BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
The 1965 Indonesian coup: a flawed account
, August 30, 2014
PRETEXT FOR MASS MURDER:
The September 30th Movement and Suharto’s Coup d’Etat
by John Roosa
(University of Wisconsin Press)
Paperback: 344 pages
Reviewed by Patrick Morgan
In the 1960s, commentators loved rubbishing the domino theory, the notion that each South East Asian nation that toppled towards communism made it easier for others to fall.
Some were falling, but the failed 1965 communist coup in Indonesia was a turning point in post-war regional security.
Combined with the defeat of the communist insurgency in Malaya and the Philippines and the holding operation in Vietnam, it reversed the trend. It also inaugurated the regime of President Suharto, which brought decades of economic stability to Indonesia after the chaotic military adventurism of Sukarno’s last years. It was Australia’s greatest boon.
In the early 1960s, President Sukarno, declining in heath and political authority, was keeping himself in power by balancing the country’s two strongest and opposing forces, the army and the Indonesian Communist Party (the PKI), led by D.N. Aidit and backed by the Chinese communists.
Sukarno favoured the increasingly powerful and ambitious PKI, who gave all the signs of manoeuvring to lead a post-Sukarno Indonesia.
On the night of October 1, 1965, a group of dissident army officers — known as the September 30th Movement — murdered six top army generals, hoping Sukarno would replace them with others more favourable to the PKI. But the rebels bungled the operation, and by next day Generals Suharto and Nasution, who had escaped capture, led a counter-operation which soon terminated the attempted coup.
This event remains highly controversial, with a number of conflicting interpretations.
After the coup, a team of influential left-wing U.S. academics from Cornell University blamed the coup on the military, with little or no PKI involvement. This account has been accepted by much liberal media opinion ever since.
The opposite view, taken by the army, U.S. officials, and many analysts at the time, was that it was a joint dissent officer-communist coup designed to put the latter in charge. Why would the army kill its own six top generals if it was making a bid for power?
A third, more complex, interpretation argues that the PKI believed, rightly or wrongly, that the army was preparing a takeover of its own. Panicked by these rumours as well as by Sukarno’s decline, the PKI prematurely staged a partial takeover to pre-empt the army’s one.
In the aftermath, the army and many Indonesian Muslims, appalled by what they saw as alien communist and Chinese intrusions into their country, conducted purges which saw hundreds of thousands imprisoned and killed, another episode whose explanation remains controversial to this day.
A book written a few years ago by a Canadian academic, John Roosa, Pretext For Mass Murder: The September 30th Movement and Suharto’s Coup d’Etat in Indonesia, provides the best-documented account of the coup.
It is based on three new sources: a memoir by Brigadier General Supardjo, the highest-ranking officer involved in the attempted coup; interviews with surviving Communist Party officials and testimonies at their trials; and official documents from relevant U.S. agencies released in the 1990s.
Roosa concludes from the detailed evidence he has uncovered that the coup was jointly run by the PKI and some officers sympathetic to it. The communist leader Aidit had a decade beforehand set up a secretive Special Bureau of the party to inveigle military officers into its orbit.
In 1965 Aidit tasked the Bureau’s head, Sjam, with organising the coup through some of these officers. Sjam, acting under Aidit’s orders, thus became the key link man between the two groups. Aidit and Sjam’s roles were greater than the military conspirators: Supardjo wrote that the September 30th Movement was an “operation that was led directly by the party”.
His memoir shows that “the officers who participated in the [coup] movement were those who were willing to follow Sjam’s lead”. Aidit informally let his close PKI colleagues know what was happening. The Politburo of the party was informed, but the 80-member central committee of the PKI was not brought into the loop, probably because of the danger of leaks.
The newly released evidence from U.S. agencies shows that the army was not plotting a coup, as distinct from rumours that they were. The top generals knew President Sukarno was too popular with the masses for a sudden army takeover to succeed. There existed no mysterious and sinister Council of Generals plotting treachery, as the PKI believed in a mirror image of its own intentions. The military’s only plan was how to react if the communists attempted a putsch.
Roosa’s conclusion is a mixture of the second and third explanations. He discounts the Cornell University line which let the PKI off the hook, and praises the 1978 analysis by Professor Harold Crouch of the Australian National University, which documented dissident army officers plus PKI as the plotters, as “the most judicious and well founded analysis” hitherto available, except that Crouch gave a leading role to the dissident officers, not the PKI.
A recent biography of Monash University’s Professor Herb Feith reveals that he at first privately believed in the military plotter-PKI links, but later under strong pressure from his Cornell mentors publicly changed to their line exonerating the PKI.
Professor Justus Van der Kroef, who wrote the history of the PKI, published a series of articles in Quadrant and elsewhere in the later 1960s, which took the second line, blaming the PKI; he believed that the PKI, in a chaotic situation in which they were increasingly influential, was, as a Leninist organisation, naturally trying to seize power. Looking back we can see that Van der Kroef essentially got the story right, even though he did not have access to the detailed information Roosa now has.
Though overall his analysis is convincing, Roosa’s book involves some backsliding, as the whole Indonesian scenario goes against his own ingrained assumptions.
He believes the greatest tragedy in recent Indonesian history was the rise to power of the Suharto group. Like many American and Australian academics he can’t be seen backing U.S. policy or anti-communist regimes such as President Suharto’s, and at the same time he bends over backwards to see communist complicity in its best light.
He argues that because Aidit did not get official approval for the coup from the PKI’s Politburo and central committee, the Party cannot be held institutionally responsible. This is equivalent to arguing that Stalin’s many unilateral actions were not the fault of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Roosa pretends not to understand how power works in Communist Party organisations, where the party ruler is the unchallenged king who embodies the party’s mythos. What the leader says goes.
Roosa also wants to have a quibble over whether the September 30th Movement action was technically a coup, which he denies. The plotters had a two-stage plan — firstly to arrest the generals and replace them with ones sympathetic to the PKI, and then for the PKI to stage large rallies and demonstrations to form a mass “popular” movement to get themselves in the box seat as Sukarno declined.
But in fact the plotters went far beyond this plan — they killed the generals, then on the next day Sjam announced the “decommissioning” of Sukarno’s cabinet and the formation of revolutionary councils throughout the country, as Roosa shows. Roosa documents that Sjam “insisted the revolution would have to proceed without Bung Karno”. All this clearly amounts to a new form of government — in other words, a coup attempt.
One possibility not canvassed by Roosa, but which his evidence leads to, is that during the coup Aidit and Sjam double-crossed their military colleagues by killing the generals and announcing a change of government. This meant all the plotters had blood on their hands; there was no way back for them, as the military plotters were now committed to a revolutionary course far beyond their original intentions of a gradual, two-stage process.
Roosa blames Suharto for a coup by bizarrely subtitling his book “Suharto’s Coup d’Etat”, which goes against all the new evidence his own book presents. Noosa sees Suharto as the problem, and spends some time looking at the claim that Suharto manipulated the PKI from behind the scenes and rigged the coup to fail, but eventually dismisses this claim.
But he never investigates the possible complicity of Sukarno in the coup. Sukarno was close to the PKI, he met the plotters during the coup, and he never condemned the PKI’s action afterwards.
In his recent book, Wrestling With Asia: A Memoir, Frank Mount argues that the generals and their supporters provoked the communists into attempting a coup, which the generals were confident would fail, as it did.
Mount was an operative of B.A. Santamaria’s Movement in Asia. Santamaria and Mount were in close contact at the time with Father Josephus Beek, an Indonesian-based Jesuit who ran a circuit which kept watch on communist and Muslim extremists. The Beek circuit had links to Suharto’s intelligence officers, Ali Moertopo and Benni Moerdani, who are mentioned in Roosa’s book.
Beek warned Santamaria of the impending PKI coup, and Santamaria passed this information on to Australian intelligence sources.
The dramatic rise of the Chinese-backed Indonesian Communist Party in the 1960s was the biggest threat to our nation since the Japanese advance in the early 1940s. The failure of the 1965 communist coup in Indonesia was a crucial juncture point in our region’s recent history. It halted the communist push south, and so guaranteed the security of Australia and South East Asia in the foreseeable future.
Patrick Morgan edited two volumes of B.A. Santamaria’s papers, Your Most Obedient Servant: Selected Letters, 1938-1996 (2007) and Running the Show: Selected Documents, 1939-1996 (2008) and wrote Melbourne Before Mannix: Catholics in Public Life 1880-1920 (2012). He reviewed Frank Mount’s book, Wrestling With Asia: A Memoir, in News Weekly (September 1, 2012).