FIFTY-SIX years ago, on Sept 30, one of the most widespread mass killings of the 20th century took place in Indonesia. Described by various names, including 1965 Indonesian Coup, Indonesian Communist Purge, Indonesian Politicide and Indonesian Genocide, numerous studies have focused on the causative factors and chain of events that led to this massacre of so many innocent lives.
While there is some disagreement on the role of some of the key stake players in this Indonesian tragedy, what is beyond dispute is the enormous final tally of casualties. Estimates of the people who died range from a general consensus figure of 500,000, arrived at by independent experts, though higher estimates of as many as two million casualties have been put forward.
In addition, as many as 600,000-750,000 people were imprisoned in the aftermath for periods of between one and 30 years. After a period of official silence and discouragement of public discussion on this blackest day in Indonesian history, Sept 30 has more recently become the subject of soul searching in the country, with victims and perpetrators coming together in search of explanations.
Many have done so, not so much to point fingers of blame but to arrive at the truth of how and why this horrific tragedy occurred. Although an Indonesian truth and reconciliation commission has yet to be established to investigate the causes and consequences of this calamitous episode in the nation’s history, and to arrive at lessons that can heal its scars, there has been an encouraging openness within Indonesia to discuss Sept 30.
Survivors organisations such as YPKP (the Foundation for Research into Victims of the 1965-66 Killings), founded by Pramoedya Anata Toer and independent research groups, including the Institut Sejarah Sosial Indonesia, have undertaken important studies and activities which have helped younger Indonesians to understand and put the past behind them.
Roles of the US, UK and Australia
It is not only the Indonesian government that needs to uncover the truth about Sept 30. Three nations – the United States, United Kingdom and Australia – recent signatories of the tripartite military pact Aukus to “maintain peace” in the Indo-Pacific region, have been identified as playing a key role in fomenting and abetting the mass killings.
It is important that the current political leaders and citizens of these countries be reminded of Sept 30, an international day of infamy, which may not have taken place without their encouragement and heinous contribution.
According to the International People’s Tribunal on 1965 Crimes against Humanity in Indonesia held in November 2015, and presided over by seven international judges, the massacres “intended to annihilate a section of the population and could be categorised as genocide”.
The tribunal report also highlighted other well-founded allegations, which included enslavement in labour camps, ruthless torture, systematic sexual violence and forced disappearances. Chief judge Zak Yacoob stated that “the United States of America, the United Kingdom and Australia were all complicit to differing degrees in the commission of these crimes against humanity”.
The judges noted that the US supported the Indonesian military “knowing well that they were embarked upon a programme of mass killings”. This backing included providing lists of alleged communist party officials to the Indonesian security forces with a “strong presumption that these would facilitate the arrest and/or the execution of those that were named”.
The UK and Australia also played a supporting role to the US in several ways, including through the repetition of false propaganda from the Indonesian Army, even after it became “abundantly clear that
killings and other crimes against humanity were taking place”.
Although Australia’s foreign affairs ministry rejected the tribunal’s conclusion and denied that the country was in any way complicit in the killings, recent studies have shown that the Australian government played a larger role than is commonly known or acknowledged.
In opening remarks to a conference to mark the 50th anniversary of Sept 30 held at the Australian National University in 2016, Gareth Evans, Prof Emeritus of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based independent global conflict prevention and resolution organisation, noted that although the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) itself had described the killings “(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 a 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.”
Lifting the veil in Australia
During the conference, the veil on the Australian role was partially lifted by the contribution of postgraduate student Marlene Millott. In a reflective post based on her Master’s work in journalism and international relations that appeared in the Australian Institute of International Affairs, she wrote: “Following the events of Sept 30, Western nations solidified their support for the Indonesian Army in an effort to remove the PKI (Communist Party of Indonesia) from power and sideline Sukarno.
“The US and the UK, supported by other nations in the region including Australia, carried out clandestine operations which supported and encouraged the army-led massacres of alleged PKI.
“Documents from the National Archives of Australia show that the Australian Embassy and the External Affairs Department were closely aligned with the Indonesian army, offered support for their activities in overthrowing Sukarno and eliminating the PKI, and used Radio Australia to broadcast army propaganda in Indonesia that contributed to anti-Communist hysteria. Cables show that the Australian Embassy was aware that Communists were being rounded up and killed from early October 1965. The Australian Ambassador to Indonesia Keith Shann ‘personally witnessed’ around 250 prisoners being taken away by the army, and noted that it was impossible to know the number of people killed and detained, but ‘it cannot be small’.
“The Australian Embassy and External Affairs Department made it clear they were satisfied with these events. In early October 1965, Ambassador Shann cabled the department saying that it was ‘now or never’, and that he ‘devoutly’ hope[d]’ that ‘the army [would] act firmly’ against the PKI. In mid-1966, Prime Minister Harold Holt expressed detached satisfaction with the pro-Western shift in Indonesian foreign and economic policy.
He casually told the crowd at the Australian-American Association in New York ‘with 500,000 to one million Communist sympathisers knocked off, I think it is safe to assume a reorientation has taken place’.”
Learning from history
It is still not too late for Australia, the US and UK to set the record straight; admit their complicity in what happened in Indonesia; and provide public access to the diplomatic, military and other communications leading to and after Sept 30, which can provide answers to the unanswered questions on this turning point in Indonesian and Southeast Asian history.
Lifting the veil is not only important for the West and other parts of the world to learn about the mistakes of the past, or in this instance, in the plain words of Evans: “... a case study in the politics of mass murder – what you can get away with when you characterise and demonise opponents in a particular way, achieving ends which are conceivably defensible by means which are morally atrocious.”
It can also be the means to ensure that Southeast Asians see more clearly the dark forces at work to influence and control their future.
Performative politics and demonising strategies
Today, as the Aukus nations preach their performative support for peace, freedom and human rights in the Indo-Pacific region, they have a long history of falsehoods, lies and bloodied hands to account for in Indonesia and elsewhere; as well as the true intentions of the new military pact to divulge.
Demonising the enemy, including through racial fear-mongering, especially through its dominance of the English as well as other European language mass media has been a key strategy of Western nations seeking to draw the countries of the world into their sphere of influence and onto their side of ideological wars waged against old and new enemies.
We in Asean should reject being used as proxies by any foreign nation seeking to make use of our region in the imposition of their hegemonic designs and opportunistic version of rights, wrongs and rules.
Dr Lim Teck Ghee’s Another Take is aimed at demystifying social orthodoxy.