Hidden Holocaust of 1965

Secret records of the US State Department and CIA provide evidence that the massacre of Indonesia’s communists in 1965 was not a result of spontaneous uprisings but a deliberate campaign by General Soeharto. MARIAN WILKINSON reveals that the records show the US and Australia knew what was happening – but continued to back the army in its bloody takeover.
The recent elections in Indonesia were the first in three decades not stage-managed by the army and former President Soeharto.

But casting a long shadow over the poll are the brutal events in 1965 that first brought General Soeharto to office and toppled the government of President Sukarno, the father of Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Between 500,000 and a million Indonesians, many of them members or supporters of Indonesia’s then Communist party, the PKI, are estimated to have died in the slaughter that accompanied the military takeover. Tens of thousands more were rounded up and sent to gulag-style of prisons.
Some of these former political prisoners are calling for any new government to hold a truth commission into this dark period of Indonesian history, and several recent events lend weight to those calls.
The current brutal activities by paramilitary groups in East Timor have direct parallels with the events of 1965. Cables from the US State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, recounting the Indonesian Army’s strategy in 1965, eerily reflect many incidents now taking place in East Timor: most disturbingly, the training and arming of paramilitary death squads to kill leftist opponents.

The records from 1965 show damning evidence of the Indonesian Army directing massacres and employing death squads against its communist opponents. Over the past two decades, leading American and Australian academics have been examining these records as they became declassified.

In 1990, a US lawyer, Kathy Kadane, published an extraordinary account detailing how an American diplomat provided lists of Indonesian communists to the Soeharto forces when the mass killings were beginning. A collection of former “Top Secret” and “Secret” US records on the massacres was recently gathered by Washington researcher John Kelly for a documentary project, but when the project lapsed these records were handed to the Herald. Using these and other recently declassified documents, along with Kadane’s records, it is possible to chart one of the greatest massacres of postwar history through the voices of American diplomats and intelligence officers.

Many of the cables, written over five months from October 1965 to February 1966, are from the US Ambassador, Marshall Green, who later served as ambassador to Australia. They are addressed to the then US Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, and his aides.

One of the most confronting aspect of the cables is the American accounts of the Indonesian Army’s use of death squads drawn from Muslim and Catholic youth groups, and the propaganda efforts used to whip up their political supporters into a frenzy. The cables reveal the strong US support for the anti-communist purges even as the killings mounted. They also reveal the extensive links between senior Indonesian Army officers and the US Embassy.

Two key US connections were General Nasution, Soeharto’s close confidant, and Adam Malik, the man who would become Soeharto’s long-serving Foreign Minister. Indeed, as Kadane revealed, it was Malik’s aide who was given the list of communist names by the US Embassy to hand to the army.
The events that triggered the bloody army takeover are bitterly disputed, even today. Both the Indonesian Army and the West maintained the bloodshed began after an attempted coup masterminded by the PKI.
In September 1965, Indonesia, under the left-wing nationalist President Sukarno, was in crisis. Sukarno’s power rested, in part, on the support of the PKI, the largest political party in the country. Sukarno used the PKI to contain the power of the army. His relations with his top generals and the West were tense. His country was in armed border “confrontation” with Britain and Australia over Malaysia, and he was threatening to break diplomatic relations with the US and nationalise American oil assets. His deputy, Foreign Minister Subandrio, only months before had accused the West of working with senior army officers to assassinate the President, and rumours were rife that pro-US generals were planning a coup for early October.

ON THE night of September 30, 1965, a small group of junior military officers, led by one of Sukarno’s bodyguards, Colonel Untung, kidnapped and killed six senior army generals and announced that a revolutionary council was now running the country in order to save Sukarno from a “CIA-backed coup”. But one of its main targets, General Nasution, escaped to launch a counterattack with General Soeharto, then head of the army’s strategic command.

There was great confusion at the time over who ordered the original attack: was it Sukarno himself, a dissident military faction or the PKI? Despite the contradictory evidence, Soeharto and Nasution moved quickly to blame the PKI and used the “September 30 affair” as the justification for the bloody suppression of the communists and their supporters.

The PKI could muster very little resistance, despite the army’s claims that it had been preparing an armed uprising. In just five months, hundreds of thousands were slaughtered. The US and Australia came out strongly behind Soeharto.


Just when the army first decided to exploit the “September 30 affair”, to purge the PKI, is outlined in a cable from Green to Washington five days after the generals’ murder. The cable, dated October 5, shows Green is still unsure of the evidence for the PKI’s role. He telegrams that the rebels probably included the air force, a key army division, and Colonel Untung but that the: inclusion of Sukarno and or PKI leadership not certain although there is considerable evidence that both probably involved in some way. But Green stresses: Whatever the background … army in control, and it has important instruments of power such as press, radio and TV. It also has a cause in murder of six top leaders if army chooses to use it and it has already begun to do so … Muslim groups and others (except communists and their stooges) are lined up behind army … PKI has suffered a serious setback for its endorsement of, and perhaps participation in, discredited Sept Movement … Army now has opportunity to move against PKI if it acts quickly … Momentum is now at peak with discovery of bodies of murdered army leaders. In short, it’s now or never …
Then he advises: Despite all its shortcomings, we believe odds are that army will act to pin blame for recent events on PKI and its allies. Much remains in doubt, but it seems almost certain that agony of ridding Indonesia of effects of Sukarno … has begun.

Green’s recommendations to Washington were: Avoid overt involvement as power struggle unfolds … However, indicate clearly to key people in army such as Nasution and Soeharto our desire to be of assistance where we can … Maintain and if possible extend our contact with military, and: Spread the story of PKI’s guilt, treachery and brutality (this priority effort is perhaps most-needed immediate assistance we can give army if we can find way to do it without identifying it as solely or largely US effort).
The next day the embassy’s Indonesian Working Group, made up of diplomats and CIA officers, sent an optimistic report to Washington: The army appears now to have determined to move vigorously against the PKI … Chief of the Jakarta PKI Committee and former head of SOBSI (PKI-led labour federation) was arrested by the army along with several members of Pemuda Rakjat and Gerwani (respectively, PKI youth and women’s auxiliaries) and an undetermined number of lesser PKI officials. There is less reliable information that firing squads are being formed to execute captured PKI members.
But a day later Green warned Washington he was worried that: Extent army determination to stand up to Sukarno still not (repeat) not clear. However, he informed them: Army has begun extensive sweeps in Jakarta lower-class suburbs to round up communist para-military elements active in Sept 30 violence. He also had news that Muslim and Christian newspapers had began publishing anti-PKI stories: Joining anti-communist campaign begun by the two army dailies; and that a pro-army youth group in Medan, the IP-KI: Began destroying PKI property in late afternoon of Oct 5 and PKI had gone into hiding there. He also stated the embassy had received reports: That PKI in recent days slaughtered 90 Muslims in Padang.

By October 8, Green cabled Washington optimistically: Communists are now on the run for the first time in many years in Indonesia. The most encouraging developments, he reported, were: … PKI organisational apparatus has been disrupted and party documents dispersed. This capped today with burning of PKI headquarters in Jakarta. At the same time, Green reported, the US defence attache, Colonel Willis Ethel, met a senior aide to General Nasution who informed him that the general: is calling shots which Soeharto is implementing [and] encouraging religious groups to take political action which army will support. Army meanwhile is staying in background politically. Contact indicated this political action will continue and, in fact, increase in next two or three days. By October 13, Green could report that the purge was going well: Anti-communists continue [to] make most of their present ascendancy. Today’s tally included closing of communist universities, banning of leftist student organisations and still more attacks on PKI premises. Formation of special military “investigating teams” provided further evidence of army determination to exploit to fullest September 30 affair … Youth groups sacked second PKI bookstore … [Youth] headquarters in Chinese section also hit. Youth painted fresh anti-PKI signs on city walls. Most promising new theme: banning of PKI means cheaper rice.

AROUND this time, the embassy was dealing not only with senior army officers but with key Muslim political leaders who were working with the army in the purges, as Green revealed in a cable to Washington on October 15: Army and Muslim sources have discussed with [embassy officers] strategy they hope army will follow. They hope army will proceed in step-by-step campaign not only against PKI but against whole communist/Sukarno clique. However, they believe that for tactical reasons army is trying to discredit and destroy PKI first while leaving other groups temporarily intact.

The same day, in a cable dealing with “anti-communist actions”, Green wrote that confidential sources reported that: Army has already executed 74 communists seized in connection with coup attempt, despite efforts by Subandrio to stop executions.

But Green wanted no let-up in the anti-communist campaign. In a cable to Washington which he asked to be forwarded to the US Information Agency, Green stressed the need to keep pushing anti-PKI propaganda: In all media, by implication as well as by repetition of bald facts, link this horror and tragedy with Peking and its brand of communism; associate diabolical murder and mutilation of the generals with similar methods used against village headmen in Vietnam. On Indo-language broadcasts show that the South Vietnamese are fighting this same kind of Gestapu terror.

Two days later, a State Department memo of conversation shows the US Assistant Secretary of State, McGeorge Bundy, met the head of Australia’s Foreign Affairs Department, Sir James Plimsoll, and Australia’s Ambassador, Keith Waller, in Washington to discuss Indonesia and the army’s strategy. Bundy informed the Australians: Army is aiming at [Subandrio] above all and that they want especially to clip the wings of his intelligence organisation … The next day, Green was back with news of a bloody anti-communist assault in the northern province of Sumatra, where an army-linked Muslim youth group was highly active: IP-KI youth arm Pemuda Pantjasila, which has spearheaded anti-communist attack in North Sumatra, may have set out to kill leadership of PKI youth organisation, Pemuda Rakjat. Several Pemuda Rakjat dead, reportedly found in Medan streets after weekend demonstrations … Army source intimated that attacks on North Sumatran PKI have army support and army’s ban on demonstrations simply designed to hide army’s role. … Separate … source states that military director of army-controlled Permina oil company has ordered the arrest, interrogation and execution of PKI leaders in Permina camp.

Muslims have begun attacking Chinese-communist elements in Medan and other North Sumatran cities. Merchandise burned, homes sacked and Chinese beaten. Consulate has noted many fires in Medan and Belawan Chinese districts. Muslims apparently not distinguishing between Chicom [Chinese communists] and Indonesian citizens.

By October 20, Green summed up the success so far of the anti-Communist Party campaign: Party has received major, though not necessarily mortal, blow to its image, considerable damage to its communications and command structures, and some damage to its organisational strength through arrest, harassment and, in some cases, execution of PKI cadres … Some thousands of PKI cadres have reportedly been arrested in Jakarta … several hundred of them have been executed. We know that … head of Jakarta PKI arrested and may have been executed …
But Green believed the campaign had not yet gone far enough: Thus far, however, basic PKI organisational potential would appear to be largely intact and capable of recovering quickly in a purely organisational sense if its status were recognised by the government and army attacks were stopped.

… Army repression of PKI will not be success unless it is willing to attack communism as such, including associations with China and other bloc countries and communist ideology … Army has nevertheless been working hard at destroying PKI and I, for one, have increasing respect for its determination and organisation in carrying out this crucial assignment.

That same day Green, in a separate cable sent to Washington, detailed what amounted to death squad killings by army-backed Muslim groups after a secret visit to the embassy by a Muslim Youth leader: … who has given accurate information over past several months. The leader told of: … army sweeps continuing in kampongs and other locations Jakarta area … Muslim youth “assistants” are accompanying troops. Source said “some” killings had resulted from these sweeps. MORE evidence of army links with organised gangs in the anti-PKI campaign came after another meeting between Colonel Ethel, and General Nasution’s senior aide, who told the American: Anti-PKI demonstrations and raids taking on more of an anti-Chinese line. Recently there have been raids against Chinese residents in [the outer provinces] Kalimantan and Atjeh [now spelt Aceh] … The forcible entry and search of Chinese Embassy commercial office in Tjikini was not done by the army but by those “who do this kind of thing for us”, Muslims and Ansor. (Ansor was the youth organisation of Indonesia’s most influential Muslim organisation, NU.)

By October 23, however, the US Embassy was again worried that the army was weakening in its drive. Green reported to Washington a meeting between his deputy and a Catholic youth leader close to Nasution’s headquarters, who claimed that communist youths had tried to attack his group with arms. The youth informant told the embassy his group: … had trained 100 men to handle weapons and army approved their possessing them but so far have been able to provide them with only five assorted rifles and pistols. The youth leader wanted the US to supply machineguns which, Green said, had been refused.
But four days later, Green was more encouraged after another meeting between Ethel and senior Indonesian army officers. Over golf, Green said, Ethel was told: We are soon likely to hear reports about executions, including executions of public figures on whose behalf Sukarno is likely to make pleas for leniency … Ethel’s contacts expressed the view the US: playing current situation about right, but that: Army would appreciate anything US could quietly do to help alert the Indonesian people to dangers of association with Communist China. They specifically mentioned psywar [psychological warfare] techniques. The embassy’s high-ranking intelligence links to the army were confirmed by a CIA cable to the White House the same day with information from the commander of the East Java Military reporting: he will begin a mass suppression and round-up of the PKI … Significantly, while the embassy was feeding propaganda about the PKI’s masterminding of the events of September 30, a secret CIA memo at the time admitted that: Elements of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) were involved, but the role of the party leadership remains obscure, and: Information is sketchy as to the involvement and reaction of communist leaders. A confidential CIA source had reported that: The party’s central committee decided to give Untung military support only after hearing his radio announcement on 1 October … Communist leaders believed the army was about to take action against the party …

On the critical question of who had given the order to kidnap and murder the generals, the CIA admitted: Precisely who instructed them … is not known. But the anti-PKI campaign by the army was now unstoppable and, on October 29, the State Department sent a cable marked “Action” to Jakarta, noting that Washington was developing its policy on Indonesia and wanted a military-run government. Washington said: Sooner or later … it will become increasingly clear to army leaders they are only force capable of creating order in Indonesia, and that they must take initiative to form a military or civilian-military provisional government, with or without Sukarno. It urged the embassy to convey this to the army: The next few days, weeks or months may offer unprecedented opportunities for us to begin to influence people and events … Small arms and equipment may be needed to deal with the PKI … As events develop, the army may find itself in major military campaign against PKI, and we must be ready for that contingency … We shall, of course, want to consult the British, Australians, and others as well. At this very time, the mass killings of PKI supporters was under way in earnest, causing even some senior Indonesian army officers to baulk, as Green reported on October 29: Army sources report All-Sumatra Commander Mokoginta wants to stop army-inspired violence against PKI but his subordinates continuing to incite attacks behind his back … Muslim fervour in Atjeh [province] has apparently put all but few PKI out of action. Atjehese has decapacitated [sic] PKI and placed their heads on stakes along road.
From Riau province, a US Embassy officer reported: Muslims with army consent have sacked communist premises in city and closed their buildings in countryside. Army has raided PKI leaders’ houses and informed Caltex management it plans on Oct 29 to arrest key leaders of communist oil workers’ union Perbum, which forms core of PKI structure that province. Oil fields, however, remain vulnerable to communist sabotage.

From East Kalimantan, the embassy reported: Muslim paper running stories that PKI youth set major fire which left 10,000 homeless and planned to poison city water supply … Impossible confirm reports of this nature but such rumours in themselves are source further violence. By November 4, just five weeks into the anti-communist campaign, Green had high praise for the army, reporting to Washington: Army is doing a first-class job here of moving against communists, and by all current indications is the emerging authority in Indonesia … In the immediate offing there is the problem of pacifying and establishing a firm control over communist redoubt areas, particularly in Central Java, and of combating PKI sabotage and terror. There is likely to be bloodshed involving Muslims and Christian youth groups, as well as military and others. Need for medical and other assistance likely to very real and urgent … Green ended this cable with an appeal that the US meet one of Soeharto’s senior officers, General Sukendro, who was on his way to Bangkok to ask the US to covertly supply the army with medical supplies, communications equipment and small arms for its campaign against the PKI.

THE next day, the US Ambassador in Bangkok, James Wilson, cabled Washington saying Sukendro had arrived in Thailand. Wilson wrote: There ensued a discussion of the covert arrangements to be made for the Indonesian Army’s ostensible purchase of the medicines … but, Wilson added: Sukendro specifically stated the Indonesian Army leadership does desire to pursue further in subsequent discussion here the possibility of covert limited provision of weapons and communications equipment. Wilson demanded clarification: … We necessarily need more explicit guidance as to how this matter is to be handled here. By now it was increasingly apparent that the army was using Muslim and Christian youth groups as death squads. On November 7, 1965, the American Consul in Surabaya, Ted Heavner, cabled Washington with information that: Army recently held meeting Malang with Muslim youth leaders and told them be ready face PKI and prepared ‘kill or be killed’. Heavner commented: Seems likely East Java Military Command with its shortage troops may be planning use Muslim manpower, if PKI starts getting out of hand. On the other hand army may be seeking to establish greater control over Muslims and reduce likelihood their provoking PKI in some military actions.

Five days later, Green reported confidential information from Jakarta’s police information chief that: almost all of top PKI leadership, politburo and central committee levels, had been seized by army, and further on the death squads, that: from 50 to 100 PKI members are being killed every night in East and Central Java by civilian anti-communist groups with blessing of army.
SOON after, on November 16, another cable from the American consul in Medan brutally illustrated that US officials were being informed of planned massacres: Two officers of Pemuda Pantjasila [the Muslim youth group] separately told consulate officers that their organisation intends kill every PKI member they can catch … He stated [they] will not (repeat) not hand over captured PKI to authorities until they are dead or near death … Similar statements made few days earlier by leader North Sumatra cultural arm of Pemuda Pantjasila.

The consul then noted that confidential sources: indicate that much indiscriminate killing is taking place … Sources have connected some of this violence with declaration “holy war” against PKI by local Muslim leaders … Attitude Pemuda Pantjasila leaders can only be described as bloodthirsty. While reports of wholesale killings may be greatly exaggerated, number and frequency such reports plus attitude of youth leaders suggests that something like real reign of terror against PKI is taking place. This terror is not (repeat) not discriminating very carefully between PKI leaders and ordinary PKI members with no ideological bond to the party. [Source] suggests that army itself is officially adopting extreme measures against PKI with plans to put many thousands in concentration camps. Days later, the consul sent a full report to Washington. With details of massacres, it included the propaganda and psychological warfare techniques being used by the army in conjunction with Muslim groups: In mid-October the army began a determined effort to wipe out the Communist Party on Sumatra. By November 1, this army-directed drive was rapidly cutting down communist and fellow traveller resistance, and by the end of the reporting period, army authorities were saying that the PKI no longer exists as an organisation on this island.

… PKI leaders are under arrest, in hiding, or dead. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of PKI cadre and activists are in jail or in makeshift detention areas.The attack on the PKI has included much violence. Spearheaded by extremist youth groups, particularly the Pemuda Pantjasila, PKI offices, businesses and homes have been burned. While no figures are available, it is clear that many PKI leaders and cadre have been killed outright.

The PKI, reported the consul, offered: no meaningful resistance. Nevertheless, he reported: In early November the attacks on the PKI took on an even more violent aspect; spearheaded by the Pemuda Pantjasila and often protected by the army, anti-communist gangs began to round up and beat known communist leaders and cadre. The beatings frequently resulted in fatalities … This violence is apparently now becoming even less discriminating … [Sources] paint a picture of widespread killings. In particular, [sources] suggest large numbers have died in what amounts to a wave of terror.

At the same time, Ambassador Green cabled from Jakarta that killings of PKI members were being sanctioned from the top: As to Central Java situation, fighting continues. RPKAD [the key paratrooper strike force] is not taking prisoners (I gather this means they are shooting PKI on sight).

This was followed by a blunt cable quoting confidential informants saying that: … Three separate Muslim youth sources informed us that all PKI officers and cadres in Djakarta and Bogor areas being killed after capture. This massacre justified as necessary to prevent third communist uprising. Green added that in Lampung province there was an “unconfirmed report” of kidnappings and assassination of Muslims and non-communist leaders, apparently by leftists as it was a province “harbouring strong communist sympathies”. But any communist response was minimal. Green cabled soon after that the PKI chairman was finally dead: Big news today was report of capture and execution of PKI chairman Aidit. He included information from the Foreign Ministry that: PKI prisoners in Java now total 34,000 … This most authoritative count of PKI arrests embassy has yet received. By the new year, just three months after the anti-PKI campaign began, the CIA reported: Nearly every member of the PKI politburo has been arrested; many have already been executed, including the three top party leaders. The party’s mass organisations have been paralysed and virtually put out of business … The slaughter of PKI members and sympathisers in North Sumatra, East and Central Java and Bali is continuing.

The scale of the mass slaughter, whipped up by the propaganda campaigns, finally began to register in the embassy by February and in a cable to Washington, Green’s deputy reported intelligence from a friendly power that: as a result of … calculations by his embassy as well as [confidential], a total of about 400,000 killed as a result of the Sept 30 affair had been agreed. But, the cable admitted, there could be many more dead.

For the US and its allies, the success of the army’s anti-PKI campaign was a triumph. The purge broke the power of Sukarno, who was forced to resign, and Soeharto’s military-backed regime took over.

A year later, US scholars were estimating that between 500,000 and a million Indonesians had died in the slaughter.
Sydney Morning Herald

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