1965 coup in Indonesia

Let’s begin by establishing the context, before the coup. In the late 1940s, Indonesia was a newly independent post-colonial state. The country’s leader was the charismatic “man of the people” Sukarno, who had been one of the leaders of the independence struggle. Indonesia’s foreign policy was essentially leftist – Sukarno wanted to nationalise industries and remove Indo­ne­sia from the domination of Western powers. However, the country’s politics was very polarised – on the Left you had organisations like the Indo­ne­sian Communist Party (the PKI) and many “fellow traveller” groups, which were very influential and did well in elections; and on the Right you had business groups and Islamists, the latter of which were being funded by the CIA to wage insurgencies in Sumatra and Sulawesi.

In 1957, Sukarno declared martial law, and in 1959 he introduced “Guided Democracy” – basically, no more elections. The PKI welcomed this, even though they had been doing very well in elections. The right-wing insurgency lasted through to 1961. Even after its defeat, the more business-oriented side of the Right were very angry about redistributions of wealth to the peasantry and ongoing nationalisations of industry. The USA continued to encourage the Right’s discontent, offering training to high-ranking military officers in order to cultivate them as allies of theirs.

The coup itself occurred in two stages.

The first stage, occurring on the night of 30 September 1965, was a bit of a confused effort, and unsuccessful. Second-tier military officers launched a coup effort against Indonesia’s generals. It seems that their goal was to kidnap them and force them to act in some way, but three of the generals were killed in the mayhem of that night. The second-tier officers took the captives and the corpses of the dead generals to an air force base, where they broadcast a radio message that they were engaged in a coup, but one in support of Sukarno. It’s unclear what happened after that, but evidently the coup didn’t go the way the plotters hoped, so they killed the still-living generals, threw them down a well, planted a banana tree on the well, and fled, along with Sukarno and Aidit (leader of the PKI).

Then the next day, Brigadier-General Suharto – who was not the top-ranking military officer left but apparently the one with the most initiative – took charge. He made a big media event out of uncovering the well with the generals’ corpses. He blamed the PKI for instigating the coup, and launched his own coup, together with a campaign of mass slaughter. Over the space of a year, between about 500,000 and one million Indonesians were murdered. The island of Bali was particularly hard-hit, with 8% of its population killed. A lot of the violence was heavily gendered, with the far-right militarists who emerged the beneficiaries of the coup blaming GERWANI (the world’s largest feminist organisation at the time, and a “fellow traveller” group to the PKI), accusing them of being “prostitutes” and spreading stories about them being equipped with razor blades to murder soldiers.

In the midst of the violence, in March 1966, Suharto was able to force Sukarno to cede all power to him (although he didn’t explicitly become Indonesia’s president until 1968). A firm authoritarian at heart, he established a new system he called the “New Order” – at least one historian believes that the borrowing of Nazi terminology was purposeful – to recreate Indonesia as he saw fit.

Under Suharto’s “New Order”, Indonesia’s population was heavily repressed and propagandised at, with the PKI being framed as the “big bad” which would have destroyed Indonesia, the fight against that justifying Suharto’s repression. The trade unions were destroyed. The US and its right-wing allies around the world were delighted, as were business owners who no longer had any impediments to ruthlessly exploiting Indonesia and its workforce.

There is disagreement among scholars as to how involved Western powers were in the coup. Certainly, they were gleeful that it had happened – Amer­i­can newspapers ran headlines like “INDONESIA: HOPE WHERE THERE HAD BEEN NONE” and Australian PM Harold Holt publicly relished the death of half a million leftists. It is thought that they had been encouraging right-wing military officers to move against the government, and certainly it’s known the US had offered training to some. However, the massacres seem to have been the initiative of the Indonesian military officers themselves.

Events in Indonesia also had repercussions in other countries caught in the middle of the Cold War. The far right in Cambodia, for example, took inspiration from what Suharto had achieved, and the Khmer Rouge became much more brutal and hardline as they thought they had to if they wanted to head off a Suharto-like threat. (Not that that justifies the atrocities the Khmer Rouge went on to commit.) Leftists in Vietnam shaped their war effort with the knowledge of what had happened in Indonesia (that is: became even more determined not to let the hard-right South Vietnamese government win, lest they be massacred like Indonesian leftists were). And the military officers who led the 1973 coup in Chile actually named their effort “Operation Jakarta” in honour of the Indonesian coup, and targeted the same groups of people – leftists, trade unionists, artists, feminists, marginalised ethnic minorities – that the Indonesian military had slaughtered in their purge.

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