According to newly declassified documents posted on October 17, 2017 by the National Security Archive (NSA) at The George Washington University the U.S. government had detailed knowledge that the Indonesian Army was conducting a campaign of mass murder against the country’s Communist Party (PKI) starting in 1965.
The documents reveal not just the U.S. government’s “detailed knowledge” of the Indonesian Army’s mass killings of members of the Communist Party (PKI), but its “active support” of the slaughter.
The documents show that diplomats in the Jakarta Embassy kept a record of which PKI leaders were being executed, and that U.S. officials actively supported Indonesian Army efforts to destroy the country’s left-leaning labor movement.
The 39 documents made available on October 17, 2017 come from a collection of nearly 30,000 pages of files constituting much of the daily record of the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, from 1964-1968.
However, the cache does not include any CIA documents, which remain classified. Human Rights Watch has called for all remaining files to be unclassified.
The collection, much of it formerly classified, was processed by the National Declassification Center in response to growing public interest in the remaining U.S. documents concerning the mass killings of 1965-1966.
American and Indonesian human rights and freedom of information activists, filmmakers, as well as a group of U.S. Senators led by Tom Udall (D-NM), had called for the materials to be made public.
The documents concern one of the most important and turbulent chapters in Indonesian history and U.S.-Indonesian relations, which witnessed the gradual collapse of ties between Jakarta and Washington, a low-level war with Britain over the formation of Malaysia, rising tension between the Indonesian Army and the Indonesian Communist Party, the growing radicalization of Indonesian President Sukarno, and the expansion of U.S. covert operations aimed at provoking a clash between the Army and PKI.
These tensions erupted in the aftermath of an attempted purge of the Army by the September 30th Movement – a group of military officers with the collaboration of a handful of PKI leaders.
After crushing the Movement, which had kidnapped and killed six high-ranking Army generals, the Indonesian Army and its paramilitary allies launched a campaign of annihilation against the PKI and its affiliated organizations, killing up to 500,000 alleged PKI supporters between October 1965 and March 1966, imprisoning up to a million more, and eventually ousting Sukarno and replacing him with General Suharto, who ruled Indonesia for the next 32 years before he himself was overthrown in May 1998.
According to a Yale University study, Suharto ordered an “absolutely essential cleaning out” of PKI’s followers and sympathizers “down to its very roots,” resulting in the killing of “50 to 100 PKI members” every night by civilian anti-communist groups with the army’s “blessing.”
The Australian embassy in Jakarta estimated that at one point there were “about 1,500 assassinations per day” and two confidential Western agencies agreed on “a total of about 400,000 killed.” However, a deputy U.S. ambassador thought that the full toll could be much higher.
It’s estimated by the NSA research group that up to 500,000 alleged PKI supporters were killed between October 1965 to March 1966, and up to a million more imprisoned. Suharto ruled Indonesia until 1997.
Of the 30,000 pages processed by the National Declassification Center (NDC), several hundred documents remain classified and are undergoing further review before their scheduled release in early 2018. While some of the documents in this collection were declassified and deposited at National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) or the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library in the late 1990s, many thousands of pages are being made available for the first time in more than 50 years.
A Bangkok, October 18, 2017 datelined report by The New York Times said:
It was an anti-Communist blood bath of at least half a million Indonesians. And American officials watched it happen without raising any public objections, at times even applauding the forces behind the killing, according to newly declassified State Department files that show diplomats meticulously documenting the purge in 1965-66.
The “U.S. Stood By as Indonesia Killed a Half-Million People, Papers Show” headlined report said:
In one of the documents, released on Tuesday, an American political affairs counselor describes how Indonesian officials dealt with prisons overflowing with suspected members of the Indonesian Communist Party, known by the acronym P.K.I.
Many provinces appear to be successfully meeting this problem by executing their P.K.I. prisoners, or by killing them before they are captured,” said the cable sent in 1965 from the American Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, to the State Department.
Another cable describes how clerics from an influential Muslim organization in Indonesia advised their flocks that atheist ‘P.K.I. members are classified as lowest order of infidel, the shedding of whose blood is comparable to killing a chicken.’
The level of detail in the cables helps fill out a picture, outlined by previous declassifications of documents, relating to how an anti-American leader in Indonesia was deposed by the military amid mass extrajudicial executions.
‘We knew about these things more generally, but it’s great to have this information in black and white so it’s not just based on oral interviews with victims,’ said John Roosa, an associate professor of history at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and author of a book on the events of 1965. ‘The U.S. was following what was happening very closely, and if it weren’t for its support, you could argue that the army would never have felt the confidence to take power.’
The report by Hannah Beech said:
The Indonesian slaughter took place at a time when Southeast Asia, still emerging from colonialism, was energized by socialist ideology.
The United States already had boots on the ground in Vietnam. Indonesia, then led by President Sukarno and home to one of the world’s largest Communist parties, was seen by Washington as the next domino that could fall.
When a group of hard-line generals blamed Communist Party operatives for a failed coup attempt in 1965, with China accused as a mastermind, Washington did little to challenge that narrative.
The United States government largely stayed silent as the death toll mounted at the hands of the Indonesian Army, paramilitaries and religious mobs. The extrajudicial killings spread beyond suspected Communists to target ethnic Chinese, students, union members and anyone who might have personal feuds with the hit men. Tens of thousands of others were thrown into tropical gulags.
Eventually, President Sukarno, with his anti-American talk and socialist sympathies, was replaced by Suharto, a general who held power for 32 years, instituting a policy he called the New Order to reinvigorate the economy through foreign aid and investment.
The report went on:
Another of the newly released cables shows how the American Embassy in Jakarta made clear that any aid from the United States was contingent on Sukarno’s being removed from power. Upon Suharto’s ascension in March 1966, that American aid began to flow.
In some of the cables, American diplomats exulted in the abrupt political transition, even as they noted the rising body count. One file refers to the political changes as a ‘fantastic switch’.
The Indonesian military, which still wields considerable power today, has tried to blame the orgy of violence on a public furious with the excesses of the Communist Party, absolving itself of direct culpability.
But the cables indicate how members of the American foreign service, at least, held the military directly responsible for some of the deaths. One cable alleges that Suharto gave the orders for certain mass executions.
On Wednesday, Pooja Jhunjhunwala, a State Department spokeswoman, said that the department was aware of the documents and noted that the United States government had declassified other documents related to America’s relations with Indonesia in the 1960s.
“‘The State Department supports the declassification of any relevant documents from the period which do not pose a national security risk,’ she said in a statement.
In 2015, Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico reintroduced a resolution in the Senate calling for Indonesia to face up to its traumatic history. He also held the United States to account for its “military and financial support” there, which included providing lists of possible leftist sympathizers to the Indonesian government and, as one cable released Tuesday showed, pushing to bury foreign news coverage of the killings.
The legacy of the massacre continues to divide Indonesia. For decades, under Suharto’s rule, Indonesians dared not call for justice. Even after he was deposed in 1998, there was little effort to set up an Indonesian form of a truth and reconciliation commission.
But in part after the filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer released a documentary in 2012 called “The Act of Killing,” chronicling the life of an unrepentant hit man in the purge, members of Indonesian society began to delve into its history.
Joko Widodo, the Indonesian president, has talked about the need to address past human rights violations.
Still, there are limits to how far Indonesia is willing to go. Nursyahbani Katjasungkana, a human rights lawyer, helped convene an international people’s tribunal on the killings at The Hague in 2015. (The court had no real authority beyond an airing of testimony, but it held the Indonesian government responsible for crimes against humanity and accused the United States, Britain and Australia of complicity.)
But in recent months, conservative groups have rekindled anti-Communist sensibilities in Indonesia. Efforts last month to organize screenings of Mr. Oppenheimer’s second documentary, ‘The Look of Silence,’ were restricted by a military directive. A mob gathered around a building where Ms. Katjasungkana and others were believed to be gathering to talk about the violence.
‘I just hope these new documents will encourage the Indonesian government to be more open and stop the state denial that the military was involved in these atrocities,’ she said. ‘Hopefully, America will also admit its involvement.’
Jusuf Wanandi is a Chinese-Indonesian who supported Suharto for decades, even if he grew disillusioned with his strongman-like leadership. Unlike many of Suharto’s former acolytes, Mr. Wanandi admits that the events of 1965-66 spiraled out of control.
Yet even he advised patience.
‘It is impossible to move forward because emotions are still raw,’ Mr. Wanandi said. ‘We need some more time.’
Other media reports said:
Among the documents particularly damning is the memorandum of a conversation between Second Secretary of the Embassy Robert Rich and Assistant to the Indonesian Attorney General Adnan Buyung Nasution in October 23, 1965. It’s one of the earliest mentions of the systematic killings to Washington. The telegram recounts the country’s cooperation to keep reports of the killings from the international press.
“The army had already executed many Communists but this fact must be very closely held” while they “continue to crack down on the Communists in order to break the back of the PKI power,” wrote Nasution.
In the memo, Nasution voices his “shock” at reports of the killings that had begun surfacing on Malaysian radio.
Rich reassured Nasution that the U.S. government is “fully aware of the sensitive nature of current events and was making every effort to avoid stimulating press speculation.”
A November 1965 telegram from the U.S. consulate in Surabaya to the U.S. embassy in Jakarta said: “We continue to receive reports [of] PKI being slaughtered by Ansor [a Muslim militia] [in] many areas [of] East Java. Killing of PKI continues in villages bordering Surabaya and wounded released from Surabaya refuse to return to their homes. According head East Java Railways, 5 stations closed because workers afraid to come to work since some of them have been murdered.”
The U.S. embassy in Jakarta sent a cable marked ‘Secret to Washington DC in November, 1965, which read: “Meanwhile, both in the provinces and Djakarta, repression of the PKI continued, with the main problem that of what to feed and where to house the prisoners. Many provinces appear to be successfully meeting this problem by executing their PKI prisoners, or by killing them before they are captured.”
Another ‘Secret’ cable to Washington, DC from Embassy First Secretary Mary Louise Trent in December 1965, notes the “striking Army success” of its efforts to accumulate power.
“[Anti-PKI violence] have now resulted in an estimated 100,000 PKI deaths. A reliable Balinese source informed the Embassy that PKI deaths on the island of Bali now total about 10,000 and include the parents and even distant relatives of crypto-Communist Governor Sutedja,” it read.
The files document a time when tensions between the Indonesian army and the Indonesian Communist Party boiled over, resulting in an almighty ‘purging’ that killed hundreds of thousands of its citizens.
After seizing power over the Indonesian military in September 1965, General Suharto launched an army-sponsored massacre of the very large, but mostly unarmed PKI membership, citing reasons of “political contamination.” He would eventually topple Indonesia’s first President Sukarno, in 1967.