Editors’ picks for 2015 ‘Indonesia 1965: the attempted coup and the rise of Suharto’
4 Jan 2016|

Originally published 30 September 2015. Picked by Patrick Walters. 

Early on the morning of 1 October 1965, seven detachments of troops drove through the quiet streets of Jakarta, bound for the homes of the most senior generals of the Indonesian army. On arrival, the troops demanded that the generals accompany them to see Indonesia’s President Sukarno. Three generals complied, three resisted and were shot on the spot, one general escaped.

The living and the dead were bundled into the trucks, which headed to Halim Airforce Base, just south of the city. There, the remaining three were killed and the bodies of all six, along with that of lieutenant caught up by mistake in place of the escaped general, were dumped in a well. The location was ominously known as Lubang Buaya (‘Crocodile Hole’).

Later that morning, other troops seized key positions in the centre of Jakarta, including the radio station, which broadcast an announcement from Lieutenant Colonel Untung, commander of Sukarno’s Palace Guard, that his troops, with the support of others, had acted as the ‘30th September Movement’ to forestall a coup by the generals and to protect the president. Those generals had indeed good reason to be planning a coup.

Indonesian politics was a tense standoff between the conservative military leaders and the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), then the third largest Communist Party in the world. President Sukarno balanced the two, bolstered by a large group of ‘Sukarnoists’ who supported the President’s radical ideas but didn’t want communist rule. Sukarno favoured the PKI in his rhetoric but never allowed them close to the levers of power. The President, however, was ailing, and both sides knew that the balance would be overthrown sooner or later. Each had incentive to move first.

Troops in Central Java declared support for the Untung movement and later killed two other officers. Early in the afternoon of 1 October, the Untung group issued a further proclamation claiming power in the name of a 45-member Revolutionary Council, most of whose members hadn’t been consulted about their inclusion. By then, however, the Untung operation had begun to unravel. The commander of the Army’s Strategic Reserve, General Suharto, rallied his own forces and persuaded the rebel troops in central Jakarta to surrender. A few hours later his troops seized Halim and the 30th September Movement was over.

These events in Jakarta had far-reaching consequences. Suharto used the emergency powers that he assumed to suppress the Movement to consolidate his own position and eventually to displace Sukarno as president.

Indonesia moved from being a leader of the radical left in world affairs to being a bastion of anti-communism. Suharto supervised Indonesia’s economic recovery from the neglect of the Sukarno era to unprecedented levels of prosperity, albeit with unprecedented levels of corruption.

He also presided over the killing of around half a million members and associates of the PKI. In some places such as East Java, those killings arose out of bitter local political antagonisms, but everywhere they were authorized—and in many cases—directly organized by the army. Over a million leftists spent time in detention.

The Suharto group, and later the Suharto regime, justified the killings and detentions by claiming that the 30th September Movement had been the work of the PKI and asserting—entirely without foundation—that it was planned as the first step in a massive, brutal seizure of power by the communists. The army alleged that PKI members planned to slaughter their anti-communist neighbours, seize their property, sovietise Indonesian society and suppress Islam. The murder of the generals—a shocking event in its own right—was embellished with false stories that they had been tortured and sexually mutilated by young communist women.

The West, delighted that the PKI had been removed from the political scene, largely overlooked the scale of the killings and accompanying repression. Few direct reports of the violence were available, and those that appeared often underplayed the scale of military involvement, stressing ritual elements in the killings that seemed to place them in a world of pre-modern savagery, rather than of modern political extermination. The Suharto forces which had incited the killings were congratulated for their capacity to keep order in a turbulent society.

The Suharto government’s claim that Indonesia’s communists planned the Jakarta coup as the first step towards a bloodbath of their opponents was malicious fantasy, but the question of whether anyone but Untung was behind the events of 1 October 1965 has fascinated observers for half a century.

For decades, the coup story was treated as a whodunit with a formidable cast of suspects, including the PKI leader D.N. Aidit, President Sukarno and General Suharto (who, after all, reaped the greatest advantage from the events), with others claiming that the movement was exactly what it claimed to be, that is, a pre-emptive action by junior army officers to forestall a coup by senior generals.

Recent research, especially by historians John Roosa and Taomo Zhou, has shown convincingly that the 30th September Movement was a joint conspiracy between the Untung group and a small group around Aidit as PKI leader. In a visit to Beijing in August 1965, Aidit reported to Mao Zedong on his plans. There’s now no doubt about Aidit’s complicity in the 30th September Movement. The action mightn’t have intended to bring the PKI to power, but it was intended to achieve a decisive shift in Indonesian politics and to make a later leftist victory inevitable. The hundreds of thousands of Indonesian communists who were subsequently slaughtered, however, knew nothing of these plans.

Yet two significant mysteries remain. First, did Western intelligence agencies feed false information to Aidit that prompted him to launch a movement that was doomed to failure? We know that Western intelligence agencies saw a premature grab for power by the PKI as offering the best chance of preventing it from succeeding Sukarno. But we don’t have any more than tantalizing fragments of evidence to suggest that the West may have tricked the communists into rash action.

Second, did Suharto have prior knowledge of the movement which enabled him to react effectively? Reasons for suspicion lie in Suharto’s long-standing personal relationships with movement leaders, including Untung, as well as a still-unexplained encounter between the General and one of the plotters in the hours before the movement was launched. But there is no obvious reason why the plotters would privilege Suharto with dangerous information.

50 years on, Indonesia still lives with the consequences of the 1965 coup. The country is recovering from the stifling blanket of repression which Suharto’s New Order laid over Indonesia’s cultural and intellectual life, even while it delivered greatly increased prosperity. Yet the victims of the purges have been neither rehabilitated nor compensated and there’s still no consensus on the meaning of those terrible events.