The Overthrow of Sukarno, 1965-1966

Telah banyak kajian tentang tragedi 1965, baik oleh sejarawan Indonesia maupun asing. Kali ini, saya unggah tulisan Prof. Dr. Mary Somers Heidhues yang disampaikan dalam sebuah seminar di tahun 2001. Semoga smakin memperluas wawasan dan memperdalam pemahaman kita bersama. Selamat menikmati!

The Overthrow of Sukarno, 1965-1966

Prof. Dr. Mary Somers Heidhues

Radicalization in the early 1960s

In the wake of the abortive rebellion, the political scene in Indonesia was polarized. Throughout the first half of the 1960s, Indonesia drifted further into radicalism, a trend manifested by the growing assertiveness of the PKI and Sukarno’s anti-Western foreign policy stances. Indonesia pursued an aggressive foreign policy agenda at first by trying to win control over West Irian by small-scale military infiltration and PKI mass agitation, later by campaigning militarily against the creation of the Federation of Malaysia.

Aware that the PKI gained popular favor through the West Irian campaign and that the Indonesian armed forces were supplied with Soviet arms to build up strength, the new U.S. President Kennedy sent his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, to pressure the Netherlands to negotiate a peaceful settlement. In a general atmosphere of warmer ties with the Third World’s leading neutralists, whom the Kennedy administration sought to “compete for”, rather than to “threaten them into Soviet hands,”[1] Sukarno visited Washington in April 1961. Kennedy’s initiative led to a resolution of the West Irian issue through the United Nations in 1962 and provisional control of the region was passed over to Indonesia in May 1963.[2] With assistance of the International Monetary Fund, reforms to stabilize the Indonesian economy were also agreed upon. U.S.-Indonesian relations improved somewhat, but deteriorated again in late 1963 when Sukarno, the PKI and the Indonesian army were united in opposition against the British-sponsored creation of the Federation of Malaysia, which consisted of Malaya, Singapore, and the British colonies of North Borneo. Viewing the creation of Malaysia as a neocolonialist scheme, Indonesia launched its “crush Malaysia” campaign, a sable-rattling that also served the internal political needs of Sukarno, the PKI and the army. Sukarno and the PKI once again enhanced their stature as champions of a patriotic cause, whereas the military hoped to defer cuts in the military budget that had been proposed as part of the economic reforms. In the event, however, the army was unwilling to escalate the confrontation to an all-out war it could not possibly win.[3] Thus, General Suharto, who was deputy commander of the Malaysia campaign as well as commander of the Army Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad) at that time, secretly established contacts with British, Malaysian, and possibly American intelligence to explore possibilities to end the campaign as the army wanted its best troops on Java and Sumatra in order to keep the PKI in check. Before that, in January 1964, Robert F. Kennedy had arranged a Malaysia-Indonesia ceasefire, but Sukarno, who remained steadfastly opposed to Malaysia, reacted to U.S. support for the new federation by announcing that the U.S. could “go to hell” with its economic aid to Indonesia.[4]

Not only had the “crush Malaysia” campaign driven a wedge between Jakarta and the West, but tensions within Indonesia were also rising. According to the Kahins, “as Sukarno grew increasingly reliant on the PKI to offset army power, the Communists became more assured of his protection against the army, and consequently politically more assertive.”[5] In an attempt to break the deadlock of national consensus politics that had so far kept the PKI out of the civilian power structure, the PKI under the leadership of Aidit began to mount a radical offensive in late 1963, launching a ‘unilateral action’ campaign in the rural areas of Java, Bali and North Sumatra to carry out land reform, campaigning against ‘bureaucratic capitalists’ in the civil service and the army, and pressing Sukarno to endow the PKI with a military capacity by forming a ‘fifth force’ beyond the four existing armed forces in Indonesia.[6] Viewing these developments with concern, the CIA noted in an intelligence memorandum that the relationship between the Communists and Sukarno was one of “mutual exploitation” and that Sukarno was “well on his way to becoming a captive of the Communists.”[7]

The PKI appealed to the Indonesian masses with its efforts to improve their lot. It has been justly described as “the most modern of Indonesian organizations”[8], morally disciplined, dedicated and well-organized, with a vision shaped by a social revolutionary and egalitarian ethic that appealed to peasants, workers, petty traders, teachers and many intellectuals alike, many of whom knew little of communist ideology but were simply disillusioned with the fruits of independence. Still, many authors have argued that the PKI’s power was more apparent than real, since the Communists were regarded as outsiders by almost all members of the political elite and would have under no circumstance been allowed to make a bid for power.[9]

The U.S. and the Events Leading up to the 1965 ‘Coup’

Whatever the case, during 1964 and 1965 “a domestic explosion was building up.”[10] With the PKI’s apparent surge toward dominance, Sukarno’s shifts to the left and anti-Western provocations, a collapsing economy, manifold intrigues of both the PKI and the army, each with its schemes to infiltrate each other, and the conspiratorial atmosphere heightened in mid-1965 by reports about Sukarno’s imminent fall or death, Jakarta bubbled with rumors in a feverish period aptly described by Sukarno as the “Year of Living Dangerously.” As has been shown by Bunnell, the U.S. responded to this situation with “largely consistent restraint […] in contrast to the concurrent escalation of the American war in Vietnam.”[11] Regarding Sukarno, there were two schools of thought among U.S. policymakers, one of accommodation, shaped by Ambassador Jones, hoping that actively influencing Sukarno and showing a friendly attitude towards him would moderate his anti-Western behavior, and one of “low posture”, shaped by U.S. officials in Washington who gained predominance after Jones departed from Indonesia in May 1965, viewing any initiative to influence Sukarno as futile. On balance, both approaches were consistent in believing that channels of communication with the Indonesian army should be kept open to fortify it for a showdown with the PKI, but also that essentially Indonesia would have “to save itself.”[12]

As early as 1964 Jones had approached Nasution to explore possibilities of action by the army against the PKI. He asked Nasution “whether the army would take action against PKI if the party attempted exploit current economic difficulties through strikes, riots, etc. He [Nasution] said that PKI was still supporting Sukarno and would not go so far as to adopt tactics directed at Sukarno. If PKI did, however, Madiun [a 1948 purge of the Communists] would be mild compared with an army crackdown today.”[13] To help the army prepare for such a counterinsurgency, the U.S. since 1962 provided military training at the Indonesian Army Staff and Command School in Bandung (SESKOAD) and aided the army to develop its “civic-action” programs, which brought the organization of the army’s political infrastructure down to the village level. As Scott has pointed out, SESKOAD also trained the army officers in economics and administration, “and thus to operate virtually as a para-state.”[14] Ransom has suggested that the U.S. viewed education as an “arm of statecraft” and created a “modernizing elite” in Indonesia through the Ford Foundation, teaching the generals in counterinsurgency and how to run military-private enterprises, and educating economists and administrators at American top universities as part of a broader strategy which envisaged that key U.S.-trained Indonesians would eventually seize power “and put their pro-American lessons into practice.”[15]

This does not of course suffice as evidence to support Wertheim’s suggestion that the U.S. may have aided General Suharto in engineering the October 1 coup,[16] even though it is clear that the NSC approved a covert action program in March 1965 with its main thrust being designed “to exploit factionalism within the PKI itself, to emphasize traditional Indonesian distrust of Mainland China and to portray the PKI as an instrument of Red Chinese imperialism. Specific types of activity envisaged include covert liaison with and support to existing anti-Communist groups, particularly among the [less than 1 line of source text not declassified], black letter operations, media operations, including possibly black radio, and political action within existing Indonesian organizations and institutions.” One of the operational objectives of this covert action program was also to “identify and cultivate potential leaders within Indonesia for the purpose of ensuring an orderly non-Communist succession upon Sukarno’s death or removal from office.”[17] The body of CIA documents released to date does not, however, shed any light on the question how this program was implemented.

Several coup options were certainly discussed by U.S. policymakers in Washington and Jakarta by the beginning of 1965, when Indonesia’s military elite formed a “Council of Generals” to develop contingency plans for dealing with the mounting PKI threat. Ambassador Jones repeatedly claimed to have information from the inner circles of the army that it had “specific plans for a takeover of the government”[18], but in Washington skepticism prevailed as to how promising the prospects of an army takeover really were.[19] In any case, the U.S. was apparently not prepared to intervene directly. Anti-American sentiments in Indonesia were on the rise since Sukarno had encouraged a campaign by PKI unions to harass U.S. installations and enterprises in February, a crisis which led to the dispatch of presidential envoy Ellsworth Bunker to Indonesia in March to assess the situation. His report became a policy blueprint recommending that “a reduced, non-provocative presence was the best means available to the U.S.”[20] When the PKI called on Sukarno to break relations with the U.S. in a campaign accompanied by attacks on American diplomatic installations in August, the U.S. community in Jakarta was reduced from over 400 to only 35 officials. The U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, since July headed by the new Ambassador Marshall Green, was unable “to identify any feasible means –covert or overt- by which the United States could check the leftward drift of events.”[21]


U.S. Compliance with the Indonesian army after the ‘Coup’

However limited American power to influence, let alone manipulate, the events leading up to the “domestic explosion” of late 1965 seems to have been, the Americans were happy to assist the Suharto faction as soon as they realized that it was gaining the upper hand against Sukarno and the PKI. While acknowledging that events would “largely follow their own course” since they were “determined by basic forces far beyond our ability to control”, Ambassador Green recommended as soon as October 5, when it became apparent that the allegedly pro-Communist coup of September 30 had failed and a purge of the PKI in the countryside was beginning, to “spread the story of PKI’s guilt, treachery and brutality” and to assist the army “if we can find a way to do it without identifying it as solely or largely a U.S. effort.”[22]

Both the Johnson administration and the Indonesian army were cautious at first regarding American aid, fearing that if it were discovered or credibly charged by Sukarno or PKI at this critical stage, as it had been during the regional rebellion, its effects could be counterproductive.[23] As Suharto’s countercoup took shape, however, General Sukendro, a close aide to Suharto and Nasution, in November secretly procured communications equipment and small arms through the U.S. embassy in Thailand. The weapons were “to arm Moslem and nationalist youths in Central Java for use against the PKI,”[24] whereas the communications equipment was destined for the army leadership itself and the “tactical unit level in the Central Java area.”[25] “Special covert training at a safe site in use of the equipment” was also agreed upon.[26]

In mid-December Under-Secretary of State George Ball exclaimed that the “Indonesian military leaders’ campaign to destroy the PKI is moving fairly swiftly and smoothly,” and expressed his confidence that “these developments will move so rapidly that we may be confronted within weeks with a situation we have hoped for, i.e. a new government, emerging or in being, that we can begin to talk to and deal with.”[27] Thus the long-anticipated showdown between the army and PKI was finally taking place and the United States, preoccupied with the escalating war in Vietnam, clearly welcomed the emergence of the rightist military regime under General Suharto who was to court Western support as soon as he effectively eased Sukarno out of power in March 1966.

It should be noted that the U.S. policymakers were completely aware of the tragic social breakdown that was taking place in Indonesia and what the American supplies of arms and communications equipment, whatever modest these may have been, were being used for. In mid-November the U.S. consul in Medan described in a cable to the Department of State the “bloodthirsty” attitude of youth groups who were “cornering and beating to death” PKI members in North Sumatra, further stating that “something like a real reign of terror against PKI is taking place. This terror is not discriminating very carefully between PKI leaders and ordinary PKI members with no ideological bond to the party.”[28] Washington remained acquiescent.

Another issue that has been brought up recently is that U.S. officials systematically compiled lists of PKI cadres and passed them to the perpetrators. In the investigative reporting of Kathy Kadane, Robert J. Martens, a former member of the U.S. Jakarta Embassy’s political section who reportedly had compiled these lists, is quoted as saying somewhat boastfully: “It really was a big help to the army. They probably killed a lot of people, and I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that’s not all bad. There’s a time when you have to strike hard at a decisive moment.”[29] Martens later stressed that “the names I gave were based entirely –I repeat entirely- on the Indonesia Communist press and were available to everyone.”[30] In any case it is inappropriate to suggest that U.S. assistance to the Indonesian army was pivotal during the purge of PKI, since, as has been noted by Bunnell, “it is clear that indigenous Indonesian political and social forces, together with accidental factors, were the prime determinants of the watershed events of Indonesian politics in 1965.”[31] The provocative actions of the PKI, and of Sukarno himself, both of which have not been discussed thoroughly in this commentary, certainly contributed significantly to the tragedy. And yet, as noted in Bunnell’s words in the introductory remarks, the U.S. was “surely an important and witting accomplice.”

  1. Robert Komer, member of the National Security Council (NSC) staff, as quoted by McMahon (1999), 122. Some aspects of the Kennedy administration’s policy on Indonesia are discussed in Bunnell (1976).
  2. For a more extensive discussion of the settlement of the West Irian dispute, see Jones (1971), 202-214; Kahin and Kahin (1995), 221; McMahon (1999), 121-122; Ricklefs (1993), 269; Feith (1963), 351-354.
  3. See “Telegram From the Embassy in Indonesia to the Dept. of State: Djakarta, March 12, 1964”, in FRUS (2001), 37 (the numbers given in citations of FRUS hereafter refer to document numbers, not pages.)
  4. On the “crush Malaysia” campaign, see Mackie (1974), Kahin and Kahin (1995), 221-223; Ricklefs (1993), 272-276.
  5. Kahin and Kahin (1995), 223.
  6. In the event, Sukarno never allowed a ‘fifth force’ to be formed and turned down Chinese offers to arm this ‘people’s militia’, which has been seen as evidence that Sukarno had no genuine intention of helping the PKI to power “but sought only to pressure the army leadership”, Ricklefs (1993), 278-279.
  7. “Current Intelligence Memorandum: Washington, August 20, 1964”, in FRUS (2001), 62.
  8. Mortimer (1974), 407.
  9. It is beyond the scope of this commentary to provide an in-depth analysis of the PKI’s strengths and weaknesses, its particular Indonesian characteristics and its apparent or real prospects to take over power in Indonesia in the mid-1960s. See Mortimer (1974), Feith (1963), esp. 339-342, Ricklefs (1993), 274-278.
  10. Ricklefs (1993), 276. This commentary does not seek to explore the origins of this “domestic explosion”, but only American involvement in it. See the introductory remarks above, esp. footnote 7.
  11. Bunnell (1999), 30.
  12. Brands (1989), 793; Bunnell (1990), 45. The statement that “Indonesia will essentially have to save itself” is quoted from a report by U.S. special envoy Ellsworth Bunker who visited Indonesia in March 1965 to assess the prospects for future U.S.-Indonesian relations. For his report, see FRUS (2001), 121.
  13. “Telegram From the Embassy in Indonesia to the Dept. of State: Djakarta, March 19, 1964, in FRUS (2001), 40. Here and below, understood but omitted words in telegraphic communications have been inserted as to render them more readable. See also Brands (1989), 794.
  14. Scott (1985), 4 (Internet version).
  15. Ransom (1975), 3 (Internet version).
  16. See footnote 9.
  17. “Memorandum Prepared for the 303 Committee: Washington, February 23, 1965” in FRUS (2001), 110. The covert action program was approved by the 303 Committee of the NSC on March 4.
  18. Jones as quoted in Brands (1989), 798; see also “Editorial Note”, FRUS (2001), 120.
  19. Bunnell (1990), 36-37.
  20. Bunnell (1990), 45. See also footnote 91.
  21. Bunnell (1990), 52.
  22. “Telegram From the Embassy in Indonesia to the Dept. of State: Djakarta, October 5, 1965,” in FRUS (2001), 147. See also Brands (1989), 802. It seems likely that the CIA’s worldwide media assets helped “to spread the story of PKI’s guilt, treachery and brutality.” Groundless media fabrications of Communist women having castrated and tortured the generals killed in the abortive coup of September 30 helped to stir up resentment against PKI in Indonesia and abroad, see Scott (1985), 9 (Internet version).
  23. Brands (1989), 802-803.
  24. “Telegram From the Embassy in Thailand to the Dept. of State: Bangkok, November 5, 1965,” in FRUS (2001), 171. See also Bunnell (1990), 60. A detailed, shocking account of the bloodletting that “Moslem and nationalist youths” were concurrently carrying out on Java has been written by Rochiat (1985). For the most comprehensive collection of writings on the killings of presumed Communists see Cribb (1990).
  25. Telegram From the Embassy in Thailand to the Dept. of State: Bangkok, November 11, 1965,” in FRUS (2001), 173. Kathy Kadane has established in her investigative reporting that the communications equipment was secretly flown by the U.S. Air Force into Indonesia from Clark Field in the Philippines, Kadane (1997).
  26. “Memorandum Prepared for the 303 Committee: Washington, November 17, 1965,” in FRUS (2001), 175.
  27. “Telegram From the Dept. of State to the Embassy in Indonesia: Washington, December 16, 1965,” in FRUS (2001), 184.
  28. “Telegram From the Consulate in Medan to the Dept. of State: Medan, November 16, 1965”, in FRUS (2001), 174.
  29. Kadane (1990), 1 (Internet version).
  30. Martens as quoted in “Editorial Note,” in FRUS (2001), 185.
  31. Bunnell (1990), 60.

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