The 1965 genocide and rise of Suharto

– Tommy Thomas
The Malaysian Insider
1 October 2015

Fifty years ago, as a young student, I was saddened to learn of an attempted coup in Indonesia, which within a few months overthrew President Sukarno.

Although the newly established Malaysia (Singapore had just exited the Federation) was under Confrontation, and Indonesia was the enemy, I was always a fan of Sukarno.

During the dark days of the Cold War – the Cuban missiles crisis occurred less than 3 years earlier – Sukarno, together with Nehru, led the non-aligned movement.

In fact, he hosted a most impressive non-aligned conference in Bandung in 1955. He was a brave foe of imperialism and neo-colonialism. He opposed American involvement in the Vietnam war. Sukarno was a true patriot and nationalist. Finally, a colourful character, never short of words.
What happened in Jakarta in the early hours of October 1, 1965 were tolerably clear.

Lt. Col. Untung, the Commander of the Presidential Guards, led a small group of disaffected junior officers who kidnapped and killed six generals, including General Achmad Yani, the Army Commander. General Haris Nasution, the defence minister, narrowly escaped, but his young daughter was killed.

On the morning of October 1, Untung made a radio announcement stating he was taking power to protect Sukarno from army generals whom Untung claimed was organising a coup d’etat to overthrow Sukarno.

Calling himself the head of the September 30 movement, Untung also announced the formation of a Revolutionary Council.

Within a few hours, General Suharto who apparently was not a target of Untung, marshalled his troops, overpowered Untung and his band by nightfall. The uprising was crushed in less than a day.

But what was unleashed was one of 20th century’s worst genocides: the lowest estimates of state organised massacres was 500,000 deaths, and the highest, one million victims.

Because Indonesia’s communist party, the PKI, then the largest outside the Soviet Union and China, was regarded by Suharto and the army as orchestrating the Untung power grab the facts (that Untung was an army man and the killing of the generals were committed by the army units were totally disregarded), PKI was banned, and its leader D.N. Aidit shot.

In the previous decade, Sukarno balanced power between himself, the army and PKI. By definition, this triumvirate was lop-sided because the army had the guns.

Untung’s putsch gave the army the opportunity of destroying and decimating once and for all the PKI and its followers, side-lining Sukarno and taking over power completely.

Regardless of whether one was a communist, a fellow-traveller, a sympathiser, or if members of the Army were only settling scores, one was killed, tortured or detained in harsh conditions.

Thousands of innocent Indonesians were brutally murdered, especially in Java and Bali. Much blood was spilled. Even in the bloody 20th century, with the two World Wars, the Holocaust and the Pol Pot’s Zero Hour in Cambodia, the Indonesian genocide was a terrible blot on humanity.

The passing of half a century gives an independent observer sufficient time and distance to reflect on the reasons for the killing by the state of its own people on such a scale and magnitude.

If the bare events that unfolded on the night of September 30 and early hours of October 1, 1965 are not the subject of much dispute, the origins of the coup and counter-coup and the organisations behind them have remained murky. This is neither the place or time to consider the various theories.

It would suffice to recall the Latin phrase used by Cicero “cui bono”: who benefitted from the conspiracy and crime?

There is only one answer: Suharto.

When it emerged that Colonel Latief, an Untung supporter and main plotter, tipped off Suharto on September 29 and 30 of the imminent coup, the fact that Suharto was not on Untung’s list, and that within hours he could marshall the troops to crush Untung’s band, the evidence and motive pointed to Suharto.

But all the facts have never been uncovered, and with the passage of time and the death of all those directly involved, the truth may not emerge.

The far-reaching consequences:

1. Genocide of its own people, ranging from half a million to a million victims.

2. Torture and detention of hundreds of thousands, and the imposition of terror.

3. The overthrow of Sukarno: he became a lame-duck president by mid-October 1965 and all power was transferred to Suharto by March 1966. Sukarno was placed under house arrest until his death in 1970.

4. Army rule until 1998 when Habibie became the first civilian president.

5. Suharto remained a dictator for some 35 years, and he and his family were enriched beyond belief. Madam Suharto becoming the original 10% lady.

6. The PKI was banned – communism, socialism and any idealogy left of centre died with Aidit, and never resurfaced. They remain taboo in Indonesia.

7. In Cold War terms, the greatest beneficiary was the United States, at the expense of the Communist bloc, particularly China. Sukarno’s fall was heralded in Johnson’s White House, and Suharto, the “smiling general ”, became the darling of the US Press. Suharto’s Indonesia remained a loyal US ally throughout his rule. CIA and Pentagon reaped benefits from the Sukarno fall.

8. Great Britain, as the major power in the Commonwealth forces which came to Malaysia’s aid in meeting Indonesian Confrontation, exited South East Asia, as was its objective in the wake of decolonisation, although it controlled and directed large portions of the economy in the region. But the expensive aspects of its direct political control ceased.

9. Indonesia moved firmly into the clutches of western capitalism. In fact, the Berkeley mafia ran its economy in the early Suharto days. Cronyism and nepotism were the inevitable by-products of unbridled capitalism. It was ironic that Suharto was finally brought down in 1998 by unimaginable foreign debt.

With the benefit of hindsight, a case can be made that the most transformative event in post-World War II Indonesia was not its independence from the Dutch in 1947, but the revolutionary changes brought by the events of October 1, 1965.

The consequences, some deliberately designed by the army, and others unintended, destroyed democracy in Indonesia for 4 decades.

By any yardstick, Suharto was a dictator, and his family benefitted from kleptocracy. A tiny elite benefitted in billions, a small class exercised power and influence, but the vast majority of Indonesians suffered.

The gap between the very rich and the rest of society widened substantially during army junta rule. The violent regime change from Sukarno to Suharto was in consequence a national tragedy of gigantic proportions.

It is sad that the five presidents who followed Suharto in the 17 years since his resignation have not taken any concrete steps to deal with the events of 1965.

Neither is there a public recognition of wrongs done to millions, followed by an apology (as had happened in Germany after the Second World War) nor an appointment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (like Mandela’s South Africa).

Even Sukarno’s daughter, Megawati, pretended as if 1965 did not happen. The principal reason for their reluctance is the military’s continued power and influence.

The army may not have direct political power, elections may be held from time to time, but 1965 is a sacred cow for the army, and no one dares to incur its wrath, even half a century later and in a changed world.

But right thinking people across the globe must press their governments to put pressure on Indonesia to carry out quickly independent investigations into the origins, causes and consequences of its 1965 national tragedy and to publish the findings thereafter.

That much is owed to the memory of millions killed, tortured or who suffered in silence. – October 1, 2015.

  1. #1 by good coolie on Thursday, 1 October 2015 - 11:27 pm

    While we are at fact-finding on anti-communist violence, we should also open up investigations on the violence inflicted by the comrades throughout the world (Malaysia, Vietnam, Korea, Cambodia, China and Mother Russia). Young people are unaware of the curse that afflicted humanity for nearly a hundred years; old people have forgotten.

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