THE KILLING SEASON: A History of the Indonesian Massacres, 1965-66
by Geoffrey B. Robinson
Princeton University Press, New Jersey
Paperback: 456 pages
Reviewed by Paul Monk
Confronted, after 1945 (and even more from 1949–50) with a communist bloc in which large-scale terror and totalitarian rule had repeatedly been imposed on hundreds of millions of people, the Anglo-American powers in 1947 took measures to create a global strategic and intelligence alliance to buttress the post-World War II world against the threat of communist subversion and revolution.
Over the decades of the Cold War, beginning with the Berlin airlift in 1948, that alliance undertook many operations, overt and covert, to contain communism. Much of the history of those operations remains, to this day, shrouded in secrecy in classified files. This affects three categories of information: propaganda campaigns, political intervention campaigns and black operations involving regime change and the liquidation of left-wing personnel.
Of all black operations, the one that took place in Indonesia against President Sukarno and the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was the blackest. It remains highly classified even now. It was the blackest not only in the sense that it was conducted clandestinely, but in that it brought about a military coup in Indonesia and a brutal blood-letting in which at least half a million people were executed and another million incarcerated.
There can no longer be any significant doubt that the strategic calculation made in Washington, London, Canberra and also Bonn and Tokyo, in the early 1960s was that the PKI had become too powerful and could, especially with Sukarno at the helm, soon take power in the Indonesian archipelago
The events in question took place between 1957 and 1967, with the bloodletting concentrated in 1965-66. Geoffrey Robinson’s book is the most comprehensive study of these events so far. It breaks new ground and merits a close reading on several grounds. It is a forensic account of the scale and human consequences of the slaughter; though there has long been a broad consensus that 500,000 dead is a conservative estimate. It is a careful parsing of the various theories concerning what triggered this massive outbreak of violence. Robinson’s argument is compelling: the Wes-tern powers badly wanted to see the army destroy the PKI and actively urged its generals to find a pretext for doing so.
NO COMMUNIST PLOT
Contrary to official Indonesian and Western claims for decades afterwards, there was no attempted coup by the PKI. Rather, the PKI was very deliberately framed, caught flat-footed, its leadership executed and its constituencies massacred systematically and ruthlessly. There was no judicial process and there was a massive cover-up afterwards, under the Suharto regime and even since, of what had happened and of who exactly had coordinated the mass killing. In short, and disquietingly, the Suharto regime came to power through an extended, carefully planned and ruthlessly perpetrated seizure of power and physical elimination of its political rivals.
The third category (black ops), in which Robinson breaks new ground, however, is the most unsettling for those of us in the liberal democratic West. There was close clandestine coordination between the Western powers and the Indonesian generals around Suharto in encouraging these actions, carrying them out and keeping the matter camouflaged, both at the time and ever since. Robinson has been able to access cable traffic that implicates not only American diplomats and intelligence officers, but the British, German, Japanese, Malaysian, Australian and New Zealand governments in all this.
While most of Robinson’s book is taken up with details concerning what exactly happened in Indonesia, the details that ought be of greatest interest and concern to Australian readers have to do with the Western involvement in the whole dark and bloody affair. There can no longer be any significant doubt that the strategic calculation made in Washington, London, Canberra and also Bonn and Tokyo, in the early 1960s was that the PKI had become too powerful and could, especially with Sukarno at the helm, soon take power in the Indonesian archipelago. That, it was reasoned, had to be prevented at any cost. It was prevented. The cost was very high.
THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY
Many readers of News Weekly may be only vaguely familiar with these dramatic events, perhaps through Peter Weir’s prize-winning film, The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), based on Christopher Koch’s 1978 novel of the same name. Mel Gibson in his youth plays ABS journalist Guy Hamilton in Jakarta. Sigourney Weaver plays opposite him as Jill Bryan, an intelligence officer in the British Embassy. Linda Hunt plays Billy Kwan, the Tolstoyan idealist in Jakarta’s slums. It’s a fine and engaging piece of cinema – shot in the Philippines – but it is systematically misleading with regard to what actually happened.
The storyline in the film emphasises the PKI as a militant revolutionary, anti-Western force intent on overthrowing Sukarno, receiving a shipload of arms from Mao’s China and holding ready a death list that includes every European in Jakarta. Hamilton, fascinated by the drama, is a political naïf and sees only a clash between “the communists and the Muslims”, leaving the generals out of the picture. Bryant receives a coded message from Singapore (where the British Far East Command was then headquartered) revealing that a shipment of Chinese arms has left Shanghai bound for Indonesia. An oddly evaporative PKI uprising is instantly quashed and martial law declared as the two flee the country.
It all makes for good drama, but it is so adrift from the historical realities that watching it again (several times) in conjunction with a close reading of Robinson’s book was a disturbing experience. What actually happened was a strange sequence of events in which a small group of pro-Sukarno army officers, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Untung of the Presidential Guard, kidnapped and killed half a dozen top generals, claiming that they were intent on protecting Sukarno against the machinations of a “Council of Generals” backed by the CIA, which, they claimed, were planning to overthrow him.
A key general who was in just such cahoots and who was in command of the crack Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad) in Jakarta itself they did not kidnap or kill. He swiftly had the colonels arrested and orchestrated a systematic propaganda and liquidation campaign against the PKI, who were unarmed and caught defenceless against this assault.
None of these things is so much as hinted at in Weir’s film. The whole film scenario points the accusing finger at the PKI, even while portraying Hamilton’s staff, Kumar and Tiger Lily, both undercover PKI operatives, sympathetically. What did Koch, Weir and David Williamson, who collaborated with them, on the screenplay, think they were doing?
All this is so strange as to raise the most fundamental questions. The more so because the film credits include a vote of thanks to Richard Woolcott, then (1981–82) Australian Ambassador to the Philippines, and his son Peter Woolcott.
Richard Woolcott had been, in 1965-66, closely involved in the actual events from the Australian side and had played a direct role in feeding stories to the Australian media that aligned with Anglo-American propaganda and pro-Indonesian army coverage. It’s virtually impossible, in the light of the actual history, not to uncomfortably see Peter Weir’s film, presumably unintentionally, as part of that propaganda campaign.
A HIGH PRICE
Many of News Weekly’s readers will be aware that I spent several years in the intelligence service and that I have written in public for many years now about strategic and international affairs. Against that background, I find myself wrestling with the matter of strategic realism and Western, including Australian, policy towards Indonesia in the 1960s and thereafter.
That we should have wanted to keep Indonesia out of communist hands makes all the sense in the world. That the PKI was becoming very well organised and capable of taking political power in the 1960s seems clear. That we should have been part of an operation that gutted the PKI and led to the extra-judicial slaughter of at least half a million people nonetheless raises every kind of political, moral and geopolitical question.
Not long before he died, the former Australian Ambassador to Indonesia and sometime Director General of ASIS, Alan Taylor, said to me personally that he had joined the diplomatic service in 1968 or 1969 and would never forget the “enormous feeling of relief” in official Canberra “that this [the destruction of the PKI] had taken place”.
What is the difference between such a statement and some hard-line communist stating that the mass terror of 1918–21 or 1936–38 in the Soviet Union, or the liquidation of huge numbers of “counter-revolutionaries and bad elements” in Mao’s China between 1948 and 1952 were necessary and justifiable?
In July 1994, as the head of the Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO) China desk, I visited China. One evening while there I had dinner with Xue Fukang, a Chinese intelligence officer whom I had met previously in Canberra.
I asked him candidly what he thought of the mass terror carried out under Mao. He responded that revolutions trigger such things. But what about the CIA, he asked, “they’ve killed millions.”
His was a somewhat sweeping claim, but the killings in Indonesia in 1965-66 come closer than anything else in the Cold War to making his case. They were carried out by Suharto’s forces, but there is no question that the operation was desired, prompted, encouraged and cheered on by the Western alliance.
Read Robinson. His book is a moral and geopolitical education – at a time when we are once more concerned about China and what the future holds for Asia.
Paul Monk (www.paulmonk.com.au) did a PhD in International Relations at the ANU in the 1980s on American counter-insurgency strategy throughout the Cold War. He was head of the China desk at DIO in 1994-95. He is the author of 10 books, including Thunder from the Silent Zone: Rethinking China (2005) and Dictators and Dangerous Ideas (2018).