Indonesia 1965: 50 years since anti-communist massacres

World’s third largest Communist Party crushed in US-backed military coup

Vincent Kolo,

The military crackdown against the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) that began in October 1965 and continued throughout the following year, was one of the bloodiest massacres of the 20th century. Even the CIA, which conspired with Indonesia’s right-wing generals to orchestrate these atrocities, later compared the massacres to the crimes of the Nazis and Stalin’s terror.

The imperialist powers feared the loss of Indonesia, ruled by the populist president Sukarno who was supported by the PKI, from the ‘Western’ capitalist sphere of influence. A CIA memorandum from 1962 shows that US president John F. Kennedy and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan agreed to “liquidate President Sukarno, depending on the situation and available opportunities.”

Racist massacres

The CIA and US Embassy in Jakarta handed over lists with thousands of names of ‘communist suspects’ for the army, backed up by quasi-religious militias, to round up and execute. It was Britain, by this time under the Labour government of Harold Wilson, which pushed the Indonesian army to give its terror campaign an anti-Chinese edge. This was based on the British colonial administration’s experience in fighting the Communist insurgency in Malaya. “One of the more successful things which the West wished on to the non-communist politicians in Indonesia was to transfer the whole idea of communism onto the Chinese minority in Indonesia. It turned it into an ethnic thing,” noted Roland Challis, a BBC correspondent at the time.

US and British capitalism had no qualms about whipping up racist and religious divisions in furtherance of their economic and military aims. This is a pattern we have seen repeated more recently in the Middle East.

The killings in Indonesia took place on an almost industrial scale, with common estimates of at least 500,000 dead. Rivers and waterways were blocked as hundreds of corpses were dumped night after night. The 2012 documentary, ‘The Act of Killing’, which this author recommends, put the death toll at one million. Two-thirds of the dead were ethnic Chinese. The subsequent military regime banned the use of Chinese language signs and closed down Chinese schools.

These events marked the beginning of the end for Sukarno, who had ruled by balancing ‘Bonapartist’ style between the PKI to his left and the army and feudal-Islamic groups to his right. The PKI was outlawed and around one million people imprisoned without trial. The US State Department issued a jubilant report that the number of communists worldwide in non-Eastern bloc countries had dropped by 42 percent in one year. Sukarno would remain in office only as a figurehead for a military junta, which the following year squeezed him out altogether. This ushered in the 32-year rule of the dictator, General Suharto.

Suharto’s brutal regime was one in a chain of US-sponsored military dictatorships – including Park Chung Hee in South Korea and Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan – designed to hold back the revolutionary wave rolling across Asia. After the Indonesian coup, Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt said that, “with 500,000 to 1,000,000 Communist sympathisers knocked off, I think it is safe to assume a reorientation has taken place.”

Communist Party (PKI) suspects rounded up in Indonesia 1965.
Communist Party (PKI) suspects rounded up in Indonesia 1965.

Unknown chapter

Today, the events of 1965-66 are largely an unknown chapter in the country’s history. For decades the school system has run ‘brainwashing’ classes with crude anti-communist propaganda films. An opinion poll in the Jakarta Post in 2009 showed that more than half of university students “had never heard of the 1960s mass killings”. Suharto-era laws banning communism, Marxism and the spreading of atheism have not been repealed.

A revolutionary movement would later topple Suharto during the ‘rupiah crisis’ of 1998, ironically after the IMF – which he invited back into the country – imposed humiliating Greek-style austerity policies on his government. However, the army leadership with its extensive economic interests remains a major force in Indonesian politics to the present day. Similarly, the right-wing militias that carried out most of the killings in 1965-66 under military direction, have never been investigated or punished and continue to enjoy strong ties to the political establishment.

Sukarno was a radical bourgeois nationalist leader in the mould of Egypt’s Nasser and India’s Nehru, who zigzagged on the world stage between the Western and Eastern blocs, US-led capitalism and the Stalinist one-party regimes. In his final years, Sukarno had been courted fervently by Beijing, which had also become the main international backer of the PKI leadership. This was also a time of deepening rivalry between the Chinese and Russian Stalinist regimes, a power struggle based on naked national interests but dressed up in the language of ‘true communism’ versus ‘revisionism’.

In the early 1960s, as the ‘Cold War’ intensified especially in Asia, Sukarno engaged in radical anti-Westernism. This did not prevent him signing a deal with Western oil companies in 1963, ignoring demands from the PKI and nationalists for nationalisation. In a conflict over British and US plans to use newly independent Malaysia as a bridgehead for Western interests, which Sukarno slammed as “neo-colonial”, he took Indonesia out of the United Nations. He also expelled the IMF and World Bank with their pro-US agendas from the country.

These measures rang alarm bells in Washington and London, yet despite this, on the ground the conditions of the Indonesian masses were deteriorating, with hyperinflation, rising unemployment and stalemate over land reform. Sukarno’s speeches were full of radical rhetoric but he did not advocate an alternative to capitalism. Partial to acronyms, he launched the concept of NASAKOM – a fusion of nationalism, Islam and communism. This was no more than words to appease the different social forces.

A severe drought in 1963 led to mass starvation in Central Java. When peasants, initially supported by the PKI, began to take over the land, the army launched extensive repression. Sukarno called on the PKI leaders to drop their agitation on this issue in return for token concessions, which they did.

In his excellent short history, The Rise and Fall of the PKI, Craig Bowen of CWI Australia explains, “The nation was heavily in debt to the world’s banks and each year the budget deficit was doubling. The value of the rupiah had sunk to a hundredth of its legal value as the result of chronic inflation – in the six years to 1965 the cost of living increased by 2,000 percent. At the same time it was reported that up to an incredible 75 percent of the State Budget was being spent on the armed forces.”

The ‘stages’ theory

Growing dissatisfaction among the masses had been reflected in a meteoric growth of the PKI, which from just 7,000 members in 1952 swelled to 3 million by 1964. The PKI was by this time the third largest communist party in the world after China’s and Russia’s. By August 1965, just weeks before the military crackdown began, 26 million were organised in PKI-led unions, youth and women’s organisations – one in six of the population! The PKI’s leader Dipa Nusantara Aidit, who was captured and shot by the army in November 1965, even boasted that the party would win 30 percent of the popular vote if elections were held, something that was entirely plausible.

But there were no elections – they had been suspended with the PKI leadership’s consent, when Sukarno introduced what he termed “guided democracy”, in reality martial law, in 1959. In the last parliamentary elections to take place under Sukarno, in 1955, the PKI emerged as the fourth largest party with 16.4 percent of the vote.

The PKI leaders were unfortunately trapped in the Stalinist mindset of the ‘stages’ theory, believing there was no immediate possibility of a socialist revolution in a developing country like Indonesia, only recently liberated from Dutch colonialism, and concluding that the task of the workers’ movement was to support the most radical wing of the national capitalist class in an ‘anti-imperialist alliance’. The aim, according to this schema, was to consolidate national capitalism and ‘democracy’ while postponing the idea of socialism indefinitely. PKI leader Aidit insisted, “the class struggle is subordinate to the national struggle.”

This idea, an article of faith for the Stalinist communist parties, meant that the PKI leaders acted as a giant brake on the struggles of the masses. They emphasised nationalist causes such as the military and political confrontation against the US-British sponsored state formation of Malaysia (which shared a land border with Indonesia on the island of Borneo), but at the expense of engaging in struggle over class issues in the manner of the 1917 Russian Revolution and its famous slogan, “Peace, bread and land!”

Under the terms of the PKI’s alliance with Sukarno, the party became a de facto appendage of Sukarno’s government, robbed of any independence in action or programme and only undertaking campaigns sanctioned by the president.

The historian David Mozingo says, “The party’s large labour, youth, and women’s organisations could produce splendid rallies for Sukarno to address; such meetings, however could do little to persuade the rank and file in the cities and towns that the PKI itself was moving closer to power.”

Political differences between the PKI, ostensibly standing on the foundations of ‘Marxism’, and Sukarno, became blurred in the eyes of the masses and even it seems within the PKI leadership.

As Australian historian Rex Mortimer noted, “By 1963 the party’s worship was becoming almost idolatrous. Despite the President’s notorious disdain for, and ignorance of, economic affairs, it declared that the solution of economic difficulties could safely be left in his hands. A short time later (Aidit) bestowed the final accolade by describing the President as his first teacher in Marxism-Leninism.”

Sukarno with Mao Zedong.
Sukarno with Mao Zedong.

Re-run of 1920s China

The political confusion of the PKI leaders, their failure to pursue an independent and clearly socialist position, appears almost as a re-run of the mistakes of the Stalinists in China in the 1920s. Leon Trotsky, whose theory of the permanent revolution is the best ever antidote to the Stalinist theory of ‘stages’, explained that Marxists can and will, dependent on concrete conditions, enter into temporary alliances of a purely practical character with non-socialist and even bourgeois parties for example to resist imperialist military intervention or in defence of democratic rights, but at the same time maintain their complete political independence and freedom of action.

This is why Trotsky opposed the entry of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) into the Kuomintang in 1924, a policy foisted upon the young and inexperienced CCP by Stalin. This amounted to the party’s total subordination to the bourgeois Kuomintang – a party and a social class that was not capable of leading a bourgeois democratic revolution to victory.

How ironic then that 40 years later, Mao Zedong’s regime in China enthusiastically argued for the PKI’s subordination to Sukarno. As in the 1920s, the result was murderous counterrevolution and the annihilation of the advanced communist layer of the working class. Failing to understand its own history, the Chinese regime applauded the PKI’s political adaptation to Sukarno. In 1963, Aidit was made an honorary member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and his selected works were published by Beijing. The PKI’s so-called united front with Sukarno was hailed as “of great international significance for the international Communist movement”.

The aim of this flattery was to prize the PKI away from Moscow and into Beijing’s orbit, and more importantly to secure the PKI’s services as a bargaining counter for Beijing to win influence with Sukarno and the Indonesian bourgeoisie. This replicates how Stalin four decades earlier had used a muzzled CCP in a bid to secure an alliance with Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang. Even after the military crackdown had begun in late 1965, far from calling for a “people’s war” or armed struggle against the rightists, the Chinese regime’s advice to the PKI was “don’t panic, don’t be provoked”, a position dictated by its hope and desire not to weaken Sukarno’s position further in order to salvage their ‘alliance’.

Even when the Chinese Embassy in Jakarta was burnt down the official Chinese response was muted. The decision by small remnants of the PKI to turn to guerrilla struggle, in reality just a faint echo of the previous mass movement, came later, in 1967, when it was also clear that Beijing’s policies in Indonesia had collapsed.

Cruellest of defeats

The spark for the military crackdown came when a group of radical army officers, the G30S (Gerakan 30 September), staged a botched coup on 30 September 1965, capturing and killing six right-wing generals. This abortive action was probably launched to thwart a coup plot hatched by right-wing generals set to take place a week later. The army high command backed up by imperialism saw their opportunity to brand the failed coup as the handiwork of the PKI and launch massive retribution.

The PKI membership was taken completely unawares by the G30S putsch; although it’s possible a section of its leadership had prior knowledge. However, what happened next could be summarised in one word: paralysis. Once the army launched its counter strike with massive anti-communist propaganda there was only one possible course of action to avert disaster, by mobilising the PKI’s mass forces onto the streets and calling a general strike to prevent what was now a right-wing countercoup and attempt to crush the masses’ chances of resistance.

This movement should have demanded immediate elections, land to the peasants, a price freeze and wage increases, the nationalisation of industry under worker’s democratic control, democratic rights within the army and election of officers, and formation of workers’ armed militias. Such a response had a good chance of success had it been done immediately, before the right-wing army leadership had consolidated its position. Unfortunately, failing to see the dagger held at its throat, the PKI leaders issued no such call and placed their hopes in their ‘friend’ Sukarno to rescue the situation.

There were similarities both with Germany in 1933 and Chile 1973, in the lack of preparedness and helplessness of PKI cadres once the repressive onslaught was unleashed. PKI members, even leading members, were left without a survival plan. “Wait for instructions,” seems to have been the widely shared advice – but instructions never came!

The rout of the PKI and the bloodbath that followed is a chilling warning to the international working class of how political mistakes – illusions in bourgeois politicians, lack of a clear socialist programme, and underestimation of the brutal determination of the class enemy – can be translated into the cruellest of defeats. As a new generation of working class fighters and socialist youth emerges in Asia these lessons written in blood must be learned.

PKI demonstration, from the 1982 film The Year of Living Dangerously.
PKI demonstration, from the 1982 film The Year of Living Dangerously.