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Revisiting the 1965 Indonesian Coup

Opening address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC FASS FAIIA to AIIA/ANU Southeast Asia Centre Conference to Mark 50th Anniversary of the 30 September Coup in Indonesia, Australian National University, Canberra, 17 September 2015

It is almost impossible to overstate the significance of the coup and counter-coup, and savage violence which followed it, in Indonesia fifty years ago – one of the three great turning points in Indonesian history, along with the Declaration of Independence in August 1945 and President Suharto’s resignation in May 1998.

In terms of domestic political and economic management, the counter-coup launched by Suharto marked the beginning of the end of the Sukarno regime and the birth of the New Order, about as seismic a shift to the right as it is possible to imagine. It was crucial not only to the establishment of a business and market-friendly economic environment, but the delegitimisation of Sukarno and his political legacy – seen by Suharto as a crucial precondition for the establishment of his own.

Throughout his 31 year rule, the story of the coup – or at least the New Order’s version of it, complete with semi-naked female guerrillas dancing around their communist comrades as the seven army officers were tortured, executed, and stuffed down a well near Halim Air Force Base – was the sustaining foundation.  The execution site became hallowed ground, with the erection of the Monumen Pancasila Sakti with its lurid bronze reliefs; and the government-sponsored four-hour long film about the kidnapping and killing of the army officers, The Treason of the September 30th Movement/PKI, was required national viewing every 30 September.    

In terms of regional geopolitics, Suharto’s elevation following the coup had very significant strategic consequences for the region during the height of the Cold War. With Suharto’s accession to power, Indonesia shifted almost overnight from being a strong voice for neutrality and anti-imperialism, actively courting the attention of the Soviet Union and Communist China, to becoming a more compliant partner with the US and its campaign against communist encroachment into South East Asia. 

That in turn resulted in a much more comfortable relationship with US allies, not least Australia, than would have been imaginable had Sukarno and his legacy been maintained. Both Liberal and Labor governments saw Suharto as a stabilising force in the region, and despite the running sore for so long of East Timor, and other impediments that arose from time to time, our relationship on security issues was at its best close and productive –  as manifested, for example, in my work with Ali Alatas on Cambodia and Paul Keating’s negotiation with Suharto of a far-reaching bilateral security treaty.

In terms of global geopolitics, the coup and its aftermath had less impact at the time, and for years afterward, than it should have, but that does not diminish its significance for us now as a case study in the politics of mass murder – what you can get away with when you characterize and demonise opponents in a particular way, achieving ends which are conceivably defensible by means which are morally atrocious.  We don’t know to this day just how many scores or hundreds of thousands members or sympathisers, or alleged supporters, of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) – painted as an atheist force of evil which had to be annihilated – were murdered in both hot and cold blood in the massacre that spread across the country from October 1965, but the most common estimates are more than 500,000.

Described at the time by the CIA itself (though not in any evident spirit of distaste) as “One of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century”, the Indonesian killings remain the only ones of anything like this scale that have not been the subject of minute international attention or any kind of truth-finding, let alone reconciliation, process. It is the least studied and least talked-about political genocide of the last century, and lifting the veil on it really is long overdue.

The stimulus for doing so may well prove to be the release three years ago of Joshua Oppenheimer’s extraordinary documentary film, The Act of Killing, which in meticulous and horrifying detail records a group of former death-squad leaders re-enacting the murders they themselves committed – not, at least initially, in any spirit of confession or remorse, but rather to portray themselves as the heroes and victors of a necessary national purging operation. Some commentators, including one or two in this room, have been unpersuaded of the accuracy of some of the depictions, or troubled by the bizarre and occasionally surreal character of the film-within-a-film structure adopted by the director, but I have to say that The Act of Killing is the most haunting, and scarifying, documentary I have ever seen, and I hope very much that, as is beginning to happen, it finds the audience and impact it needs to not only at the world’s film festivals but in Indonesia itself. 

It is the purpose of this conference, as I understand it, to focus on the coup and counter-coup rather than the massacre which followed it. While that’s perfectly understandable, given the uncertainty and controversy which still exist about the key coup events, I hope that efforts continue to be made both in Indonesia and internationally to fully document the scale of the violence and to draw appropriate lessons from it.

The immediate events of that fateful night of September 30-October 1 seem straightforward enough. In the early hours of the morning, soldiers led by the Commander of the President’s Palace Guard, Lt Col Untung Syamsuri, kidnapped six high ranking generals (including army commander  Lt GenAchmad Yani) from their homes in Jakarta and executed them, dumping the bodies down a well near Halim known as the Crocodile Hole: a lieutenant mistakenly captured at the home of a seventh general was also murdered.

Soldiers associated with the coup seized a national radio station and identified themselves as troops loyal to President Sukarno acting to protect him from a clique of right-winged generals,   calling themselves the “September 30th Movement”. Hundreds of the movement’s soldiers occupied Jakarta’s central square - or at least three sides of it, leaving unguarded, interestingly, the eastern side where the headquarters of KOSTRAD, the armed forces strategic reserve commanded by Maj Gen Suharto, was located.

In the absence of Yani, Maj Gen Suharto took command of the army during 1 October, and launched a counter-coup that evening. The September 30th Movement evaporated as quickly as it had appeared; all rebel troops fled, were captured or killed by the morning of 2 October, and the Movement did not last beyond 3 October in Central Java.  Suharto and his associates immediately blamed the PKI as the masterminds of the movement, spread horrific stories about the torture and mutilation of the executed officers, and initiated the army-led murders which rapidly followed.

What is much less straightforward to explain, and still much contested, is who was ultimately responsible. The five captured core leaders revealed little, with their show trials more about desperate refutations of charges  than explaining in detail how and why the Movement existed. All but one were convicted of treason and shot, and the remaining leader, Colonel Abdul Latief, declined throughout and after long years of imprisonment, to explain the Movement in detail, though his trial testimony contained the potentially explosive revelation that he had given Suharto prior warning of the coup. 

The various theories that have been advanced, and which will no doubt be exhaustively re-examined during this conference, include that:

  • The coup was indeed plotted by the PKI using junior military dupes to carry out the dirty work;
  • That the junior military officers acted on their own, to prevent a planned seizure of power  by a ‘Council of Generals’;
  • That the coup was a result of dissatisfaction by junior officers with lack of promotions, and the corruption and decadence of their superiors, with the PKI being brought in to divert attention from the embarrassing reality of the Army’s involvement;
  • That President Sukarno plotted the coup, using the commander of his own Palace Guard as the dupe;
  • That Suharto himself plotted the coup which enabled him to get rid of his superiors in the army and subsequently the PKI and Sukarno;
  • That Suharto did all this at the instigation and with the support of the US;
  • That the whole thing was planned by the British Foreign Office and MI6, aimed at liquidating Sukarno because of fears of the spread of his Konfrontasi policy.

As wildly implausible as some of these accounts may be, the reality is that there is simply no definitive, unchallenged analysis of what actually happened. Given the huge significance of the events for the future of Indonesia and the wider world, it is entirely appropriate that on the 50th anniversary there should be a re-focusing on the coup and counter-coup, and their political context. And as always with Asia Pacific matters, the ANU is the best possible institutional host for this discussion. 

Even if the outstanding line-up of speakers assembled here by Robert Cribb and his colleagues don’t succeed in definitively resolving the unanswered questions, the effort will be eminently worthwhile.  In declaring this conference open I wish you the most productive possible deliberations and look forward enormously, as will be many other scholars and policymakers in Indonesia and around the world,  to reading your proceedings.