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1965, Jakarta: a Year of Living Dangerously

09 Sep 2015

Geoffrey Miller was posted to the Jakarta Embassy on 1 October 1965, when six army generals were murdered by the “30th September Movement”. The Movement announced the setting up of a “Revolutionary Council” to run the nation before General Suharto successfully moved to suppress it. Ahead of an AIIA and ANU event on the abortive coup, Geoffrey Miller reflects on that day and the days that followed…

There are many versions of what occurred that day, but the basic fact is what had happened the night before: armed men, later believed to have been drawn from one battalion of Jakarta Regional Command troops whose commander, Col Latief, supported the Movement, and one battalion of the Palace Guard, had gone to the homes of seven Army Generals, saying that the Generals had been summoned to the Palace and should accompany them.  Three Generals, including the Army Commander, General Yani, resisted but were killed on the spot.  Others were taken to the Movement’s headquarters near Halim Air Base, south of the city.  General Nasution, the Minister for Defence and Security and the most senior and best-known military figure was warned by his aide-de-camp (ADC) and escaped by climbing over the fence into the garden of his neighbour, the Iraqi Ambassador. His ADC was taken by the attackers, and his young daughter was hit by gunfire and later died.  The three Generals and Nasution’s ADC taken to Halim were later killed there and their bodies thrown down a well, “Lubang Buaja”, or Crocodile Hole.  At Lubang Buaja there were numbers of armed Partai Komunis Indonesia-affiliated ( Indonesian Communist Party, or PKI) youth, Pemuda Rakjat and Gerwani, who had been receiving military training at Halim from Air Force personnel.

What of the two main characters in the ensuing political drama?  It’s of course very hard to reconstruct what anyone was thinking at a crucial moment like this, but it is possible at least to have some idea what they did.  Sukarno, acting on whatever mixture of information and misinformation, went to Halim Air base on the morning of October 1st, instead of going to the Palace.  Various accounts have it that after having been informed about what had been going on he was particularly anxious to know what had happened to Nasution, and eventually learned that he had escaped.  At Halim he met senior figures associated with the “Movement”, including its nominal leader Untung,  Air Force Commander Omar Dhani – who later issued a statement supporting the Movement on behalf of the Air Force – and  the most senior Army officer involved, Brigadier General Supardjo, who had left his post in Borneo to be present. Sukarno reportedly told Supardjo that there should be no further violence.

It later emerged that the PKI Secretary-General, Aidit, was also at Halim, although it seems that he was in a different building from Sukarno and the leaders of the abortive Movement, with communication being carried out by intermediaries.

Meanwhile, Suharto, at his KOSTRAD Strategic Command Headquarters in Merdeka Square, was taking action to squash the Movement. According to various accounts, he had concluded from its various announcements and decisions that it was not acting to protect the President but was counter-revolutionary: that it was an attempt to seize power, that the PKI was probably behind it, and that it should be put down. In determining to act he was not only acting as Strategic Reserve Commander but as the Army’s senior operational commander in the absence of Yani.

Using this authority, and the fact that apparently no arrangements had been made to supply or even feed the troops occupying Merdeka Square, by the end of the day Suharto was able to restore order in the centre of the city and resume control of the Radio and Telecom premises. The two battalions were persuaded to leave the Square without a shot being fired.

During the day there ensued the first in a protracted series of battles of will between Sukarno and Suharto, with messages and messengers exchanged between their respective locations.  The upshot was that Suharto defied Sukarno’s instruction that another General, Pranoto (an old rival of Suharto’s) should take over command of the Army. Suharto said that he had taken command and would launch an attack on Halim, using the army’s Para-Komando troops with whom he had made contact during the day.  At this news the principals at Halim – Sukarno, Omar Dhani, Aidit, Supardjo and Untung – decided to leave and went to various destinations.  The RPKAD forces which approached Halim the next morning encountered almost no resistance.  The Movement was over almost before it began (although not before the PKI’s “People’s Daily” had supported it in an editorial of 2nd October).

So what had it all been about?

The Indonesian Government case, with which I basically agree, is that the PKI did it. Spooked by Sukarno’s collapse in early August (and possibly told by Chinese doctors who accompanied Aidit home after a visit to China that Sukarno’s health was worse than it was), PKI leaders decided that they had to alter the balance of power between themselves and the Army while Sukarno was on the scene to cloak it with his mantle as Great Leader of the Revolution. The fact was that while the party had a huge mass base – more than 3 million members and many more in affiliated organisations – it had no armed unit: hence the campaigns for a Fifth Armed Force and changing the  Armed Forces command structure to conform to the NASAKOM (from the Indonesian words for nationalism, religion and communism) doctrine.  But these were getting nowhere.  And despite Sukarno’s favour, the party had not succeeded in bringing into being a NASAKOM Cabinet; its position in regard to State and Government institutions, as opposed to mass support and institutions, was not strong.

So according to this view, perhaps, in August the party leadership decided to call in its chips in terms of the members of the Armed Forces it had been cultivating over the years, in order to stage a deniable action which would result in “cutting off the head” of the Army, in the shape of Nasution, Yani and their close associates.

In fact even Sukarno himself in the end endorsed the idea that a small group at the top of the PKI was behind the coup.  In June 1966, at a special session of the Provisional People’s Consultative Council, the MPRS, Sukarno was called upon to account for the 30th September Movement.  He attempted to do this in an address known as Nawaksara.  Despite his sustained efforts to save the PKI as a whole, he blamed what happened on “a deviation of the leadership of the PKI”, together with, as could be expected, “the machinations of neo-colonialist forces, and the criminal conspiracies of certain individuals”.

Sukarno had become increasingly insistent that Indonesia must advance to the “Socialist stage” of the revolution, although even the PKI had doubts about Indonesian society’s readiness for it. He was probably increasingly aware of his age and the passage of time, even though he had in fact recovered well after his collapse of August 4th. And in his grand design he was increasingly coming up against the opposition of the Army leadership, despite their lip-service to his rhetoric.

So if he was aware of what was going to happen – and his presence at Halim alone makes that seem likely – why didn’t he support it in a whole-hearted manner? One factor was his temperament, because on various occasions during the struggle for independence, involving both the Japanese and the Dutch, he had failed to show decisive resolve. And it is known that he went to great lengths to discover what had happened to Nasution, eventually finding that he had been neither killed nor captured. He would have known that Nasution would never have accepted what had happened to his colleagues, and that he would be a formidable adversary.

Evidence suggesting Sukarno’s complicity can also be found in the extremely sketchy nature of the coup plotters’ preparations. The military back-up they had arranged for it – the two battalions in Merdeka Square – were neither particularly formidable militarily nor logistically supported in any way. In the end they were dispersed simply by awareness of the forces that Suharto, despite being caught completely by surprise, had been able to pull together in a single day. The only sensible rationale for the plotters’ actions was that they were confident that Sukarno would endorse their description of what had happened as “an internal Army affair”, and “a ripple in the flow of the revolution”, as he later described it, and call on the nation to unite and continue on despite it – in effect brushing the killings under the carpet, paving the way for a leftward shift in regard to things like a Nasakom Cabinet, and thus significantly strengthening the position of the PKI.

So what were the consequences of these dramatic political events?

First, they totally transformed Indonesia’s national direction. Suharto hadn’t had a particularly pro-Western orientation. He spoke neither English nor Dutch and, unlike many of his senior colleagues, he had never attended a training course in the US. But over time he took Indonesia into a much more pro-Western position, back into the UN, for example. Internally he turned to a group of very able US-trained economists to rehabilitate Indonesia’s ruined economy and bring it into productive relationships with the international financial institutions. Regionally he moved to end Indonesia’s confrontation with Malaysia, which the Army had never really believed in. After some years Indonesia took up what could be described as its natural role as the largest and leading country in South East Asia, and in ASEAN. In the early ‘90s, when I did some official travelling in the region, I found that all other South East Asian countries regarded their relations with Indonesia as very satisfactory.

For China, to which the PKI had transferred its allegiance and which some believe instigated Aidit’s actions, the party’s destruction, and the subsequent severing of diplomatic relations between Indonesia and China, were of course serious setbacks.

For Australia, the end of the prospect of our great neighbour becoming a communist state was first and foremost a great relief. The mid-‘60s in Asia were dominated by the war in Vietnam, and the prospect of Allied efforts there being outflanked by domestic developments in Indonesia had been a serious concern.

The great blemish on his government, and the New Order, was of course the anti-PKI campaign, which began in late October ‘65 and lasted for varying periods in different parts of the country.  For most of that time foreign Embassy staffs were banned from travel outside Jakarta, so it was only slowly, and in dribs and drabs, that we realised what was going on, and something of its scale.

What was going on was the killing of probably hundreds of thousands of PKI members or sympathisers – or of people wrongly accused of being so – and the arrest and later exile or imprisonment of many others. Subsequently a “listing” process limited the prospects of family members of those found to have PKI affiliations.

How this came to happen may never be fully known. It seems that some of it was actually carried out by the military; some by anti-communist or religious vigilantes; some by people, villagers for example, taking advantage of the climate to settle old and un-related scores. But however it came about it was terrible, with retribution falling on people who clearly had no knowledge of or part in the attempted coup that was its cause.

Why did it happen?

One factor no doubt was the shocking nature of its immediate cause, involving as it did a direct attack on the Army, killing its leaders. Sarwo Edhie, who led the RPKAD in its anti-PKI campaign in Central Java, had been a friend and loyal subordinate of General Yani for more than two decades. Another was the intensely political and ideological nature of the atmosphere Sukarno had created, and the menace others felt from the ways in which the PKI took advantage of that. The ruined economy and the hardships felt in everyday life no doubt also accentuated tensions and lowered tolerance.

Another factor was history. Hostilities between the Army and the PKI dated back to the ‘40s. In 1949 in Jogjakarta, in the aftermath of Madiun and only 16 years earlier, Suharto himself had been tasked with arresting PKI remnants.  While the party under Aidit had made great advances since then essentially using usual legal channels, the past had not been forgotten. Nasution’s call for the perpetrators of the murders to be rooted out was a signal acted upon by military and civilians alike.

The retribution was clearly terrible. Set against it must be the great improvements made by the Suharto regime in the lives of most Indonesians, and the developments that later led to the transformation of Indonesia into a prosperous and lively democracy. It was a privilege to be present for part – a most dramatic part – of these historic events.

Geoffrey Miller AO is a Fellow of the Institute, and a former president of AIIA NSW and National Vice-President. He is a former Australian diplomat and government official, having served in the Departments of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and in the Office of National Assessments, of which he was director-general. He was posted in Jakarta at the time of the events discussed. Geoffrey Miller is speaking at the AIIA and ANU event 1965 and the Indonesian Coup: Fifty Years On on 17 September. This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence.