The Truth about the Killing Fields

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Chinese premier Zhou Enlai and Indonesian president Sukarno aboard a cruise on the Nile River, Cairo, July 1965

On a baking hot afternoon in 2010, Jess Melvin, a young scholar from Australia, walked out of a government archive in Banda Aceh carrying a cardboard box. It was brimming with three thousand photocopied documents from the Indonesian army, and Melvin could barely believe her luck. These documents prove what has always been officially denied: the Indonesian army deliberately planned the 1965–1966 massacre in which up to a million suspected Communists died, one of the worst but least-known mass killings of the twentieth century.

Melvin’s astonishing discovery forms the core of her groundbreaking book The Army and the Indonesian Genocide: Mechanics of Mass Murder. She chronicles what happened after October 1, 1965, when six high-ranking army generals were yanked from their homes in the early hours of the morning and murdered by left-leaning junior officers who called themselves the 30 September Movement. They claimed they were forestalling a coup by a CIA-backed group of anti-Communist generals. Within hours, the junior officers were outmaneuvered by Major General Suharto, who staged a counter-coup and blamed the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) for the murders. By the end of the day, Suharto sent out orders to “completely annihilate” the 30 September Movement “down to the roots,” according to an army document Melvin discovered.

Melvin’s book will forever alter the telling of what happened next. Suharto, relying on an army command structure outside the control of the revolutionary leader and president-for-life Sukarno, issued orders to carry out mass killings. The documents Melvin uses to explain how the army planned and organized the killings shatter the official narrative that has prevailed for more than fifty years and continues to be taught to Indonesian schoolchildren today. This narrative holds that God-fearing, anti-Communist Indonesians, provoked for years by the PKI and outraged by the 30 September Movement’s treacherous murder of the generals, rose up in a frenzy to annihilate the PKI across the archipelago of 17,000 islands. According to the official 1966 Fact Finding Commission, the army could not contain the violence of the masses. Indonesia’s official history describes civilians seeking revenge, and there is no mention of the military’s participation in the killings. In fact, as Melvin’s book and other new scholarship show, Suharto instituted martial law, leaving the flamboyant leftist-turned-autocrat Sukarno stuck in the presidential palace as his supposedly unrivaled power dwindled away.

Melvin offers a fascinating day-by-day chronicle, based on the archival army documents and the 1965 annual report of the army commander in the northern province of Aceh, unearthed in a Dutch library. The documents reveal the army’s plan to pin the murder of the generals on the PKI and then wipe it out. The army took control of all newspapers and radio, and propaganda—including the fake and endlessly repeated…

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