The U.S. Embassy Watched the Indonesian Army Kill 500,000 People
Newly-released documents from the purge of 1965 add to the historical record
In 1965, the Indonesian Army and allied paramilitary groups killed at least 500,000 people because of their membership in the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), real and alleged, with the butchery extending to other dissident organizations and ethnic minorities including Chinese. The act of mass murder, one of the worst of the 20th century, precipitated the rise of Suharto’s New Order regime which ruled until 1998.
The chaos which descended on Indonesia eventually led to the military’s ouster of Suharto’s predecessor, Sukarto, who led his country to independence from the Netherlands before drifting toward China and the Soviet Union. The military purge of the communists — a campaign of bloodshed which received covert support from the United States — also included widespread rape, torture and the use of killing factories staffed by professional executioners.
In October 2017, the National Security Archive at George Washington University released hundreds of pages from documents dating from the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta at the time.
The embassy had detailed information on the fates of PKI leaders based on a combination of press reports and “reliable sources.” In a listing of Dipa Nusantara Aidit, the chairman of the PKI’s Central Committee, there is just the word “reported dead.” The army had tracked Aidit down and executed him. The Dec. 17 report by embassy first secretary Mary Vance Trent noted a lack of evidence “concerning arrests of prominent PKI leaders.”
“There is widespread falsification of documents such as alleged confessions, some of which can be easily detected and some not. An example of this is the alleged Njono confession wherein Njono, a PKI Politburo member, appears to be unaware of the composition of the Politburo,” she added — noting that that Njono’s knowledge of the PKI’s leadership was outdated.
Graphic reports from missionaries of violence in Central Java filtered to the embassy as Muslim youth militants slaughtered PKI refugees with abandon. The militants murdered Ludruk actors for being suspected communists.
“Victims, who have had temerity to continue cast aspersions at Islam have had throats cut by Ansor youths,” a consular official wrote in a November diplomatic cable.
“Also reportedly killings here in East Java have coloration of Holy War: killing of Infidel supposed give ticket to heaven and if blood of victim rubbed on face path there even more assured.”
A consular report from North Sumatra noted in a Dec. 6 telegram that mosques are “telling congregations that all who consciously joined PKI must be killed,” the diplomatic officer noted. “‘Conscious’ PKI members are classified as lowest order of infidel, the shedding of whose blood is comparable to killing chicken. […] COMMENT: This appears to give Muhammadiah Muslims wide license for killing.”
Elliot Haynes, chairman of Business International Corporation — a U.S. firm with ties to CIA which provided assistance to American companies in foreign markets — met with Indonesian officials in December 1967 following the mass killings. His job was to facilitate investment, and he recorded his meetings in a 54-page diary obtained by the National Security Archive.
Much of the diary concerns efforts and difficulties at setting up a favorable environment for American business, as well as observations about the officials and businessmen he met.
“An Indonesian of Chinese ancestry. Jean saw earlier,” Haynes wrote about a Dec. 1 meeting with Oei Jong Tjioe, an industrialist. “His theme: PKI had three million card carrying members, and only 250,000 were killed in the October coup. This leaves 2.75 million left around, plus another 20 million fellow travelers. This is the big danger.”
Haynes also wrote about his concern for a “creeping militarism” in Indonesian society and how it came to be, in his view.
“The Embassy made a study several months ago of the percentage of military men among the top 200 that run the country compared to the Sukarno period, and found that there were 38% under Sukarno and 43% under Suharto,” Haynes wrote after a Nov. 20 meeting with Ed Masters, the U.S. political counselor in Indonesia.
“But he admits the military has vastly more power today than it did when Sukarno was in power. The Army began infiltrating the government years ago when it saw what Sukrano was up to (one should say the Military, but the Army is the real power compared to the Navy or Air Force), and now has a corps of men about colonel rank who are among the best-qualified administrators in Indonesia. So this Army influence in the government is not bad. But he also stressed, as have others, that the Army has taken over provincial government down to a very low level — a grassroots political control that could lead to military dominance on a vast, long-lasting scale.”
A Dec. 27, 1965 telegram from Surabaya describe the changes in killing tactics in East Java.
“Generally victims are taken out of populous areas before being killed and bodies are buried rather than thrown in the river. According NU source, who is member of East Java Legislature, NU campaign to exterminate PKI now being carried out throughout whole East Java and has finally been extended to Eastern corner.”
“In Madiun, where Communists previously had reportedly suffered only arrests, PKI prisoners, according source, now being delivered to civilians for slaughter.”
The Indonesian military fabricated evidence that China was behind an aborted coup d’etat by a group of military officers known as the 30 September Movement who killed six generals on Oct. 1.
The military then blamed the PKI as being an extension of the coup plotters, which was used to justify the extermination campaign. The vast majority of PKI members had never heard of the movement and had no idea what to do when they were executed.
In April 1966, the American Consul General in Hong Kong messaged the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta that articles alleging Mao was intimately involved in the failed coup, and which were published in Indonesian military newspapers, were a “fictitious series expressly written to ridicule Peking regime.”