US officials at the time called a â€œreign of terrorâ€ and British officials â€œruthless terrorâ€. However, unlike the terrorists responsible for the outrage of September 11, precisely nothing has ever been done to bring those responsible in Indonesia â€“ and their supporters in Washington and London – to account.
The killings in Indonesia started when a group of army officers loyal to President Sukarno assassinated several generals on 30 September 1965. They believed the generals were about to stage a coup to overthrow Sukarno. The instability, however, provided other anti-Sukarno generals, led by General Suharto, with an excuse for the army to move against a powerful and popular political faction with mass support, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). It did so brutally: in a few months hundreds of thousands of PKI members and ordinary people were killed and the PKI destroyed. Suharto emerged as leader and instituted a repressive regime that lasted until 1998.
The declassified documents show five ways in which the US and Britain were complicit in this slaughter. First, both the US and Britain wanted the army to act and encouraged them to do it. US officials expressed their hope of â€œarmy at long last to act effectively against Communistsâ€ [sic]. â€œWe are, as always, sympathetic to armyâ€™s desire to eliminate communist influenceâ€ and â€it is important to assure the army of our full support of its efforts to crush the PKIâ€, other officials noted.
The British were equally enthusiastic. â€œI have never concealed from you my belief that a little shooting in Indonesia would be an essential preliminary to effective changeâ€, the ambassador in Jakarta, Sir Andrew Gilchrist, informed the Foreign Office on 5 October.
The following day the Foreign Office in London stated that â€œthe crucial question still remains whether the Generals will pluck up enough courage to take decisive action against the PKIâ€. Later it noted that â€œwe must surely prefer an Army to a Communist regimeâ€ and declared: â€œIt seems pretty clear that the Generals are going to need all the help they can get and accept without being tagged as hopelessly pro-Western, if they are going to be able to gain ascendancy over the Communists. In the short run, and while the present confusion continues, we can hardly go wrong by tacitly backing the Generalsâ€. British policy was â€œto encourage the emergence of a Generalâ€™s regimeâ€, one intelligence official explained.
Support for army actions continued throughout the period of the worst killings; there is no question that US and British officials knew exactly what they were supporting. US Ambassador Marshall Green noted three weeks after the attempted coup and with the killings having begun, that â€œArmy hasâ€¦ been working hard at destroying PKI and I, for one, have increasing respect for its determination and organisation in carrying out this crucial assignmentâ€. Green noted in the same despatch the â€œexecution of PKI cadresâ€, putting the figure at â€œseveral hundred of themâ€ in â€œDjakarta area aloneâ€ [sic]. â€œTo date, army has performed far better than anticipated in attacking PKI and regroupingâ€.
On 1 November, Green informed the State Department of the armyâ€™s â€œmoving relentlessly to exterminate the PKI as far as that is possible to doâ€. Three days later he noted that â€œEmbassy and USG generally sympathetic with and admiring of what army doingâ€ [sic]. Four days after this the US Embassy reported that the Army and allied elements â€œhas continued systematic drive to destroy PKI in northern Sumatra with wholesale killings reportedâ€.
By 16 November, the US Consulate in Medan was reporting that â€œmuch indiscriminate killing is taking placeâ€. â€œSomething like a reign of terror against PKI is taking place. This terror is not discriminating very carefully between PKI leaders and ordinary PKI members with no ideological bond to the partyâ€. A British official reported on 25 November that â€œPKI men and women are being executed in very large numbersâ€.
By mid December the State Department noted approvingly that â€œIndonesian military leadersâ€™ campaign to destroy PKI is moving fairly swiftly and smoothlyâ€. By 14 February 1966 Ambassador Green could note that â€œthe PKI has been destroyed as an effective political force for some time to comeâ€ and that â€œthe Communistsâ€¦have been decimated by wholesale massacreâ€.
The British files reveal that by January the US estimated the number of dead at 150,000, although one Indonesian armed forces liaison officer told US attaches of a figure of 500,000. By March one British official wondered â€œhow much of it [the PKI] is left, after six months of killingâ€ and believed that over 200,000 had been killed in Sumatra alone. By April, the US Embassy stated that â€œwe frankly do not know whether the real figure is closer to 100,000 or 1,000,000 but believe it wiser to err on the side of the lower estimates, especially when questioned by the pressâ€.
Summarising the events of 1965 the British Consul in Medan referred to the army by noting that: â€œPosing as saviours of the nation from a communist terror, they unleashed a ruthless terror of their own, the scare of which will take many years to heal.â€ Another British memo referred to the â€œan operation carried out on a very large scale and often with appalling savageryâ€. Another simply referred to the â€œbloodbathâ€.
The US and British files reveal total support for these massacres. I could find no reference to any concern about the extent of killing at all – other than constant encouragement for the army to continue. And it was not only PKI activists who were the targets of this terror. As the British files show, many of the victims were the â€œmerest rank and file â€œ of the PKI who were â€œoften no more than bewildered peasants who give the wrong answer on a dark night to bloodthirsty hooligans bent on violenceâ€, with the connivance of the army.
The second way in the US and Britain supported the slaughter concerned the â€œConfrontationâ€ between Malaya and Indonesia. Here, Britain had deployed tens of thousands troops, mainly in Borneo, to defend Malaya against possible Indonesian encroachments following territorial claims. British policy â€œdid not want to distract the Indonesian army by getting them engaged in fighting in Borneo and so discourage them from the attempts which they now seem to be making to deal with the PKIâ€. British Ambassador Gilchrist proposed that â€œwe should get word to the Generals that we shall not attack them whilst they are chasing the PKIâ€, described as a â€œnecessary taskâ€. In October the British passed to the Generals, through a US contact â€œa carefully phrased oral message about not biting the Generals in the back for the presentâ€.
The US files confirm that the message from the US, conveyed on 14 October, read: â€œFirst, we wish to assure you that we have no intention of interfering Indonesian internal affairs directly or indirectly. Second, we have good reason to believe that none of our allies intend to initiate any offensive action against Indonesiaâ€ [sic]. The message was greatly welcomed by the army: One of the Indonesian Defence Ministerâ€™s aides noted that â€œthis was just what was needed by way of assurances that we (the army) werenâ€™t going to be hit from all angles as we moved to straighten things out hereâ€.
Third is the â€œhit listâ€ of targets supplied by the US to the Indonesian army. As the journalist Kathy Kadane has revealed, as many as 5,000 names of provincial, city and other local PKI committee members and leaders of the mass organisations of the PKI, such as the national labour federation, womenâ€™s and youth groups, were passed on the Generals, many of whom were subsequently killed. â€œIt really was a big help to the armyâ€ noted Robert Martens, a former member of the US embassy. â€œThey probably killed a lot of people and I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but thatâ€™s not all bad. Thereâ€™s a time when you have to strike hard at a decisive momentâ€.
The declassified US files do not provide many further details about the provision of this hit list, although they do confirm it. One list of names, for example, was passed to the Indonesians in December 1965 and â€œis apparently being used by Indonesian security authorities who seem to lack even the simplest overt information on PKI leadership at the timeâ€. It also notes that â€œlists of other officials in the PKI affiliates, Partindo and Baperki were also provided to GOI [Government of Indonesia] officials at their requestâ€.
The fourth means of support was propaganda operations. On 5 October a â€œpolitical adviserâ€ at the British intelligence base in Singapore reported to the Foreign Office in London that: â€œwe should not miss the present opportunity to use the situation to our advantageâ€¦ I recommend that we should have no hesitation in doing what we can surreptitiously to blacken the PKI in the eyes of the army and the people of Indonesiaâ€. The Foreign Office replied: â€œWe certainly do not exclude any unattributable propaganda or psywar [psychological warfare] activities which would contribute to weakening the PKI permanently. We therefore agree with the [above] recommendationâ€¦ Suitable propaganda themes might beâ€¦ Chinese interference in particular arms shipments; PKI subverting Indonesia as agents of foreign communistsâ€.
On 9 October the political adviser confirmed that â€œwe have made arrangements for distribution of certain unattributable material based on the general guidanceâ€ in the Foreign Office memo. This involved â€œpromoting and coordinating publicityâ€ critical of the Sukarno government to â€œnews agencies, newspapers and radioâ€. â€œThe impact has been considerableâ€, one file notes.
The fifth means of support was provision of equipment – although this remains the murkiest area to uncover. Past US support to the military â€œshould have established clearly in minds Army leaders that US stands behind them if they should need helpâ€, the State Department noted. US strategy was to â€œavoid overt involvement in the power struggle butâ€¦ indicate, clearly but covertly, to key Army officers our desire to assist where we can.â€
The first US supplies to the Indonesian army were radio equipment â€œto help in internal securityâ€ and to help the Generals â€œin their task of overcoming the Communistsâ€, as British Ambassador Gilchrist out it. The US historian Gabriel Kolko has shown that in early November 1965 the US received a request from the Generals to â€œarm Moslem and nationalist youthsâ€¦for use against the PKIâ€. The recently published files confirm this approach from the Indonesians. On 1 November Ambassador Green cabled Washington that â€œas to the provision of small arms I would be leery about telling army we are in position to provide same, although we should act, not close our minds to this possibilityâ€¦ We could explore availability of small arms stocks, preferable of non-US origin, which could be obtained without any overt US government involvement. We might also examine channels through which we could, if necessary, provide covert assistance to army for purchase of weaponsâ€.
A CIA memo of 9 November stated that the US should avoid being â€œtoo hesitant about the propriety of extending such assistance provided we can do so covertly, in a manner which will not embarrass them or embarrass our governmentâ€. It then noted that mechanisms exist or can be created to deliver â€œany of the types of the materiel requested to date in reasonable quantitiesâ€. One line of text is then not declassified before the memo notes: â€œThe same can be said of purchasers and transfer agents for such items as small arms, medicine and other items requested.â€ The memo goes on to note that â€œwe do not propose that the Indonesian army be furnished such equipment at this timeâ€. However, â€œif the Army leaders justify their needs in detailâ€¦it is likely that at least will help ensure their success and provide the basis for future collaboration with the USâ€. â€œThe means for covert implementationâ€ for the delivery of arms â€œare within our capabilitiesâ€.
In response to the Indonesia request for arms, Kolko has shown that the US promised to provide such covert aid, and dubbed them â€œmedicinesâ€. The declassified files state that â€œthe Army really needed the medicinesâ€ and that the US was keen to indicate â€œapproval in a practical way of the actions of the Indonesian armyâ€. The extent of arms provided is not revealed in the files but the amount â€œthe medicines would cost was a mere pittance compared with the advantages that might accrue to the US as a result of â€˜getting in on the ground floorâ€™â€, one file reads. A meeting in Washington of 4 December approved the provision of such â€œmedicinesâ€.
The British knew of these arms supplies and it is likely they also approved them. Britain was initially reluctant to see US equipment go to the Generals lest it be used in the â€œConfrontationâ€. Thus the British files show that the US State Department had â€œundertaken to consult with us before they do anything to support the Generalsâ€. It is possible that the US reneged on this commitment; however, in earlier discussions about this possibility, a British official at the embassy in Washington noted that â€œI do not think that is very likelyâ€.
The British files in particular show very close relations between the US and British embassies in Jakarta. They point to a somewhat coordinated joint US-UK operation to help install a Generals regime and bring about a government more favourable to Western economic and political interests. The Indonesia campaign is one of the most bloody in the postwar history of US-UK collaboration that includes the joint overthrow of the Musaddiq regime in Iran in 1953, the removal of the population of the British island of Diego Garcia to make way for a US military base in 1965, UK support for US aggression in Vietnam, Central America, Grenada, Panama and Libya and covert operations in Cambodia and Afghanistan. The current phase of the special relationship is witnessed in joint military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Basic US and British concerns and priorities regarding mid-1960s Indonesia are laid out in the files. For the British the importance of Southeast Asia was partly explained by the fact that â€œSoutheast Asia is a major producer of some essential commoditiesâ€ such as rubber, copra and chromuim ore. â€œEconomically, Southeast Asia is a major producer of raw materialsâ€¦ and the defence of the sources of these products and their denial to a possible enemy are major interests to the Western powersâ€. Indonesia also â€œoccupies a key position in world communicationsâ€, straddling important sea and air routes. And Britain wanted, of course, to see a change in regime in Jakarta to bring an end to the â€œConfrontationâ€ with Malaya.
British Foreign Secretary Michel Stewart wrote at the time that â€œit is only the economic chaos of Indonesia which prevents that country from offering great potential opportunities to British exporters. If there is going to be a deal in Indonesiaâ€¦ I think we ought to take an act and try to secure a slice of the cake ourselvesâ€. The British feared â€œthe resurgence of Communist and radical nationalismâ€.
For the US, Under Secretary of State George Ball had noted that Indonesia â€œmay be more important to us than South V-N [Vietnam]â€ (251). â€œAt stakeâ€, one US memo read, â€œare 100 million people, vast potential resources and a strategically important chain of islandsâ€. Basic US priorities were virtually identical in Vietnam and Indonesia: to prevent the consolidation of an independent nationalist regime, with communist components and sympathies, that threatened Western economic and political interests and that could act as a successful development model.
The US Ambassador in Malaysia cabled Washington a year before the October 1965 events in Indonesia saying that â€œour difficulties with Indonesia stem basically from deliberate, positive GOI [Government of Indonesia] strategy of seeking to push Britain and the US out of Southeast Asiaâ€. Ball noted in March 1965 that â€œour relations with Indonesia are on the verge of falling apartâ€. â€œNot only has the management of the American rubber plants been taken over, but there are dangers of an imminent seizure of the American oil companiesâ€.
The Sukarno regime clearly had the wrong priorities. According to one US report: â€œthe government occupies a dominant position in basic industry, public utilities, internal transportation and communicationâ€. â€œIt is probable that private ownership will disappear and may be succeeded by some form of production-profit-sharing contract arrangements to be applied to all foreign in vestmentâ€. Overall, â€œthe avowed Indonesian objective is â€˜to stand on their own feetâ€™ in developing their economy, free from foreign, especially Western, influenceâ€ â€“ clearly all heretical priorities to basic US-UK strategy that â€“ as today – needed to be defeated.
The problem with the PKI was not so much its communism but its nationalism: â€œit is likely that PKI foreign policy decisions, like those of Sukarno, would stress Indonesian national interests above those of Peking, Moscow or international communism in generalâ€, one memo reads. The real danger of a Communist Indonesia was outlined in a Special National Intelligence Estimate of 1 September 1965. This referred to the PKIâ€™s moving â€œto energize and unite the Indonesia nationâ€ and stated that â€œif these efforts succeeded, Indonesia would provide a powerful example for the underdeveloped world and hence a credit to communism and a setback for Western prestigeâ€. The problem was that Indonesia would be too successful, a fear in the minds of US planners well documented by Kolko and Noam Chomsky in policy towards numerous other countries.
The Army was by no means the perfect ally of the US in Indonesia â€“ as the files note, it â€œwas strongly nationalist in orientation and strongly favours the takeover of Western economic interestsâ€. Nevertheless in the choice between Sukarno and the PKI on the one hand and the army on the other, â€œthe army deserves our supportâ€. And over time a combination of Western advice, aid and investment did transform the Indonesian economy into one that, although retaining an important nationalist element, provided substantial opportunities and profits for Western investors, aided by an increasingly corrupt President Suharto. The West supported Suharto throughout the three-decade long rule of repression, including in the regimeâ€™s murderous policies in East Timor after the invasion of 1975. The hundreds of thousands of deaths then were as irrelevant to US and British officials as those in 1965.
For notes and sources, see the forthcoming book, The Web of Deceit: Britainâ€™s Real Role in the World, Vintage, 2003. Mark Curtis can be contacted at email@example.com. He is the author of The Great Deception: Anglo-American Power and World Order, Pluto, London (www.plutobooks.com)
Note: The US files referred to were published last year in the Foreign Relations of the United States series by the US Government Printing Office. British files are in Public Record Office, London.