US knew about scale of Indonesia’s 1965 massacre

Indonesian soldiers arresting a villager during the 1965-66 purge of communists. Photo by Vannessa Hearman of a Museum Brawijaya display.
Indonesian soldiers arresting a villager during the 1965-66 purge of communists. Photo by Vannessa Hearman of a Museum Brawijaya display.

The US government knew that Indonesia was slaughtering hundreds of thousands of people in the 1960s, but stayed silent.

The scope of Washington’s knowledge about the character and extent of the massacre during Indonesia’s anti-communist purge has been revealed in 39 once-secret diplomatic documents declassified under an Obama Administration initiative.

The documents, including regular telegrams from diplomatic staff based in the US’s Jakarta Embassy, confirm that the Indonesian army and Muslim militias killed at least half a million people and herded many thousands into prison camps. The executions started off targeting known communists but students, union members and Christian ethnic Chinese people also were rounded up and slaughtered.

The upheaval came at a time during the Cold War when the US – which was then waging war against the communist North Vietnamese army, feared Indonesia also was drifting into the Soviet orbit. Indonesia’s President Sukarno was a militant Socialist, a prominent member of the Non-Aligned Movement of nations, who strongly opposed American attempts to influence developing nations.

‘Comparable to killing a chicken’

General Suharto as shown on Time's cover after he seized power in 1966.
General Suharto as shown on Time’s cover in 1966.

Washington had made it clear it would welcome a push by conservatives in the military to oust Sukarno, and refused to grant aid to Indonesia while Sukarno was in charge. Once Sukarno was overthrown by a group of dissident generals the US offered encouragement and aid.  But what followed was a reign of terror as the right and Islamic conservatives purged the left.

Until now it had never been revealed just how much the US knew about the bloodbath that ensued.

Several of the telegrams released this week contained vivid detail about the mass killings. They reveal how influential Muslim clerics advised their followers that members of the Indonesian Communist Party, as atheists, were “the lowest order of infidel, the shedding of whose blood is comparable to killing a chicken”.

The scale of the massacre becomes apparent when the Embassy’s political affairs officer reveals that Indonesian authorities dealt with the problem of overcrowded prisons “by executing their PKI prisoners or by killing them before they are captured”.

Among the documents is a telegram from the embassy saying General Suharto, one of the group who overthrew Sukarno then became leader of Indonesia for the next three decades, had personally authorized some mass executions.

Thousands of files from Washington’s Jakarta Embassy were declassified under the Obama review. The excerpts quoted here were first published by the Associated Press, which was granted advance access.

The Human Rights Watch has called on the US and Indonesian governments to disclose all classified documents related to the massacre.

The 39 documents have now been posted on the web by the independent FOI group National Security Archive.

There has so far been no formal response from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. – Olivia Silk

About Olivia Silk 20 Articles
A journalism student with passionate interests around news, sport and entertainment.