Part 1: New evidence on how the October 1 coup was triggered
By Mike Head
19 July 1999
Damning new evidence has come to light pointing to the extent of the involvement of the United States government, closely supported by the Australian and British administrations, in the military coup staged in Indonesia by General Suharto on October 1, 1965 and the subsequent massacre of up to one million workers, peasants, students and political activists.
Last week, the Sydney Morning Herald published a three-part series that included interviews with former Indonesian political prisoners and extracts from documents obtained from US and Australian archives. The material shows that the Western powers urged the Indonesian military commanders to seize upon false claims of a coup attempt instigated by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), in order to carry out one of the greatest civilian massacres of the 20th century and establish a military dictatorship.
By most estimates, between 500,000 and a million PKI members and supporters, as well as people of ethnic Chinese origin, were murdered, and tens of thousands were detained in prisons and concentration camps, without any visible resistance. The documents show that throughout late 1965 and early 1966 US and Australian officials approvingly reported to their respective governments that army units and Muslim groups were working hand-in-hand to shoot, hack or club to death at least 1,500 suspected PKI sympathisers per day, sometimes parading their heads on sticks.
This enthusiasm in the Western embassies for the bloodbath reflected deep strategic and political interests. In the decade before the coup, the major powers had come into increasing conflict with the unstable nationalist regime of Indonesian President Sukarno. In late 1957 and again in 1964-65 he had barely contained mass movements of workers and peasants, whose strikes and occupations threatened first Dutch and then US and British banks, companies and plantations. By 1965 Sukarno was precariously balancing between the military commanders, the Muslim organisations and the PKI, which had some three million members and supporters, making it the third largest Communist Party in the world, after China and the Soviet Union.
The US had cut off foreign aid to Sukarno while building up relations with sections of the military. From the mid-1950s it began training and equipping Indonesian officers and troops, in preparation for a move to topple or sideline Sukarno. The first coup attempt came in November 1956 when Indonesian army Deputy Chief of Staff Colonel Zulkifli Lubis sought to take control of Jakarta and overthrow the government. Regional military takeovers followed the next month in Central and North Sumatra. Throughout 1957 and 1958 the CIA inspired a series of secessionist and right-wing revolts in the oil-rich regions of Sumatra and Sulawesi, where Caltex and other US oil firms had large investments. Then between 1959 and 1965, the US supplied $64 million in military aid to the Indonesian generals.
A huge amount was at stake for the US and its allies. Indonesia had immense natural resources, including some of the largest oil and rubber operations in the world, a teeming population and its 3,000 islands sat astride the sea routes from Asia to Europe. The US and the other capitalist powers regarded the archipelago as an absolutely crucial prize in the war against the anti-imperialist struggles that erupted across Asia after World War II. The 1949 victory of Mao Zedong’s forces in China had been followed by that of Ho Chi Minh’s in northern Vietnam. Insurgencies arose in Indochina, Malaya, Thailand and the Philippines from the late 1940s.
In the months prior to the Indonesian coup, the US administration of Democratic Party President Lyndon Johnson had dramatically escalated its intervention in Vietnam, sending in hundreds of thousands of troops and beginning its saturation bombing of the north. And the British and Australian governments were engaged in military conflict with Sukarno’s regime over Indonesia’s opposition to the British-backed formation of Malaysia, which encompassed key portions of the large mainly Indonesian island of Borneo.
The September 30 affair
The first part of the Sydney Morning Herald’s series is substantially based on an interview with former Sergeant Major Bungkus and earlier statements by former Lieutenant Colonel Abdul Latief. Both were jailed in 1965 for their involvement in a supposed military putsch instigated by the PKI on September 30, 1965. They were only released from prison in March this year—apparently the only survivors of the participants in the September 30 affair. Hundreds of others were tortured and executed.
Their testimony completely undermines the official version of Suharto’s coup—that he and his fellow generals were responding to a takeover bid instigated by the PKI through its supporters in the military. By this official account—presented in “documentary” form annually on all Indonesian TV stations until last year—PKI-inspired officers rounded up six of the country’s highest-ranking generals on the night of September 30 and brutally killed them, leaving their bodies horribly mutilated. The plot was only thwarted, the authorised story insists, and the nation saved from the “evil” of communism, when General Suharto heroically intervened and took control of Jakarta the next day.
According to the statements given by Bungkus and Latief, the alleged “PKI coup” was an internal military power struggle, engineered by Suharto as a pretext to destroy the PKI.
Bungkus, as a member of the Indonesian presidential guard, was ordered on the night of September 30 to participate in one of seven teams dispatched to kill or capture senior generals. At a briefing, Bungkus and other NCOs were told by their commanding officer, Lieutenant Dul Arief, that seven top generals had set up a “Dewan Jenderal” or Council of Generals, and were planning to stage a coup against the then president, Sukarno.
By September 1965, the situation in Indonesia was extremely tense. Rumours abounded that the army was going to once more move against Sukarno and the PKI through the establishment of such a Council of Generals.
Yet, the operation against the generals on September 30 had two obvious flaws. In the first place, the squad sent to the home of the Indonesian Defence Minister General A. H. Nasution—the officer with the closest links to the US Embassy and the CIA—somehow failed its assignment, allowing Nasution to escape. Secondly, no-one was sent to deal with General Suharto, then the commander of the Army Strategic Reserve. On October 1, Suharto, backed by Nasution, was able to quickly mobilise the necessary units to take control of Jakarta and then extend his rule across the country.
Bungkus was only a junior figure in the events but he insists that the officers from whom he took his instructions were not linked to the PKI. And he and other members of the presidential guard who took part in the assassinations were simply following orders. In his view, Suharto carefully orchestrated the September 30 affair as a means of moving against the entire left-wing movement in Indonesia.
This is corroborated by Latief, who revealed a number of critical facts upon his release from prison. He said that he had personally reported the coup plan to Suharto before the killings. “Pak Harto [Suharto] knew for sure that on September 30, the seven generals were to be brought to Bung Karno [Sukarno],” Latief said.
Latief said he went to the military hospital where Suharto was with his ill baby Tommy, to alert him to the intended move against the seven generals, but Suharto took no action. “I think it is clear Pak Harto used the opportunity of the arrest of the generals to blame the PKI and reach power.”
Latief also referred to a document proving British and American involvement in a plot by the seven generals to effectively seize power from Sukarno. “The plan to arrest the generals was related to the existence of a ‘Council of Generals’ which was first revealed through the leaking of a British Embassy document, which said the council was to supervise Sukarno’s policies. The document, a letter from the British Ambassador, Sir Andrew Gilchrist, also revealed the British were working with the CIA.”
Unanswered questions remain about the events of September 30-October 1. It is not certain whether Suharto merely allowed the murder of the generals, or helped organise them. The involvement of the CIA and the British in Suharto’s actions requires further investigation. Noticeably, none of the archives dealing with the lead up to the coup have yet been opened. But the speed with which Suharto moved on October 1 supports the conclusion that, acting in concert with the US agencies, he engineered the whole operation to eliminate his rivals and provide a pretext for moving against Sukarno and the PKI.
Finally, it is highly unlikely that the PKI planned to overthrow Sukarno’s government, in which the party participated as coalition partners with the military and Muslim leaders. In line with the Stalinist doctrine of maintaining an alliance with Sukarno and the national capitalist class, the PKI leaders had repeatedly helped quell the struggles of workers and peasants. Under the “two-stage” theory, they had insisted that socialism would only arise peacefully and gradually after a prolonged capitalist stage of development in Indonesia. Even as signs grew of preparations for a generals’ coup, they had urged their followers to have faith in the so-called pro-people’s aspect of the military apparatus. [See Lessons of the 1965 Indonesian Coup]
Moreover, there was no mobilisation of the vast membership of the PKI and its associated trade unions, student organisations, women’s movements and peasant organisations. In the subsequent holocaust there was no sign of PKI-led resistance. In fact, even as the death squads were set loose, the surviving PKI leaders and their patrons in Moscow and Beijing urged PKI followers to offer no opposition but to continue to subordinate themselves to Sukarno, who collaborated with Suharto and was retained as titular president until 1967.
The new evidence of direct US, British and Australian involvement in triggering and exploiting the 1965-66 events provides a critical lesson in the so-called democratic and humanitarian concerns of the major capitalist powers. They stand ready to orchestrate and sanction mass killings and repression to pursue their economic and strategic requirements in Indonesia and elsewhere.
Part 2: Washington called for military government
By Mike Head
20 July 1999
Documents from the US State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) indicate that, having seized power on October 1, 1965, Indonesia’s General Suharto and other army generals—acting on the urgings of US leaders—used military and Muslim death squads to massacre of hundreds of thousands of workers, students and peasants.
In its introduction to the documents, the Sydney Morning Herald on July 10 said the secret records show “the US and Australia knew what was happening—but continued to back the army in its bloody takeover”. In fact, the archives show that the role of the US administration and its junior partners in the Australian government was far from passive.
To begin with, the material demonstrates that US officials had longstanding and intimate ties with the military commanders; insisted that Suharto’s junta exterminate the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI); and called for the establishment of a military dictatorship.
Many of the cables—sent from Jakarta to Washington between October 1965 and February 1966—were written by the US Ambassador Marshall Green and were addressed to Secretary of State Dean Rusk and his aides. Green had arrived in Jakarta just before the coup, selected for the post by the Democratic Party administration of President Lyndon Johnson on the basis of definite experience. During Green’s earlier term as charge d’affaires in South Korea, General Park Chung Hee had carried out a coup, initiating nearly three decades of US-backed military rule. Green was later posted to Australia in the lead-up to the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor government in November 1975.
The involvement of Green and fellow senior US officials in the 1965-66 slaughter has already been partially documented. Indeed, in 1990 Green and other retired US diplomats and CIA officers admitted that they had provided the Indonesian generals with execution lists of the names of thousands of national, regional and local leaders of the PKI. A report by States News Service, published in the Washington Post of May 21, 1990, quoted Green confirming his role, saying: “I know we had a lot more information [about the PKI] than the Indonesians themselves… The US-supplied information was superior to anything they had.”
The death lists had been drawn up after 1962 at the instigation of the CIA’s then Far East division chief, William Colby, who later became CIA director. It was a practice that was not confined to Indonesia. Colby gave an interview in 1990 comparing the intelligence-gathering on the PKI to the infamous Phoenix Program that he directed in Vietnam, in which 20,000 members and supporters of the National Liberation Front were targetted for assassination.
According to Marian Wilkinson, the author of the Sydney Morning Heraldreport, the latest documents include former “Top Secret” and “Secret” US records on the massacres, collected by a Washington researcher, John Kelly, for a lapsed documentary project. These have been added to recently declassified documents, as well as records on the US killing lists obtained in 1990 by a US lawyer, Kathy Kadane.
None of the new material covers the period of preparations for Suharto’s coup, but it shows that just four days after the coup, Green was already expressing the wish that the military should exploit the killing of six generals on September 30, 1965 to accuse the PKI of plotting a takeover and to seize control of Indonesia.
Despite describing the involvement of the PKI leadership as “not certain,” Green sent a message to Washington on October 5, 1965 emphasising that the army had to move decisively: “Whatever the background … army in control, and it has important instruments of power such as press, radio and TV. It also has a cause in murder of six top leaders if army chooses to use it and it has already begun to do so … Muslim groups and others (except communists and their stooges) are lined up behind army…
“Army now has opportunity to move against PKI if it acts quickly … Momentum is now at peak with discovery of bodies of murdered army leaders. In short, it’s now or never …”
Green indicated that Washington’s long-held hopes that the military would remove Indonesian President Sukarno were finally coming to fruition: “Despite all its shortcomings, we believe odds are that army will act to pin blame for recent events on PKI and its allies. Much remains in doubt, but it seems almost certain that agony of ridding Indonesia of effects of Sukarno … has begun.”
He advised Washington to: “Avoid overt involvement as power struggle unfolds … However, indicate clearly to key people in army such as Nasution and Suharto our desire to be of assistance where we can … Maintain and if possible extend our contact with military … Spread the story of PKI’s guilt, treachery and brutality (this priority effort is perhaps most-needed immediate assistance we can give army if we can find way to do it without identifying it as solely or largely US effort).”
Army urged to go further
Two days later, Green warned Washington that he was worried that the military might not go far enough. “Extent army determination to stand up to Sukarno still not (repeat) not clear,” he wrote. However, he reported encouraging signs of military action specifically targetted against the working class: “Army has begun extensive sweeps in Jakarta lower-class suburbs to round up communist para-military elements active in Sept 30 violence.”
The next day, October 8, Green was more optimistic. “Communists are now on the run for the first time in many years in Indonesia,” he cabled. He was most of all encouraged that: “PKI organisational apparatus has been disrupted and party documents dispersed. This capped today with burning of PKI headquarters in Jakarta.”
By October 13, Green was able to report that the purge was progressing: “Anti-communists continue [to] make most of their present ascendancy. Today’s tally included closing of communist universities, banning of leftist student organisations and still more attacks on PKI premises… Youth groups sacked second PKI bookstore.”
Two days later, Green reported on discussions with military commanders and Muslim political leaders: “Army and Muslim sources have discussed with [embassy officers] strategy they hope army will follow. They hope army will proceed in step-by-step campaign not only against PKI but against whole communist/Sukarno clique.”
On the same day, he was eager to pass on confidential reports that mass executions had begun. “Army has already executed 74 communists seized in connection with coup attempt, despite efforts by Subandrio [Sukarno’s foreign minister] to stop executions.”
Green was determined to ensure that the anti-communist killings intensified. He asked for a cable to be relayed to the US Information Agency, stressing the need for more anti-PKI agitation. “In all media, by implication as well as by repetition of bald facts, link this horror and tragedy with Peking and its brand of communism; associate diabolical murder and mutilation of the generals with similar methods used against village headmen in Vietnam.”
On October 18, Green gave a graphic report of army-backed Muslim youth groups carrying out anti-communist and anti-Chinese pogroms in Sumatra, where many industrial and oil projects were located. “Muslims have begun attacking Chinese-communist elements in Medan and other North Sumatran cities. Merchandise burned, homes sacked and Chinese beaten. [US] Consulate has noted many fires in Medan and Belawan Chinese districts. Muslims apparently not distinguishing between Chicom [Chinese communists] and Indonesian citizens.”
Two days later Green cabled with approval that: “Some thousands of PKI cadres have reportedly been arrested in Jakarta … several hundred of them have been executed.” But he insisted that the military had to go further to fulfill what he described as “this crucial assignment”: “Thus far, however, basic PKI organisational potential would appear to be largely intact and capable of recovering quickly in a purely organisational sense if its status were recognised by the government and army attacks were stopped…
“Army has nevertheless been working hard at destroying PKI and I, for one, have increasing respect for its determination and organisation in carrying out this crucial assignment.”
In another cable on the same day, October 20, Green detailed the activities of joint army-Muslim death squads in the working class districts of Jakarta. In a secret visit to the US Embassy, a Muslim youth leader told of: “… army sweeps continuing in kampongs and other locations Jakarta area … Muslim youth ‘assistants’ are accompanying troops. Source said ‘some’ killings had resulted from these sweeps.”
On October 23 Green again expressed concern that the army was weakening its drive. But four days later he said he was encouraged by what senior army officers had told the US defence attaché, Colonel Willis Ethel, during a game of golf. “We are soon likely to hear reports about executions, including executions of public figures on whose behalf Sukarno is likely to make pleas for leniency.”
The Embassy’s close links to the military were confirmed by a CIA cable the same day with information from the commander of the East Java Military reporting that “he will begin a mass suppression and round-up of the PKI …”
Washington proposes formation of military regime
Few of the documents appear to relate to instructions sent from Washington to Green and his team—orders that may be even more revealing than the telegraphic traffic the other way. On October 29, however, one cable from the State Department—marked “Action”—made it clear that the Johnson administration wanted a military dictatorship established, and was ready to support it financially and militarily.
The message noted that Washington was developing its policy on Indonesia and wanted a military-run government: “Sooner or later … it will become increasingly clear to army leaders that they are only force capable of creating order in Indonesia, and that they must take initiative to form a military or civilian-military provisional government, with or without Sukarno.”
It urged the Embassy to make this known to the army: “The next few days, weeks or months may offer unprecedented opportunities for us to begin to influence people and events … Small arms and equipment may be needed to deal with the PKI … As events develop, the army may find itself in major military campaigns against PKI, and we must be ready for that contingency … We shall, of course, want to consult with the British, Australians, and others as well.”
On the same day, Green dispatched a favourable report of military officers and Muslim extremists taking matters into their own hands. “Muslim fervour in Atjeh [province] has apparently put all but few PKI out of action. Atjehese has decapacitated [sic] PKI and placed their heads on stakes along the road.”
From another Sumatran province, Riau, a US Embassy official highlighted army-Muslim terror directed against trade union members in the vital Caltex oil operations: “Muslims with army consent have sacked communist premises in city and closed their buildings in countryside. Army has raided PKI leaders’ houses and informed Caltex management it plans on Oct 29 to arrest key leaders of communist oil workers’ union Perbum, which forms core of PKI structure that province.”
By November 4, after a month of bloodletting, Green expressed satisfaction with the army’s role. “Army is doing a first-class job here of moving against communists, and by all current indications is the emerging authority in Indonesia … In the immediate offing there is the problem of pacifying and establishing a firm control over communist redoubt areas, particularly in Central Java, and of combating PKI sabotage and terror. There is likely to be bloodshed involving Muslims and Christian youth groups, as well as military and others. Need for medical and other assistance likely to be very real and urgent.”
Eyewitness accounts indicate that in Java most of the killing was carried out by Muslim groups, in particular, Ansor, the youth wing of the Nahdlatul Ulama (Muslim Scholars League).
On November 12, Green reported confidential news from Jakarta’s police information chief that: “from 50 to 100 PKI members are being killed every night in East and Central Java by civilian anti-communist groups with blessing of army”. A similar report came from Ted Heavner, the US Consul in the port city of Surabaya, who wrote of the army making use of its “Muslim manpower”.
Four days later the US Consul in Medan reported that Muslim leaders had informed his officers of planned massacres. He described their killing as “indiscriminate” and their attitude as “bloodthirsty”. “This terror is not (repeat) not discriminating very carefully between PKI leaders and ordinary PKI members with no ideological bond to the party. [Source] suggests that army itself is officially adopting extreme measures against PKI with plans to put many thousands in concentration camps.”
By the new year, both the CIA and Green’s staff were assembling casualty estimates. The CIA reported: “The slaughter of PKI members and sympathisers in North Sumatra, East and Central Java and Bali is continuing.” Green’s deputy noted intelligence from a friendly power that: “As a result of … calculations by his embassy as well as [confidential], a total of about 400,000 killed as a result of the Sept 30 affair had been agreed.” Nevertheless, the cable said there could be many more dead.
Another year of killings and repression ensued, before the efforts of the US and its allies in London and Canberra were fully rewarded when Sukarno, in March 1967, formally relinquished the presidency to Suharto, paving the way for the latter to declare a “New Order” regime.
Part 3: New light on Australia’s active involvement
By Mike Head
21 July 1999
Previously-secret documents at the Australian Archives in Canberra indicate that the Australian government—then led by Liberal Party Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies—and the Australian military, intelligence and diplomatic services were closely involved in the 1965-66 Indonesian coup carried out by General Suharto.
In publishing some of the records on July 12, the Sydney Morning Heraldchose the headline, “The silent watchers”. Its introduction said the documents showed that the federal government had “turned a blind eye” to the “indiscriminate slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians”.
But the documents themselves confirm that the Australian role was as active as that of the US government, if only on a smaller scale. Its military had trained some of the officers taking part in the massacre, and during 1965-66 the Menzies government and its officials shared intelligence sources, reports and assessments on the most intimate basis with their American, Canadian and British counterparts.
Moreover, the records demonstrate that the cables sent to and from the Australian Embassy in Jakarta mirrored, at times word for word, those from the US Embassy in their insistence that the Indonesian generals led by Suharto had to act ruthlessly to crush all support for the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), especially among industrial workers.
Nor was this an “indiscriminate slaughter”. The documents point to a common view, shared by the American, British and Australian governments, that the establishment of a military dictatorship in Indonesia was an essential contribution toward the wider war against the anti-imperialist struggles that had erupted in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia.
Earlier in 1965 the Menzies government had committed troops to both Borneo and South Vietnam. In January, it had agreed to the deployment of a combat battalion and a 100-strong SAS unit to Borneo to combat Indonesian forces mobilised by the Sukarno government as part of its campaign against the British-sponsored formation of Malaysia, which included the resource-rich former British colonies of Sabah and Sarawak. In April, the Menzies cabinet had committed the first battalion of infantry to the US intervention in Vietnam
The documents published by the Sydney Morning Herald relate to the period after Suharto’s seizure of power on October 1, 1965. Thus, they only indirectly shed light on the Australian involvement in the US preparations for the coup. In addition, the present Howard government continues to block access to hundreds of pages of material held in the Archives on the 1965-66 events in Indonesia. No doubt, the documents that have been released are the least incriminating.
Yet they are damning enough. They show that on October 5, 1965—just four days after Suharto’s takeover—the Australian Ambassador in Jakarta, K. C. O. “Mick” Shann used identical language to that of the US Ambassador, Marshall Green, in welcoming Suharto’s coup. It was “now or never” for the Indonesian army to deal with the PKI, Shann advised Canberra. On the same day, Green had told Washington that: “Army now has opportunity to move against PKI if it acts quickly … In short, it’s now or never.”
If anything, Shann was more vitriolic than his American colleague in demanding decisive action by the Indonesian generals. “Change there will be,” he said in a dispatch to Canberra the next day. “We will never get back to the status quo ante. But if Sukarno and his greasy civilian cohorts get back into the saddle it will be a change for the worse.”
By October 12, External Affairs Department officials in Canberra were encouraged by the developments. Arrests, murders and executions had begun, and mobs had ransacked the houses of PKI members of Sukarno’s cabinet.
In a memo to External Affairs Minister Paul Hasluck, a first assistant secretary in the department, Gordon Jockel, said: “Since our last note to you the army has been more vigorous and independent. Despite the president’s call for unity, the army and the Muslim groups are taking strong practical action to disarm the PKI and disrupt its organisation.” Jockel described these trends as “favourable,” although there were “still great uncertainties”.
Three days later, the Embassy informed Canberra that: “Almost daily, offices, houses and bookshops have been ransacked or burned and the momentum does not seem to be faltering.” On the same day, Shann sent a report in which he noted that mass killings of PKI supporters were underway. “At least a few ‘suspects’ have been brutally murdered. We will never know how many people have lost their lives. We think it is a lot.”
Shann indicated that the Western powers were still not fully confident in the military’s role. There was likely to be no great joy for the West if the army came to power, he thought. It would remain “implacably anti-imperialist and therefore … anti-American, anti-British and, to the extent that we bother them, anti-Australian.”
Two days later, on October 17, according to US documents, US and Australian officials met in Washington to discuss Indonesia and the army’s strategy. A US State Department memo indicates that the US Assistant Secretary of State, McGeorge Bundy, met the head of Australia’s External Affairs Department, Sir James Plimsoll, and Australia’s Ambassador to the US, Keith Waller and exchanged views on the army’s intentions.
By October 22, Shann, like Marshall Green, was more optimistic. The Embassy reported that Indonesia was experiencing “a mounting wave of anti-communist demonstrations and sentiment and a general army-condoned, or perhaps army-inspired, blackening of the communist image.”
It referred to a “cleansing operation” that included “nocturnal army operations” at all levels of society. Shann himself had witnessed about 250 prisoners being “whisked off” by military police. “It is impossible to make any estimate of the number of people killed or detained,” the Embassy said. “It cannot be small.”
The Embassy report concluded, enthusiastically: “He would be a very cautious man who did not derive some encouragement from events in Indonesia over the past week.”
American documents also show that when, at the end of October, the Johnson administration determined that Suharto should establish a military government, it consulted the Menzies government, together with the British.
Workers and peasants massacred
The Australian authorities were aware that workers and villagers were among the main targets of the military repression.
In the month of November, the Embassy noted that the wave of terror had been extended down to the factory floor. According to its report of November 17, it had apparently become the practice in factories and other workplaces “for the army to assemble the labour force and ask them whether they wish to continue work as usual. Those who decline are asked again and, unless they change their mind, summarily shot.”
Two days later, the Embassy proudly reported on an “action”—a massacre—led by an Australian-trained officer. Colonel Sarwo Edhie was a 1964 graduate from an 18-month course at the Australian Army Staff College at Queenscliff, near Melbourne. On November 10, 1965, just a year after graduating, he commanded 400 soldiers of the feared RPKAD (Special Forces, now known as Kopassus) on a sweep through Central Java, hunting for opponents of the military junta.
At 6.30 am the troops approached a village at the foot of Mount Merapi, in the Boyolali district, 40 km north-east of Jogjakarta, firing “test shots” into the air. Between 100 and 200 people, many of them women and children, appeared at the side of the road. According to the report sent to Canberra, the villagers advanced on the troops with cries of “Nekolim,” meaning “neo-colonialists and imperialists” and were armed with bamboo spears, knives and “one or two guns”. “Shots fired over their heads by the patrol failed to deter them and the army was obliged to shoot at them, killing seven and wounding 17.”
That report was derived from a first-hand account supplied by an Indian journalist, B. K. Tiwari, who had spent 11 days in Central Java as Sarwo Edhie’s guest. Tiwari’s account also confirmed that the military was training Muslim militia groups. In an interview with Tiwari, the Colonel had “spoken of the training he was giving Muslim groups (as yet no arms had been issued)”. Muslim youth were acting “as the ears and eyes of the army, guiding patrols and generally informing”.
Two days before Christmas 1965, the Australian Embassy estimated that, on average, 1,500 people had been murdered every day since September 30. “Estimates of the number of people killed vary between 100,000 and 200,000, the latter being the figure accepted by the American and West German embassies. The West Germans have heard that 70,000 people have been killed in East Java alone. Without having any firm basis for making an estimate we would if we had to name a figure put it at between 100,000 and 150,000. This works out at about 1,500 assassinations per day since September 30th.”
While the bloodbath was taking place in Indonesia, the Menzies government and the External Affairs Department sought to control and censor the news broadcast to Indonesia by Radio Australia. On October 10, 1965 Ambassador Shann advised Canberra that Radio Australia should “do nothing to engender sympathy for President Sukarno”.
Two days later, the External Affairs Department’s public information officer, Richard Woolcott noted in a memo that he and a colleague had told contacts at Radio Australia that it should “by careful selection of its news items, not do anything which would be helpful to the PKI and should highlight reports tending to discredit the PKI and show its involvement in the losing cause of the September 30 movement.”
The Department’s Gordon Jockel wrote to Shann on October 15, asking to be advised “whether there are any problems with the ABC representatives in Jakarta”. In a memo to his Minister, Paul Hasluck, on October 18, David Hay, another first assistant secretary, said: “Radio Australia should be on guard against giving information to the Indonesian people that would be withheld by the army-controlled internal media, e.g. disavowals [of coup involvement] by the PKI …”
On October 21, Woolcott reported that he had insisted that Radio Australia refer to Suharto and other key generals as “non-communist” rather than “anti-communist” and “rightist”. “I stressed again to [Radio Australia news editor John] Hall that the danger of inaccurate reporting could have an adverse effect on the army …”
By November 5, the Indonesian army was so confident that the Menzies government would do its bidding that it relayed a message to Canberra, via Shann, that news items critical of Indonesian Foreign Minister Subandrio “should be used” by Radio Australia.
It also said “reports should never imply that the army or its supporters” were in any way “pro-Western or right wing”. At that stage in the coup, given the strength of anti-colonial feeling among the Indonesian masses, it was still unwise for the generals to openly identify themselves with their Western patrons.
The events of 1965-66 reveal the essential outlook of the Australian political and military establishment. For public consumption, government leaders extol “democratic values,” but the actual record is one of demanding and supporting, whenever it is deemed necessary, military violence … and media manipulation.
This participation in the Indonesian holocaust was not a passing phase, nor an aberration. The figures who led the Australian involvement in the 1965-66 coup were all well rewarded for many years to come. Paul Hasluck, the Minister, was later knighted and became Governor-General of Australia. David Hay, a key official, was also knighted and then appointed Administrator of Papua New Guinea from 1967 to 1970. Gordon Jockel, also from External Affairs, went on to serve as Ambassador in Indonesia from 1969 to 1972. Richard Woolcott, another high-ranking official, became Ambassador to Indonesia too—from 1975 to 1978—then headed the Foreign Affairs Department. He remains a prominent media commentator on events in Indonesia.
As for the Labor Party, while it was not in office in 1965-66, its support for the Indonesian massacre was best summed up in the early 1990s by the then prime minister, Paul Keating. He referred to Suharto’s coup as the most important and beneficial event in Australia’s post-war strategic history.