A forgotten genocide

Millions of Communists were killed in a U.S.-backed pogrom in Indonesia 50 years ago, but the government continues to disallow discussions or film screenings relating to the massacre.

Published : Dec 23, 2015 12:30 IST

October 8, 1965. When anti-Communist activities raged through Jakarta. Demonstrators march towards PKI headquarters to burn it down.

October 8, 1965. When anti-Communist activities raged through Jakarta. Demonstrators march towards PKI headquarters to burn it down.

Many historians describe the massacre of more than a million Indonesians 50 years ago as one of the worst genocides of the 20th century. Some historians and survivors say that the number of those killed is even higher. The Indonesian army officer Maj. Gen. Sarwo Edhie, who participated in the supervising of the pogrom, has claimed that three million were killed. The sad and gruesome chapter in Indonesian history began on September 30, 1965, after an attempted military coup by a section of the armed forces. There was a power struggle brewing between progressive forces under the titular leadership of President Sukarno, who was at the time backed by the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), and sections of the armed forces. On the opposing side were conservative political parties and leading army generals who had had the backing of the West since the mid-1950s.

The events that shook Indonesia unfolded at the height of the Cold War. At the time, the PKI was the second biggest Communist Party in Asia after the Chinese Communist Party. In 1965, the PKI had around three million members. Trade unions and women and student organisations affiliated to the party had another 15 to 20 million more supporters. The PKI, under the leadership of Dipa Nusantara Aidit, was a peaceful unarmed organisation adhering broadly to a parliamentary path. It was playing a key role in keeping Sukarno, one of the architects of the Non-Aligned Movement and a towering figure of the decolonisation struggle, in power in the last years of his presidency.

Sukarno incurred the wrath of the West after he insisted on following an independent foreign policy. He had taken a strong stance against the remnants of British, French and Dutch colonialism in the region. By the mid-1950s, he had nationalised foreign-owned oil companies. In early 1965, he expelled the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund from the country. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States had made several attempts to overthrow Sukarno and foment secession, in cahoots with friendly governments in the region. Among those who worked for the CIA in Indonesia was Benigno Aquino, father of the present President of the Philippines.

The U.S. role The U.S. and its allies continuously demonised Sukarno and his perceived tilt towards China and the socialist bloc. They also covertly backed right-wing parties in the country and encouraged top army generals to step in and prevent the PKI and its allies from taking power through the ballot box.

In early 1965, the Dutch Ambassador to Indonesia wrote to his government that Sukarno would continue to lead his country until his death and that it was “no longer possible to keep Indonesia from slipping into the Left”.

Sukarno was ailing at the time and was not expected to live long. Meanwhile, convinced that he would remain dependent on the PKI until the very end for his political survival, the U.S. was already planning to bring about regime change in Indonesia. Secret channels were established by U.S. with the right-wing army leadership by 1964 to prepare for pre-emptive action.

A coup attempt by a few left-leaning army officers on September 30 was crushed within days. But the death of six top army generals at their hands gave the military and its supporters an excuse to launch an all-out exercise to rid the country of Left-wing groups, trade unionists, sympathisers and even the next of kin and relatives of those suspected of having left-wing tendencies.

The two most senior officers of the Indonesian army at the time, Gen. Abdul Harris Nasution and Gen. Suharto, took over the leadership of the army and presided over the bloodletting that followed. Both these generals had undergone training in the U.S. and despite being on the hit list of the coup plotters, had escaped unscathed. The September coup attempt, according to many historians, might have been intended to forestall a right-wing coup that was being hatched by a cabal of top army officers that included the slain generals along with Nasution and Suharto.

Sukarno, who may or may not have had knowledge of the coup, was soon reduced to a figurehead and eventually completely sidelined. After the coup attempt, Sukarno had refused to ban the PKI, despite the demands of the army leadership. In the following months, he was gradually divested of almost all powers.

Killing spree The PKI leadership was apparently not aware of the coup attempt. It was the handiwork of a few army officers and some PKI members who had not kept the party leadership in the loop.

But the bloodletting started nevertheless. Hundreds of thousands of Indonesians were brutally massacred all over the archipelago for the crime of being either PKI members or the party’s supporters. The killings under the eye of the Indonesian army and its many Western backers went on for almost a year.

The army leadership under Nasution and Suharto took control of the media immediately after staging its counter coup. The PKI was painted as a vile, anti-national and anti-Muslim party out to destroy the country and its way of life. The army leadership planned the massacres in a cold and calculated way. The army choreographed the anti-PKI demonstrations by providing transport and protection to demonstrators. More than a week after the killing of the generals, PKI offices were burnt down all over the country. Houses of PKI members were the next to be targeted, and then the killings started.

The first massacres were in central Java, and then the violence spread to other parts of the island. In December 1965, the armed forces shifted their attention to Bali, one of the strongholds of the PKI. Some reports have said that more than 200,000 people were killed in the small island of Bali alone. Bali had a population of two million at the time. Entire villages were destroyed by militias, many of them belonging to the Nahdlatul Ulama, the right-wing Muslim party that was in alliance with the army. The massacres were preceded by the arrival of the Indonesian army’s special forces. The CIA had given the Indonesian army leadership a list of 5,000 top PKI functionaries. The CIA, along with other Western intelligence agencies, had provided substantial funding and weaponry for the army after it was purged of left-leaning officers following the events of September 1965.

The U.S. State Department gleefully noted at the time that “with the killing of up to 300,000 Communists” and the resignation of 1.6 million party members, the number of communists outside the socialist bloc had dropped by 42 per cent in just one year. More people were killed in Indonesia following the September 30 incident than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the U.S. dropped atom bombs in 1945. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell accused the American government of being “directly involved in the day to day events” in the silent slaughter.

In its December 17, 1965, edition Time said: “Communists, red sympathisers and their families are being massacred by the thousands. Backland army units are reported to have executed thousands of communists, after interrogation in remote jails. Armed with wide bodied blades called ‘prangs’, Moslem bands crept at night into the homes of Communists, killing entire families and burying their bodies in shallow graves. The murder campaign became so brazen in parts of East Java, that Moslem bands placed the heads of victims on poles and paraded them through villages. The killings have been on such a scale that the disposal of the corpses has created a serious sanitation problem in East Java and parts of Northern Sumatra where the humid air bears the reek of decaying flesh. Travellers from these areas tell of small rivers and streams that have been literally clogged with bodies. River transportation has at places been seriously impeded.” The U.S. magazine, despite its known hostility to Sukarno and the Left, was one of the few Western media outlets to occasionally report the truth about the horrific situation that prevailed in Indonesia at the time.

Tens of thousands of Indonesians who escaped the butchery were rounded up and sent to prison. Others were exiled to uninhabited islands. Many of them were only released after more than three-and-a-half decades of incarceration or internal exile. The internationally acclaimed Indonesian writer Pramoedyo Ananta Toer has documented the events after 1965 in his path-breaking Buru trilogy. The writer himself was jailed and exiled for long years in a remote prison island. When this correspondent was in Indonesia in 1992, he had seen the practice of the government and the public sector giving jobs to only those who were “socially clean” and “environmentally clean”. “Socially clean” meant that the applicant should not have had next of kin who were members of the PKI. “Environmentally clean” meant that even if distant relatives were PKI members, the applicant was ineligible for a job.

More than a million Indonesians in jails and their children, some of whom not even born in 1965, faced discrimination. The PKI continues to remain banned in the country despite Indonesia having become a multiparty democracy after the ouster of Suharto in the late 1990s. The ban on the PKI dates from 1966. Abdurrahman Wahid, who became President after the restoration of multiparty democracy, had suggested the lifting of the ban on the PKI. But he was overruled by his party, the Nahdlatul Ulama, which had participated in the pogroms. After 1965, properties, including schools and hospitals belonging to the PKI, were confiscated. Even wives and daughters of PKI members were taken along with their properties. The military legalised these thefts by issuing a decree in 1975 that stated that all PKI assets belonged to the state.

No regrets, no apologies The 1965-1966 Murder Victims Research Foundation, which was set up by former prisoners, has demanded an apology from the government. President Joko Widodo, who was elected last year, had promised during his campaign that if elected, he would look into all cases of past human rights abuses. But, after assuming office, Widodo, the first head of state who does not hail from an elite or military background, has changed his stance and refused to apologise to the victims.

During the campaign, some of his opponents tried to label Widodo a closet Communist. One of his Cabinet Ministers said that the “killings were necessary at the time”. Sarwo Edhie, who personally supervised many of the mass killings, was recently named a “national hero”.

As recent documentaries, such as the widely acclaimed Act of Killing , and a few articles in Indonesian journals reveal, few of the perpetrators of the massacres have been apologetic about their heinous deeds. The Indonesian military, which continues to be influential, want the survivors of the 1965 killings to still be monitored, though many of them are very old and ailing.

The Indonesian government recently banned panel discussions and other events such as screenings relating to the massacre at the annual Ubud Book Festival in Bali. In October, copies of a university magazine carrying an in-depth analysis of the events of 1965 were confiscated and the students responsible for its publication threatened with punitive action.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment