Indonesian Communist Party

The Indonesian Communist Party (PKI, after its Indonesian initials) is the oldest Communist Party in Asia, founded in 1920 by a Dutch activist, Henk Sneevliet. In its earliest years it was a mixed-race organisation that brought together Dutch colonial settlers and Indonesians of various backgrounds. In 1926, defying the Comintern’s instructions, they launched a revolt among railway workers that the Dutch almost immediately suppressed and the party was driven underground, becoming insignificant for the next two decades.

It came out from the underground after WW2, but by 1948 came into dispute with nationalist army officers, who crushed it and killed their leader, Munawar Musso (who’d also been instrumental in the 1926 revolt) – this being known as the Madiun Affair.

They rebuilt themselves again after Madiun, pursuing an electoral strategy (indeed, they didn’t even have an armed wing in the 50s or 60s). In 1955 they scored 16% of the votes in national elections. Their membership grew too, from “a few thousand” in 1950 to 200,000 in 1955 to 1.5–2 million in 1960. They worked synergetically with the trade union movement, with both the PKI and the unions growing bigger and more influential with each other’s success. There were also a number of “fellow traveller” organisations, like GERWANI (the largest feminist organisation in the world in the early 1960s) and LEKRA (an artists’ organisation). Overall, there may have been about 20 million people within the orbit of the PKI in its heyday. They were well-known as a corruption-free organisation, in contrast to basically every other political group in Indonesia.

Some of the things the PKI did included mobilising peasants to enforce land redistribution laws, and organising education campaigns to, for example, teach literacy in the countryside. They also supported Sukarno, Indonesia’s then-leader, in his policies of nationalisation. They made themselves a number of enemies – landowners, business owners, Islamists – at a time when far right-wing military officers were also gaining power by being the main beneficiaries of the nationalisations.

The PKI was effectively destroyed in the 1965 coup in Indonesia. Brigadier-General Suharto – who ended up as dictator once the post-coup chaos had all shaken out – blamed the PKI for instigating the coup, and launched a campaign of mass slaughter. Not only were members of the PKI murdered, but also trade unionists, members of “fellow traveller” organisations like LEKRA and GERWANI (there was particularly heavy gender-based violence against feminists, who were accused of being “prostitutes”), and Balinese people. Once Suharto had successfully seized power, he established a regime called the “New Order”, under which Indonesia’s population was heavily repressed and propagandised at. The PKI was painted as the “big bad” which sought to destroy Indonesia, and against which all the repression was justified.

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