As Indonesia commemorates 20 years since the fall of the New Order military dictatorship, the foundation myth of the regime (and, indeed, the post-New Order state as well) remains stubbornly in place.
According to official state narratives, the military was forced to step in to save the nation from an abortive communist coup during the early hours of 1 October 1965. The military and sources from the Foreign Ministry say that the military acted to bring an end to a “spontaneous” uprising by “the people”— an “explosion” of “communal clashes resulting in bloodbaths” throughout the country—as ordinary Indonesians rose up in anger against their communist neighbours.
These events, described privately by the CIA as “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century”, are known collectively in Indonesia as “G30S/PKI” – a name that implies the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was responsible for the failed coup led by the 30 September Movement (G30S).
In fact, it was the military that implemented the coup on 1 October 1965. Planning for this began under Soekarno’s Guided Democracy as the military became engaged in a struggle for the Indonesian state with the PKI.
It is now possible to explain how Soeharto used existing chains of command to bring the military to power. My book, The Army and the Indonesian Genocide: Mechanics of Mass Murder, (link is external) shows how the military initiated and implemented the 1965-66 mass killings. This article focuses on the mechanics of the military’s coup.
Dreaming of a coup
In 1965, the Indonesian military was dreaming of a coup. In this ambition it found a key ally in the United States government. After a failed US-backed attempt to break Sumatra off from the rest of Indonesia in the late 1950s, the military and the United States found common ground in anti-communism.
The newly reunited military leadership received training and funding from the US, which hoped that the military might become a “state within a state” (link is external) capable of overthrowing President Soekarno, who made no secret of his Marxist sympathies.
Initially, the military leadership had intended to wait for Soekarno to “step off stage” before making its move. But the military’s plans were pushed forward in August 1965 by fears that Soekarno and the PKI were using the Ganyang Malaysia (“Crush Malaysia”) campaign to weaken the military’s monopoly of armed force.
Before examining how the military came to power, however, it is important to understand the structures it had at its disposal by the eve of 1 October 1965.
Soekarno, as supreme commander of the Armed Forces, had formal control over the armed forces. Directly under him, Commander of the Armed Forces (Pangad) General Ahmad Yani (link is external) had practical control.
Since the time of the national revolution (1945-49), the military has been organised along a territorial warfare structure. An internal command, known as the Kodam, still parallels civilian government down to the village level. In 1965, Yani had control over this Kodam command structure.
He also had control over a number of special command structures, including the Kostrad strategic command, led by Major General Soeharto, and the RPKAD Special Forces, controlled by Colonel Sarwo Edhie Wibowo. (link is external)
In addition, Yani was chief of staff of the Supreme Operations Command (KOTI). KOTI coordinated the military’s involvement in the Ganyang Malaysia campaign.
In October 1964, the Mandala Vigilance Command (Kolaga) was established under the KOTI chain of command in Sumatra and Kalimantan to facilitate the Ganyang Malaysia campaign at the local level. The commander of Kolaga was Air Marshall Omar Dhani, (link is external) with Soeharto as his first deputy. Dhani would later become involved in the 30 September Movement and the KOTI and Kolaga commands were to become significant sites of internal conflict in the struggle for the Indonesian state.
In September 1964, legislation was passed granting KOTI the ability to internally declare martial law without first having to seek the permission of Soekarno. It is possible Soekarno intended to use the KOTI and Kolaga commands to help bring Indonesian communists to power. In addition to placing his ally, Dhani, as commander of Kolaga, Soekarno approved the mobilisation of 21 million volunteers in May 1964. This was ostensibly done to prepare for a potential conflict with Malaysia but the military feared the volunteers might be used to counteract its own power.
It is therefore not surprising that the military also took advantage of the new legislation. Sumatra’s Mandala I commander, the staunch anti-communist Lieutenant General Ahmad Mokoginta, used the Kolaga command to begin running dry-run tests (known as the Singgalang Operation) from March 1965, reportedly to assess the preparedness of the military command to mobilise the civilian population. The civilian militia groups trained during this period would later serve as shock troops for the military’s attack against the PKI.
This dangerous game of brinkmanship came to a head in August 1965, when Soekarno announced the establishment of a “fifth force”, or people’s army. (link is external) Although Soekarno claimed this force would only be used to advance his plans to mobilise civilians in support of the Ganyang Malaysia campaign, the military was deeply concerned. If it no longer had exclusive control over armed power in Indonesia, it appeared inevitable that the PKI would attempt to seize power.
The military no longer wished to wait for Soekarno to step off stage. Instead, it sought to induce a showdown as soon as possible, while it was still the most powerful armed force in the country.
The major concern of the military leadership was that it should not be seen as instigating a coup. Soekarno and the PKI were much too popular. Instead, as John Roosa has explained, the military hoped to encourage a “pretext” event that could be used by the military to portray its own actions as defensive. The actions of the 30 September Movement – which kidnapped and murdered six key members of the military leadership, including Yani, during the early hours of 1 October – provided just such a pretext.
It is my contention that the military’s subsequent actions contained elements of both pre-planning and improvisation: when Soeharto seized control of the Indonesian state on the morning of 1 October, he drew on the long-term planning of the military leadership under Yani, while adding his own twist.
The Indonesian military coup of 1 October 1965
When the 30 September Movement decapitated the military leadership on 1 October, it did not paralyse the national military command. Instead, Soeharto stepped in to fill the power vacuum left by Yani, actively ignoring Soekarno’s authority. Soeharto also retained his strategically vital position as commander of Kostrad, while RPKAD Commander Wibowo would prove himself as one of Soeharto’s most loyal deputies.
It is less well known that Soeharto also seized the position of KOTI commander. Interestingly, there is no indication that Soekarno’s ally Dhani attempted to mobilise KOTI, despite it formally being under his command on the critical morning of 1 October.
It was previously thought that Soeharto made only one public announcement on 1 October, when he declared the military leadership had “already managed to take control of the situation” and that both “the centre” and “the regions” were now under the control of the military leadership. It was not known what was meant by this order. It could not be shown that Soeharto had implemented a coup on 1 October, as the existing evidence only proved that he had acted in an insubordinate manner to Soekarno when he refused to step down from the position of army commander when ordered to do so.
It can now be revealed that Soeharto was much more active in consolidating his position and operating independently of Soekarno. New documentary evidence indicates Soeharto sent telegrams to regional military commanders on the morning of 1 October in his assumed position of Armed Forces commander, declaring that a coup – led by the 30 September Movement – had occurred in the capital. This order was then followed by an instruction sent from Sumatra’s Mandala I commander, Mokoginta, who declared that military commanders should “await further orders”.
These “further orders” would come at midnight that night, when Mokoginta announced over the radio that all orders issued by Soeharto should be “adhered to”, in direct contradiction to Soekarno, who had told Soeharto to step down. Mokoginta then ordered that “all members of the Armed Forces [must] resolutely and completely annihilate… down to the roots” all those alleged to have been involved in the 30 September Movement. This is the earliest known instance of such an instruction.
That Mokoginta issued this instruction in his position of Mandala I commander is significant. It is now known that the Sumatra regional command was activated on the morning of 1 October for the explicit purpose of facilitating the military’s annihilation campaign. Martial law was also enacted throughout Sumatra.
Meanwhile, in Jakarta, Kostrad and RPKAD were used to physically crush the 30 September Movement from 1 to 2 October, and on 3 October a state of war was declared there. Over the next few days, Soeharto demanded pledges of loyalty from military commanders throughout the country as the press was silenced and civilian leaders were paralysed.
This assumption of control over the armed wing of the Indonesian state and the subordination of civilian space to military control culminated in Soeharto’s Armed Forces Day speech on 5 October in Jakarta. As Soekarno dithered, Soeharto publicly established himself as the uncontested kingmaker of the moment. Soeharto did not declare a coup on 1 October because he did not need to.
Multiple chains of command
The killings began within days of the military seizing control of the Indonesian state. It is possible to see clear phases of violence. After first stating its intention to “annihilate” the 30 September Movement at midnight on 1 October, the military ordered civilians to participate in the military campaign from 4 October. It then established a “War Room” in Aceh on 14 October for the explicit purpose of facilitating the military’s annihilation campaign. At all times, the military’s actions were coordinated through an elaborate two-way system of communication stretching all the way down to the village level. The military used multiple chains of command to implement this campaign nationally.
The actions of the 30 September Movement split Indonesia into its four component territories: Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan and Eastern Indonesia. The military focused the first phase of its attack on Sumatra and Java, the nation’s two major economic and population centres, before extending its reach outwards. As the military began to move to implement its self-described “annihilation operation” (operasi penumpasan) against Indonesia’s communist group, a division of labour began to develop across the country.
In Sumatra, it made the most sense for the military leadership to make use of the KOTI, Kolaga and regional commands, under the Sumatra-wide leadership of Mokoginta. Internal US embassy files suggest Sumatra was being used as a “test case” by the military at this time because of the military’s ability to internally implement martial law. This meant that the military leadership was able to control not only the armed forces but also the civilian population in the area. Public killings began in the territory from 7 October, progressing to systematic mass killings from 14 October.
On Java and Bali, the military coordinated its attack through the Kostrad and RPKAD commands. These commands were, by nature, highly mobile. They were also able to operate independently of local Kodam commands, which, in Java at least, were considered to have been compromised by sympathy towards the 30 September Movement. The only place where local military commands came out in support of the 30 September Movement nationally was in Central Java (even though both Bali and North Sumatra had PKI-affiliated governors).
Kostrad was first used to put down the Movement in the capital before being sent to spearhead the military’s attack in Central Java from 18 October. In December, the RPKAD moved to Bali. The RPKAD commander was additionally tasked with coordinating a national network of civilian death squads.
In Kalimantan, the military had its own Mandala command under the KOTI and Kolaga commands, as it did in Sumatra. Yet, although the Mandala II command, under Major General Maraden Panggabean, had the same operational potential as Mandala I, it does not appear that the military’s annihilation campaign began in that territory until October 1967. Similarly, the military’s annihilation campaign in Eastern Indonesia did not begin until December 1965 (link is external).
The reason for this delayed start appears to be the diminished strategic importance of these areas to the central government. Both Sumatra and Java were key population and economic centres, while Bali, a known PKI hotspot, became the priority of the military’s second-wave attack. As the military’s control expanded, so too did the scale of the killings.
An attempt was made in late 1965 to centralise the military’s annihilation campaign. Soeharto established the Operations Command to Restore Security and Order (Kopkamtib) on 6 December. Although this command has received much attention for its role in coordinating the military’s attack, it was, in fact, irrelevant to the early stages of the military’s annihilation campaign. The worst of the killings in Aceh, for example, where they first started, were over by the time the Kopkamtib was established in Sumatra.
That the national military leadership should choose to coordinate its coup and subsequent annihilation campaign through a network of semi-autonomous and territory-specific chains of command does not lessen the centralised nature of military coordination behind the genocide. Nor is such an approach unique to Indonesia. The Nazi Holocaust was similarly coordinated through multiple, territory-specific, chains of command. (link is external)
It was this level of coordination that allowed such clear national patterns to develop in the subsequent killings. The ultimate purpose of this violence was to consolidate the military’s seizure of state power.
It is now clear that Soeharto played a central coordinating role behind the military’s coup and subsequent annihilation campaign. The military did not reluctantly step in to save the nation from a coup on 1 October 1965. Instead, it actively worked to seize power for itself, using the actions of the 30 September Movement as the catalyst for implementing a long-term plan to implement its own coup.
In taking the lead on this important day, Soeharto not only reacted to the actions of the 30 September Movement, but also drew on the long-term planning of the national military leadership. The subsequent killings were used to terrorise the population and forestall any challenge to the new military regime.
The trauma of this period still haunts Indonesia to this day. Twenty years on from reformasi and 53 years since the New Order came to power, it is time to start speaking openly about the Indonesian military coup of 1965. To make a clean break with New Order propaganda, it is necessary to turn the military’s version of these events on its head. These events would, I propose, be better known as “G30S/Militer”.
Dr Jess Melvin’s book, The Army and the Indonesian Genocide: Mechanics of Mass Murder, is published by Routledge.
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