Marshall Green, in a December 1989 interview, characterized his understanding this way:

I know that we had a lot more information than the Indonesians themselves…. For one thing, it would have been rather dangerous [for the Indonesian military to construct such a list] because the Communist Party was so pervasive and [the intelligence gatherers] would be fingered…because of the people up the line [the higher-ups, some of whom sympathized with the PKI]. In the [Indonesian] Air Force, it would have been lethal to do that. And probably that would be true for the police, the Marines, the Navy—in the Army, it depended. My guess is that once this thing broke, the Army was desperate for information as to who was who [in the PKI].

By the end of January 1966, US intelligence assessments comparing the American lists with the reports of those arrested or killed showed the Army had destroyed the PKI. The general attitude was one of great relief: “Nobody cared” about the butchery and mass arrests because the victims were Communists, one Washington official told me.

Kathy Kadane
Washington, D.C.

Jeri Laber replies:

I agree with Ambassador Robert L. Barry that “political change has lagged badly behind the economic transition, and that President Soeharto’s successors will face a major challenge in restoring the balance.” Indeed, that is one of the major points of my article. And yes, there is a “remarkable range of critical comment in the Indonesian press,” but this testifies less to the degree of permissible free expression in Indonesia than to the courage of Indonesian journalists and activists who know that at any time they can be, and are being, punished for speaking their minds. At this very moment, Andi Syahputra, the printer of Suara Independen, the underground magazine that I mention in my article, is on trial, charged with insulting the head of state and with disseminating printed materials that insult the President and the Vice President. Five thousand copies of the latest issue of the magazine were confiscated because of its lead article, which gave the results of a survey indicating that only 9 percent of the people interviewed believe the government’s version of the events surrounding the July 27, 1996, riots in Jakarta. Megawati supporters have been blocked from running for re-election in the parliamentary elections scheduled for May, and dozens of people are under arrest, on trial, or serving prison terms for alleged political offenses linked to the July 27 riots. A number of newspapers and magazines have been threatened with closure.

Ambassador Barry takes exception to my thesis that the anti-Communist, anti-Chinese bloodbath that followed the 1965 coup was orchestrated by Mr. Soeharto. “The bloodletting which followed the coup was indeed terrible,” he says, “but far more readily explained by the spontaneous explosion of pent-up tensions in a society which lent us the word ‘amok.”’ Yet experts generally agree that it was the Indonesian Army, under Soeharto, that directly armed and incited local groups to launch attacks against suspected leftists. The Ambassador does not even address my allegation that the US government, at the very least, lent moral and financial support to the “bloodletting,” a fact for which there is evidence, some of which is cited in my article. And now we have Ms. Kadane’s interviews with former US embassy officials, cited in her letter above, which indicate that “the United States furnished critical intelligence—the names of thousands of leftist activists, both Communist and non-Communist—to the Indonesian Army that were then used in the bloody manhunt.” This is not the first time I have heard such charges, but Ms. Kadane claims to have recorded interviews and other documentation from the very people who were involved. We are talking about one of the worst massacres of the twentieth century, not a “spontaneous explosion,” and US complicity in compiling “death lists” is a subject the Ambassador and other US officials might well explore. It is time that the Indonesian and the US governments release the documents from that period so that the real truth may finally be known.

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