Outer Islands Rebellion


Indonesia's president Sukarno was a popular nationalist with superb rhetorical skills, a leading opponent of colonialism, and a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement. Indonesia therefore wielded great influence in the Third World. Australian planners feared that other countries would join it in pursuing similar goals and choose their own paths of economic and social development. By the mid-1950s Indonesia's non-alignment, coupled with the growing popularity of the Indonesian Communist Party, was a matter of serious concern to Western policy makers. US president Dwight Eisenhower asked, "Why the hell did we ever urge the Dutch to get out of Indonesia?"1

The US and Australia tried to break up Indonesia by encouraging rebellions on the islands of Sumatra and Sulawesi. There were pre-existing tensions between these islands and the main island of Java, but Australia's foreign minister Richard Casey increased them by providing the antagonists with military and logistical support.

Since Java was-and is-much more heavily populated than the other islands, the Javanese constituted the largest proportion of the electorate and, therefore, of the national leadership. Naturally, most consumers were also located in Java, even though the Outer Islands contained Indonesia's major sources of revenue, such as oil, rubber, tin, and copra. The central government wanted to strengthen its authority over the regions. Key personnel in the army, by contrast, had close ties to regional economic interests. They had a hand in local commercial ventures and operated like warlords in their domains. They also took the lead in organizing smuggling operations.

Lieutenant Colonel Ahmad Husein took over the government of West Sumatra, and Colonel Maludin Simbolon announced that North Sumatra had stopped obeying the central government. Similar developments occurred on the island of Sulawesi, where military and political leaders from the north and south gathered in Makassar to declare martial law and sign a Charter of Inclusive Struggle (Piagam Perjuangan Semesta Alam, abbreviated to Permesta). Armed forces chief General Nasution prevailed upon president Sukarno to declare martial law on 14 March 1957, giving the military the authority to confront the rebels.

Sensing an opportunity to increase the pressure on Sukarno, the United States began to contemplate fanning the flames of rebellion. Australia's foreign minister, Richard Casey, was alarmed that recent elections in Java had seen a 20 per cent increase in public support for the Indonesian Communist Party. He worried that the forthcoming national elections might have a similar effect throughout the archipelago. Casey considered it prudent to start thinking about breaking Indonesia up. The director of the US Central Intelligence Agency agreed that it had to remain an option, although of course the central objective was to prevent the success of the Indonesian Communist Party. In December 1957, secretary of state Dulles had expressed his desire to "see things to a point where we could plausibly withdraw our recognition of the Sukarno government and give it to the dissident elements on Sumatra."2 His message was conveyed to the rebels, who understood that they could count on US recognition as soon as they broke with Jakarta.

Accordingly, on 15 February 1958 Lieutenant Colonel Ahmad Husein of Sumatra announced the formation of the Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia (Pemerintah Revolusioner Republik Indonesia, or PRRI). Permesta figures from Sulawesi were enlisted in the PRRI cabinet and became the eastern wing of the rebellion. Colonel Maludin Simbolon received a large delivery of weapons in an airdrop near the American-run Caltex oil fields at Pekanbaru in Central Sumatra. The US Navy's Seventh Fleet deployed to Singapore, hoping to give the central government's forces 'a bloody nose' if Nasution bombed the Caltex installations.

Australia's foreign minister, Richard Casey, was an enthusiastic supporter of these actions, even if it meant the use of Australian aircraft on bombing operations to support the rebels. It appears that the Australian government also made Christmas Island available as a forward base for US submarines engaged in supplying and transporting the rebels, and the Australian Department of Defence deployed ships to stand off the Sumatran shore to provide logistic and medical support to them.

However, Nasution's forces made swift work of the rebels in a pre-emptive strike three days ahead of schedule, moving "with a speed and decisiveness that surprised and bewildered both the PRRI military commanders and the United States."3 As for the Sulawesi-based Permesta rebels, they fought on a little longer, receiving air cover from the so-called Revolutionary Air Force (Angkatan Udara Revolusioner, or AUREV). This air force was a CIA front, with aircraft piloted by Taiwanese, Poles, Filipinos, and Americans. Its operation came unstuck when a rebel aircraft carrying out a bombing raid against Ambon was shot down and its American pilot,Allen Lawrence Pope, was captured alive. Pope was carrying US military identification papers and substantial evidence of his previous bombing missions, leaving no room for US denials. The US and Australia immediately wound up their operations.

The US ruefully concluded that it would have to find another solution to the problem of Indonesia''s president. It therefore decided to develop closer links with the Indonesian military, providing it with limited military aid in order to sustain anti-communist elements in the officer corps. So began the US and Australia's strong support for the Indonesian military.

1 M. Jones, 'US relations with Indonesia, the Kennedy-Johnson Transition, and the Vietnam Connection, 1963-1965', Diplomatic History, Vol.26, No. 2, 2002, p. 253 n.14.

2 G. Kahin & A. Kahin, Subversion as Foreign Policy, New Press, New York, 1995, p.132.

3 G. Kahin & A. Kahin, Subversion as Foreign Policy, New Press, New York, 1995, p.151.