Review: The Killing Season: A History of the Indonesian Massacres, 1965-66, by Geoffrey B. Robinson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018. Cloth, pp 429.
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 20th-century history. It is 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 1957-58 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, Indonesian 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 communists.”
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. Robinson reports that “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 earlier 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 groups generally 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 reversed.”
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 among 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 opinion.
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 vehicles.”
“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-Gestapu stood for Komando Aksi Pengganyangan Gerakan September Tiga Puluh, or Action Command to Crush the September 30th Movement. The small group that abducted and killed the Indonesian generals on October 1, 1965, went by the name of the September 30th 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 women.
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 ammunition.”
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.
The Killing Season: A History of the Indonesian Massacres, 1965-66: https://press.princeton.edu/titles/11135.html
Originally published on Counterpunch