Suharto’s US-Backed Coup in Indonesia Supplied a Template for Worldwide Mass Murder

Michael G. Vann

Under the leadership of Sukarno, postcolonial Indonesia was an optimistic country finding its place on the world stage. Suharto’s 1965 coup drowned that experiment in blood, with US politicians and media cheering on his campaign of mass killings.

Second president of Indonesia, Suharto, 1967. (KEYSTONE-FRANCE / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Interview by
Daniel Finn

After gaining its independence from the Netherlands in 1949, Indonesia was the world’s second-largest postcolonial state. At the Bandung Conference, its leader, Sukarno, joined forces with leaders from India, Egypt, and Yugoslavia to chart a new path in world affairs. Indonesia also had one of the world’s largest communist parties, with a mass membership and a network of allied organizations mobilizing workers, women, artists, and young people against the country’s dominant social classes.

It was the threat of social mobilization from below that prompted the Indonesian officer corps to stage a coup in 1965, followed by one of the century’s bloodiest massacres. Politicians in Washington openly celebrated this campaign of mass murder and gave it their enthusiastic support.

Michael G. Vann is a professor of history at Sacramento State University. This is an edited transcript from Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the episode here.

Daniel Finn

What was the nature of the Indonesian political system under Sukarno after the end of Dutch colonial rule?

Michael G. Vann

One of the most important things to understand when we talk about postcolonial or recently decolonized Indonesia is the tremendous amount of optimism and pride that the young nation-state had in itself. They had beaten the Dutch in a war of independence from 1945 to 1949. On becoming independent in 1949, they were the second-largest postcolonial state after India. Of course, this was before the wave of decolonization around 1960. But they really saw Indonesia as the wave of the future. Indonesia was going to play a role in creating the postcolonial world.

Sukarno, the first president of Indonesia, was a veteran of the anti-colonial struggle against the Dutch. He jumped right onto the world stage. He was a tremendously charismatic figure, who did things like hosting the Bandung Conference of African and Asian states in 1955. That laid much of the groundwork for postcolonial collaboration among the countries of the Global South. He helped found the Non-Aligned Movement with Jawaharlal Nehru, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Kwame Nkrumah.

At the same time that Sukarno was playing this role with the Non-Aligned Movement, he was posing for photo ops with Dwight Eisenhower and his vice president, Richard Nixon, or in the early 1960s with John F. Kennedy. He was also going to Moscow and Beijing and getting his picture taken with Nikita Khrushchev and Zhou Enlai. In the figure of Sukarno, there was a lot of optimism, pride, and aspiration for a new postcolonial order.

Sukarno brought that charisma about Indonesia’s role in international relations home. He gave incredible speeches. He had a massive stadium built in Jakarta, the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium. The speeches that he gave there sometimes went on for quite some time. He talked about the OLDEFOs, the Old Established Forces, who were being challenged by the NEFOs, the New Emerging Forces. He gave people a kind of alphabet soup of acronyms with these historical struggles that the young Indonesian state would play a role in.

He combined that lofty global political rhetoric with some rather earthy populism. He was really good at speaking to the common people, even though he was very much elite in his background. He spoke in a way that reached the lower classes of the Indonesian people. One of my favorite things about Sukarno is that he was the first president of Indonesia, with very high national esteem, yet he wanted to be called Bung Karno, a kind of nickname meaning “Brother Karno,” taking the last part of his name. In California, we might translate “Bung” as “dude” rather than “brother” — he was Dude Karno. This had tremendous popular appeal.

At the same time, despite these great international successes and Indonesia’s prominent role on the world stage, things were a little chaotic at home. There was the postcolonial problem of how to make a nation-state out of more than thirteen thousand islands that had been colonized by the Dutch. There’s a lot of debate about whether or not there was a political precedent in the early modern period for this new Indonesian nation-state. There had been a Javanese kingdom that had at least claimed most of the territory that the Dutch would later colonize, but that was really an aberration in the history of this massive, sprawling archipelago that is several thousand miles across.

Sukarno in this new postcolonial setting essentially had to invent Indonesia and bring together people who spoke over three hundred fifty different languages — not dialects, but languages — and lived in this sprawling geography. Not everyone was on board with this new project of a secular Indonesian Republic under Sukarno. There were Islamist factions that did not want a secular state. They wanted a postcolonial state built on their interpretation of Islamic principles.

One of those groups, Darul Islam (“The House of Islam”), was in open opposition to the Indonesian Republic from independence. They engaged in various levels of insurgency in the 1950s. The group was implicated in an assassination attempt on Sukarno in 1957 — a grenade attack in Java, which Sukarno survived, although six children died.

As well as the Islamist opposition to the secular state, you also had regional military commanders building up their own power bases in opposition to the central power in Jakarta during the 1950s, in several places in Sumatra and also in Sulawesi, which is in northern Indonesia. The CIA aided some of these rebels. The Americans viewed Sukarno as a potential threat because of his radical proclamations, so they were more than willing to help destabilize Indonesia.

Things culminated in 1958, when two revolutionary groups, the so-called Permesta group and the Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia, joined forces. There were now two major regions of Indonesia in open revolt in Sumatra and Sulawesi. This was crushed in the space of a few months, but guerrilla fighting continued all the way into 1961. This helped destabilize the young Republic, just at the end of its first decade.

The Indonesian Republic was a liberal democracy with very active elections for parliament, but there was a political impasse by the 1950s. Some of these divisions seemed to be insurmountable. Sukarno declared martial law in 1957, and then in 1959 proclaimed what he called Guided Democracy. This essentially meant suspending elections. There wouldn’t be free and fair elections until the fall of Suharto decades later.

In this period of so-called Guided Democracy, Sukarno balanced the two main forces that had grown in Indonesia: the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), and the Indonesian officer corps, the Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI). One represented the far left, the other represented the far right. Sukarno tried to hold Indonesia together by balancing these two forces. His speeches obviously favored the PKI agenda. Meanwhile, the TNI officer corps was allowed to increase more and more its command of local, administrative power. The army started to become the real bureaucratic institutions of the state in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

This was all in the context of Sukarno’s attack on Western businesses — Dutch, British, and American. These included large plantations as well as the oil and gas industry. Sukarno moved to nationalize some of these sectors. Sometimes plantations were handed over to the TNI because they had the administrative capabilities. This created more and more power for this right-wing officer corps.

Meanwhile, the Indonesian Communist Party was becoming increasingly popular. All of this meant that Sukarno was engaged in an incredible balancing act or juggling act between these diverse forces within Indonesia.

Daniel Finn

Could you tell us a little more about the role that the PKI played in the political and social life of Indonesia as such a vast, mass-membership party?

Michael G. Vann

The history of the PKI is really fascinating, and still poorly studied by most Western activists and scholars of the history of communism. It was the oldest communist party in Asia: it was founded in 1920, predating the Chinese Communist Party. It came out of the Indies Social Democratic Association, a multiracial organization that included both ethnic Indonesians — Javanese mostly — and Dutch people.

Henk Sneevliet, a Dutch activist, helped found both the Social Democratic Association and then the young Indonesian Communist Party. He also went on to help found the Chinese Communist Party the following year and was a member of the Dutch parliament in the 1930s. He later joined the resistance against the Nazis, and eventually died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1942.

By the mid 1920s, the PKI had a significant membership in some of the major industrial cities. Then, against Comintern orders, they engaged in an ill-fated revolt in 1926. Figures like Munawar Musso, who represented a more radical strand within the party, organized railway workers who wanted to start a revolution. This revolt was almost immediately crushed by the Dutch. Thousands were arrested, and the party was driven underground and was fairly insignificant for the rest of the decade, through the 1930s and into the 1940s.

It came out of the underground in 1945, after World War II. Sadly, as it started to amass power, it got into a dispute with some nationalist officers in 1948. This was a dispute over local politics, but it was used by the officers to crush the PKI in the so-called Madiun Affair. Musso, the PKI’s leader, was killed, and the party was almost destroyed once again.

The PKI rebuilt itself after the Madiun Affair. In 1951, D. N. Aidit became the party’s general secretary, and he pursued a strategy based on the ballot box, not the Kalashnikov. The PKI did not have an armed wing in the 1950s and ’60s. In 1955, the Communists came fourth in national legislative elections, which was a huge victory for them and a surprise for many people. They got about 6 million votes — 16 percent of the electorate. This showed the success of a deep strategy based on a parliamentary path toward power.

Aidit also presided over the expanding influence of the PKI in the growing trade union movement. There was a synergy between the trade unions and the PKI, with both becoming stronger over the course of the 1950s and ’60s. The PKI experienced tremendous growth. There were only a few thousand members in 1950, but by 1955, it had a membership of two hundred thousand or thereabouts. Estimates are that by 1960, perhaps 1.5 million or even 2 million belonged to the PKI.

That’s just counting the party membership. There were also a lot of fellow-traveler organizations, some of which the PKI had real control over, and some of which were allied organizations. One of the more famous was the Indonesian women’s movement, Gerakan Wanita Indonesia or GERWANI, which by some estimates was the largest feminist organization in the world in the early 1960s. It was closely aligned with the PKI, but not under its control.

There was also the People’s Cultural Institute or LEKRA, which was an organization of artists that was very closely tied to the party. The main trade union federation, the Central All-Indonesian Workers’ Organization or SOBSI, was closely linked to the PKI as well. The party had a lot of influence, if not control, over the peasants’ union, the BTI.

Together, these groups brought about 20 million people under the umbrella of the party. Those people were not all PKI members, and there were various forms of autonomy. But they were fellow travelers who had a sense of being part of this movement.

Under Aidit’s leadership, the PKI acquired a reputation for being corruption-free, in sharp contrast to the corruption that was starting to set in among some of the other political parties, and especially among the Indonesian officer corps. There were a number of corruption scandals in the late ’50s and early ’60s. A young officer named Suharto got caught up in one of those scandals. The PKI, on the other hand, had a very clean reputation.

Even though the PKI was doing very well in elections during the 1950s, the party supported Sukarno’s decision to declare so-called Guided Democracy in 1959, suspending elections. In 1960, Sukarno put out a curious political formula that he called Nasakom — a combination of nationalism, religion, and communism. He declared that he was going to blend these three ideologies together and create an Indonesian path. This, of course, was a vague and contradictory proclamation, but it satisfied the two main pillars of Sukarno’s power, the PKI and the TNI.

The PKI also supported Sukarno because in the early 1960s, his speeches became more radical with regard to international affairs. He gave speeches about the fight against what he called NEKOLIM, which was his acronym for “neo-colonial imperialists.” Many in the West looked at these speeches and said that this was just a case of crazy Sukarno tilting at windmills and putting out mythical, almost mystical political proclamations. But keep in mind the fact that the CIA had been caught red-handed supporting rebels in the late 1950s, and it was engaged in numerous attempts to destabilize if not overthrow Sukarno. When he gave these speeches against the so-called NEKOLIM, he was talking about real forces that were trying to destabilize his government.

It was in this context that Sukarno started to move against Dutch- and British-owned businesses. The PKI supported these moves. They saw it as a struggle against international capitalism and against neo-imperialism. Unfortunately for the PKI, the main beneficiary of some of these nationalizations was the Indonesian officer corps.

Another important aspect of the PKI’s work in the early 1960s was the party’s support for direct action to implement land reform laws. These laws were on the statute book, but the government was not enforcing them, so the PKI, with the peasants’ union, the BTI, would mobilize poor and landless peasants to seize land and enact the laws. This angered and frightened a number of large landowners, many of whom had very close ties to conservative Muslim parties and the TNI. The action of the PKI in supporting peasants’ rights immediately alienated landowners, Islamic organizations, and the officer corps, who had intersecting interests.

Meanwhile, the PKI engaged in educational campaigns such as spreading literacy throughout the countryside. The PKI schools actually did a much better job of educating illiterate workers and peasants than the cash-strapped state schools or the private Islamic boarding schools. The PKI was more than just a political party with an economic agenda: it represented a social and cultural revolution.

In opposition to this, the PKI’s enemies in the TNI, the landowning class, and the Islamic parties started to take an increasingly reactionary tone. They looked at the PKI not just as an economic threat, but also as a threat to culture and tradition. In some cases, they declared it to be a threat to religion, even though this was a huge fallacy, because most PKI members were observant Muslims.

Daniel Finn

How did Suharto come to seize power in the coup of 1965? What actions did the new regime take against the Left?

Michael G. Vann

The events of September 30 and October 1, 1965 are very confusing, possibly by design. There were two coups: an attempted attack on the Indonesian officer corps on the night of September 30, and a slower coup, where Suharto seized power from Sukarno.

In late 1964 and 1965, there were rumors of a so-called generals’ council of CIA-backed, right-wing generals. The rumors suggested that perhaps they were going to move against Sukarno. On that night of September 30, a number of mid-level officers, who claimed to be acting against something like this generals’ council, raided the homes of their superiors — half a dozen of the top generals in Indonesia.

Maybe they were going to kill them, maybe they were going to kidnap them. It seems very likely that the plan was to kidnap these generals and force their hand, but during the raids, three of the generals were killed at their homes. Others were taken to an air force base in the suburbs of Jakarta. In the chaos of the raid on General. [Abdul Haris] Nasution’s home, the general was able to escape, breaking his ankle as he jumped over the wall into the Iraqi embassy next door. However, his five-year-old daughter was wounded and would die a few days later.

The generals who were taken alive and the bodies of the generals who died were brought to the Halim air force base. Meanwhile, rebel units moved on the radio station in central Jakarta and broadcast a message, which was heard across Indonesia, saying that they were engaged in a coup, but in support of President Sukarno. They condemned their corrupt superior officers.

A number of scholars think that this was really an internal army affair that got out of control. But it’s complicated, because the coup plotters had a small command post on the Halim air force base, in an area known as the Lubang Buaya or “crocodile hole” — a sinister-sounding name. We know that Sukarno and the PKI leader Aidit happened to be nearby at the air force base. They probably had some knowledge of the coup.

It remains unclear exactly what happened, but as the coup fizzled out, both Sukarno and Aidit fled, and the coup plotters murdered the generals that they had kidnapped. They took their bodies and threw them in an abandoned well, and then covered up the well and planted a banana tree on it. The generals were not tortured. Benedict Anderson, the great theorist of nationalism and an Indonesia scholar himself, found the autopsy report years later: there was no signs of torture of the bodies of the generals.

In all of this chaos in the early hours of October 1, a Brigadier-General, Suharto, who had previously gotten into some trouble over corruption with some of the officers who were targeted, took charge. Even though General Nasution outranked him, he stepped in and sent his para-commandos to retake the radio station.

He then moved on the air force base a few days later. He found the bodies in the well and brought camera crews out to make it into a big media event. The bodies were exhumed, and Suharto organized a state funeral for the generals.

Suharto immediately used this coup as anti-communist propaganda. Did the PKI know about the coup? Aidit probably did know something about it, and may have been involved in some way, but as for the rank-and-file membership of the PKI — absolutely no way. The various organizations such as GERWANI, the BTI, and LEKRA had no idea. The PKI membership was just as confused and surprised as everyone else.

But the army leadership was not confused. They immediately moved into action and declared the PKI responsible for this attempted coup. They started immediate round ups and summary executions of PKI members and people in related groups. This process started in Aceh, in the far northwestern tip of Sumatra, and then moved through Sumatra.

The white terror campaign spread from west to east, across Java. In west Java, a huge number of individuals were imprisoned. In central and east Java, the army moved on PKI strongholds and there was a campaign of mass murder.

Things culminated in 1966, as the army had moved across Java and onto the island of Bali, where perhaps 8 percent of the island’s population were killed by the Indonesian army and local groups that were mobilized to act against PKI members. There were also some sporadic anti-communist killings in eastern Indonesia over the next year or so. The last military activity against the PKI was in 1968.

There was widespread sexual violence against the bodies of women. All sorts of rumors started to spread that the feminist organization GERWANI had been deeply involved in the attack on the generals. They were called witches, prostitutes, and worse.

The army spread rumors that GERWANI had prostitutes in Bali with razor blades who were going to attack Indonesian soldiers. Rumors were also spread that GERWANI members at the air force base had sexually mutilated the generals and sliced their genitals with razor blades. The most grotesque slanders were thrown out against GERWANI.

Bodies were often put on display as a form of anti-communist terror, particularly in east Java. Again, this was led by the army leadership. Sometimes they were using rank-and-file troops, but they were also working with local organizations, including religious groups: Islamic groups, Christian groups in central Java, and Hindu groups in Bali. The TNI worked as well with preman — organized criminals from the underworld. If you’ve seen the film by Joshua Oppenheimer, The Act of Killing, it focuses on some of these underworld figures that served as death squad killers.

Recent research by scholars like Jess Melvin has found that the killing program was preplanned. The speculation now is that this was a program that was set up in advance and they were really waiting for the green light — waiting for what John Roosa has called a pretext for mass murder.

There was an immediate propaganda campaign. Army newspapers blamed the PKI. There were numerous stories of sexual torture by GERWANI and stories about these Balinese prostitutes. That indicates a lot of sexual anxiety. The PKI was quickly banned, as were all other related political organizations, and the union movement was crushed.

In the space of a year, somewhere between half a million and a million Indonesians were killed, perhaps more — frequently by hand. Even more people than that were imprisoned for well over a decade. Many were not PKI members: they were members of feminist groups, labor organizers, artists, or people who fell foul of the death squads due to local political or personal disputes.

Meanwhile, Suharto used this chaos to move in on power. He jumped rank, ahead of General Nasution, and then started to force President Sukarno to give him power. Suharto represented a very different sort of political personality compared to Sukarno. If Sukarno was Bung Karno, Suharto was Pak Harto — “Pak” was short for “father” or “sir.” He was much more dignified and refined, with an aloof, aristocratic air.

He steadily moved against Sukarno. On March 11, 1966, he forced Sukarno to hand over all power to him. The document that Sukarno allegedly signed to legitimize Suharto’s seizure of power may have been a forgery. Two years later, on March 27, 1968, Suharto became the second president of Indonesia, officially replacing Sukarno.

He instituted what became known as the New Order. I don’t think the reference to Nazi terminology was accidental. The New Order was based on centralized military rule and a decades-long anti-communist propaganda program, which kept promoting the big lie of PKI guilt — the idea that the PKI murdered the generals and was going to launch an attack on the Indonesia nation, which is not true. The PKI had no meaningful military component. But this big lie was central to the New Order regime.

There was no discussion of the mass murder. Those who survived the killing, who were imprisoned but released after a decade or so, faced tremendous discrimination, both for themselves and their families, for having been associated with the PKI. GERWANI members also faced such discrimination due to the propaganda campaign. Under the New Order, it was impossible for any independent social movement to form. Unions were completely crushed.

Daniel Finn

How did the events of 1965 reverberate around Southeast Asia and the wider world?

Michael G. Vann

The US and its allies were delighted. Famously, US News & World Report ran a headline “Indonesia: hope where there once was none.” This was in 1966, after the killings. Time magazine referred to the killings as “the West’s best news for years in Asia” and described the new Suharto regime as “scrupulously constitutional.” The New York Times quoted a gloating Australian prime minister, Harold Holt, who said “when half a million to a million communist sympathizers knock off, I think it’s safe to assume a reorientation has taken place.”

Suharto dramatically moved Indonesia from being friendly with the People’s Republic of China to being firmly in the American camp in the Cold War. Meanwhile, the combined overthrow of Sukarno and the destruction of the PKI served as a model for future anti-communist Cold War operations.

This lesson was not lost on the Vietnamese leadership in Hanoi. They saw what the Americans were capable of, and it clearly impacted the way they ran the war after 1966. In Cambodia, both the Left and the Right paid attention. As early as 1967, enemies of the fledgling Khmer Rouge movement were saying “we don’t lack Suhartos in Cambodia,” meaning “we can move against the Khmer Rouge.” A decade later, there was a Khmer Rouge document that mentioned the Indonesian mass violence against the PKI as a justification for why the Khmer Rouge had to take such a hard line. Both left and right were radicalized in Southeast Asia by this example.

In Chile, the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende was code-named “Operation Jakarta,” echoing Suharto’s violence. Pinochet’s soldiers rounded up the same kind of people in Chile: party members, union leaders, and activists. Even the Chilean folk singer Victor Jara was killed as a political opponent. In his book The Jakarta Method, Vincent Bevins has detailed the multiple links between the Indonesian example and cases in Latin America.

The international business community was delighted. The far-right, white-supremacist Texas oil man H. L. Hunt called it the greatest victory for freedom since the last decisive battle of World War II. As Suharto immediately opened up Indonesia for foreign direct investment, he was hailed by international business, especially in the oil and gas sector, but also in the mining industry. The gold mines in Papua proved to be the richest in the world.

Business also welcomed the crushing of the Indonesian labor movement. With no unions, Indonesia became a wonderful place for foreign capital to invest. This celebration of the crushing of the PKI and organized labor has continued decades after the events in question. When Mitt Romney was running for US president, during a debate in 2011, he referred approvingly to what happened in Indonesia back in the 1960s, when we — as he put it — “helped Indonesia move toward modernity with new leadership.”

Daniel Finn

To what extent were foreign states like the US and Britain directly involved in the coup and the bloodbath that followed?

Michael G. Vann

This opens up an interesting divide in the historiography. There’s a debate among scholars as to how much importance they should give to Western involvement. Of course, the CIA was involved, but this was a case of Indonesians killing Indonesians. Some of the American-focused scholarship in a way denies Indonesian agency and underplays the Indonesian role in these events.

Truth be told, it would have been difficult for the CIA to do very much on the ground in Indonesia in the years leading up to 1965. With martial law and Sukarno’s increasingly hostile attitude toward the United States, it would have been very difficult for them to gather much intelligence.

That said, the United States cultivated an important group of Indonesian officers and recruited them for training at Fort Benning, which would go on to be the home of the School of the Americas. They created a cadre of pro-American officers. Many of those officers stepped up in 1965–66 and were instrumental in the mass murder.

It’s very likely that United States, British, and Australian intelligence were pushing the army to move, and it’s clear from recent research that there was coordination ahead of time, possibly with the likes of Suharto. It’s tough to prove this, because obviously the Indonesian government and military doesn’t want these documents released. But at the very least, it looks as if Western intelligence was calling for some kind of scenario like the Reichstag fire in Germany in 1933 — a crisis that could be blamed on the PKI.

But Indonesians did this killing for their own reasons, with some help and encouragement from the West, and with guaranteed impunity. The Western capitalist democracies made it clear that they would not hold the Indonesian military accountable for these crimes. Indeed, the United States actually celebrated Suharto’s move against the PKI and organized labor.