Suharto's Rise

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The Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, or PKI) had been gaining in strength, particularly among landless peasants whose interests it defended. It was no tool of China or the Soviet Union. According to the political analyst Harold Crouch, the PKI "had won widespread support not as a revolutionary party but as an organization defending the interests of the poor within the existing system."1

The PKI was allied with the left wing of the Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI). Under this combined leadership, an organized movement of workers and peasants campaigned for the redistribution of land in the countryside, the nationalization of foreign companies and greater economic equality. It opposed the US war in Vietnam and supported national liberation movements around the world. By 1957, several cities on Java had communist mayors, and several provincial governors were close to the party. However, the PKI-PNI alliance did not occupy any but the most symbolic positions in cabinet. The army took over the management of plantations, mines, and other estates, and military entrepreneurs began to play a strong role in the domestic economy.2

By 1965, the PKI had three million members and was said to be the largest communist party in the world outside the Soviet Union and China. In addition to its vast membership, more than 15 million people had indirect connections to it through their membership of the peasant associations, labour unions, and other affiliates. The PKI was opposed by sections of the commercial and land-owning establishment, senior figures in the bureaucratic apparatus, a number of right-wing intellectuals and students, and several smaller Islamic parties. Crucially, they were supported by the powerful Indonesian military.

Tensions within Indonesian society continued to build until they exploded into open conflict on the evening of 30 September 1965, when a small number of middle-ranking, left-wing army officers staged a mutiny. The mutineers killed six generals and a lieutenant. The circumstances of this mutiny have never been fully explained, but there are good reasons to believe that it was designed to prevent a coup by a right-wing council of generals. However, the mutineers failed to arrest key generals, including Major-General Suharto. There is strong evidence to suggest that Suharto had been tipped off beforehand. The mutiny did not appear to have been planned in much detail: no serious measures were taken to seize choke points in the capital; the worker and peasant movements had been given no forewarning, and most of them were caught unawares; the PKI did not try to mobilize its massive party membership.

The Indonesian military moved swiftly and decisively. It arrested PKI members and took control of the media. A major theme in its propaganda campaign was the murder of the six Indonesian generals who, it was claimed, had been tortured and had their genitals cut off by members of the PKI-affiliated women's organisation Gerwani. According to autopsies ordered personally by Major-General Suharto, these stories were false; none of the victims' eyes had been gouged out, and their penises were intact. The Indonesian military committed full-scale massacres of PKI members across the Indonesian archipelago. They frequently used local militias to liquidate suspected PKI sympathisers. In some cases, entire villages were obliterated, but more typically the killers used hit lists and local informants to identify their victims. Particular attention was given to teachers and educated villagers.

The Australian ambassador worked to ensure that Radio Australia (broadcast into Indonesia) gave 'prominent coverage' to 'reports of PKI involvement and Communist Chinese complicity' while playing down or not broadcasting 'reports of divisions within the army specifically, and armed services more generally'. Another senior official recommended that Radio Australia "should highlight reports tending to discredit the PKI and show its involvement in the losing cause."3

US embassy officials compiled lists of PKI leaders and thousands of senior members, and handed them over to the Indonesian military. While these kinds of lists were based entirely on previous reporting by the communist press, they proved invaluable to the military, which seemed "to lack even the simplest overt information on PKI leadership at the time."4 The US provided the Indonesian army with money, medicines, communications equipment, weapons, and intelligence.

According to a study by the CIA:

"in terms of the numbers killed, the anti-PKI massacres in Indonesia rank as one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century, along with the Soviet purges of the 1930s, the Nazi mass murders during the Second World War, and the Maoist bloodbath of the early 1950s."5

1 H. Crouch, The Army and Politics in Indonesia, Cornell University Press, Ithaca,
1978, p. 351.

2 In later years, it became customary to attribute the decline in the productivity of these assets to the ideological influence of the PKI. In fact, the strongly anti-communist military was in charge of key areas of the economy.

3 K. Najjarine & D. Cottle, 'The DEA, the ABC and Reporting of the Indonesian Crisis 1965-1969', Australian Journal of Politics and History, Vol. 49, No.1, 2003, pp. 48-60.

4 Foreign Relations of the United States 1964-1968, Vol. XXVI, p. 256.

5 Central Intelligence Agency, Indonesia1965: The Coup That Backfired, 1968, p. 71n.