Indonesia Outs Its History
Tempo, February 5, 2001, Jakarta During the more than three decades that President Suharto ruled Indonesia, his New Order regime severely restricted freedom of the press and forbade any debates over domestic politics, in particular concerning Suharto’s ascent to power following a violent coup attempt in 1965. But when his regime collapsed in 1998 in ...
Tempo, February 5, 2001, Jakarta
Tempo, February 5, 2001, Jakarta
During the more than three decades that President Suharto ruled Indonesia, his New Order regime severely restricted freedom of the press and forbade any debates over domestic politics, in particular concerning Suharto’s ascent to power following a violent coup attempt in 1965. But when his regime collapsed in 1998 in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis, Indonesians’ political submissiveness began to erode. Today, citizens appear increasingly willing to question not only the darker episodes of their official history but also the role of other nations — not least the United States — in shaping that history.
In this spirit, a recent issue of Tempo magazine, Indonesia’s most widely read newsweekly, reexamines the political turmoil of 1965. Recent interviews and articles in Tempo provide new evidence confirming the key role of the United States in Indonesia’s bloody political transition more than 30 years ago.
The failed coup occurred in Jakarta between September 30 and October 1, 1965, when dissident military officers abducted and later killed six of the country’s top generals and announced the formation of a Revolutionary Council. Allegedly, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) instigated the coup. General Suharto, at the time head of the army’s strategic command, assumed control and quickly defeated the uprising. He then oversaw one of the bloodiest military takeovers in history, with close to 500,000 PKI members and sympathizers killed in the ensuing anti-communist army crackdown that lasted from October 1965 to early 1966. The new President Suharto was later credited with saving his country from the "red threat."
According to Greg Poulgrain, a researcher at the Queensland University of Technology and author of one of the Tempo articles, the Americans "were a lot closer to daily events" during September and October 1965 than has been publicly acknowledged. Poulgrain reports that then U.S. Ambassador Marshall Green confided to his British counterpart Sir Andrew Gilchrist that the United States faced the "agonizing and urgent" decision of whether to supply communications equipment and arms to the Suharto-led military faction in order to help eradicate the PKI. Moreover, in an October 2, 1965, memo, Gilchrist predicted that the coup attempt by the dissident officers would likely fail and result in military rule with "massive economic support from America and Japan." He characterized the Americans as "back on their old hobbyhorse: solid, reliable, God-fearing… the best possible barrier to the spread of communism."
A cable from the U.S. State Department to the U.S. embassy in Jakarta on October 29, 1965 (made public by the Sydney Morning Herald in 1999), attests to U.S. leanings: "Sooner or later… it will become increasingly clear to army leaders [that] they are [the] only force capable of creating order in Indonesia, and that they must take initiative to form a military or civilian-military provisional government, with or without Sukarno. […] The next few days, weeks or months may offer unprecedented opportunities for us to begin to influence people and events… Small arms and equipment may be needed to deal with the PKI… As events develop, the army may find itself in [a] major military campaign against [the] PKI, and we must be ready for that contingency." Such findings lend credence to statements by former Indonesian Air Force Chief of Staff Omar Dani and ex–Foreign Minister Subandrio — both only recently released after three decades of incarceration for conspiring with the PKI during the abortive coup. In separate interviews with Tempo, both men emphasized the crucial role of foreign assistance in Suharto’s power grab, even suggesting that the general was merely a puppet of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
Although American historians have long noted the unsavory U.S. role in this period of Indonesian politics, these new revelations have the potential to undermine already troubled U.S.-Indonesian relations. Anti-American demonstrations in Jakarta late last year — sparked by resentment in this predominantly Muslim country over U.S. support of Israel — resulted in the temporary closing of the U.S. embassy in late 2000, while the Indonesian parliament threatened to toss U.S. Ambassador Robert Gelbard out of the country for "interfering" in Indonesian government appointments. If the United States intervened in 1965, Indonesians might wonder, what is there to prevent a reccurrence in this new transition following the Suharto era?
More fundamentally, Tempo’s coverage raises disturbing questions over whether those responsible for some half a million Indonesian deaths should be brought to justice. With the recent international move to prosecute perpetrators of past crimes against humanity (such as Chilean General Augusto Pinochet), perhaps a case can be made to hold Suharto accountable for his actions in the 1960s. And does the United States bear some of the responsibility as well? One thing is clear: If such an incident occurred today, the U.S. government would almost certainly demand justice and accountability, consistent with international calls for Indonesia to indict the individuals involved in the atrocities following the August 1999 referendum in East Timor.
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