By George Loh
The 12th DMZ International Documentary Film Festival screened Director Fanny Chotimah’s debut film, “You and I”. It features the story of two elderly women, Kaminah and Ksdalini who have grown old since their ordeals following their jail term in 1965 (The film later won the Asian Perspective Award in the same Festival). The decision to feature a documentary outlining the effects of the 1965-1966 period, according to Fanny, was to educate the audience on the continued significance of this period to Indonesian history. Until Fanny’s expose on this issue, this controversial piece of history had been arguably blindsided amongst Indonesian media sources, despite the horrific death tolls and the curious rise of President Suharto, whose role throughout the period will be examined.
Kaminah and Ksdalini were the victims of a failed coup, also termed the “September 30 movement”, which occurred after leftist leaders and Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) youth members abducted and killed 6 out of 7 Indonesian generals en route to Halim Air Base. The junior officers argued that they did so to forestall a military coup planned for 5th October, but upon carrying out the killings, they proceeded to seize power in Jakarta in the name of a Revolutionary Council. The movement was very poorly planned, and was quickly stopped, according to official accounts of the story, by General Soeharto who assumed command of the military. Under Soeharto’s control, the soldiers attacked Halim Air Base, where the movement leaders were based. Meanwhile, President Sukarno moved from Halim to Bogor Palace. Soeharto’s swift response sent the coup leaders to flight early on 2nd October, and the coup attempt was over in less than two days. This led to a pogrom (mass riots targeted towards an ethnic/religious group) against the PKI, where mass roundups of PKI members and sympathisers took place. The two women featured in the film are falsely accused of their involvement with the Communists, and the documentary recounts how the sequence of events set in stone the overthrow of the Sukarno regime and the eventual installation of Soeharto into power. This ushered in the famed “New Order” which lasted for decades. More importantly, the subsequent purge of the PKI between 1965-1966 resulted in the deaths of approximately more than 500,000 people (with many more unreported killings).
The coup took place during a precarious time in Indonesian politics. By 1965, the only significant powers at the centre of Indonesian politics were the President, the PKI and the military. Under Sukarno’s “Guided Democracy,” presidential authority was supreme, but his ailing health meant increasing tussles for power between these three forces. Furthermore, President Sukarno’s increasingly anti-American foreign policy rhetoric, and warm ties with China had also led to American concerns that Indonesia may become a communist state. According to a memo released on 29 September 1965 (one day prior to the coup), the CIA had received intelligence that Indonesia was looking to attain nuclear weapons from China, a significant Communist threat. This accentuated the CIA’s involvement with the September 30 movement, given that they were already involved in previous regional rebellions around Indonesia in 1958.
Today, the motivations behind the 1965 coup remain a mystery, with several different popular interpretations of why the coup came about. The first version, the official version maintained by the Government and taught in Indonesian history textbooks, is that the coup was used by the PKI as an institution to seize state power. Declassified CIA documents have shown that the US Embassy supplied the army with a list of thousands of PKI cadres for targeting following the attack, which made convenient the narrative that the PKI as an institution was responsible, much like their involvement in Madiun in 1949. The second, proposed by the likes of Anderson and McVey, argued that it was an internal army push by junior officers who were disgruntled with the corruption and mismanagement by top military officials (Anderson and McVey, 2009). The third version, according to Crouch, was that the coup was the work of different discontented military officials but that the PKI played a key supporting role (A movement where PKI, Sukarno and Soeharto became entangled.) More recently, the fourth version, according to W.F. Wertheim was that Soeharto and other anti-communist army officials organised the movement through double agents in order to provide a pretext for attacking the PKI and overthrowing Sukarno (Wertheim, 1966).
As the differing accounts show, there are obvious loopholes in the way the coup materialised. The leftist soldiers and PKI youth members had not kidnapped Soeharto, despite his prominence in the military leadership. Soeharto was also exceptionally quick with his counter-measures and assumption of Army demand. It was these curious loopholes that led Kammen & McGregor to argue that September 30th “was a complex process that lacked a simple schema or linear development.” (Kammen and McGregor, 2012)
Wertheim, meanwhile, argued Soeharto was likely to be in charge of the coup. He had significant implications with the coup leaders, being a friend of both movement’s leaders, Lieutenant Colonel Untung and Colonel Latief. Wertheim highlights that Soeharto was not targeted despite being a key commander of troops in Jakarta and a potential threat to any mutiny or coup attempt. The movement’s troops did not blockade the Army Strategic Reserve Command’s (KOSTRAD’s) headquarters, although it was not far from their position in front of the palace. Emotionally, Soeharto had also reacted with “uncanny efficiency in extremely confusing circumstances.” While most military officials were unsure of what to do, Soeharto seemed to know exactly how to defeat the movement. Finally, the identity of Sjam, who Soeharto claimed was a confidante of PKI leader Aidit, was also suspicious. Wertheim believes he was a double agent, but it remains to be seen if he was really Aidit’s subordinate, or in charge of the movement to forestall the military coup.
However, even this narrative is difficult to believe. Werthiem’s conjecture makes Soeharto out to be a figure of superhuman genius and foresight. Besides, a plan that involved the removal of top generals would significantly weaken the KOSTRAD, and there is no indication amongst the archival material available that Soeharto had fallen out of favour with his comrades. His goal of crushing the PKI could have been carried out in a more straightforward manner, such as having Untung declare they were working for the PKI. After the coup, the movement leaders did not demand Sukarno appoint Soeharto as Yani’s replacement. While CIA involvement did make it easier for Soeharto to coordinate the process that ultimately resulted in his overthrow of Sukarno, and later the communist killings, the forced confessions of some conspirators cloud narratives that they were not acting on Soeharto’s behalf.
Despite the different accounts available, it is clear that Soeharto was aware of the internal conflict between the PKI and the Army, and that the CIA had supported him in the PKI pogrom that came after. However, the true intentions of the movement leaders remain contested, and continue to cast doubt over the validity of these different accounts put forth. What we also know is that a communist Indonesia, given the state of the Indonesian economy then, as well as deep schisms between it and the majority Muslim groups in the country, was never likely. However, not only did this movement become a pretext for the mutual suspicion and indiscriminate killings of hundreds of thousands of people, it also affected Indonesian life profoundly, with old wounds that have not healed despite the passage of time.
George is a Masters’s student at the Department of Methodology at The London School of Economics (LSE). He received his double bachelors in Political Science and International Relations from The Australian National University, before furthering his studies at the LSE. His interests include examining the phenomenon of democratic backsliding across Southeast Asian states, and the study of the political systems of Southeast Asian states from a comparative perspective. Prior to the commencement of his graduate studies, George held roles in various research capacities, notably an internship stint at Control Risks’ Global Risks Analysis (GRA) team as well as AKE International’s, covering the broader Asia Pacific region.